Shots ring out from coffee shops as once leafy Irpin tries to recapture its soul

Typing at her laptop in a smart cafe bar last week, freelance accountant Anna Ostopenko looked the very image of the 21st century gig worker.

et unlike counterparts in London or New York, Ms Ostopenko wasn’t remote working just to get out of her house for a while. She lives in Irpin, the Kyiv suburb that suffered the worst of the Russian invasion — and her bomb-damaged home near the cafe is still without water or electricity.

“It is a nice calm feeling to be back at work,” said Ms Ostopenko (50), who was stuck in Irpin throughout the war.

“I thought it would be all over in a few days, but then there was fighting on my street, with two neighbours killed, so I just hid in my basement.

“There is heaven, and there is hell — and while hell was the war, now hopefully we are returning to something like heaven again.”

That is a goal shared by Irpin’s mayor, Oleksandr Markushyn, who has declared that, as of today, all of the suburb’s 60,000 residents are invited to return to their homes — or what is left of them.

A wealthy commuter town in the pine woods north-west of Kyiv, Irpin ended up right on the front line as Russian tanks rolled towards the capital.

Images from here horrified the world, showing residents desperately fleeing across a blown-up river bridge while being shelled. By the time the invaders retreated six weeks ago, much of Irpin was razed and at least 300 residents had been killed, many in alleged massacres by Russian troops. The town is now a war crime scene for Hague prosecutors.

Yet locals are already back rebuilding here. Their goal? To turn Irpin back to what it was: a quiet, prosperous area where the biggest danger was youths e-scootering too fast through the town square. 

Streets once scattered with corpses and debris have been cleared. Many residents are back in their homes — those that still have roofs, anyway.

Shops and cafes, like the one Ms Ostopenko hangs out at, are reopening.

There’s even the odd sightseer gawping at the wrecked housing blocks — disappointed, perhaps, that the burnt-out Russian tanks have already been towed away.

“We reopened three weeks ago, and to start with it was very quiet here,” said Alex Maschenko, the boss of Coffeeman Irpin, who hid people in his basement store in the war’s first week.

“Just a few days ago, though, I sold 500 cups. It’s great to see customers back again.”

Also beating a path to Irpin are a host of VIPs and celebrities including Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, and U2 frontman Bono.

It’s a welcome change for Mr Markushyn, whose previous visitors, the Russian army, told him to surrender or die.

The mayor won praise for sticking it out here during the war, donning a flak jacket and broadcasting rallying messages to residents.

Once just the boss of a small provincial town, he now finds his phone ringing off the hook with interview requests.

Yet even as the town reopens, it is full of reminders of the lives cut short by the fighting. At Irpin’s blown-up motorway, where this reporter watched thousands of people fleeing at the beginning of March, a makeshift memorial has been set up for residents to write the names of dead or missing loved ones.

“Alexander Nischenetz, 15/01/78 – 17/03/22,” reads one. Next to it is a row of makeshift wooden crosses, and a display of children’s toys found in the rubble.

In a nearby pine glade, the town’s cemetery — where some headstones were hit by stray shellfire — now has around 120 new graves. Most date from March 2022. There are also half a dozen graves that have been dug but remain empty. The expectation is that more bodies may yet be found in the rubble.

Near the graveyard there is also a “car
cemetery” — a pile of the charred carcasses of hundreds of destroyed vehicles. Last week Nikolai Lovockin, a 31-year-old soldier, was clambering through it in an attempt to identify his own vehicle. It went up in flames along with his house, leaving him only with some gold from an emergency lock-box that he buried in his garden.

He does, however, still have one thing to his name: being part of the reservist army that helped kick the Russians out.

“It was a tough fight, sure,” he said. “But we were determined volunteers, against Russian conscripts who had no idea why they were even here. Of course we were going to win.”

Some are in a less buoyant mood. “Sergei”, a businessman who was fixing the broken locks on a convenience store, said it was as likely that locals had looted the place as Russians.

“I can’t really blame people, though, they may have been desperate,” he added.

“I was here during the fighting, and it was terrifying: like all the fighting you’ve ever seen in movies and video games, but real. But now I need to be back here now, to protect things being stolen from my own house: this is reality.”

In one less fashionable corner of town, a tatty Soviet housing estate appears to have suffered some of the town’s worst damage.

“We don’t even know if our building is safe to live in,” said Valentina Ryzha, 66, as she climbed the stairs to her ninth floor flat. In the war’s random fury, flats on one side of her block were gutted by fire, while her own on the other side was largely untouched, save for a broken window.

It is, perhaps, symbolic of the city’s soul right now — one half soldiering on regardless, the other wrecked beyond repair. And every now and then, the strain shows.

Outside this same block of flats the week before, The Sunday Telegraph’s photographer, Heathcliff O’Malley, had met a family cheerfully cooking borsch soup on an open fire. But when I knocked at their fifth-floor flat for a follow-up interview, the mood had changed. A heated discussion could be heard in the lounge. And when the door opened, previously smiling faces were ashen. “Now is not a good time,” they told me, apologetically.

What the problem was, they did not say. But in Ukraine right now, it could be anything: bereavement, injuries, money issues, or whether they will continue to have a roof over their heads. Or perhaps simply a family row caused by the untold stress of the last three months.

Whatever it was, it showed that despite the brave public face put on for visiting VIPs, behind closed doors in Irpin, there is no shortage of private grief.

©Telegraph Media Group Ltd (2022)

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]

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