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Published: Tue Mar 15 2022
Art: Andrea Chung
On the Front Lines

Eight years ago, in 2014, AGNI accepted a translation of a short story originally written in Hungarian. It was part of a debut collection by war correspondent Sándor Jászberényi, who with his fluent Arabic had spent years reporting from most every conflict zone in North Africa and the Middle East. When Sándor visited Boston for the release of that collection in English, he read for AGNI and stayed the weekend at my apartment.

Five years later, in 2019, the magazine published a new story, “Son of a Dog,” and again Sándor came to Boston for the release of a collection, this time The Most Beautiful Night of the Soul.

So it was his third time when he arrived less than a month ago, on February 18th, six days before Russia attacked Ukraine. He’d already been reporting from Kyiv; he’d broken away to travel to the U.S. for his new English-language quarterly, The Continental, founded to bring closer attention to literary writing from Central Europe. How, then, when Russia attacked Ukraine, did I not realize he’d make his way straight to the front?  All innocently, I emailed to ask if he was in Budapest again or in his other hometown, Cairo. If the former, I hoped he’d write about the surge of refugees for our “Dispatches from Ukraine.” He responded: “I’m in Kyiv. Was heavy shelling yesterday.”

By last weekend he was home for a rest. On Sunday—March 13th, the eighteenth day of the invasion—we met by Zoom, and he told me about what he’s seen and what it all suggests to him. He also took time to gather photographs for us, to translate a brief account of being under mortar fire, and to secure permission for AGNI to post a video by his friend, the British correspondent Emile Ghessem.

With thanks to them, we dedicate this page to the people of Ukraine.

William Pierce
Coeditor

 

Conversation between Sándor Jászberényi and William Pierce, March 13, 2022

 

Sándor Jászberényi
Shelling in Irpin on March 6, 2022

translated from the Hungarian by the author

We woke up that morning with our bulletproof vests on, after just a few hours’ sleep. Air raid sirens had cried all through the night. Up to now we’d been paying little attention to those, but our sources at the UN and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said that a full-scale Russian air attack was possible in Kyiv between 01:00 and 04:00 hours, so we decided to sleep with our boots and helmets on, holding close the few things that would help us survive a couple of days in the hotel’s shelter. Nothing happened during the night.

At 08:00, we, my photographer and I, left the Kozatsky Hotel with our British colleague, Emile Ghessem, and drove toward Irpin, a small town ten kilometers away that Ukrainians consider part of the capital’s outskirts. In recent days, there had been reports of heavy fighting between the Ukrainian defense forces and invading Russian troops.

Capturing Irpin is a key strategic goal for the Russians. Heavy artillery deployed from there would be able to reach every part of the capital. 

The Ukrainians are trying to slow the Russian advance by bombing the bridges leading into Kyiv while at the same time evacuating the civilian population so they don’t get trapped on the wrong side.

The checkpoints were empty at Nezalezhnosti Square, the famous “Maidan” in Kjiv. The streets too were empty. Kyiv has become a ghost town—only ambulances, police cars, and civilian volunteers with their AKs on their shoulders.

As we reached the edge of Kyiv, we saw more life. The checkpoints, under a pale sky, were reinforced by Soviet-style APCs, armored personnel carriers. Volunteers and members of the Ukrainian National Guard were standing around burn barrels, warming their hands. When they saw our blue helmets and the “TV” marking on our car, they just waved us on.

The last checkpoint before Irpin was nothing more than sandbags and tires. The soldier checking our documents worked to explain, using hand gestures and unpracticed English, that we shouldn’t go any further by car. 

He didn’t have to say very much. About 800 meters ahead a shell exploded. We could only see black smoke rising over the bare trees of the winter forest, and a burst of flames in the distance. We jumped out of our car and ran toward the humanitarian corridor that the Ukrainian soldier had been describing, a path sheltered by metal plates. Another shell hit the ground. We were running in mud then, close to the trees at the side of the road.

Up above, on the asphalt: a yellow school bus waiting to fill with passengers. The suburban homes behind it were burning with heavy, black smoke. Red flames under the milky sky.

Beside the bus, Ukrainian soldiers in bulletproof vests were gesturing, shouting to evacuees to hurry up. Elderly women holding their dogs in their hands tried to clamber over the steel guardrail. The soldiers put their rifles on the ground and helped them. Women and children ran past us, with no emotion on their faces, just the blank expression of shellshock.

“Those fuckers see the civilians escaping this way,” Emile said. “But they keep on firing.”

He’d done two tours in Afghanistan and two in Iraq as a sergeant in the British Army before becoming a war correspondent. He pointed  toward the mortar positions. With their spotters on the ground, it was impossible for the Russians to not be aware of the humanitarian corridor and these fleeing civilians.

They were seeing the corridor, but they didn’t care.

They didn’t care about the civilians, the press, the humanitarian workers in the field. They were shooting at everything and everyone in their way.

Over the last two days, two foreign TV teams had come under fire in their cars. No matter how loudly our colleagues shouted in Russian that they were from the press, the soldiers wouldn’t stop firing.

We moved on. The furthest Ukrainian outpost was at a pair of concrete columns. Under cover of those posts, members of the international press were taking pictures of the burning suburbs of Kyiv and the fleeing refugees. People were carrying their lives in plastic bags, heads bowed. Dogs were barking and searching for their owners, frightened by the explosions. Children were crying.

Sándor, from a Reuters video of these moments

We moved on. We ran through the no-man’s-land, feeling the weight of our helmets and thirteen-kilogram bulletproof vests. We wanted to take pictures of the burning houses.

“Irpin could be New Jersey,” I thought, looking at the uniform gardens around them.

Again the sky rumbled with thunder, and shells exploded a couple of hundred meters from us. We ran into a burning house and took a few pictures when someone shouted, “The gas is going to explode! The gas is going to explode!” So we ran back into the muddy street. There was the sound of Kalashnikovs, three or four small pops in the distance.  Then whistling.

“Incoming!” cried Emile. The retired sergeant in him activated. “Take cover! Get to the ground!”

We hit the ground. Wet mud in our mouths. Our pulse in our heads. We counted our heartbeats and knew we were alive. We were very fucking much alive, had very many fucking things left to do, and this would be a fucking terrible time to die.

The shell exploded thirty meters from us. Black smoke and splashing mud.

Video by correspondent Emile Ghessem, used with permission

“Get up. Let’s move,” Emile shouted.

We got up and ran, cold sweat on our faces. We tried to catch our breath.

Simple, clean thoughts formed in my head. “If I get back to the checkpoint, I’m going to live.”

It seemed to take forever to get back to the Ukrainian side. The soldiers were begging the refugees to hurry up, their voices gruff and tears running down their cheeks. They couldn’t shout anymore, their vocal chords had given up.

More shells, more homes on fire, whole existences turned to black smoke. 

We drove back to Kyiv in silence. The refugees who couldn’t get on the school buses were making their way through the forest. We had no space for anyone.

Only one bar remains open in Kyiv. People can have a warm meal there, most of the customers now are journalists. Maxim, the owner, browsed through our photos and videos, looking for the father of his ex, who lives in Irpin and is missing. 

We told each other bad jokes until our hands stopped shaking.

 

Sándor, reporting from Kyiv on Hungarian TV

 

A Photo and Video Gallery
All images taken by Sándor Jászberényi and used with permission

A Ukrainian man calls his family, who’ve boarded an evacuation train leaving Kyiv.

An armed Ukrainian volunteer patrols the streets of Kyiv with his dog.

A Ukrainian mother holds her child in the air raid shelter at Okmatydit children’s hospital, Kyiv. These children suffer from serious illnesses and need medical attention 24/7, so they and their mothers have stayed in the city despite bombardment.

A Ukrainian mother holds her child in the air raid shelter at Okmatydit children’s hospital, Kyiv.

​A girl eats in one of the metro stations that have become air raid shelters since the start of the Russian invasion. According to the mayor of Kyiv, more than 150,000 people live in the city’s subway system

A girl dances in one of the metro-stations-turned-air-raid-shelters in Kyiv.

A family of three camps in Syrets metro station, Kyiv.

Old trams serve as barricades in downtown Kyiv.

Ukrainian soldiers evacuate civilians under heavy shelling at Irpin, 10km from Kyiv.

A Ukrainian soldier helps two civilians reach safety during intense shelling in Irpin.

Evacuees from Irpin cross into the roadway for transport.

A Ukrainian leaves Irpin with her dog.

The long walk. Civilians flee as residences burn behind them in Irpin, Ukraine.

The outermost Ukrainian barricade. Soldiers wait for evacuees here.

A house burns after being hit by a Russian 81mm M-37 mortar.

Sándor and a team of journalists travel through Kyiv on their way to the front lines.

Sándor records as civilians from Irpin reach the outermost Ukrainian barricade.

Sándor records as evacuees cross over a guard rail to board the next ad hoc shuttle.

2016: An exhausted Ukrainian soldier in the trenches in Avdiivka, Donetsk county.

2014: A Ukrainian APC during the siege of Debal’tseve.

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