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“Sometimes the camera does more harm than a weapon”. Evacuation from Irpin by Serhiy Mykhailchuk

The evacuation of Irpin residents was documented by many Ukrainian and foreign photographers. Today, the Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers publishes photos and memories of Ukrainian documentary photographer and cinematographer Serhiy Mykhailchuk.

Ukrainian Armed Forces assist in evacuating families from Irpin. March 2022. Photo by Serhiy Mykhailchuk.

In late February and March 2022, Russian forces attempted to capture Kyiv. To achieve this, they needed to control the towns closest to the capital—Hostomel, Bucha, and Irpin. These towns, along with Vyshhorod and the section of the Kyiv-Chop highway near the capital, were identified as the most dangerous places in the Kyiv region for the civilian population.

In the first days of the full-scale invasion, Russian forces established themselves in the town of Hostomel and seized the airport of the same name. From there, they advanced towards Kyiv. On March 27, battles for Irpin began. There was a tank battle in the city, and the Ukrainian Armed Forces tried to stop the advance of Russian forces. To prevent the entry of more Russian ground forces into Irpin, the bridge between Bucha and Irpin was destroyed.

The residents of Irpin lived without heating, electricity, and water supply. On March 3, the Kyiv Regional Administration announced the start of the evacuation from Bucha and Irpin. The 206th territorial defense battalion began the evacuation, transporting people by buses and trains. On March 5, the Ukrainian Ground Forces started the on-foot evacuation of Irpin's civilians to Kyiv. Due to constant shelling by Russian forces, leaving Irpin was very difficult.

On March 6, hundreds of civilians stood near the destroyed bridge, waiting for evacuation from Irpin to Kyiv. Ukrainian military personnel helped people cross the river, often carrying their bags, pets, and even children. The Russian army shelled the intersection for several hours, resulting in the death of eight civilians from Irpin.

Residents of Irpin evacuate the city in early March 2022. Photo by Serhiy Mykhalchuk

The evacuation of Irpin civilians was filmed by Ukrainian documentary photographer and cinematographer Serhiy Mykhalchuk. "A few days before the full-scale Russian invasion, I realized that there would be a war. The day before, I read Russian public and telegram channels where they were already arranging to meet in a cafe on Khreshchatyk to celebrate. On the evening of February 23, I loaded my family and we left for western Ukraine in two cars. We met the first arrivals on the highway outside of Zhytomyr," the documentary filmmaker says. On February 25, Serhiy returned to Kyiv and began documenting the events of the war on the same day.

Sergiy Mikhalchuk and his colleagues monitored the situation and realized that Russian troops would move through Irpin. On March 4, he was at the Zhyraf checkpoint near Irpin, filming Ukrainian soldiers and equipment there. “That evening we were heavily shelled there, there were several battles. The Russian military were entering Irpin through this checkpoint,” says Mykhalchuk.

He worked there together with fellow filmmakers who decided to film the war and send their footage to the world's leading media. At the end of March, almost all of them voluntarily joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

"If I had been waiting for a draft notice, I would have received it last. I had a complicated spinal and head injury, two malaria cases in Africa. In 2017, I had a medical examination before the ATO and was discharged," says Mykhalchuk.

People are fleeing cities with children, even very young ones. March 2022. Photo by Serhiy Mykhalchuk

Serhiy Mykhalchuk compares his first impressions of the destroyed Romanivskyi Bridge to the emotions of the liquidators who looked into the chasm of the destroyed power unit of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Later, the events in Gostomel were similar in terms of the strength of feeling. “Vitaliy Deynega and I were among the first to get to the Gostomel airport and see the destroyed Mriya. At that moment, we probably did not realize the power and significance of what we saw. We witnessed people leaving their homes, we saw the shelling...”, adds Sergey Mikhalchuk.

During the evacuation from Irpin, there were many people who needed support. Serhii says that if he could move someone's belongings, he would first help them and then fulfill his duty as a photographer and cameraman. He was very impressed by the pets who behaved in a way that could be identified with people. “They had such intelligent and deep eyes, they were very silent, they understood everything. After that, I told my children to get a dog, a cat, anything. Now we have a Scottish cat at home,” smiles Serhii Mykhalchuk.

The photographer came to shoot the evacuation almost every day until mid-March. He remembers a purebred shepherd dog with a broken leash looking for its owner. He couldn't take it because he was always working - he went to Irpin to shoot and to the front line towards Chornobyl. "The sheepdog was standing next to me and crying like a child. There were a lot of purebred and well-trained dogs there who were left all alone," recalls Mykhalchuk. He took a picture of a man riding an old bicycle carrying two rats in a cage. He got to the Romanivskyi Bridge, left the bike and continued walking with only his pets. People were leaving cars near the bridge, and bicycles were thrown right in front of the river.

People are fleeing with their pets. March 2022. Photo by Serhiy Mykhalchuk

Sergiy Mykhalchuk mobilized in late March and entered Irpin as a soldier. "One of the most powerful impressions was when my unit and I arrived in Irpin on the morning of March 29. I was there before the journalists, together with my fellow scouts. We saw a destroyed city, bodies on the streets... I remember it to this day," says Mykhalchuk. He adds that he simply did not take many shots in order not to harm people and cause them even more emotional pain. "Sometimes a camera works worse than a machine gun," says the photographer.

Serhiy Mykhalchuk serves in the Ukrainian Armed Forces and continues to take photos. However, as a soldier, he cannot upload or publish most of his photos on social media. “War is my reality now. I am constantly in Kharkiv and Donetsk regions, sometimes in Zaporizhzhia or Kherson. Until I get out of this process, I won't be able to say what important shots I took during a full-scale war. This was the case with me when I was filming the Maidan. It took me a while to realize what was important in terms of the historical cut and what was secondary.”

Irpin is on fire. March 2022. Photo by Serhiy Mykhalchuk

We remind you that the Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers has launched a series of materials dedicated to key events of the Russian war against Ukraine where we publish memoirs and photographs by Ukrainian documentary photographers.

The project is being implemented with the support of ЗМІN.


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