Russian troops landed near here and occupied the airport on February 24, at the very beginning of the invasion. Many Kyiv residents with dachas in the city 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 lots and are surrounded by fences, giving the troops ample opportunities for maneuver and hiding. Ukrainian forces began attempting to recapture Moshchun on March 16. About 75 percent of the houses in this settlement were destroyed or damaged in the fighting.
“Watch where you step. There are no mines, but rusty nails,” says Valentina, a stocky 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 burned stump of an apple tree she planted long ago. As a strong-willed leader of the community, she leads me on a horror story tour of the neighborhood. The mild blue August skies and numerous fruit-laden trees stand in stark contrast to the shells of houses and the military wreckage strewn about the yards.A series of stories spills out.She tells of the neighbor who, after 10 days in her basement, emerged from her hiding place only to walk around, return home and find herself She tells how a paraplegic father who couldn’t move from his bed during the invasion could onnte died there. His screams cut through the sounds of battle as smoke and flame consumed him. His wife and daughter survived in the basement below.
Valentina recalls the incident of a young man who was at his father’s house when the room he was in was hit by a mortar. The father, says Valentina, “ran into the room after the explosion and found his son torn to pieces. The father is not speaking to anyone now.”
I meet Olya, a woman in her early 70s, at her dacha down the street. She led nine survivors of destroyed homes to her tiny root cellar, where they hid from Russians for 10 days “without making a peep,” she says. One member of the group briefly went away once a day to look for food and water. Potatoes were the main food source. The room is 7 feet by 10 feet with a dirt floor and lacks electricity and lighting. Standing in it with Olya, it is difficult for me to imagine what difficulties they had to endure there.
Most residents are retired and gardening is a serious pastime. Irina is wearing an ankle-length blue floral dress when I spot her cutting roses from bushes in her front yard that she’s tended for decades. Her house is gone – only the walls remain. But the garden, still watered and tended, is in full bloom. With spring came the usual weeds, as well as a crop of brass shell casings, shrapnel, rocket parts, and military equipment. Irina’s neighbors found a live artillery shell and a human foot in their yard. As she works, a vase of roses stands on a path in the garden. When she’s not gardening, Irina holds it and carries it around. Two friends complement the rich red beauty of the petals as we stand in the gray ash of the roofless home she intends to rebuild.
The women are soon busy with an important task: delivering freshly picked apples, cucumbers, raspberries and plums to Ukrainian forces stationed in the nearby forests, which they do several days a week. They fill plastic buckets with the loot and carry it away. Three grandmotherly ladies crossing military checkpoints with ease.
Nearby, Vladimir estimates the effort it will take to replace the ruined house he and his family built when he was 13. He’s 57 now. He’s cleared most of the debris and arranged it in neat piles. The Russians used his house as a command post, but Ukrainian forces seized it. It’s the end of August and Vladimir is upset the day I meet him, not because of the destruction all around him, but because it’s apple picking and wine making now and he won’t be able to keep up that cherished tradition this year. There will be no vintage 22 cider from Vladimir’s vineyard. He promises a record game 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 pass on the dirt road. When she learns that I am American, she recites several poems by Emily Dickinson in Ukrainian. She and her husband Vasily own a menagerie of goats, chickens, dogs and cats. When fighting broke out, Victoria hid in her one-person steel safe after its contents were removed.
A friend asked Victoria and Vasily to ride 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 go or you die with your goats,” the friend told her. The couple reluctantly left, and when they returned weeks later, they were amazed to find all of their animals still alive. Victoria named two of the chickens that hatched after the liberation Partisan and Spy.
Valentin is 75 years old and served in the Soviet Air Force before running an electronics company. His soothing smile belies the carnage around us. When we enter his house, he points to the ground outside and realizes that four dead Russians have been lying there for weeks. We visit his favorite spot in the neighborhood: a pool-sized pond that’s home to orange and red koi fish. Leaning against the railing, he searches for those he has named and shows when their colorful backs rise near the surface. Later we visit his dacha and sit in the backyard on lounge chairs shaded by a canopy of vines. His house is in better shape than most, with only shrapnel and bullet holes scarring the walls. The garden is overflowing with ripe fruits and vegetables. Valentin goes in and gets a French wine bottle half full of red wine he made last year. I’ve tasted home grown batch wine before and I’m prepared for anything. I sip and enjoy the wine that is sublime. Valentin has produced a vintage that tastes of a warm summer day on the Dnipro River and a future full of possibilities.
Ed Quinn is a New York City-based photojournalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times and other publications. In spring he reported on the refugee crisis in Ukraine near the Ukrainian-Polish border and returned to Lviv, Ternopil, Kyiv and Mochshun this summer. Follow him on Instagram @edquinnphoto.