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Kyiv: war crimes as a hidden object

“I have to go to Kyiv tomorrow, are you coming with me?” – an entrepreneur who has been developing, building and selling armored vehicles for thirty years asks me. A bit spontaneous, but why not?

The next morning everything was packed and we were in the car heading to Ukraine. Clothes made up the smallest part of the luggage. The majority were bulletproof vests and helmets for us and for colleagues on site who, for whatever reason, arrived without sufficient equipment. After weighing the options, we decided to go by car. The bags and suitcases filled the area behind the front seats. From Berlin it should take eleven hours to reach Lviv in the Ukraine. The route to the Polish-Ukrainian border was not very eventful. There was only a short queue for private cars. In addition to us, there were a few other press vehicles and various emergency services vehicles to be seen.

In the opposite direction we constantly saw small groups of people fleeing. Mostly mothers with their children. The Ukrainian border guards took them to the actual border, where their Polish colleagues took them over and gave them soup until they could take the shuttle bus that took them further. An elderly man who had problems walking was supported by a Ukrainian border guard until she could hand him over to a Polish colleague who helped him further. Sad to see this old man having to escape alone. Good to see that people are helping him like that.

Crossing the border consists of leaving Poland, passport control and customs control in Ukraine. The departure was unproblematic; upon entry, our IDs were carefully checked and our luggage was visually inspected. All in all, we arrived after an hour, which is quick for a situation like this. We reached our hotel in Lviv at 21:30 p.m., just 30 minutes before the curfew, which lasted until six in the morning.

Before we entered the country, we had already installed the app that was supposed to warn us about air raids. This also started when we entered the room. The sirens in the city started wailing. But no one seemed to mind. No one ran out of their room, no movement on the streets. You just get used to everything. So we stayed in the room and didn't move into the shelter.

However, if an attack occurs, you have little time to react. So we sleep fully clothed and debated whether we should sleep with shoes on or not. Looking back, this was not necessary at all in Lviv. But in other war zones we have been to, it was the crucial seconds to get to the shelter in time. The vest and helmet were ready so that we could grab them as we ran out. The medical equipment is attached to the vest. There are no bunkers there. You just run into the basement. These do not offer protection against a direct hit, but they do offer protection against debris and shattering windows.


Lviv itself is a beautiful city with small streets, nice cafes, small shops and large shopping chains. Young people take selfies with their exotic coffee variations, older people stand together and gossip about everyday life, a tourist guide tries to offer his tours.

Without the omnipresent fortifications of buildings and sandbag barricades on the streets, it could be a completely normal city. But you also quickly get used to the anti-tank barriers, soldiers and local civil defense units. Normality predominates in the street scene.

In the middle of the pedestrian zone there is an open-air exhibition dedicated to the abducted and murdered journalists. You can see again how important the public is for the victims of war.

A few towns further there is an improvised workshop that builds bulletproof vests from spoils of war. They dismantle captured Russian trucks that have leaf springs on the rear axle. These leaf springs are sawn into pieces of equal length and welded together to form 25x30cm plates - the common format for protective plates in the West. They had soldiers shoot at these plates to test them - and they held. Here the war is suddenly very close.

Lviv to Kyiv

Shot up, but in service with the Ukrainian army

The journey from Lviv to Kyiv was preceded by lengthy planning of the route. Local drivers gave us precise instructions on how and via which routes, through which towns and checkpoints we should drive and when we needed to refuel. A complicated undertaking that ended with a plan reminiscent of a rally driver's road book. “It will take you at least ten hours and the lockdown is at 21 p.m. So leave at 10 a.m. at the latest.”

We stuck to the guidelines, started early and drove with enough gas in the tank and canister to be able to drive through without stopping at a gas station in an emergency. The road was sometimes one lane and sometimes two lanes in each direction. The further we got towards Kyiv, the thinner the traffic became. From Zhytomir we should follow the road book. But we spoke to the soldiers on site who told us that we could also follow Highway E40, the short and direct route. “You are the first to drive through here. The street was contested until yesterday. So be careful and listen to your colleagues. Don't touch anything, there could still be booby traps here. All the best!” the soldier explained to us at the beginning.

We took the short and quick route, but put on bulletproof vests and helmets to be on the safe side. The Ukrainian security forces checked our IDs at a few checkpoints and guided us through the rubble and past the dangerous places, wishing us well and explaining which areas were safe and which were not.

Enno Lenze and Fidelis Cloer

What followed in the coming hours was reminiscent of the Hollywood set of dystopian films. On the route we encountered long convoys of the Ukrainian military that were moving heavy equipment. The soldiers often sat on tanks or drove in shot-up private vehicles. Sometimes it was hard to imagine that these cars were still ready to drive.

Tanks and trucks after a battle

This was followed by destroyed bridges and roads, guard rails overrun by tanks, mines and corpses. In many places we saw the destroyed civilian vehicles. Completely shot, like a noodle sieve. Behind them are the corpses of people who sought protection but did not find it here. Clearly civilians.

Charred corpse behind a shot-up and burned car

As we looked at the photos we took in the evening, we found more and more signs of the atrocities committed by the Russian army. War crimes as a hidden object. At times the entire road was full of destroyed vehicles and parts of them, so we had to drive through or around the rubble field.

Sixty kilometers from Kyiv we had to wait until the ammunition we found was detonated. At one point the pipe of a tank lay on the highway. A chain about twenty meters further. The rest of the tank lay overturned next to it. In the film, people would walk out at this point and complain that it was unrealistic. How is a tank weighing tens of tons supposed to fly so high? Here you can see that it works.

Overturned tank

Further before Kyiv, next to the town of Bucha, we slowly met the next journalists who had come here from Kyiv. A bizarre image of press representatives standing in front of destroyed vehicles with selfie sticks, looking for the best angle for the body and the tank, and mastering the balancing act between safety and good photos.

To outsiders this may seem callous and emotionless, but for these people it is everyday life. And their job is to capture an entire situation in one image. They ensure that people at home understand what is happening here. This also includes hinting at a corpse without showing the disgusting details. You have to bring the war crimes into the living rooms in Germany without becoming irreverent. I don't envy these people their jobs.

We had to keep going to get to the hotel in Kyiv before the curfew started. Shortly after we drove through this area, it was closed to traffic for two days so that cleanup could take place.


Statues secured with sandbags (bottom right)

After just six hours we reached the checkpoint on the outskirts of Kyiv. “What’s the password?” asked the soldier. We looked at each other confused. “Password!?” – “Yes! The password!” he repeated. We still didn't know what we wanted to say. “Slawa Ukrajini!” (“Long live Ukraine!”) – he said with a laugh and waved us through. So it was time for jokes again. Afterwards we were immediately greeted by an air alert. However, this was once again ignored by everyone around. So we did the same.

The city is secured, like a medieval fortress. Tank barrier behind tank barrier, machine gun positions at regular intervals, heavy construction equipment as roadblocks. This defensive ring stretched for kilometers. Even with a tank you wouldn't have been able to get through here easily, especially since you can take up good firing positions for the armor-piercing rocket launchers in the surrounding high-rise buildings. The streets were relatively empty and most shops were closed.

Statues more than ten meters high were protected from attacks with endless towers of sandbags. Volunteers spent days filling, stacking and securing the bags. The images of this campaign went around the world. You not only have to survive, but you also have to preserve art and culture.

The USA had warned

Destroyed Russian tanks in front of a Ukrainian tractor dealership

The US secret services had warned the world several times about the coming war. They burned good sources for this. But they felt it was important for everyone to be prepared. The Russian government felt caught out and did not launch the attack on the originally requested day so as not to confirm the Americans' data. But instead of recognizing this service achievement, many in Germany mocked it. The Americans couldn't even predict the correct date.

It is also often pointed out that decades ago reference was made to the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which no longer existed at that time. However, this was not information from the services that warned about the war in Ukraine. And Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, had used them and killed tens of thousands of civilians. Just earlier in Halabja. Nevertheless, for many, the satisfaction of being able to mock the services was more important than heeding the warning.

The USA no longer releases such information. Their sources were burned, they were made fun of, but no one responded. So why should they continue to keep the public informed?

Journalists and their hotels

We checked into the same hotel as the other major newsrooms. This makes sense, especially given the nighttime curfews. This means you can use the nights to talk to each other instead of lying alone in the room. In such areas, the major US broadcasters usually arrive first. CNN, Sky, Fox, closely followed by the British BBC. ARD is not there yet.

“But you have Ronzheimer, who holds the flag up for the Germans!” says a US colleague. This refers to Paul Ronzheimer from Bild, who is always one of the first to arrive and one of the last to leave.

But other production companies, agencies and freelancers also meet here. The major US broadcasters usually stay in large hotels with a good reputation. Emergency power, stable internet and a high roof in a central location are among the usual requirements. A pool is also important. Not for swimming, but as a water storage facility in case the water supply collapses. You can boil and drink the water from the pool for weeks. The other journalists then go to the hotel, where many colleagues are already there. Editors with smaller budgets sleep in the surrounding hotels and come over during the day.

This often creates a misleading image of journalists sitting in the lobby of a luxury hotel in a war zone and working from there. The scene is manageably large and very friendly. No matter how competitive the editorial teams are, or how much one colleague has railed against another from their desk at home, everyone here treats each other in a friendly manner. You often see the same faces in different trouble spots around the world. People exchange contacts and information, warn each other about dangerous areas, point out good cafés or simply spend the evenings together. Basically you are welcomed with open arms.

So our colleagues from CNN invited us directly to visit their studio and talk to the stars and veterans of reporting. Also interesting is the contact with the security guards who surround the journalists. Entire teams of drivers, bodyguards and situation analysts share rooms in the hotel that have been converted into offices. The information is received on rows of monitors and maps, like in a military situation center. Encrypted radios, satellite phones and personal and vehicle trackers are used. The security teams of the various broadcasters are also in close contact. No sign of competition. In the end, everyone has the same goal: to bring their protégés home safely.

Backstage at CNN

Armored SUVs line up in front of the hotel door. Right in the middle is Fidelis Cloer, who has been supplying media companies with these vehicles for thirty years. He is usually in the same hotels at the same time. He talks to his previous and potential customers, inspects the vehicles delivered and gets his own idea of ​​the situation. Since we often have the same destinations for different reasons, we often travel to these areas together. He is surrounded by security forces who are desperately looking for vehicles. “I've been trying to reach you for days. It’s good that you’re here now!” says a tattooed, tall, broad, bearded man and pushes his way through to him. “Nobody told us that the war would start now. “I do what I can,” replies Fidelis Cloer with a laugh, before they discuss the company’s requirements and potential deliveries.

From the roof of the hotel you can see the entire city. “But don’t just go up there, that will make the Ukrainians nervous,” a colleague warns us. From the roof you can also look at surrounding government buildings or spy out where which anti-aircraft defenses are being fired from. Important information for Russian spies. Especially in a hard and brutal war like this, the balancing act between protecting information and banning it is very complicated. Journalists often strive to be the first to report the best-researched story about something previously unknown. Like a sports race. The person in second place is the first loser. On the other hand, there is information that does not belong in the public domain for good reasons.

For example, if journalists are killed, their identities are only published once the family has been informed. When two journalists were attacked a few weeks ago and one of them was killed, his colleague didn't know it and gave interviews from the emergency room. Some colleagues promptly couldn't help but leave the scene and wrote to him publicly on social media platforms that his colleague was already dead. They simply wanted to be able to call “First” without taking the second victim or the family into consideration.

The Ukrainian army asked not to report on troop movements and the like in real time. This means that you don't take photos of military convoys to put on Twitter and you don't broadcast the shelling of a city live because you can then see the positions of the anti-aircraft defenses from the television images. Local people anyway know where which anti-aircraft defense is located, where a temporary barracks was set up or why which cruise missile hit which building. But people don't talk about it publicly.

After the war, this local information was mixed with rumors and gossip. The result is called the “fog of war,” in which information becomes blurred and some things simply never come to light.

Kyiv now

If you walk through the streets of the Ukrainian capital now, it is reminiscent of a Christmas walk in Germany. It even snows, even if the snow doesn't stay put. You meet few other people walking aimlessly through the city. Most shops are closed. Only occasionally is a bar, a café or a small grocery store open. It is very quiet and most of the people on the street are security guards and journalists. Even though Putin is currently sending his army to Kramatorsk, many local analysts believe there will be another attack on Kyiv.

Putin needs a sense of achievement that he can present on the national day of remembrance for the victory over the Nazi regime on May 09th. “Take a deep breath, but don’t relax” is the motto. Nobody wants to give tips about what the coming week will bring anymore. One could describe the situation in Brecht's words: “We ourselves are disappointed and look affected. The curtain is closed and all questions are open.”