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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

‘We have to come to protect you,’ Russian soldiers told Ukrainian man they’d shot | Ukraine

Two sleepless days after Eduard Lysovysk was carried into a basement bomb shelter, his thigh bone shattered by a Russian sniper’s bullet, soldiers from the army who had shot him came to visit.

Heavy shelling outside had pinned him and dozens of neighbours into the cramped dugout, where he would spend a week in agony, waiting for a chance to flee the neighbourhood he once called home.

The Russian soldiers stood over the man they had injured, his leg tied up with bandages torn from bedsheets and held in place with a makeshift splint, and told Lysovysk: “We have come to protect you.”

Lysovysk’s wife, Iryna, undaunted by the guns, asked them: “Protect us from what? From our own homes?” Lysovysk had been shot as he evacuated her and an elderly neighbour from their apartment building across the balconies, after CCTV showed Russian soldiers in the hallway.

The single round slammed into his leg as he stood at the edge of a crowd by a bomb shelter door, after the second evacuation trip. No other shots were fired towards the group, and no one else was hurt.

After Lysovysk spent a day of agony, without painkillers or antibiotics, his wife went to ask the Russian soldiers for help. “We said we have injured, and need things like blankets and duvets,” she told the Observer.

They let her briefly back into the couple’s flat, which had lost its door and was filled with 10 Russian officers, then sent the medic, who changed Lysovysk’s bandages, gave him a single dose of antibiotics, and left. There was no offer of further medical treatment or evacuation and, by day five after the shooting, Lysovysk was running a fever.

Iryna went out again to seek another round of medicine. “It felt awful, because they were on our territory and they got to feel like they were helping us but I had no other choice but to ask,” she said.

During that long ordeal, the pain of his shattered leg was relieved only by the courage and generosity of neighbours who risked shelling and gunfire to comb their apartments for painkillers to share.

The Lysovysks and their neighbours were plunged into the most intense horror of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from the start of the war, by an accident of geography. They lived in Hostomel, a Kyiv dormitory town beside a cargo airbase of the same name, which Russia tried to seize from the first night of the war, and fought over for days.

Footage shows Russian helicopters engaging with forces in Ukraine – video
Footage shows Russian helicopters engaging with forces in Ukraine – video

Chechen troops known for their ruthlessness were part of the mission, launched so rapidly that residents barely had time to consider escaping before the full fury of battle swept through their town.

In the week before his injury, Lysovysk witnessed and captured in photos and videos the atrocities unfolding around him. His images and testimony form a powerful, and unusually comprehensive diary of those bloody days in an area now under Russian control. They also provide important visual evidence of crimes that have been widely reported, but less frequently preserved on video or in photos, because of fear and Russian confiscation of phones. This includes the shooting of civilians as they tried to escape.

A metal fence riddles with bullets
One of Eduard Lysovysk images of Hostomel from 2 March. Photograph: Eduard Lysovysk

On 25 February, a day after the invasion began, he noticed a car outside his apartment block with shattered windows, its radiator leaking on to the ground. He went to check it out and realised the bullets had also found a human target inside.

An 18-year-old boy was slumped in the passenger seat. Another neighbour, who arrived first at the scene, said his grandmother was trying to drive them both to safety. He had been hit in the eye; she had kept going for nearly two miles after being shot, trying to reach a village outside town – perhaps in shock, or in the vain hope of reaching medics.

An ambulance had taken her to hospital, but it was too late for the young man. Even so early in the war, medics had no space in their vehicles for the dead, so the body was left behind for burial.

In the violent days that followed, Lysovysk, a former construction worker, continued to document how the war was unfolding around him.

Refugees escaping occupied areas have repeatedly described Russian soldiers shooting at their cars, even when marked with white flags or carrying signs saying “children”, and seeing abandoned vehicles with bodies inside. One video he took from a motorway outside town captures apparent evidence of a massacre. Seven civilian cars, riddled with bullet holes, have been abandoned beside the road. In one dark red Lada, keys still lie on the bloodstained seats, although all the dead or injured occupants had been taken away.

As the battle worsened, food supplies began to run out. Eduard filmed workers from the office of mayor Yuriy Prylypko giving jars of vegetables, potatoes and other food to trapped residents, and asked why they were not distributing guns instead so that residents could fight. “They told me the Russians had taken over the national guard base inside Hostomel where all the guns were stored, and so there were no weapons to give out.” Five days later, Prylypko was shot dead by the invaders while handing out bread to civilians.

On 3 March, Russian tanks rolled into town and soldiers began setting up base in a construction site near the Lysovysks’ home. That night they moved into the apartment block.

Screenshots from CCTV show men in military camouflage milling in the hallway, and the couple saw the group place something outside their door, which they feared was a tripwire.

Their home was on the ground floor, so they decided to climb over their balconies the next morning to escape to a bomb shelter across the street. When daylight returned, Lysovysk first helped his 59-year-old wife to the bomb shelter, and went back for an elderly neighbour on the same floor.

With both rescues complete, he took a moment outside the shelter to make a phone call, and as he stood still the sniper pulled his trigger. “It hit me, and my leg just collapsed out to the side. It looked like I had two knees,” said Lysovysk, speaking from his hospital bed in Bila Tservka, a city south of Kyiv that has been spared intense fighting.

He was taken there for treatment because his injuries are so complex and doctors say he will need multiple surgeries to regain use of his leg; the bone was shattered.

“He shouted and fell,” said Iryna Lysovysk, who was standing beside him. “We only just managed to drag him into the shelter.” The crowd inside helped rip up sheets to make a tourniquet and dress the wound. He later bound it with a makeshift splint, to keep the leg straight, and the couple sent messages to friends, asking for an ambulance because they couldn’t get through to emergency services.

Then they turned off their mobiles and hid them behind jars of pickled vegetables, after they were warned by people in the basement that the Russians had been confiscating people’s phones.

“They took some people’s phones and in other cases, just ripped the sim cards out,” Iryna Lysovysk said.

When the Russian soldiers came, Lysovysk was lying on the floor, clearly immobile and in terrible pain, but the men kept their fingers on their triggers. “It was like they were afraid of me,” he said.

“They said, ‘it wasn’t us who shot you, it was a Ukrainian sniper’, but I said, ‘Tell me where they are?’”

In over a week of fighting the Lysovsks had only once seen a small detachment of six soldiers in Ukrainian uniform. “I had seen the (Russian) sniper eye to eye, 20m away from us, he was in the next apartment block over, the construction block.”

On 9 March, two days after the mayor was shot, Hostomel’s residents were finally told they could evacuate through a humanitarian corridor; most went on foot to a collection point. But Lysovysk couldn’t walk and needed to lie flat, and in the rush to escape the terrifying basement shelters and the constant thud of shells and rockets, no one with a car could make room for him.

The next day, they used cardboard to patch the windows of a neighbour’s bombed-out minibus and laid him on the floor – the beginning of his long journey to recovery. But when they made it to safety, the couple found one final, devastating stroke of Russian cruelty; the troops hadn’t only denied Lysovysk medical care from their own doctors, they also blocked Ukrainian help.

Relatives had called an ambulance on the day he was shot, and it had got 300 metres from his shelter when Russians turned it back. “If we had only known,” said Iryna Lysovysk, staring at her injured husband, who could have been spared most of his terrible ordeal. “We would have carried him there ourselves.”

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