KYIV, Ukraine — A tall woman with blonde and pink hair and a small dachshund stood out among the crowd of police and volunteers at the checkpoint on the outskirts of Kyiv. She looked like she was walking, but she had just survived a dangerous evacuation under mortar fire.
The woman, Sasha Myhova, 21, and her boyfriend, Stas Burykov, 19, were evacuated on Friday from their home in Irpin, the northwestern suburb that has become one of the most fiercely contested areas in recent years. three weeks of fighting since the advance of invading Russian troops. towards the capital and Ukrainian troops blocked their way.
“It was dangerous,” she said. “They were shelling as we drove.”
The heavy rumble of artillery sounded again as she spoke. “The shells were landing in our yard,” she said, pulling out a piece of metallic shrapnel she had kept.
As the war in Ukraine enters its fourth week, suburbs on the outskirts of kyiv have become important, if unlikely, frontlines of the war, where Russian and Ukrainian forces are stuck in a back-and-forth wild at one of the front doors. in the capital, in positions that have not really changed.
Blockaded and roughed up, the Russian forces nevertheless established positions around three sides of the capital. Ukrainian forces succeeded in blocking them and mounted a series of coordinated counterattacks on Wednesday to challenge these positions.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the defense of Kyiv, led by Ground Forces Commander Oleksandr Syrsky, saying Ukrainian forces regained control of 30 settlements around the city in the counterattack. “The enemy suffered heavy losses and was driven out of the capital,” he said.
Yet the mortar fire and gunfire was so intense in Irpin that the Ukrainians stopped attempting further evacuations after one that included Ms Myhova. The Ukrainian counterattack appears to have met with a fierce response from Russian forces. Residents and volunteers who helped evacuate them said Russian artillery fire and even machine gun fire had intensified in the past few days.
One man, Vitaliy Kalman, stood next to his suitcase hoping for a lull in the fighting. He said he tried to return to the neighborhood to retrieve clothes from his flat, but came under mortar fire just beyond the crumbling bridge that marks Irpin’s entrance. The bridge was destroyed by Ukrainian troops to prevent the advance of Russian troops in the early days of the war.
“They are very close,” he said of the Russians. “I saw the shell explode right next to my house, and I ran here with the evacuation team.”
A volunteer member of the Territorial Defense Forces described the street fighting in Irpin as all-out guerrilla warfare. On the attacking side are Russian troops, which Western military analysts say are likely elite airborne special forces units.
Defending against them are local volunteers, many of whom had just received guns days before the Russians arrived in their town, alongside veteran militia fighters and uniformed troops.
Street fighting had been raging for days, according to soldiers interviewed on the outskirts of the city on Saturday. From this point on, the Russians controlled one of three main arteries, one was contested and the third was under tenuous Ukrainian control.
Residents escaped at night and fired at Russian positions, said the volunteer, who asked to be identified only by his nickname, Spotter, for security reasons. “It is understood that they will take no prisoners,” he said of the exchange of fire. “These are people who have weapons and who know the region perfectly.”
A doctor at a nearby hospital said he received 25 wounded soldiers on Wednesday on the first day of the counterattack.
Ms Myhova said Russian troops had entered her home twice in recent days. First, two soldiers who appeared to be scouts entered the yard, then three days ago, just before the Ukrainian counterattack, 10 Russian soldiers entered the house.
“They searched everything,” she said. “They said they picked up a phone signal from the house.”
The soldiers warned the family that if they told anyone the location of the Russian troops, they would shoot them. “They pointed their guns at us,” she said. “They said, ‘We can shoot you because we know your location. “”
When Mr Burykov’s 70-year-old grandfather, the owner of the house, began to remonstrate with them, Russian soldiers told them they were securing control of what was Russian land , citing the medieval kingdom of Kievan Rus, which Russia claims. as its ancestral state.
“My grandfather tried to argue,” Burykov said. “He said, ‘It sucks that this is your land. I was born here. Go away.'”
On Wednesday, the day Ukraine launched its counterattacks, residents said the shelling had worsened significantly. There were four explosions around the house that rattled the doors and the sound of gunfire from assault rifles in the yard, Ms Myhova said.
When they learned that volunteers were evacuating an elderly woman nearby, the couple, accompanied by a sister of Mr. Burykov, asked to leave. But Mr. Burykov’s parents, grandfather and other siblings remained.
“They want to leave when there is a green corridor,” Ms. Myhova said, referring to a humanitarian evacuation with security guarantees. “But there won’t be,” she said, “because even if there is, they shoot cars.”
The Ukrainian army and volunteers evacuated around 150 residents of Irpin on Thursday, many of them pensioners who were struggling to survive after fighting cut off water, gas and electricity.
“They are short-staffed,” said volunteer paramedic Oleh Lutsenko, 32, who was on duty at the Irpin entrance on Thursday. He treated three wounded soldiers, including one seriously wounded by artillery fire, among the evacuees, and his team also pulled out the bodies of three dead civilians – all grandmothers, as he called them. “Maybe they starved to death,” he said.
As his team withdrew just before 5 p.m., they came under machine gun fire, he said. Despite two days of counterattack, they were still within range of the Russian guns.
While Ukrainian troops succeeded in blocking the Russian advance as it descended heavily down the main highways towards kyiv, Russian units continued to push south on the eastern and western flanks of the capital in an attempt to encircle it. , military analysts said.
The long columns of tanks that had retreated on the highways north of Irpin have now dispersed into villages and forests outside kyiv, according to volunteer Spotter, interviewed at a gas station in a western district of the capital.
In his 50s, with a salt-and-pepper beard, he carried a walkie-talkie and said he led an ad hoc intelligence unit, collecting information on Russian positions in suburbs and outlying villages.
“They hide tanks in the villages between the houses,” he said, adding that the soldiers were also quartered in the houses to avoid the cold.
Their dispersal complicated the Ukrainian counterattack, since the Russian armor was scattered in the villages, where civilians lived, even though most people fled the area.
After two major ambushes against Russian positions outside kyiv, in the suburban towns of Bucha and Brovary, which left dozens of charred tanks together on main roads, armored vehicles now avoid traveling in columns, a he declared.
“They’re digging now,” Spotter said of the Russian soldiers, as Ukrainian artillery pounded them from the outskirts of kyiv. “They did not expect this resistance.”
Volunteers guarding the checkpoint on the main western highway that leads from Kyiv to the city of Zhytomyr said Russian troops had taken control of the road and vehicles could no longer use the highway safely except for a neighboring colony of Chaika.
It is unclear, Spotter said, how far south Russian troops moved after crossing the Zhytomyr highway, although it appears the intention of Russian forces was to continue encircling the capital and finally to close the access roads.
The advance was now blocked. “They are regrouping,” he said.