Gunshots ring out from cafes as once leafy Irpin tries to reclaim its soul


As freelance accountant Anna Ostopenko typed on her laptop in a chic coffee bar last week, she looked the very definition of the 21st-century gig worker.

Unlike her colleagues in London or New York, Ms. Ostopenko did not work from home just to get away from home for a while. She lives in Irpin, the Kiev suburb that suffered the worst from the Russian invasion – and her bomb-damaged house near the cafe still has no water or electricity.

“It’s a nice calm feeling to be back at work,” said Ms. Ostopenko, 50, who was stuck in Irpin during the war.

“I thought it would all be over in a few days, but then there was fighting on my street that killed two neighbors, so I just hid in my basement.

“There’s heaven and hell – and while hell was war, hopefully we’re going back to something like heaven now.”

That’s a shared goal of Irpin’s Mayor Oleksandr Markushyn, who has declared that from today, all of the suburb’s 60,000 residents are invited to return to their homes – or what’s left of them.

Irpin, a prosperous commuter town in the pine forests northwest of Kyiv, landed squarely on the front lines as Russian tanks rolled toward the capital.

Pictures from here shocked the world and showed residents desperately fleeing across a blown river bridge while being fired upon. By the time the invaders withdrew six weeks ago, much of Irpin had been leveled and at least 300 residents had been killed, many in suspected massacres by Russian troops. The city is now a war crimes scene for the Hague prosecutors.

But the locals are already rebuilding here. your goal? To get Irpin back to what it was: a quiet, affluent neighborhood where the biggest threat was youngsters speeding around the town square on e-scooters.

Streets that were once littered with bodies and debris have been cleared. Many residents are back in their houses – at least those that still have roofs.

Shops and cafes, like the one where Ms Ostopenko hangs out, are reopening.

There are even a few onlookers who stare at the destroyed apartment blocks – perhaps disappointed that the burned-out Russian tanks have already been towed away.

“We reopened three weeks ago, and it was very quiet here at first,” said Alex Maschenko, the boss of Coffeeman Irpin, which hid people in his basement store during the first week of the war.

“But a few days ago I sold 500 cups. It’s great to see customers again.”

Also en route to Irpin are a host of VIPs and celebrities, including Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau and U2 frontman Bono.

It’s a welcome change for Mr. Markushyn, whose previous visitors, the Russian army, had told him to surrender or die.

The mayor was praised for hanging out here during the war, donning a flak jacket and sending out rallying messages to residents.

Once just the boss of a small provincial town, his phone is now ringing non-stop with interview requests.

But even as the city reopens, it is filled with memories of the lives shattered by the fighting. A makeshift memorial has been erected on the blown-up Irpin highway, where this reporter observed thousands of people fleeing in early March, allowing residents to write the names of those dead or missing.

“Alexander Nichenetz, 01/15/78 – 03/17/22”, is written on one. Next to it is a set of makeshift wooden crosses and a display of children’s toys found in the rubble.

In a nearby pine clearing, the town’s graveyard – where some headstones were hit by cluster grenades – now has around 120 new graves. Most date from March 2022. There are also half a dozen graves that have been dug but remain empty. More bodies are expected to be found in the rubble.

There is also a “car” near the cemetery
Cemetery” – a pile of charred carcasses from hundreds of wrecked vehicles. Last week, Nikolai Lovockin, a 31-year-old soldier, climbed through to identify his own vehicle. It caught fire along with his house, leaving him only some gold from an emergency safe that he buried in his yard.

However, he still has one thing: being part of the reservist army that helped kick out the Russians.

“It was a tough fight, for sure,” he said. “But we were determined volunteers, against Russian conscripts who had no idea why they were here in the first place. Of course we wanted to win.”

Some are in a less cheerful mood. “Sergei,” a businessman who fixed a supermarket’s broken locks, said locals were just as likely to have looted the place as Russians.

“I can’t really blame people though, maybe they were desperate,” he added.

“I’ve been here during the fights, and it was terrifying: like all the fights you’ve ever seen in movies and video games, but for real. But now I have to be back here to prevent things being stolen from my own house: this is reality.”

In a less fashionable corner of town, a run-down Soviet housing estate appears to have sustained some of the city’s worst damage.

“We don’t even know if our building is safe to live in,” said Valentina Ryzha, 66, as she climbed the stairs to her ninth-floor apartment. In the random fury of war, apartments on one side of her block burned to the ground, while her own on the other side was largely untouched save for a shattered window.

It’s perhaps a symbol of the city’s soul right now – half carrying on happily, the other half destroyed beyond repair. And every now and then the strain shows up.

Outside the same block of flats the week before, The Sunday telegraphPhotographer , Heathcliff O’Malley, had met a family happily making borscht soup over an open fire. But by the time I knocked at her fifth-floor apartment for a follow-up interview, the mood had changed. A heated discussion could be heard in the lounge. And when the door opened, previously smiling faces were ashen. “Now is not a good time,” they told me apologetically.

They didn’t say what the problem was. But in Ukraine at the moment it could be anything: grief, injuries, money problems or whether they will continue to have a roof over their heads. Or maybe just a family quarrel caused by the unspeakable stress of the last three months.

Whatever it was, it showed that despite the brave public face put on behind closed doors in Irpin for visiting VIPs, there is no shortage of private mourning.

©Telegraph Media Group Ltd (2022)

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022] Gunshots ring out from cafes as once leafy Irpin tries to reclaim its soul

Fry Electronics Team

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