In Kyiv, a girl stares at the wreckage of a vehicle burned by Russian troops. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)

Sunflowers blooming over bullet holes

By Liu Zhixin

Through a grant from the United States Agency for Global Media, Radio Free Asia collaborated with The Reporter, a Taiwanese investigative news outlet, to produce a series of stories about the effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The aim of the project, also being published in Mandarin language, was to provide Chinese readers greater clarity about the conflict.

In the second installment, Reporter journalists survey the damage wrought on Ukraine's capital Kyiv by Russian attacks and witness the defiant resilience of its residents.

Two days after we arrived in Poland, we embarked on an 18-hour bus ride to Kyiv. The capital of Ukraine had gone through more than eight months of conflict. The roads, the bridges, the air, the colors, its people, have all changed because of the war. Death and rebirth, destruction and reconstruction, are competing with each other. Those who survived say that they are not the same people they were before the war erupted. Ukraine has changed, too.


Messages on the billboards encouraging Ukrainians to stay alive. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)

We boarded the bus at sunset, and we woke up the next day at daybreak. What we saw and what we heard told us that we were getting close to Kyiv.

Along the highway, we saw billboards of blue and yellow. Some bore the Ukrainian national emblem; others raised money for the military; others reminded citizens of the hidden danger of booby traps in the woods; while another called for Russia to release war prisoners. There were no commercial advertisements. Every billboard carried words of encouragement, urging people to stay alive during the war.


On our way to Kyiv, the condition of the highways told us the damage the Russian invasion and attacks have caused to Ukraine’s infrastructure. The weight of Russian tanks caused road surfaces to crack. There is a very noticeable humming sound when cars drive over those roads.

The Ukrainian armed forces continued to set up checkpoints and cement blocks in an attempt to block Russian attacks. Entering and leaving the city meant going through checkpoints; traffic jams were now daily routines.

Explosions could be heard from time to time in the capital. In the city or in the woods, people would discover ammunition stocks hidden by the Russians. They were being provided to Russian infiltrators to launch attacks from within Ukraine.


The roads were damaged; the bridges had fallen down. Yet they did not stop the Ukrainians from living their lives. When our crew arrived in Ukraine at the end of September, it was the beginning of the new college semester. Economic activity was gradually coming back.

Nevertheless, residents in Kyiv would encounter air sirens at least once a day, and they were very accustomed to seeking shelter when the siren sounded.

Since October, Russian drones have been flying over Kyiv, launching drone attacks during morning rush hours in an attempt to disrupt lives. Ukrainians said that the Russians could be planning to destroy the water, electricity, and heat supplies in Kyiv in order to crush the willpower of Kyiv citizens to resist.


A community in the suburb of Kyiv hit by Russian air strikes. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)

Going to work on time, volunteering after work, and getting back home before the 11 p.m. curfew have become the new normal for residents of Kyiv and of other cities in Ukraine. That is their resistance.


The tops of buildings, many roofless houses can be seen. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)


On a highway in a Kyiv suburb, a Ukrainian flag hangs from a building destroyed by Russian bombing. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)


A man tends to fruit trees in his yard, just yards from a shell casing left by Russian troops. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)


A destroyed gas station near Kyiv. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)


Concrete slabs and anti-tank roadblocks are everywhere in Kyiv. Those working in the center of the city have figured out alternative paths through roadblocks and checkpoints to avoid being late for work. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)


The Ukrainian landmark, Independence Square, is crowded as usual. But statues remain under enhanced protection against bombings and drone attacks. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)


Chernihiv, an old town north of Kyiv, was the first town to be bombed in the Russia-Ukraine war. The town was severely damaged. After Russian troops retreated from the severely damaged town, teens play cards in a distillery that had been destroyed by air strikes. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)

The omnipresent ‘holes’

Our crew were in Kyiv for almost two weeks. We began from Kyiv and expanded our scope to other key satellite cities. To the north, we went to Chernhiv, located at the border of Ukraine and Belarus. When Russia first launched its war on Ukraine, Chernhiv and nearby villages were shelled non-stop.

To the west, we went to Irpin, where fierce battles ensued, and Bucha, a town temporarily occupied by Russian armed forces. Everywhere we turned, we saw damage. Holes by heavy bombings were visible in apartment buildings and high-rises, in windows, walls and roofs.

As far as we could see, many civilian vehicles were shot up by machine guns, leaving hollow bullet holes; some were burned and shattered by missiles; some others had been run over by tanks.


A civilian vehicle junkyard in Irpin. Local residents search destroyed vehicles for the whereabouts of missing loved ones. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)


The bullet holes, the twisted wreckage, and the supplies in the car helped piece together the story of its owners. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)

“Poor folks. Look. There were containers of gasoline and water. They were prepared to evacuate. They had a flat tire, and they put on the spare. They were quite well prepared, but never did they expect to encounter the Russian troops face-to-face,” our interpreter explained.

Meanwhile, Russian tanks destroyed by Ukrainian forces have become trophies. Not only were they on display in the center of the city, but they have also become part of children’s playgrounds. Even young YouTubers would film their music videos here.

This is not just on the streets of Kyiv. There was a line of destroyed Russian tanks lined up along the road from Irpin to Bucha, and it has become another landmark. We ran into a father-and-son pair there.

The dad, a farmer, said that they live in a place 10 kilometers away from the tank graveyard. At first, when they passed the tanks, he felt angry. He was angry about friends who died in that battle. Later he felt proud. He was proud of the Ukrainian military. “Our country was overrun by thousands of tanks. We can only continuously destroy them. We will not let the terrorists have their way.”

On the day of the interview, his youngest son was using the barrel of a tank to do pull-ups, and he climbed up and down the tank. The two older siblings of the little boy, both over 20 years old, are planning to join the military.


An abandoned Russian tank on the roadside in Irpin. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)


Children play on the damaged Russian tanks parked by St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery in Kyiv. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)

Since the first Russo-Ukrainian war erupted in 2014, the death toll among Ukrainian soldiers has mounted, leaving a void in each family that has lost a loved one.

Almost all the Ukrainians we interviewed have had someone, be it a family member or a friend, injured or killed in the war over the past eight years. Now that the fighting has become intense, some have chosen to join the military; others choose to flee, while some others chose to stay and live their lives to the fullest.


The memorial wall of fallen soldiers by St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery in Kyiv. On the wall are the photographs of every soldier who died since the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea and in the war in Donbas. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)


After Russian armed forces launched full attacks on Ukraine, the memorial wall has expanded rapidly. Many families turn to the St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery to pray after mourning their lost loved ones. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)


Light seeps through the cracks and damaged roof of a shopping plaza in Bucha destroyed by heavy bombing. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)


On a street corner in Bucha, residents painted over bullet holes with sunflowers, the national flower of Ukraine, and a Ukrainian flag wrapped by a loving heart. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)

Never-ending remembrance and determination

In the military cemetery in Bucha, we met Petro and his wife. It has become their daily ritual to sit on a bench they placed by their son’s grave and speak to their son.

Petro is a veteran. He was in charge of operating anti-aircraft missile systems, just like his son, a lieutenant colonel. Before the war, the father and son would chat with each other, exchanging their views on warfare. The old man would share his experience and expertise. Petro’s son had been fighting against Russian troops since 2014, and he was dispatched to Odessa and eastern Ukraine. On June 16, Petro’s son died in a Russian air attack. A rocket killed four officers.

Petro had wanted to join the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Force, but he was turned away because of his age. Now the couple visit the military cemetery every day to speak to their son. They look at the flower bouquets that fellow soldiers left at their son’s grave. Every day, they vow to their son that they would avenge his death.

It was Petro’s second son who died in June. Petro’s first-born died in the war in Donbas in 2014. A father and two sons in the armed forces have devoted their lives to the same cause. Petro’s wife, the only female in the household, wept. “If we don’t join the fight, who would?”

Learning that he was speaking to two journalists from Taiwan, which like Ukraine faces the threat of conquest by a neighboring power, Petro expressed empathy.

"Tell them we know how difficult and challenging the situation in Taiwan is,” Petro told our interpreter, in a show of sympathy for the democratic island that is facing hostile military threats from China.

“It is just like we have been going through for the past eight years. We are watching the developments in Taiwan. I believe that we will win our respective battles. If you need us, we will come help you. We will welcome the victory together.”


Petro and his wife look at their son’s picture and mourn at the military cemetery in Bucha. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)


After a military funeral, a shuttle bus leaves a cemetery in Bucha. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)

** This is part of a collaboration between The Reporter and the Mandarin Service of Radio Free Asia.

Written and reported by Liu Zhixin
Translated by Min Eu
Photos by Yang Zilei
Edited by Paul Eckert, Mat Pennington, Jim Snyder
Visual editing by H. Léo Kim, Paul Nelson
Web page produced by Minh-Ha Le
Produced by Radio Free Asia
© 2022 RFA
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