MAKARIV, Ukraine – “I didn’t know if they were dead or alive,” said Vadym Tokar, a 39-year-old in battle fatigues, sucking on a cigarette as he recalled the moment when he decided to rescue his wife and kids from behind enemy lines seven days after losing contact with them.
With fighting raging in the nearby town of Borodyanka during the first few days of the war in Ukraine, it was clear that Makariv might be next in line to be targeted as part of Russia’s effort to encircle Kyiv, about 40 kilometers to the east. Many of Makariv’s 10,000 residents decided to evacuate before it was too late.
Tokar, the mayor of Makariv, resolved to remain in the town. But his wife, Svitlana, decided that she would take their children – Zakhar, 8, and Hanna, 6 -- to a dacha in a quiet spot five minutes from town. It was a decision that had terrifying consequences.
Svitlana and the children left Makariv on February 26. Two days later, Tokar said, a column of some 300 Russian tanks and armored vehicles rolled through the town and fanned out on its outskirts, apparently attempting to surround it. In a scene that was captured on video at a Makariv crossroads, gunfire from the column blew a car apart and killed its civilian occupants, a 72-year-old man and a 68-year-old woman. Indiscriminate attacks on other civilians in the area were being reported hourly, and Russian forces bombarded the local hospital a day after their arrival.
“I grew up in this town. I know every corner of it,” Tokar said, explaining how he assessed the risks of his mission to retrieve his wife and children. It may have been particularly risky due to his status – mayors have apparently been targeted for abduction or worse by Russian forces since Moscow launched the large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
Russian forces have retreated from north-central Ukraine after failing to encircle Kyiv, leaving a trail of destruction and mounting evidence of what residents and rights groups say were war crimes including summary executions of unarmed civilians, rapes, and other atrocities.
Like other towns north and west of Kyiv that bore the brunt of the assault, Makariv -- where major facilities targeted by Russian forces included the hospital, the city administration building, and the police headquarters – is back under government control.
For now, a two-story, yellow-brick building has been repurposed as headquarters for the city administration and the police. Sitting on a bench in a leafy park surrounding it, Tokar pointed to a middle-aged man lounging on another bench holding a Kalashnikov.
“He’s the only one who agreed to come with me,” Tokar said. “He was my bodyguard. Now he’s my friend.”
Shifting Battlefield Dynamics
In the days leading up to their mission, Tokar and his bodyguard pored over maps and fretted over the details of their plan -- a process that was complicated by the shifting battlefield dynamics outside Makariv. Russian positions were changing regularly, and a miscalculation could prove fatal.
While Tokar was fine-tuning his rescue plans, Roman Lyashenko was on the battlefield.
A cheerful, bearded 44-year-old businessman, Lyashenko joined the local territorial defense unit -- part of a network of volunteer militias established nationwide as tens of thousands of Russian forces gathered near Ukraine’s borders ahead of the invasion. His ex-wife and his current wife had evacuated, along with their respective daughters, shortly before the fighting reached Makariv.
“There were very few regular Ukrainian Army troops in the town when the Russians came and only 80 of us in the territorial army. All we had between us were Kalashnikovs and eight RPGs (rocket-propelled grenade launchers), but the Russians didn’t know that,” Lyashenko said, beaming with pride as he described the lopsided balance of forces. “If they had known we had no heavy weaponry, we wouldn’t have been able to hold them off for so long.”
As they approached Makariv, Russian forces occupied the Kyiv Golf Club, about 6 kilometers from the center of the town. The club’s underground parking lot became their local headquarters; its manicured greens and bunkers became launch positions for artillery and Grad rocket launchers. They also took control of Lypivka, a village on the road from Borodyanka to Makariv -- and a settlement next to it where Svitlana, Zakhar, and Hanna took refuge.
According to Tokar, the bodies of 149 civilians had been recovered from Makariv and the surrounding areas as of April 12. With residents returning to their homes and discovering new bodies every day, that number is likely to rise. Many of the dead are in Lypivka.
Bisected by the Makariv-Borodyanka road, Lypivka is a picturesque hamlet with its own vineyard and about 400 homes, half of which have been damaged or destroyed. The retreat of the Russian forces revealed scenes of devastation in the village -- burnt-out cars and the charred debris of collapsed homes strewn along the road between destroyed Russian tanks crumpled in semi-concealed dugouts.
Boxes of unused artillery shells lay open and neglected on the roadside, possibly reflecting the haste of the Russians’ retreat from the area or their desire to make room for loot in their departing vehicles. Residents say Russian troops withdrew from all areas they occupied around Kyiv with vast quantities of items stolen from Ukrainian homes.
“It was a nightmare,” retired teacher Valentyna Rybitska, 63, told RFE/RL. “They took everything. Plasma TVs, bikes, scooters, carpets, clothes. They left nothing behind. I have no words to explain it.”
Sitting on a shaded bench by the roadside with one of her neighbors, Rybitska said Russian troops laid waste to the neighborhood.
“They were always looking for cigarettes and alcohol. When they got drunk, they shot off their guns,” she said. “One guy found fireworks and thought they were some kind of weapon. Of course, they set them off when they got drunk.”
“They were completely Zombified,” Rybitska went on. “They said they were here to protect us from NATO” -- part of the narrative that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government have used to try to justify the unprovoked invasion.
Many of the village homes were occupied by four or five Russian soldiers each, residents said. The owners, if present, moved in with neighbors or into basements and cellars usually used for storage, their proximity to the Russian troops putting them under extreme stress and in constant danger.
Rybitska pointed out a house across the road: “A 46-year-old woman was killed in there.” She pointed to another house, where she said an elderly couple met a grisly end. A young woman was raped in her home on a parallel street, she said.
Days after the chaotic departure of Russian troops, many of the bodies have yet to be discovered. The full depth of horror has yet to sink in.
The 'Russian World'
This was the perilous environment to which Tokar and his bodyguard were driving on March 7, long before the Russian retreat, when they set out for the dacha to try to bring Svitlana and the children to safety. His last contact with his family had been a week earlier, so he did not know whether it was already too late.
They decided on an indirect route via backroads but still came across Russian forces twice. Moving off the road on both occasions, they stopped the car, hunkered down to get out of the line of sight, and stayed silent, their hearts pounding until the patrolling Russians passed by. They abandoned the car a few hundred meters from the house.
As they weaved their way on foot through neighbors’ gardens towards their destination, volleys of artillery gave them cover from barking dogs. The dacha was intact, but when he saw how close it was to a Russian artillery cannon, Tokar’s heart sank.
It sank further when they got into the house: Their belongings were there and food was still lying around, but his wife and children were nowhere to be seen. It looked like they had left in a hurry -- or were taken. Tokar slipped outside, stepping into the back garden and over to the cellar door. He paused to take a breath before opening it.
At first there was nothing: no light, no sound. Then he heard his name and Svitlana stepped out of the darkness, astonished to see him. The children followed, unharmed but disoriented. There was no time to celebrate. After a quick embrace, he rushed them into the house and helped them grab some things. Along with the bodyguard, they made it back to the car and the relative safety of Makariv.
From there they traveled to western Ukraine, where Svitlana, Zakhar, and Hanna are staying with relatives. Lighting another cigarette and worrying about the long-term effects of the trauma and tension they experienced, Tokar recalled the day he left them there, over a month ago, before returning to Makariv.
“I asked them if they want to leave Ukraine and live in another country,” he said, choking up. “They told me yes, they do.”
For Lyashenko, the invasion and the war have deepened his sense of identity as a Ukrainian and hardened his antipathy toward Russia. In his mind, Moscow’s true ambitions and attitudes toward Ukraine are manifest in the death and destruction that he has witnessed in his hometown.
He summed it up with a term that the Kremlin uses to signify its desire for control over lands with substantial Russian-speaking populations – and which many Ukrainians now associate with the conduct of Russia and its troops.
“This,” Lyashenko said, looking at the damage and detritus left along the road following the Russian retreat, “is the ‘Russian World.’”
“We are Ukrainian,” he said. “We have our own culture and language that’s separate from Russia. Our values are European, not Russian. When this war is over, I’m sure we’re going to do something about corruption in this country because we all want to be in Europe.”