Jackson sings. Even though he was in a trench in a suburb northwest of Kyiv, a big column of Russian soldiers and weapons was just a mile up the main road, his Ukrainian army friends managed to coax him into singing.
He laughed, leaned back, glanced away briefly, then went into a fantastic performance of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”:
The sound of birds soaring high,
I love the sun in the sky.
Jackson’s voice had a guttural tint to the “-ow” in “know”. His comrades cheered him on until the brass explosion. The whistle-pause-boom of oncoming mortars and artillery struck on cue.
The soldiers ducked into the trench, hands scrabbling at the soil. After a beat, one of them signaled the all-clear, and they rose up, dusted themselves off, and resumed their comfortable military conversation.
For days, Russian troops sought to attack Irpin from Hostomel Airport to Kyiv. The soldiers’ delayed advance astonished the Ukrainians, who blamed Russian incompetence. That’s where it was, assembling tanks and other vehicles for the drive into Kyiv.
Fortress-like Ukrainian defenses turned a roadway into a charnel pit of brown-singed armor and Russian dead. Then came the whistle-pause-boom, razing houses and slicing utility lines.
Irpin was saved. No more. On Monday, artillery and mortars fired from Iran’s southern entrance reached the bridge demolished by Ukrainian forces to halt the Russian advance.
A few families still made their way to Kyiv, many lugging backpacks, luggage, and trolleys, some looking to the elderly or the very young, as explosions accompanied them.
They were among the last of Irpin’s 62,000 residents. They described Russian tanks in the streets, fleeing neighbors killed by shells, and intense fighting in Irpin’s park.
No skirmishes could be heard at the southernmost roundabout. The whistle-pause-boom overhead made it difficult to hear anything.
Locals dragged their bags around tarmac, sand, grass, and muck to increase their odds of surviving the projectile frenzy – a Russian roulette Sunday walk.
What do you do when the whistle-pause-boom hits you in the face? It’s a math game. First, find a place to hide, preferably in a soft ditch with soil (shells sink deep and shrapnel is less likely to spray).
Many people keep their eyes open when they digest split-second aural data: What is the whistle’s volume? How fast and how often? How long is it? Is it time? Is it okay to stand?
Maybe I’m stupid or blind.
I think I can see through it to the other side.
“I’m only human — don’t place your blame on me,” Jackson, 28, sang, not skipping a beat even when the barrage resumed.
He first saw action in 2014, when Russian-backed separatists took sections of eastern Ukraine, beginning a conflict that has killed over 14,000 people but had been reduced to a few each month before Moscow’s full-scale invasion.
He joined a marine platoon and spent months exchanging sniper and mortar rounds across the contact line dividing eastern Ukraine.
Then he moved to Sweden to pursue his singing career. Like most of his fellow soldiers, he constructed a new life, like Vladimir, a quiet 30-year-old sniper turned clean-energy entrepreneur. For purposes of security or privacy, he offered only his first name.
When the assault began 12 days ago, Jackson and his old platoon mates decided to organize a mobile squad that would help defend Irpin.
They dug ditches on the sidewalk lawn near the southern roundabout. Machine guns, RPG launchers, and the hulking NLAW anti-tank missile were scattered nearby.
In 2014, Vladislav, 26, worked remotely as an IT programmer for a company in Santa Monica.
“Remember the Russians. “That hasn’t changed, though the scale is much larger,” he added, his residence less than a mile away.
“In 2014, we saw them as brothers – we weren’t ready to fight.” Now we’re ready to eliminate them.”
This year’s battle took place in an area far from Kyiv, where many people expected the Ukrainian government to never regain control. Indeed, even after the 2016 major demobilization of Ukrainian army ranks, a lot of veterans never actually gave up fighting, at least emotionally.
And they were despised in the east, where many of the population is ethnic Russian, a group that Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed to be safeguarded with his invasion on Feb. 24.
“They were bombed. “They stated we were shooting at civilians on the opposite side, that the war was merely for oligarchs to make money,” Vladislav added.
“The Ukrainian government spent years targeting civilians living under the rebels,” he said, adding that his father in the occupied Crimea province informed him that Putin came to punish them.
“Now? The attitude shifted. ‘Kill them all,’ replies my wife. Vladislav stated as he handed a plastic container full of pelmeni (Russian dumplings) to Captain Michael Pestovsky, a 31-year-old captain with a beret and full uniform.
“They think we eat Russian babies here,” Pestovsky said, munching a pelmeni. He smiled and said he preferred vareniki, but the pelmeni he was eating now was good “since they’re stuffed with Russian meat.”
Pestovsky, a rap lover who posted videos of himself performing on Instagram, seemed unfazed by the constant gunfire and the Russians’ approach.
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He cocked his ears at an explosion behind him, then murmured, “ Nasha.” Ours.
Then he turned to face the trenches, “It’s not great to be back fighting.” Them, it’s amazing.
Marine Capt. Lymon, a tall man adorned with the hardware of a professional soldier, met with Vladimir Korotya, a 30-year-old deputy administrator from Bucha’s City Council.
They were in charge of organizing the various squads with other groups around town.
One, Lymon, had just returned from an American military school; the other, Korotya, had a notepad full of photos of ladies in bikinis and a map of Russian positions.
He reviewed possible tactics with Lymon while using a walkie-talkie, a smartphone map, and a notebook.
“I lead my own little army. A reporter asked him about an advertisement in Bucha that declared, “Welcome to hell.” “The Russians must see it.”
He surmised that the opposition was failing because they didn’t know the area. His warriors, working in squads, were quick, nimble, and able to score hits against superior fire.
What about invading helicopters?
We are shooting down their drones, so they are careful.
Soldiers firing on a drone they observed flying in the cloud-filled sky echoed through the windows.
His troops were cleaning their shoes and fixing their armor and weapons around Korotya. An unnamed soldier cut thick bread slices and spooned orange pearls of Spets Posol caviar over them.
Lymon took a slice and ate it slowly. His blue eyes were attentive but lazy. “All I can think about is showering,” he added.
By Monday, the Russians held half of Irpin, and he knew the fight would worsen. There were enough Russian troops to overcome any Ukrainian resistance.
“We’ll try to burn them. We’ll keep fighting. “What option do we have?”
Dmytro, 35, sat to one side, his smartphone showing a photo of Diana, 7 months. In his military outfit, he was one of the few fighters who appeared uneasy in combat.
“I love my people. But I fight for Diana. “It was a tough call. But a future without a father is preferable.“
The whistle-pause-boom rang out again. Sunday’s barrage killed eight civilians. On Monday, a cyclist was killed by a shell near the severed bridge past Irpin’s southern entrance.
He sat on his side, his back to the twisted metal of the bridge to nowhere.