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HOSTOMEL, Ukraine — On February 26, Russian forces stormed into a residential complex at the edge of a forest on the outskirts of the town of Hostomel, intending to use it as a base for their war fighters.
The soldiers were full of confidence, expecting that the nearby capital, Kyiv, would soon fall.
That never happened.
On March 30, the Russians left Hostomel as quickly as they had come, jumping into vehicles full of loot collected during weeks of looting and vandalism. The trust had congealed in confusion and fear.
By early April, the Russians were completely driven out of Kyiv Oblast, a crushing defeat for what was once billed as the world’s second-strongest military. The Kremlin is now regrouping as it plans an expected new offensive in eastern Ukraine.
During the months of occupation, the three dozen remaining occupants of the housing complex watched this progress as the Russian forces began to realize the reality: This isn’t working. We are not wanted here.
“They all came in here and said, ‘We’ll take Kyiv in three days,'” said Olena, a local resident who witnessed the occupation. “Within a few days we saw the change. They got a good look at life here and understood that they would not be able to do that.”
With the front line only 500 meters away and fierce gun battles a daily constant, the Russians in Hostomel expressed shock at the high resistance, morale and quality of life of the Ukrainians.
Stepping outside to cook food on wood-burning stoves last week on the first warm spring afternoon of the year, residents recalled the uncouth, fearful behavior of their former conquerors and provided a glimpse into the mentality of Russian soldiers during the Battle of Kyiv. Residents refused to give their last names to feel safer.
“I’ve tried to speak to them about a dozen times,” said Mykhailo, a resident who spent the entire occupation at the complex. “It was hard.”
When the Russians withdrew from Bucha, Borodyanka, Ivankiv, Makariv and other towns outside of Kyiv in early April, the Ukrainian forces who followed them saw horrific scenes: bodies scattered across the streets, in basements or piled in mass graves.
According to the Ukrainian government, international journalists and several interviews with local residents, various Russian units stationed in these cities either arbitrarily or systematically killed civilians. Other civilians were robbed, tortured and raped, according to officials and on-site interviews.
According to the Ukrainian government, 400 people disappeared in Hostomel alone during the Russian occupation.
Luckily, the remaining residents of this condominium escaped this fate. About 500-600 Russians rotated through the complex at the same time, all leaving the civilians alone.
Residents believe there was too much work to do near the front lines to terrorize the locals. The Russians fired on Ukrainian positions from a nearby grove of evergreen trees and some neighboring buildings, and took fire in return before retreating to the housing complex to cover and rest.
“There was no aggression,” Olena said. “They didn’t see us as a threat.”
This is not to say that their occupation was pleasant or orderly. Olena saw them arrive first as squads of people burst into her building. From their armbands she knew they were Russians.
The soldiers immediately began breaking down doors to apartments on the top floors, looking for convenient perches. Luckily, the vast majority of the locals had already fled and the Russians occupied their temporarily abandoned homes.
The buildings were then torn apart even before they were damaged by incoming artillery. To hide their combat vehicles, the Russians drove them straight into the lobbies, through doors and glass, damaging the elevators and carpeting the floor outside with crunching shards. After entering the people’s evacuated homes, Russian soldiers tore them open and scattered the remaining belongings of the locals in large, untidy heaps.
Behind the broken doors in one building, the rooms looked like a hurricane had swept through.
“All unmanned units, they ruined them. They shit all over her,” Mykhailo said. “Literally. On the beds and the floor. These aren’t people. To me they are worse than beasts.”
“They threw shit at the walls like children throw snowballs,” confirmed Victor, a resident of Mykhailo’s building.
The evidence backs this up. Blobs of what appeared to be human feces sat in the center of the entrances to two apartments in one of the buildings.
“Ninety percent of the homes were broken into, robbed, vandalized and vandalized,” Victor estimates.
The Russians also appeared to have fired their assault rifles and grenade launchers at civilian cars parked around the complex, possibly for entertainment. Some of the vehicles had holes that appeared to have come from the upper floors of the buildings. A shot-up car had a white “V” painted on it, a symbol Russia has used both to identify its equipment and as militaristic propaganda.
Looting was also widespread, locals said. Unlike in Bucha — which attracted international attention after stories of Russian atrocities including executions, torture and rape surfaced — these soldiers confiscated nothing from those present, preferring to steal from evacuated homes.
“I was standing here,” Mykhailo said from outside his apartment complex, “and I see two soldiers coming, without weapons. But they have an axe. I go after them.”
Mykhailo followed the soldiers to another complex: “They go into a building and start breaking the locks on a door. Something inside me has twisted.”
He asked to speak to an officer, who asked, “What do you want?”
“I said, ‘Your army is an army of looters… Your soldiers – come with me, I’ll show you – break down doors of the peaceful populace and rob them,'” Mykhailo continued.
“He says to me, ‘We’re looking for guns.'”
Mykhailo recalled seeing a Russian soldier moving quickly, towards the end of the occupation, with someone else’s pair of sneakers dangling over his shoulder. Others had bags full of goods that the homeowners hadn’t taken with them.
“It’s just shameful,” he said.
Victor pointed out that most storefronts on the ground floor of apartment buildings had been broken into. Only two were spared, largely because he stepped in to persuade the Russians to leave them alone. He mentioned World War II to the soldiers, toyed with old ideals of Soviet solidarity and how both his grandfathers sacrificed themselves during World War I.
“I had to remember that I have the same last name as a Russian oligarch,” he said with a grin, hinting at a relationship. “I told the commanding officer to see how so-and-so is stationed here.”
It wasn’t true, but it worked.
Some Russian soldiers seemed sensible, locals said. During a fierce artillery battle with Ukrainian forces, a woman trapped outside was killed by shrapnel. The locals convinced the Russians to bury her on a patch of earth near the complex and placed a simple wooden cross over her grave.
“There were some decent people among them,” Mykhailo said. “I went with them to bury them, and they both said to me, ‘Father, forgive us.’ I said, ‘How can I forgive you if you do that?’”
The locals’ determined attitude also seemed to confuse the Russian soldiers.
“They asked us why we wouldn’t go,” Olena said. “We said, ‘This is our home, our land, we live here. Why should we go?’ We asked them: ‘Why did you come here?’ To which they replied, ‘To set you free.’”
Olena was annoyed with the answer. “From what? Total nonsense. We lived perfectly without you,” she said. “They actually thought we’d meet them with flowers.”
Some soldiers would compare life here to life back home.
“They would say, ‘You live better than us,'” said Maya, another resident of Olena’s building.
As the days passed, Russian morale eroded. Mykhailo said he saw a young Russian soldier cry. Some of the troops reacted more nervously than the civilians when they heard fire, several local residents said.
“I saw it personally in her eyes,” Olena said. “Fear and lack of understanding for what they are doing here.”
Others seemed glad to be rid of their commanders. When Mykhailo spoke to some soldiers, they mentioned how a column was destroyed and several high-ranking officers were killed.
“They said, ‘We’re better off without them,'” Mykhailo recalls.
https://www.politico.eu/article/ukraine-russia-war-soldiers-squalid-loot-prone-disillusioned-occupiers-hostomel/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication Ukrainians remember their Russian occupiers – POLITICO