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In Ukraine, the forgotten village of the battle of kyiv fears “the return of the Russians”

Photo: Alex Babenko Associated Press À Mochtchoun, Artem et sa mère, Tetyana, 13 et 48 ans au moment de la photo, se préparaient à l’hiver en octobre 2023.

The smell of burning in the air has disappeared, the one that had taken hold of residents returning after fleeing the deluge of fire from Moscow in the spring of 2022. There are hardly any charred tanks littering the streets or corpses of Russian soldiers abandoned by the invaders, forced to retreat. In Mochchoun, however, there is still an impression of devastation that predominates, a little more than two years after the withdrawal of Vladimir Putin's army from this region northwest of kyiv.

A car wreck rusts in the grass, adjacent to a wooded area; here, a bomb crater among the pines; and almost everywhere, these houses, gutted or without roofs, rebuilt or in the process of being rebuilt. The total war launched on February 24, 2022 left devastation still clearly visible, as in so many other towns in Ukraine. In the forest adjoining the village, the trunks cut by shrapnel reinforce this ghostly setting and recall the ferocity of the battles that took place there. Moshchoun played a key role in the Battle of kyiv. Almost everything was shelled: the church, the cultural center, the hundreds of homes. The damage amounts to 1.1 billion hryvnias (38.2 million Canadian dollars), according to an estimate by the Kyiv School of Economics.

At end of the village, at the end of a freshly asphalted road, stands a memorial to the “angels of victory”, dedicated to these “protectors of Ukraine who changed the course of the war, becoming the shield of kyiv “. Fixed on trunks, portraits of men in fatigues are lined up. President Volodymyr Zelensky went there in person last March to pay tribute to the memory of the soldiers who perished in this battle — some 600 dead and as many wounded.

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Mochtchoun is the story of a haven of tranquility that became an outpost in the defense of the capital, shortly after the large-scale aggression. After the conquest of the neighboring town of Hostemel and its airport – now in ruins – the locality then represented, for the forces of Moscow, the final barrier to be broken in order to seize Kiev. Three times, in March 2022, Russian elite units attempted to assault the village; they partially occupied it, at times, without ever managing to establish themselves there permanently. On March 21, the Russian army, defeated, retreated to the other side of the Irpine River, which borders Mochchoun. And less than two weeks later, on April 2, Ukrainian forces liberated the remainder of kyiv’s northern outskirts. The macabre toll of the occupation is revealed to the world. Civilians summarily executed, in the streets or in cellars; rapes; mass graves; torture.


Mochtchoun was certainly spared from massacres like those of Boutcha, a number of civilians having been narrowly evacuated by the Ukrainian army, at the end of February 2022. But the “shield of kyiv” has since fallen into oblivion, with reconstruction struggling. In the shadow of Boutcha, a dormitory town that became a martyr to the occupation, Mochtchoun is slowly getting back up, stone by stone. The crash of a hammer echoes a return of life, many of its inhabitants — 1,200 inhabitants before the war — returning home.

Like Oksana Dziatcovska and her 69-year-old mother, Taisia, who plow their plot of land, “Garden Street Number Five,” on this cozy afternoon. A pretty flower bed spreads out on the grounds of their dacha, unrecognizable when they set foot there again, after the liberation, in May 2022: shell craters everywhere, destroyed houses, all riddled with antipersonnel mines. “There was no greenery, it smelled burnt, it was horrible,” says Oksana, her hands blackened by the earth, while her mother grabs some shrapnel from the old rubbish of her hut.< /p> In Ukraine, the forgotten village of the battle of kyiv fears “the return of the Russians”

Photo: Thibault Camus Associated Press In March 2023, a dog stood next to a bouquet of flowers placed at the foot of a tree in memory of one of the residents of Mochtchoun, who died in the bombing of his house. Since the departure of Russian troops from the city on March 21, 2022, the reconstruction process has fallen behind schedule, unlike that which took place in Boutcha, where there is no longer any trace of the passage of the Russians.

As for state compensation, Oksana and Taisia ​​say they have “not yet received” it, like many in Mochtchoun, but are not upset about it. “An administrative problem,” says Oksana. “We don’t feel abandoned though. The great reconstruction will begin when the war ends. » In Mochtchoun, it is neither bitterness nor the feeling of abandonment that seems to have won over the population, as the people interviewed by Le Devoir insist. Although some may have the impression of being neglected compared to neighboring towns, such as Irpin or Boutcha.

Before saying goodbye, Oksana approaches and, with tears in her eyes, says in a whisper: “I'm okay: I'm not very old, I'm holding on. But for the 90-year-old grandpas and grandmas, it was much harder, coming back here. Seeing their homes destroyed, some passed out. »


A little further away, the sound of a drill rang out. Serhiy Gaponenko, 45, is working on rebuilding a dilapidated shack himself, which he bought from the previous owner. The roof is smashed by a shell. A former soldier, the broad-shouldered man fought on the Bakhmout front, before being demobilized due to injury. Serhiy, originally from Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine, plans to start a new life here in Moshchoun, “hoping to rent [his] one-room apartment in kyiv.” No compensation for him either.

It was the death of the mayor of Hostomel, Iouriy Prylypko, killed by Russian forces at the start of the invasion, which contributed to the “delay” observed in Mochtchoun, according to Iryna Kabalska, an employee of the military administration of this town, which has the village under its supervision. Administrative chaos to which was added the slowness of financing and the late launch of a national reconstruction program. “About 50% of buildings that suffered non-critical damage have been restored,” emphasizes Ms. Kabalska.

On street number five, the couple Andriy and Iryna Bzazchnyk, 51 and 46, who have lived there since 2010, also put things into perspective. “Not everyone can be helped at the same time,” says Andriy. And then, the situation of those in eastern Ukraine remains more critical than ours! »

I'm fine: I'm not very old, I'm holding up. But for the 90-year-old grandpas and grandmas, it was much harder, coming back here. Seeing their homes destroyed, some passed out.

— Oksana Dziatcovska

When they returned to their home in mid-April 2022, part of the roof had exploded. Lonely for 51 days, their cat survived. “He ate dried apples,” slips Andriy, smirking. “When we came back, Mochtchoun looked like the apocalypse. The birds no longer sang, there were stray dogs and pigs in the street. In a house on street number 4, a family spent more than a month in the basement, luckily they had enough canned goods. Since then, many things have changed,” underlines Iryna, who is now delighted with the return of electricity to the village.

In Boutcha, a few kilometers away, the contrast remains striking. In Ivana-Franka Street, where bodies were found two years ago, the laughter of children on bicycles resonates, that of friends having a drink on a terrace. No trace remains of the passage of the Russians. Everything was rebuilt in record time. “Here, people have experienced too many horrors. Those who had killings in their house even redid the wallpaper,” confides Maria, 21, a resident of Boutcha walking her dog, not about to forget the terror of the occupation, “holled up at home when the soldiers Russians were patrolling outside.” “We can rebuild Boutcha, but not revive the people who were massacred. And even if life returns, we still have this fear that the Russians will come back here. »

In Mochtchoun, Raisa, a sixty-year-old, smiles as she recounts her “luck” in having only had windows smashed, revealing a few gold teeth in the process . But the Ukrainian immediately turns sour, just like Maria, when mentioning the new Russian offensive that is looming. “We say on TV that Putin is not going to stop, that he is stockpiling weapons for several years. No one knows what will happen here. But some are afraid that history will repeat itself…”

With Iryna Sknar

This report was financed thanks to the Transat International Journalism Fund-Le Devoir.

Death at the gates of kyiv

The Vyshgorod morgue, on the outskirts of kyiv, saw the abuses of the Russian occupation unfold in the spring of 2022, after the failure of the capture of the Ukrainian capital. Mykyta Gavrylenko, a 35-year-old musician, worked there as a volunteer for six weeks, shortly after the liberation of Bucha and the surrounding area. He saw the remains of civilians arriving by the dozens, every day, “without heads or without eyes”, marked by torture. “As for the deceased soldiers, some had holes in their knees and bullet marks behind their necks,” says Mykyta, leather jacket on his back, whose work mainly consisted of removing corpses from body bags. “The hardest part was talking to mothers, sisters, parents who had lost someone close to them. Some volunteers came for a day and couldn't stay longer, it was too hard. Thank God, for my part, I haven't seen any children, at least not to my knowledge. » Mykyta will remember “for the rest of [her] life” the smell of death, “indescribable”, omnipresent in the morgue. “What I saw was the face of the Russian occupation, its terror. »

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116