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“Putin has failed to destroy Ukraine, but he has succeeded in destroying Russia”

On the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of UkraineBBC Russian reporter Ilya Barabanov reflects on a conflict that has upended the lives of millions of people, including him.

The beginning of 2022 was filled with unease, but in my case it was unrelated to rumors of impending war.

LOOK: “They started the war”: Putin demonizes the West in his speech almost a year after the invasion of Ukraine

Two mercenaries from Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group had sued me for defamation. My wife and I discussed whether we would have to leave Russia. We did not know what the future would bring us.

The case of the mercenaries had arisen as a result of an investigation that my colleague from the BBC Arabic, Nader Ibrahim, and I did together, investigating the presence of Russian mercenaries in Libya between 2019-2020.

We showed evidence that they had not only been there, fighting against the UN-backed government and supporting General Khalifa Haftar, but had also committed war crimes against civilians.

Following the broadcast of the version on television and the publication of an article describing these findings, the two mercenaries we had named took the BBC and me before a court in Moscow.

In January 2022, the case was running its course and I was worried that it would drag on. I was even distressed that even with the help of qualified lawyers I could not protect my reputation or my freedom.

Six months later, one of the claimants – who had claimed that he was never part of the Wagner Group – was killed fighting in the Ukraine as a Wagner mercenary. The other lost his case against us.

Even so, I ended up leaving Russia, but for very different reasons.

In early February 2022, as the Russian military presence increased on Ukraine’s borders and rumors of war intensified, I arrived in kyiv to report on the growing tension.

But deep down, he still didn’t believe that the war was really going to happen. I kept telling my wife that two weeks later she would be back home in Moscow.

the invasion begins

On February 14, another BBC reporter, Slava Khomenko, and I went to the city of Vovchansk, in the Kharkiv region, near the Russian border.

Ten days later, this city would be under Russian occupation, but at the time, local residents did not contemplate such a possibility.

When Slava and I pressed them, asking what they would do if an invasion did come after all, they shrugged fatalistically and said: “We survived the Germans one way or another.” They were talking about World War II.

On the way back to kyiv, we stopped next to a road sign for the city of Peremoha, Ukrainian for “victory”, and took photos next to it.

Since neither of us thought the war was about to start, we thought this would remind us of those anxious days.

Ilya Barabanov next to a traffic sign to the city of Peremoha, which in Spanish means “victory”. (ILYA BARABONOV/BBC).

On February 24, I woke up in my hotel room in kyiv when a staff member knocked on the door with the words: “Sir, it looks like we’re being bombarded.”

The war had started.

I went down to the hotel bomb shelter and watched the children of a Spanish tourist couple play, seeing what was happening as a fun adventure.

They didn’t understand about the air raid sirens or why they couldn’t go outside.

The following days I spent a lot of time in the apartment of a friend of mine in kyiv, where many journalists would gather, share information and talk.

The apartment was lively, but the rest of that part of kyiv ( Podil) seemed deadwhen it is usually a bustling area full of life and energy)

My friend’s flat had a north facing balcony. We stood there, looking out over the towns of Bucha, Hostomel, and Irpin. We could hear the rumble of guns and we knew that the Russian army was trying to take those areas.

Six weeks later, when Russian forces withdrew from those cities and towns – presenting this withdrawal as a “goodwill step” – the world would learn of the heinous war crimes that those forces had committed there.

However, the Russian authorities, following their long tradition, would claim that it was a false story “concocted by Western security services”.

The streets of some kyiv suburbs were empty in the days after the invasion.  (ILYA BARABONOV/BBC).

The streets of some kyiv suburbs were empty in the days after the invasion. (ILYA BARABONOV/BBC).

No return to Moscow

Late on February 28, I crossed the Dniester River from Ukraine to Moldova.

I had already realized that going back to Moscow would be impossible. After reporting on Russia’s war against Ukraine, I risked many years behind bars.

Moldova was full of Ukrainian refugees, and local residents anxiously followed the news from the front.

Many worried that if Putin’s troops reached Odessa, his small country would be an easy target for the Russian occupation. At that time it was not yet clear whether Ukraine would be able to resist Moscow’s aggression.

I took a train from Moldova to Romania. It was also full of refugees. A four-year-old girl asked me, “We’ll be going home soon, right?” I didn’t know what to answer.

When the train stopped at a station, a waiter from the dining car and I smoked together on the platform.

“All these people,” he said thoughtfully, “trying to get away, trains packed to the brim with refugees. Who did Putin think he was trying to help with this war?”

I didn’t know what to say to that either, and a year later I still don’t.

Bucharest, Belgrade, Istanbul, Vienna, Prague, Riga… My emigration was similar to the route taken by people who left Russia after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.

More than a hundred years ago, the aristocrats and officers of the White Guard left. Now they were computer scientists, doctors and journalists.

Since the beginning of the invasion, Russia has passed laws banning independent journalism in any of its forms.

After a year of this war, it is clear that Vladimir Putin has failed in his main objective: to destroy Ukraine.

However, what it has achieved is to destroy Russia, its middle class, its intelligentsia and its cultural elites.

We will never be able to return to Moscow as it was before the war.

But I would love to go back to post-Putin Russia. And then take a trip to post-war Ukraine to see Donetsk, Mariupol and Crimea, no longer occupied by Russia.

Source: Elcomercio

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