• Reportages
  • 17. March 2022

The Story of the Reverse Driver Who Managed to Escape Russian Bullets. Unlike Many Ukrainian Civilians

Debris of the charred armoured BMP on the road to Motyzhyn Photo Majda Slámová/Voxpot /
Debris of the charred armoured BMP on the road to Motyzhyn Photo Majda Slámová/Voxpot /
Vojtěch Boháč
Russian troops in Ukraine do not shy away from bombing residential houses nor from shooting at random passing cars. Some of these are left in the fields for days with dead passengers inside. Even we came under fire. Luckily we managed to escape unharmed.

“Don’t go there, there’s a car in flames 100 meters that way. Civilian. There are two dead people inside,” a woman driving past us, waving, shouts at us. We are leaving Motyzhyn, a small village 30 kilometers west of Kyiv. “There are Russian tanks there, they were just shooting at the car,” she explains with fear in her eyes. The driver next to her is nodding in agreement urgently and they depart quickly. 

I scan the horizon and spot several dark armored vehicles and one tank at the edge of a wood about 100 meters away. I quickly turn the car around into the deserted village. 

It’s Wednesday afternoon, the seventh day of war and alongside our photographer and a pair of Ukrainian reporters – Taras and Alyona – we have left for the small town of Borodyanka to the northeast of Kyiv. It is one of the places which – according to videos on social media – has seen intensive shelling by the Russians, including residential areas. Parts of the town have been practically leveled to the ground and people are sending messages from their cellars, pleading for help.

It is not quite clear from all the reports we have received whether the Russian army really is shelling not onlyat civilian buildings, but also regular cars. According to unconfirmed reports, they have even shot at cars that were marked with a PRESS sign, like our own. 

Motyzhyn is in viewing distance from the highway that leads from the capital to the west. One of the frontlines of the Russian invasion into Ukraine passes through here. These days it can move repeatedly, a couple of times each day. The Russian army has been trying for a couple of days to get closer to Kyiv, Ukrainian troops have however managed to keep fending it off so far.

No bread and nowhere to go

While leaving Motyzhyn we pass a charred BMP armored infantry vehicle. Its severed turret is lying on the ground by a birch tree next to the road. The red, white and blue star marking suggests that it belonged to the Russian army. Tracks on the road make it clear that a whole convoy of heavy machinery had passed through here, but after one of the vehicles was hit, others turned around and drove past the nearest village. That is where we encountered them just moments ago. 

“What did you see?” asks a soldier that stops us in a birch alley a couple of minutes later. We tell him that a civilian vehicle was hit and is burning. He waves us through. About a dozen of others emerge from the ditch and they proceed in the direction we just came from.

Debris of the charred armoured BMP on the road to Motyzhyn Photo Majda Slámová/Voxpot

After riding for a good while through gloomy and depopulated terrain we enter the village of Fasovo. The road is surrounded by burnt slopes and smoke is still rising from them. Army vehicles have left grooves in the earth around the road and mud on the tarmac.  There is a marshrutka [small passenger bus – translator’s note] a little further, its doors open. We drive closer and apart from a sign marking the unfinished Kyiv Andriivka route, we see two bulletholes in the windshield right in front of the driver’s seat. Half a kilometer further we can see checkpoint with an armored vehicle. There doesn’t seem to be any flag around so we turn around quickly and return into Fasovo. 

The village seems deserted, but after a while we find a couple of people carefully sheltering next to the town hall. “Russians came here, turned around and left. There were battles not far from the town earlier today,” a man tells us pointing in the direction of the place where we found the marshrutka. There has been no electricity nor cell coverage in the village for a couple of days. The only supplies available are the things we already had at home. It’s impossible to get any bread for instance. “There is nowhere to go,” the man tells us. 

We ask him which side do the armored vehicles in the next village belong to. One woman calls her friend who lives  there and asks her who is holding the village. After a moment she confirms the soldiers are “ours”. We jump back in the car and continue past the burnt sloped and shot up marshrutka. There is no blood inside or around it, the passengers must have managed to flee to the nearby woods at the start of the action. 

Shot up, abandoned marshrutka heading from Andriivka to Kyiv. Photo Majda Slámová/Voxpot

At the brink of a battle

The nearby checkpoint is formed by heavy concrete blocks and several burned cars. Along the road soldiers have laid down bunch of Javelin anti-tank missiles, provided to Ukraine by the United States and Great Britain since last summer. These weapons and the Bayraktar drones, which Ukraine bought from Turkey and now are even building themselves, are some of the reasons why the Russian offensive is advancing slower than was expected.

Soldiers check our documents and wave us through, we continue on the road. They advise us to pass the highway bridge fast as Russian units might be operating on the highway. The rest of the 10 kilometer way to Makariv should be fine. Fresh information about the situation in the villages and towns you are passing through is the most valuable thing you can have at the chaotic start of a war. 

As in other villages that we have passed through, the soldiers in Makariv (population 10 000) are obviously on alert. A machine gun operator by the road is holding his weapon with both hands, aiming north. Men from the Territorial Defense have attack rifle ready to fire and armored vehicles are being moved around the town slowly. “Where are you heading?” ask the Territorial Defense member at the checkpoint. “To Borodyanka,” we answer. “Well good luck then,” he answers, looks at us, taps the roof of our car and we leave.

We are passing a cemetery near the north exit out of town. There is a burnt gas station here and a little further a truck is standing in a bend, with a large V painted on it. I slow down a bit subconsciously, as the letters Z a V mark parts of the Russian vehicles used for the invasion. Then before I even realize what I’m doing, I’m in reverse gear with the gas pedal to the floor. Attack rifle bullets are flying past our car from the direction of the crossing ahead. Just as I try to slide lower in my seat I notice a Russian army Tiger armoured vehicle inconspicuously parked in the ditch ahead of us. 

“Backwards, backwards, backwards, Vojta, backwards, backwards,” Taras, who is buried deep in the back seat keeps repeating. I’m reversing in full speed and bullets keep flying around. Some of thme bounce off the driver’s side of our car. Some even dig into the car door. 

Even though we are driving away at enormous speed, the rain of fire is not receding. When I look back I see a Ukrainian BMP armoured vehicle which we are approaching fast. When we are only dozens of meters away from it, it starts firing over our heads at the Russian attackers. We drive past it and leave the battle scene. 

The truck with V mark and the hidden Russian Tiger that started firing. Photo Majda Slámová/Voxpot

We can hear the first round of explosions. It seems that the next round of the battle for Makariv has started. We rush to the local community centre. We park the car right in front of it and urged on by locals we run to take shelter inside. We run through the auditorium and pass through the back door with the director of the centre down to the bomb shelter. While missiles are thundering outside, we run down the stairs and a pair of heavy doors close behind us.

Our house just burned down

The small room is dark and dozens of people are sitting on the floor, mainly women and children, but there are a couple of men. They immediately look at us with pleading eyes and ask us to describe what is happening outside. “We have been hiding here for three days, without internet access and we have no idea what is going on,” a woman around thirty tells us anxiously awaiting our news. 

We talk for a bit about the situation in Kyiv, where in the local area we have seen Russian vehicles and troops and how we were just shot at at the edge of town. “Our men are outside with guns and we have no way of knowing if they’re even alive,” one woman wails. 

Twelveyear-old Sophia tries to keep her composure while she answers our question about how she’s holding up by telling us their house just burned down. Her eight-year-old brother David is staring straight ahead and adds it was on the third floor. “My parents were also there but they managed to escape to our neighbor,” their weeping mother Julia says as she tries to explain, disjointedly, that her parents were trying to put out the fire, but she hasn’t heard from them since and has no idea about their wellbeing. “A missile fell on our roof and the whole of the third floor burned down,” Sophie says, crying. “It happened today at noon, they sent us a text message about it,” Julia adds, weeping, her head in her hands.

Julia with her children Sophia and David after hiding for three days in the shelter. Their house burned down after being hit by a missile. They fear for their grandparents who tried to put out the fire. Photo Majda Slámová/Voxpot

We are jostled by a sound coming from the stairs, as if someone is banging on the door. We find out that no one is at the door, it was just missiles exploding. Olga, an older woman, is sitting on the mattress next to us, her grandson is running around with a toy gun made out of plastic blocks, pretending to shoot. “They arrived three days ago, just as we were returning to Makariv,” Olga describes her first encounter with Russian soldiers.

“We just about managed to ride through and hide in town. The car just in front of us was shot through and through though,” she is gesturing, trying to explain how they were approaching via the main road from the north and were surpised by Russians heavy machinery that emerged from a grove on the side. “A split second later we woudn’t have made it,” she explains, agitated.

“These were special forces with the letter V,” her son, who was driving, agrees. “They rode across a golf course. When they spotted us, they shot a couple of bursts from a attack rifle, but then they stopped,” he explain,s adding that they managed to drive into Makariv that was being held by an armed unit made of local volunteers. Since then they have all been in the shelter with no contact with the outer world.

“A car with dead bodies has been standing on the road for three days, nobody can get it away from there,” a woman tells us, her son nodding. A man on the other side of the room adds that it’s a place a bit up north, just past the town in the direction of Lypivka – just about four kilomitres from the place that we were shot at. 

Apart from women and children the bomb shelter in Makariv was occupied by a couple of men. Photo Majda Slámová/Voxpot

Enough space for non-residents

Apart from people from Makariv, there are a couple of those who got here by chance. Irina is here with her five-year-old son and two-month-old daughter. She is from Irpin, about ten kilometers north of Kyiv. Irpin is just next to the Hostomel Airport, which has been fought over since the beginning of the Russian invasion. “For a couple of days we were sitting under shaking windows, waiting for it to end,” Irina reminisces. Finally they decided that her husband was going to stay there and she would take the children and find shelter.

When she was driving on the Zhytomyr Highway, a car going the opposite way flashed its lights at her with the driver waving his hand out of the window. “I stopped and they were shouting that we should turn around immediately because tanks are approaching,” Irina describes. “As soon as we turned the car, the tanks started shooting and they hit a gas station just next to us,” she explains and tells us she took the first exit off the highway and ended up here in a shelter in a town she did not know. “We haven’t been outside for three or four days, we’re just waiting and grateful that the locals took us in, that they feed us and take care of us,” she says, crying.

I was born during war and I will die during war, an eighty year old woman says to us in the shelter. Photo Majda Slámová/Voxpot

A few moments back, missile explosions raining on the town could be heard through the double door, but now there’s a very loud knock. The attack has supposedly ended and if we are willing to risk it, we are told we can head out. 

We are joined by Pasem, a Palestinian around forty, who arrived in the bomb shelter three days ago the same way as Irina – he and his wife were fleeing Kyiv for the safer Lviv. The director of the community center Ludmila jokes that there are a couple of Indians in the next shelter but she does not want to let them go. The main thing is that everyone is safe. “We will take care of them, they will get a blanket, food, drink. You are safe here,” says Ludmila, keeping spirits high even in this tragic situation.

As we are leaving she introduces us to the mayor, Vadim Tokar, who is also the chief of the local Territorial Defense unit. “A couple of days ago our friends in Ivankov let us know that their town had been taken over by Russian occupants,” he says and explains how Russians reached the town that is just about fifty kilometers away. “Judging from the direction of their advance it was clear they were heading our way,” he explains, adding that in the neighboring town of Borodyanka they managed to slow the army down and Makariv had time to prepare.

Vadim Tokar used to be a lawyer in Kyiv. Now he is the mayor and leads Territorial Defense units in Makariv. Photo Majda Slámová/Voxpot

“When they arrived in Makariv, they met our resistence, which they clearly were not expecting. There we a lot of us. We approached them in our civilian cars, started shooting at them and they split into two groups. Now they hold a couple of bases around our town and it seems they are trying to regroup,” recounts Tokar and adds they are now getting help from the Ukrainian artillery. 

“Luckily now we are starting to be able to get rid of these – excuse the expression – fascists, these assholes,” he says, shaking as tears run through his eyes. “I can’t, I’m sorry…” he covers his face and leaves.

Ljudmila adds that they already have dozens of wounded men in the hospital and a couple of their neighbors already died in battle. Duskis approaching and the curfew will be starting shortly. We have no idea if Russian soldiers haven’t taken the road to the south in the meantime, but there is a great risk that they will do so before morning. We get into the car and accompanied by the sound of artillerym we leave for the relative safety of Kyiev, a three-hour ride off. Those we met remain here in the quagmire with Russian soldiers on the outskirts of their town.

Full video of the Voxpot crew under fire from Russian possitions:

From the original story Začínáme to tu čistit od těch fašistů, těch hovad: Reportáž z nestabilní fronty mezi okupanty a obránci Ukrajiny published in Czech at Voxpot translated Matěj Schneider