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Washington Post Video Journalist Captures Ukrainian Stories as Russian Forces Leave Parts of Ukraine

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As the Russian assault on Ukraine continues, more videos are emerging that show evidence of Russian brutalities and possible war crimes, such as executions and torture. Russian officials have denied the accusations, calling them Ukrainian propaganda. We speak with Washington Post video journalist Jon Gerberg, who has been filing video reports from the war for the past six weeks, and see extended interviews from civilians he interviewed. As Russian forces retreat from Ukrainian cities, “we are pulling back the veil of the more active conflict that was keeping us as journalists from some of these areas,” says Gerberg. “This is a war that in over a month has had an unbelievable impact on both the men and women fighting it and the men and women who are stuck in the middle of it as civilians.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is blasting the United Nations for failing to take action to end Russia’s invasion and prevent Russian atrocities. In an address to the United Nations Security Council Tuesday, he accused Russian forces of executions, torture and rape in the city of Bucha, where videos have emerged showing dead bodies lying in the streets.

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY: [translated] Due to the Russian actions on the territory of my country, on Ukrainian territory, the most terrible war crimes since World War II are committed.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Russia is continuing to deny it killed civilians in Bucha. On Tuesday, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, accused Ukraine and its allies of spreading propaganda about what happened in Bucha in order to derail negotiations to end the war. This comes as Ukrainian officials say another massacre occurred in the town of Borodyanka outside Kyiv, where local officials say as many as 200 have died.

For an update on what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine, we’ll be joined in a minute by Washington Post video journalist Jon Gerberg, who’s now in Rivne and has been filing video reports from the war for the past six weeks from across Ukraine. We begin with his newest video, published Tuesday, in which a Ukrainian family in Lukashivka, a village near Chernihiv, describes how they were brutalized by Russian soldiers during a three-week occupation. This is Igor and his wife Yulia and their son, also named Igor. We meet Yulia first. A warning to our listeners and viewers: This video contains descriptions of violent acts.

YULIA: [translated] This is our cellar. I went down to the cellar at the very beginning, because I was scared. The Russians entered, and we were like that for three weeks. I was scared all the time — of the Russian troops, of everything. The kids weren’t afraid. The kids would run around.

IGOR: [translated] We have three kids, and there’s my wife and I. We have a nice fortified cellar. The reason the Russians thought I was a military man is because it’s all really well built. They wouldn’t believe I was just her husband. They thought I was a soldier in disguise. It was standard procedure. They hit your in the ribs with a rifle butt and all that. They would threaten to chop my arms off. “Tell us what, where and how. Put your arm down here.” They would take an ax and chop, almost getting my fingers. They’d give me a grenade and tell me to go down to where the kids were. They’d tear off the grenade ring and tell me to go to the cellar. They brought me out four times in order to shoot me, but failed. They were too drunk.

YULIA: [translated] Our disabled child, here, he will tell you, he crawled out of the cellar to defend us so that we wouldn’t get shot.

IGOR: [translated] They brought dad outside. They started manipulating him, saying to him, “Either you tell us what you are doing or we shoot you down right here. Your wife will be a widow, and your kids will have not father.” So I crawled out and told them, “Don’t touch my dad. Dad is everything to me.”

YULIA: [translated] Go. Go for a walk. Go. Go. I don’t want you to hear this. I don’t want anyone to hear this. It’s very hard. They said they had already shot him, that I was a widow and I was next. I was already preparing myself to go out to the orchard next and get shot. The Russians wouldn’t believe I was his wife and the kids’ mother. They thought I was a prostitute, I don’t know. A soldier said, “Do you know how to give a blow job?” Thank god, they didn’t touch me. I simply pretended to have gone mad. It’s very hard. It was very hard to live through all this.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a Washington Post video interview published Tuesday, yesterday, with a Ukrainian family who endured a three-week occupation by Russian soldiers in Lukashivka, a village near Chernihiv.

For more, we go to Rivne, Ukraine, to speak with Jon Gerberg, the video journalist with The Washington Post who filed that report, who’s been in Ukraine for more than a month now.

Jon, it’s great to have you with us. And just to let people know, we worked with Jon years ago at Democracy Now! That is a powerful report, and we’re going to play more of those. Describe more what you have found as you’ve traveled, and particularly start by talking about this family.

JON GERBERG: Absolutely. Hi, Amy. Hi, Juan. It’s great to be with you guys.

This is just one of, unfortunately, far too many examples of the absolute atrocity and devastation that has been wrought on so many Ukrainian families across the country at this point. What we are finding now is that as the Russian forces are moving out of certain areas around key cities in Ukraine, we are pulling back the veil of some of the more active conflict that was keeping us as journalists from some of these areas. And the level of violence, I mean, you heard it there in the video. You know, we’re talking torture, mock executions, threats of rape.

This particular village, Lukashivka, is outside of the city of Chernihiv, which made headlines early on for getting heavily shelled by the Russians, and the Russians were besieging that town, as well. As far as we know, it does not seem like the Russians were able to penetrate the city itself, but they were able to set up shop in the villages around the city. And that’s where, as you hear in this video, families in this small village were living really under the yoke of this Russian occupation. And they described Russians abusing them in many ways. They described them being drunk and aggressive and violent with them. Another one of their neighbors, who was not in this video, described being hung from a tree. He was a military-age male. He described being beaten and harassed for days, and giving up on life, thinking he was going to die at any moment.

And we’ve heard many, many of these stories from different areas, often in the villages and towns outside some of the bigger cities, because as Russians, again, strategically tried to encircle cities and would set up their military lines outside cities, it was actually in these smaller villages where a lot of the real brutality occurred. And we are still at the point where we were just getting our first glimpses in these past few days, as we were able to travel to them on their own to report independently, to learn firsthand of these true atrocities suffered by Ukrainians.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jon, you’re on your way from Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, now to Lviv. Could you talk about what you’re seeing on your drive? And also, if you’ve been in some of the areas that were originally Russian-occupied, I’m wondering — because we’ve heard a lot of the reports about Russian missiles and artillery hitting the Ukrainian cities, but, clearly, if the Russians were occupying these areas, I assume that the Ukrainian military was using its quite considerable firepower, supplied by the U.S., to attack the Russians. So I’m wondering if you’re seeing any results of destruction in this area that maybe was not caused by the Russians but was actually caused by Ukrainian fire?

JON GERBERG: Yeah, you know, this is the kind of thing that investigators are going to be looking at for a very long time. And we were in another small village called Andriivka, outside a city called Makariv, recently, and that’s a great example. I actually — I spent three reporting days visiting Makariv, which is a bit to the west of Kyiv. And our first two days, we could barely move in and around the city, because the shelling, going in both directions, was nonstop. I mean, every — there was barely a minute or two that went by without more shelling. And that was going in both directions. At that point, we were on the Ukrainian side of the line. And on the third day was the day after the Russians had [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: Jon, we’re losing you a little bit. Go ahead.

JON GERBERG: — [inaudible], as you mentioned. OK. OK, I’ll keep trying. I think my connection —

AMY GOODMAN: On the third day — we just —

JON GERBERG: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Just take it from “on the third day.”

JON GERBERG: Absolutely. On the third day, we were able to cross in, because this — this was our third reporting day. It was the day after the Russians had pulled back. And there was massive destruction. We were basically able to get to this small village where the Russians had set up a frontline. And when they had left, the locals who had survived — and they mentioned that scores of civilians in their neighborhoods had been killed by the Russians — they described some very [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jon, we’re going to go to one of the people you interviewed. This is Valentyna Omelchuk, a grandmother who spent a month hiding out in her basement, more like a root cellar, in Makariv, Ukraine, west of Kyiv. She told you she hadn’t spoken to her daughter or grandchildren in Kyiv in a month. This is part of the Washington Post video report you published Monday.

VALENTYNA OMELCHUK: [translated] It was scary. It was scary every day. It was scary in the morning and at night, during the night because they were fighting one another with tanks, and it was frightening. It was scary when the planes were flying towards Kyiv. They were flying right over us, and we could hear them. Then, every day — two-and-a-half days were particularly horrible — the Russians were coming forth like cockroaches. They would be fought back and keep coming again. It was too scary to leave. We had missiles flying over us all the time.

This here is my house. Thank god, it survived. I’ll open it and show you everything. Only I have a dog. It’s small but loud. My baby! Where’s my baby, my defender, my little guard? I have windows here, I’ll show you, all shot through. I couldn’t even clean it up, because we were afraid they had thermal imagers. This is a shell fragment. We’ll keep it as a memory.

It’s usually just me living in this house, but I also have my grandkids and my daughter. They come here on weekends. This is the little girl’s room. It’s the lightest and the warmest one. Well, it’s no longer warm, because the windows are broken, so it is cold, and there’s plenty of trash. We’ll clean it up, and it will be fine.

I haven’t spoken with my daughter since March 2. She said, “Mom, if there’s no proper connection, please text us.” I would send them, but they wouldn’t get through. I would get messages that my text hadn’t been sent. And then, while my smartphone was still working, I’d rewatch Viber videos, as if I was talking to them, reread their messages, and then that ended, too. And that’s it. I was left alone with my dog.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Valentyna Omelchuk, a grandmother who spent a month hiding in her basement in Makariv, Ukraine, west of Kyiv. Jon, she told you she hadn’t spoken to her daughter or grandchildren in Kyiv for a month?

JON GERBERG: Yes, that’s right, Amy. And we actually were able to [inaudible] this is one of [inaudible] moving around in conflict situations where you’re crossing lines that sometimes civilians aren’t able to, for a number of reasons. But we were actually able to, after we filmed this piece, contact her daughter, who’s with her grandchildren in Kyiv right now, and at least pass along that her mother was alive. We sent a picture. But it was the first her daughter had heard any news in weeks. And you count your small blessings there when you see them. But again, this is one of countless families that have been separated and cut off from each other and have no access to basic communications and have no way to know if they’re — they’re clinging for the best right now, but it’s sometimes hard to hold on to [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: I’m asking for folks to bear with us in talking to Jon. It’s amazing we even have this connection. He is in Rivne, about an hour from Lviv. In fact, as we watched that grandmother, I was thinking of my own, because she was born in Rivne — we called it Rovno — in 1897. But we’re going to turn to another of Jon Gerberg’s video reports for The Washington Post from early March. He was in a residential area 50 miles south of Kyiv called Bila Tserkva. He spoke with a 15-year-old girl named Anna Bogalchuk, who described how she was home in bed when a blast hit.

ANNA BOGALCHUK: [translated] When it happened, I was in bed. I just woke up, and I saw the white light everywhere. I could hear the debris falling and started yelling to my family if they are OK. On the one hand, it’s all horrible. But I’m glad that everyone is alive and well. We also have a cat and haven’t been able to find it yet. And I’m so worried about it. I got several injuries, but they are all light, just scratches from debris and a state of shock, but I think everything’s going to be fine, and we can rebuild it all.

There’s nothing here, just the residential area on the river bank. People walk around here. It’s just a nice place, nothing military here. Our military are trying hard and doing their best. They are helping with what they can, and it’s great. They support our country.

To all the people, to all the countries that are not telling the truth: We are really getting attacked — not just the military objects but common people. It’s a nightmare, and I don’t even know how you could believe anything else.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Anna Bogalchuk. She was 15 years old, in Bila Tserkva, about 50 miles south of Kyiv. Jon Gerberg, tell us more about this teenager.

JON GERBERG: Absolutely, Amy. Yeah, Anna was — she’s an impressive young woman. I mean, we were reporting in Bila Tserkva, when we heard a very large blast, while we [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: Jon, we can hardly hear you, so we’re going to go to another of your reports and call you back. This is part of Jon Gerberg’s Washington Post video report from last March when he was in a village called Moshchun, about 20 miles north of the capital Kyiv, and spoke to Ukrainian soldier Anton Kolumbet. First, a warning to our viewers: This video again contains graphic content.

ANTON KOLUMBET: Well, Moshchun is a small village a bit north of Kyiv, situated on the bank of the river Irpin. It’s just a small village. But what can I say? It was important for them to take it. And that means that it was important for us to defend it.

You can see that the fighting here was very, actually, intense. But we won, and they retreated.

Ooh, look at that. That’s the backpack of a Russian soldier — former. Looks like former Russian soldier, of course. Here, you can see it. Ooh! He forgot his ammo when he was running, and the scissors. Well, that’s not very useful. Look, he was a machine gunner. Yes, he was a machine gunner. You see? I’m just looking for something useful, because that’s how war works.

I don’t believe in any negotiations with Russia ever. I saw this war from 2014. I know that no one can trust Russians. Never. The only language that Russian understands is a language of force.

It’s terrible to understand that those people who — those families who left, you can see the parts of their lives there. They are lying on the ground — the child bicycles, some toys, books. You can understand that you are walking through the lives of people, who never expected the war, but still the war just destroyed everything.

We had a dream that when we will be victorious and when the war will ended, we will create a building company, and we will rebuild everything. But that’s like a small dream of Ukrainian soldier, to go back, for example, to Moshchun and to build some houses there. I think that will be great.

AMY GOODMAN: That, a Washington Post video report. Jon Gerberg, tell us more about this Ukrainian soldier.

JON GERBERG: Sure, Amy. And apologies for the connection issues, that, as you can see, I mean, this is an issue we’ve run into in a lot of our reporting, and it’s been one of the big challenges of, you know, illuminating what is going on in so many of these regions on the frontlines, in small villages that are occupied and cut off from the fighting, either fighting in various ways.

So, what you just heard and watched was a report we did in a small village of Moshchun, which is a [inaudible] Ukrainian village that became a real hot spot for fighting. It’s right outside, right on the edge of Kyiv. And the Russians had taken it over and were using it as an entry point into Kyiv, or at least trying to, and the Ukrainians fought very hard to take it back. And we spent time with soldiers who had been camped out there on the frontlines, fighting day in and day out. It had been such a contested piece of land, and it’s a remote village in the woods, so soldiers were having to do five- and six-day rotations before they could rotate themselves back out to a rear base. So you can imagine how taxing that was on their bodies and psyche to be five, six days on the frontline under constant shelling. I mean, you can hear in some of the video when we were there the bombs just constantly going off.

So, you know, this is a war that, you know, in over a month has had an unbelievable impact on both the men and women fighting it and the men and women who are stuck in the middle of it as civilians by no choice or act of their own. And the impact of that is still being felt and realized around the country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jon, in your reporting, what most surprised you in terms of the scenes and the people that you interviewed?

JON GERBERG: A lot. I mean, I’m constantly blown away, Juan, by the — you know, we talk about resilience a lot, but the ability of everyday people, young and old, men and women, of means and poor and working people, to be able to not just survive but adapt to the situation and take care of each other and find ways to feed each other and shelter each other and get each other to safety. So I’m constantly just in awe of the people, many of whom I think you’ve gotten a chance to meet, even briefly, in some of these videos.

I’ve also been amazed to see — you know, one of the interesting things about this conflict is the closeness of Russian and Ukrainian society, you know? And so many of the people on both sides of this fight, this war, speak the same language, or at least understand the same language, and have family on both sides and have connections that go back many generations. And, you know, when Russians occupied some of these villages that we’ve been to, they were living side by side with civilians. And even though they were occupying their villages with military might, they were also — you know, some of them would share meals and would, in a moment of sympathy, give some food to a child, but then maybe — but we heard one story, with the family you met at the beginning, where one Russian took sympathy on their kid and would bring bread to their two younger sons, but then other Russian soldiers didn’t like this, that their fellow Russian soldier was taking pity on the children, so they beat him. They described it as almost beating him to death, in their own yard, for being nice to these Ukrainian children. But you see how even a mix across that divide, there are these extensions of sympathy and compassion, that are then, of course, completely corrupted by the absolute depravity of the war. But seeing that kind of complexity even in such a just brutal warscape is something to — I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.

AMY GOODMAN: Jon, we’re going to go to your last video report, that you filed Sunday with The Washington Post, from the village of Andriivka, west of Kyiv, where Russian troops withdrew after a month of waging war and terrorizing residents, as you describe it. First, a warning again: the graphic images. This is Vadim Bashko.

VADIM BASHKO: [translated] This is the central street. It was hit the worst. Forty people are missing, young people. No one can find them. People say they were held in captivity. What happened next, no one knows. Bodies are being found here and there. A lot of houses are mined. They’ve placed trip wire. People were shot here. There’s one body. Another body is in the box. The military didn’t want to take him. The body is face down, hands tied. If you pull him, there could be an explosion. Around 20 civilians were killed. That’s what we know. And it’s only been a couple of days since the occupation.

At first they said that they wouldn’t touch civilians. But they would come in our houses. There were looters, no respect. Nothing was sacred to them. They were looking for vodka. Then, after they found vodka, they drove around like they owned the land. There was rape, we heard. There are girls who were raped. There were situations when they would just shoot at people, walk into the house and shoot in the basements even though there were children. These two bodies, as I understood, they were driving at night. They got pulled over. They tortured them at night. And then, in the middle of the night, we heard the shots.

This is my house. We lived down here for more than a month, me and my wife. Every day we didn’t even know when to go out. We would stay in the basement almost all the time, only running out quickly when the shooting stopped. Because there would be silence, silence, then a hit. Silence, silence, then a hit. It was unpredictable.

The Russians would come ask for a slaughtered chicken because they were out of rations. We had no other choice. We didn’t want to fight with them, because they could do things their own way any minute. The last day, when they were leaving, they put all the missiles in one house, then another, and set them on fire without saying anything to us. It was a miracle that my wife and I escaped.

OLGA YABS: [translated] A nightmare. It was a nightmare. It was really scary, but we were praying. We were praying all day. We were praying to God, and God hasn’t abandoned us.

AMY GOODMAN: That last voice, Olga Yabs, from a video report filed by Jon Gerberg for The Washington Post. Jon, we hope you stay safe as you continue your journey to Lviv and then on out of the country. Jon Gerberg was in Ukraine for more than a month.

When we come back, we speak with the Afghan American women’s rights advocate Masuda Sultan and CodePink’s Medea Benjamin, who are just out of Afghanistan. Stay with us.

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