Photographer Kristóf Hölvényi and a team of correspondents for Mandiner traveled seventeen hours from Ternopil in western Ukraine to Kyiv. Their mission: to report on developments on the ground in Kyiv.
GALLERY OF KRISTÓF HÖLVÉNYI’S PHOTOGRAPHS HERE.
Departure from Ternopil, about 500 kilometers to the west, begins with hunting for gas. Gas stations that are open are hard to find in war-torn Ukraine, and the lines are long. Kristóf and team had brought a few full cans of fuel from Hungary, in case they ran low along the way.
The other three members of the convoy were transporting volunteer soldiers from Ternopil. Most of the volunteers are young men, just past eighteen, the threshold of conscription. Not all of them will be fighting in Kyiv, says Kristóf. Some of them will be sent to Kharkov, ravaged by heavy fighting. One of the boys, Alex, left Ternopil driving his own Toyota, our correspondent recounts. The young man with a degree in international law is leaving his family behind to take up arms in defence of the Ukrainian capital.
The convoy is receiving information with continuous updates on the safest route to take. Their goal is to reach Kyiv before the 10 p.m. curfew, a challenge intensified by terrible road conditions that could easily end in flat tires or accidents. “We were flooring it across Ukraine,” says Kristóf on the phone.
Getting through villages along the way slows them down. The locals have set up checkpoints, where ordinary citizens are checking those in transit. “You can recognize the few professionals among them,” says Kristóf.
People at the checkpoints carry the guns that happened to be at hand: hunting rifles and pistols. At one of the checkpoints, a gun is pointed at the driver of the vehicle fronting our convoy. Fortunately, the dust soon settles, everybody cools down. Checkpoint staff are looking for guns, mostly, says Kristóf.
Night falls on the convoy at a checkpoint; no one is supposed to go on. It is minus four degrees in the car during the night. The convoy must wait to continue towards the capital until daybreak.
Arrival at Kyiv
Just before Kyiv, a major jam slows us down. “Everyone was thinking, should the Russians hit here and now, it would suck,” recalls our correspondent. Vehicles carrying journalists and volunteers are allowed to jump the queue, which we do. Once inside the capital, our convoy splits up. It is a strange farewell, says Kristóf. The young volunteers are unlikely to survive what is in store for them, no matter how patriotic they feel.
Checkpoints in Kyiv are manned by soldiers, and military convoys can be seen here and there. According to Kristóf, the city has so far been spared any major destruction, but the checkpoints on every corner and air raid sirens every thirty minutes are signs that a war is going on, right here, right now.
“We are exhausted,” says Kristóf on the phone. They managed to find a hotel in Kyiv at last, where they will continue their work the following day.
Air raid sirens sound every now and then during the night, but the missile strikes in the evening did not inflict extensive damage, Kristóf Hölvényi continues his report from war-torn Kyiv.
A new day in the city under siege
It is freezing, streets are empty. People only leave their homes to go shopping, or if they want to leave the city behind.
“Most of those who wanted to leave have done so,” says Kristóf.
There is no traffic congestion on the way out, only on the way into Kyiv. Many people are coming from all over the country to join the volunteers. According to Kristóf, there are a hundred and fifty thousand of them already in Ukraine’s capital. It is impossible to process all of them, so the American guy who Kristóf bumps into on Maidan Square has to wait alongside the volunteers from Ternopil.
Damages are not really visible at this time in the downtown area. Last night, the debris of a missile that was shot out of the air hit the neighbourhood around the railway station, but trains still keep coming and going. In the outskirts, however, Russian attacks have produced ruins already. Kristóf and the team go to the TV tower, which was hit on Tuesday. Our correspondent says the tower itself was damaged, but it has continued to broadcast, even though the surrounding buildings were badly damaged. Some of the owners have begun clean-up, against the backdrop of smoking ruins.
There are long queues in front of banks, pharmacies, and shops, says Kristóf, and although the signs of panic purchases are obvious here and there, food is still available in the city. Stores only open for a few hours each day. People are tense, and tired. “Everybody can feel the Russians will be coming in.”
The citizens of Kyiv are aware that a Russian convoy is approaching the city from the north, but Kristóf says it is making progress slowly, with rations and fuel running out, and suffering losses from Ukrainian forces.
Kyiv trusts the Ukrainian government. As our corresponds reports, its citizens fully support Volodimir Zelensky and his cabinet. Public sentiment is that—at least for now—the European Union and NATO have offered promises, but have not delivered real military help. The people of Kyiv understand that they can only rely on themselves.
An increasingly depressing place
The relentlessly approaching front line makes Kyiv an increasingly depressing place. Its streets are empty, its citizens only leave their homes for basic foodstuffs, according to Kristóf Hölvényi when he calls again with updates.
Shelves are empty at a lot of places, since the logistics systems have practically collapsed, and food transports cannot get into the city. The only bar open in Kyiv, the Buena Vista Social Bar, is still serving its guests, including western media correspondents gathering there.
Front lines have been approaching from three directions, with the Russians advancing from north, east, and west.
Missiles sometimes reach targets in central areas—the building of the children’s hospital of Kyiv, for instance.
This is the biggest children’s hospital in Ukraine, says Kristóf, with more than 700 beds. The only patients left here are the ones who require round-the-clock medical care. Such care is now being provided in the basement of the building in appalling conditions. Part of the hospital had to be evacuated after the remains of a Russian missile shot down by Ukrainian air defence damaged it.
The loved ones of Valentina, a paramedic, said their final goodbyes.
As her associates recalled to Kristóf, Valentina drove an ambulance between the front and the hospital more than 300 times since the beginning of the war, until a stray bullet finally caught her.
The front creeping towards Kyiv from the west is almost at the perimeter of the city; the town of Irpin is being evacuated. Kristóf says this front was opened a week before, and the Ukrainians are trying to slow down the Russians by blowing up the bridges.
Fleeing civilians do not prevent Russian artillery from attacking relentlessly, just like in Mariupol, says Kristóf. The people of Irpin are trying to escape under the barrage of constant shellfire, with the help of the Ukrainian army.
The Russian attack has claimed victims in the city: a grenade killed a mother and her two children.
Kristóf and his team were almost hit by a Russian grenade as well. They were photographing a building in flames when they were shot at, even though they were wearing blue press helmets and did not carry guns. “Clearly, we were a target,” he says. Luckily, they were unharmed.
Such incidents have been frequent, Kristóf reports. The vehicles of two teams of journalists were shot in the last few days, without fatalities.
Those of the three million residents of Kyiv who have stayed in the city continue to live in the shadow of war, with the fronts drawing closer to them day by day.
Levente László Greczula is an international relations analyst and a foreign policy writer for the Hungarian weekly Mandiner, focusing on German domestic and foreign policy.