If war is defined as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will,” then Russia is in for a long slog in Ukraine.
Sixteen miles northwest of Kyiv lies the town of Moshchun, within which lies a settlement of 300 or so dachas, or vacation homes. Through military planning or sheer bad luck, some locales witness the worst that war has to offer, and this village is such a place.
Russian forces landed near here and seized the airport on Feb. 24, at the very beginning of the invasion. Many residents of Kyiv with dachas in the town had gone to them believing the area to be safer than the capital, but fighting soon spread to Moshchun and the other nearby towns of Irpin and Bucha. Most of the houses in the area sit on small plots of land and are surrounded by fences, providing countless spaces for troops to maneuver and hide. Ukrainian forces began the effort to retake Moshchun on March 16. Roughly 75 percent of homes in this settlement were destroyed or damaged in the fighting.
“Watch your step. There aren’t any mines, but there are rusty nails,” says Valentina, a stout woman in her 60s who owned her dacha for 35 years before it was destroyed in the conflict. We tiptoe through the burned and blasted brick ruins. She kicks the scorched stump of an apple tree she planted long ago. A strong-willed community leader, she guides me on a tales-of-horror tour of the neighborhood. The balmy blue August sky and numerous fruit-laden trees stand in stark contrast to the shells of homes and the military debris scattered about yards. A string of stories pours forth. She tells of the neighbor who emerged from hiding after 10 days in her basement only to walk around, return home, and kill herself. She recounts how a quadriplegic father, unable to move from his bed during the invasion, died there. His screams pierced the sounds of battle as he was consumed by smoke and flames. His wife and daughter survived in the basement below.
Valentina recalls the incident of a young man who was at home with his father when the room he was in was struck by a mortar. The father, Valentina says, “ran into the room after the blast and found his son torn to pieces. The father doesn’t talk to anyone now.”
I meet Olya, a woman in her early 70s, at her dacha down the street. She guided nine survivors of destroyed homes into her tiny root cellar, where they hid from Russians for 10 days “without making a peep,” she says. A member of the group would leave briefly once a day to scavenge for food and water. Potatoes were the main food source. The room is 7 by 10 feet, has a dirt floor, and lacks electricity and lighting. Standing in it with Olya, I find it difficult to imagine the hardship they endured there.
Most residents are retired, and gardening is a serious pastime. Irina wears an ankle-length blue dress patterned with flowers when I find her cutting roses from bushes she has tended for decades in her front yard. Her house is gone — only the walls remain. But the garden, still watered and cared for, is in full bloom. With spring came the usual weeds as well as a harvest of brass cartridge casings, shrapnel, rocket parts, and military gear. Irina’s neighbors found a live artillery shell and a human foot in their garden. A vase of roses sits on a path in the garden while she works. When she isn’t gardening, Irina holds it tight and carries it about. Two friends compliment the rich red beauty of the petals as we stand in the gray ash of her roofless house, which she intends to rebuild.
The women are soon preoccupied with an important task: delivering freshly picked apples, cucumbers, raspberries, and plums to Ukrainian forces stationed in the nearby woods, as they do several days a week. They fill plastic buckets with the bounty and carry them away. Three grandmotherly ladies, they cross military checkpoints with ease.
Nearby, Vladimir sizes up the effort it will take to replace the ruined house he and his family built when he was 13. He’s now 57. He has cleared much of the debris and organized it into neat piles. The Russians used his house as a command post, but the Ukrainian forces seized it back. It is late August and Vladimir is upset the day I meet him, not because of the destruction around him but because now is the season to harvest apples and make wine, and he won’t be able to uphold this cherished tradition this year. There will be no vintage ’22 apple wine from Vladimir’s vineyard. He promises a record batch next year.
Most residents have known each other since they were young and spent their holidays in and around their families’ dachas. Victoria waves to us as we drive past on the dirt road. Upon learning that I am American, she recites several Emily Dickinson poems in Ukrainian. She and her husband, Vasily, own a menagerie of goats, chickens, dogs, and cats. When the fighting erupted, Victoria hid in their steel safe, which had room for one person after its contents were removed.
A friend begged Victoria and Vasily to leave with him in his car while they still had a chance, but Victoria refused, citing her love for her animals. “You have five minutes to leave or you will die with your goats,” the friend told her. The couple reluctantly left, and when they returned weeks later, they were astonished to find all of their animals still alive. Victoria named two of the chickens that hatched post-liberation Partisan and Spy.
Valentin is 75 and served in the Soviet Air Forces before running an electronics company. His reassuring smile belies the carnage around us. As we enter his home, he gestures to the ground outside, noting that four dead Russians lay there for weeks. We visit his favorite spot in the neighborhood: a swimming-pool-sized pond that is home to orange and red koi fish. He leans on the railing, looking for the ones he has named and points when their brightly colored backs rise near the surface. Later, we visit his dacha and sit in the backyard on lawn chairs shaded by a canopy of grape vines. His house is in better shape than most, with just shrapnel and bullet holes scarring the walls. The garden is overflowing with ripe fruit and vegetables. Valentin walks inside and retrieves a French wine bottle half full of red wine he made last year. I have tasted homegrown batch wine before and am prepared for anything. I sip and savor the wine, which is sublime. Valentin has produced a vintage that tastes like a warm summer day on the Dnipro River and a future bright with possibilities.
Ed Quinn is a New York City-based photojournalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times and other publications. He covered the Ukraine refugee crisis near the Ukraine-Poland border in the spring and returned to Lviv, Ternopil, Kyiv, and Mochshun this summer. Follow him on Instagram @edquinnphoto.