PEREMOHA, Ukraine — The Russian soldier’s hand reaches from the earth. His digits have retracted into a misshapen claw, a shape no living hand would willingly form. Some creature has already chewed on two of the fingers. A dog sits at the edge of the pit and eyes the remaining flesh. Varying degrees of damage mar the thumb and fingers. Some of the skin is pulled, perhaps eaten, away. One intact fingernail is purple. At his wrist, the Russian soldier’s shirt sleeve partly shows. Enough to tell he wore a military blouse when he died.
The bodies of six Russian soldiers lie within this depression, and the dark dirt secretes the unmistakable stink of their deaths. The man who buried the Russians here stands beside me. He drops his cigarette and puts out the butt with the twisting toe of his boot.
“I used their own bomb craters to bury the Russians like the dogs they are,” says the man, whose name is Naseem.
“Don’t dig a hole for someone else, or you will end up in it,” he adds.
Standing there at the edge of the six soldiers’ common grave, we stare at the hand like we’re watching a campfire. I don’t usually smoke, but on this day I do. My throat tickles as I inhale. On the back of an uneasy exhalation, I ask Naseem if he feels any pity for the dead Russians he interred.
“Nope, no pity,” he says. “If you lost a kopek, would you feel pity for it? No, it’s only a kopek.”
Naseem lights another cigarette and adds, “We will never forgive Russia. Our generation, never. Maybe our grandchildren. The things they did to our women … small children, even boys, were raped. Boys, girls were raped, even in front of their parents. Would you be able to forgive that? If a kid is 2 years old, and raped? That’s not forgivable.”
I want to have a closer look at the hand, so I descend into the pit. The angled earth shifts and slides a little under my shoes. At the bottom, the ground is spongy and the air reeks of decay. Pockets of water have collected atop the dimpled soil. The little puddles are unreflective and oil-black. I stop about a step away from the hand, as if there’s some prearranged, postmortem protocol to obey.
I knew about this mass grave ahead of time and had wondered how it would be. Now I know it’s only an empty curiosity, like looking at a mummy in the British Museum. What hits hardest is the smell. The stink of death triggers some prehistoric fold of your brain, and your organism screams at you to flee. But there is no danger here. Not anymore.
On this chilly and gray mid-April day, the invading Russian army has already abandoned its ground attack on Kyiv. Nestled in a swampy woodland to the capital’s east, the village of Peremoha was smack in the middle of Russia’s warpath for some 35 days — from Feb. 24 to about March 30.
In English, Peremoha translates to “victory.” True to its name, Peremoha marks one place, among many, where Ukraine’s underdog army was able to stall and then reverse Russia’s advance on Kyiv. Through the combined efforts of its regular army and volunteer Territorial Defense Forces, Ukraine denied Moscow its grand goal, saved Kyiv, and turned the war’s tide. Ukraine won the opening round of Russia’s full-scale invasion, but that victory came at a cost.
The April sky threatens to rain all day but never does. The Russian soldiers have already retreated, but the war is still here. The evidence is everywhere, and some of it is quite impressive. The majority of vertical surfaces display that distinctive spackle spray of shrapnel — abstract patterns that might be beautiful, in other circumstances, to a modern artist’s eye. Unexploded ordnance still lurks in the woods and fields; it is quite dangerous to amble about in places the army hasn’t yet cleared.
The diminutive Trubizh River divides Peremoha roughly in two. To stall the Russians’ advance, Ukrainian troops destroyed the single bridge that linked Peremoha’s halves. During my visit, a work crew uses a backhoe to push a pile of concrete blocks and dirt into the shallow water to form a makeshift footbridge. Where it passes through Peremoha, the Trubizh River is shallow enough to wade across and only about 30 feet wide.
The Russians punished Peremoha with aerial bombardments, artillery barrages, rocket strikes, tank shots, and small arms fire. Rather than buckle under the attacks, Ukrainian forces — comprising both regular army and Territorial Defense soldiers — hardened their defenses.
“When they came, we were bombed. Missiles, then heavy artillery, then tanks and then machine guns,” Naseem says. “[The Russians] thought they’d killed all of us. They were wrong.”
Apart from blowing up the bridge, Ukrainian troops also dug trenches and constructed fighting positions on the riverbank opposite the Russian advance. The area is swampy, and the Ukrainians dug their positions dozens of meters up from the riverbank so they would not flood. The open expanse of no man’s land between the Ukrainian line and the Trubizh River became a killing field.
Underestimating the Ukrainians’ defenses, a Russian patrol attempted a gung-ho river crossing. They were swiftly gunned down by Ukrainian forces waiting on the other side. The Russians were thereafter repelled each time they tried to cross, and the river became the new front line. Standing with me near the Ukrainians’ erstwhile lines in mid-April, Naseem gestures toward the stilled battlefield.
“The Russians were everywhere. This place was a dead zone for them,” he says.
After Ukrainian fire thwarted the Russians’ first attempted river crossing, Naseem scurried forward to collect the bodies. On this day, he shows me the crater where he buried two Russians. During the month that Peremoha was an active battlefield, Naseem similarly buried at least a dozen other Russians, often using craters carved by Russian bombs as readymade grave sites. Naseem ultimately helped broker a deal in which the Ukrainians traded four dead Russians for two living Ukrainian prisoners.
“[The Russians] dropped the bombs, and there were holes. I threw [the bodies] there like dogs,” Naseem says. “Sure, I was scared. As every human, I wanted to live, and I want to live now. But you should live with honor as a man, not in slavery.”
Affable, always smiling, and rarely silent, Naseem knows the name of everyone he passes in Peremoha. The 63-year-old is a fixture about town.
Earlier that morning at the final Territorial Defense checkpoint into Peremoha, the sentry asked me my business. After explaining that I was there to meet Naseem (no last name mentioned), the soldier nodded approvingly and wished me well. Moments later, I ordered a couple of coffees at a convenience store, including one for Naseem. After dropping his name, the lady behind the counter already knew how he liked his milk and sugar.
Naseem arrived at the store in a white van. He wore a black beanie, black sweats, and a blue vest and walked with the catlike spring and balance of a fighter. When he reached out to shake my hand, I noticed tattoos on Naseem’s fingers. His eyes were dark and there was nothing shallow about them. We engaged in some chitchat about everything and nothing, which I think was Naseem’s way of feeling me out. He frequently sidestepped into heated sermons about the justice of Ukraine’s cause and the moral wretchedness of Russia’s.
“No matter what nationality you are, what religion you have, we all help Ukraine because Ukraine’s business is right. We are for Ukraine’s freedom. No matter if you are Jewish, Azerbaijani, Turkish — we are Ukraine’s people, so we want to have free country, not slavery. Our children will not live in slavery but in free, democratic country.”
After finishing our coffees, we tour the battlefields. We visit the trench lines and observe where Russians tried to cross the river. Then, using the fresh footbridge, we cross to the other bank — the side of Peremoha the Russians had briefly occupied.
Here, craters pockmark a battle-torn field dotted with trees that are burnt and stripped of their branches. What hellfire could have done this? you wonder. By my count, there are seven ruined Russian armored fighting vehicles, including two tanks, in the immediate vicinity of Peremoha’s blown-apart bridge. All but one of these wrecks was the work of a Javelin anti-tank missile strike, local Territorial Defense troops say.
Just past the bridge, we examine several Russian BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles. Their destruction is absolute. Oxidized by fire, the metal skin looks weathered and rusted. The insides resemble gutted fish bellies — stripped clear and shredded by the blast forces. Some of the crew members’ bodies were blown apart, some stayed intact but shrank to miniature size as they burned. In any case, locals have already removed all the biomatter.
Inside the destroyed Russian tanks and vehicles, locals also found the Russian soldiers’ war booty, which they’d plundered from Ukrainian homes and stores. Things like women’s clothing, cosmetics, running shoes, workers’ boots, and bottles of alcohol.
“They are monsters … misfits of the world,” Naseem says. “I took women’s cosmetics from a Russian soldier’s pocket, a dead soldier. Personally, I saw it. Why does a soldier need cosmetics in wrapping?”
Naseem does not dwell on his remembered images of the dead. The Russians invaded his village, killed his fellow Ukrainians, and committed atrocities against the most vulnerable part of the population. Russia’s soldiers incriminated themselves and immunized Naseem from any feelings of guilt over their deaths. The stories of rape, in particular, have crystallized his hatred.
“I know that I’m in the right. I will win. I don’t fear, only hate. That’s how it is,” Naseem says.
Naseem never noticed the names of the Russians he buried, except for one with the name “Gagarin” on his uniform.
“One surname I remember — Gagarin,” Naseem says, adding: “Putler sent them as meat, just a human wave to die for nothing. What Slavic world can you talk about in such conditions? Did they come to fight with civilians?”
When I ask why he chose to take up arms and defend his village, rather than flee, Naseem replies, “Why did I want to grab a rifle? I live here, I wanted to kill the occupiers.”
“They are not the second strongest army in the world, [the Russians] are the first-place army to terrorize, steal, and murder,” Naseem says. “But for grandpas like me, I’m eager to tear them apart with my bare hands. It’s my duty to leave a free country for my children and grandchildren, after I leave this world. I can and I will fight with each one of those occupiers, one on one, one versus many, for my country to live peacefully.”
We exit the field and move up the paved road that leads away from Peremoha’s blown-apart bridge. The gas station where Naseem used to work sits at a fork in the road. Shrapnel has Swiss-cheesed the signage and pump stations. We turn left toward the remains of two more Russian tanks, which, according to locals, Javelin missiles also destroyed. A forest flanks one side of the road; the other side ends at a guardrail where the ground drops off to some farmland below.
The first tank’s turret is detached and sits sideways on its fuselage. The treads are warped, and the tank’s oxidized metal skin is misshapen and rust red. All manner of debris occupies the surrounding asphalt. Naseem reaches down and comes up with a handful of bullets.
“It’s burnt ammunition — bullets, each one of them death,” he says. “Our children, brothers, relatives.”
He drops all but one bullet and pinches it between his thumb and forefinger and holds it up for me to see.
“This is one life.”
We move to the second tank. There’s hardly anything left of it. The turret sits about 50 yards away, embedded in the earth at the edge of the road, splitting the guardrail, gun barrel sticking straight up. The tank’s fuselage has disintegrated. Only a scorched depression in the asphalt and a chunk of machinery indicates where the tank stood when a secondary explosion, ignited after the Javelin strike, blew it to bits and sent its turret flying tens of meters high. Some locals who witnessed the explosion say the turret flew higher than the surrounding treetops. That’s pretty high.
“The ammunition exploded, a very powerful explosion. Javelin got the turret — the turret flew 30 meters above the forest. All trees around broke from the shock wave,” Naseem says, grinning. “I’m very happy we got help from the USA with weapons.”
We step off the road and walk into the woods. Dozens of meters later, we observe pieces of metal the size of washing machines stuck into thick tree trunks like arrows. The blast snapped some trees, which are several feet in diameter, clean in two. It took an impressive force to do this. Within the woods we also find sections of tank fuselage, parts of tank treads, bullets, instruction manuals, and even some Russian uniform items.
“They only came to die,” Naseem says.
The road we walk upon is cratered in places. At one spot, the fins of an unexploded mortar protrude from the hard top. At other spots, an exploded mortar has carved a splash pattern into the asphalt, shaped sort of like a dead bug on a windshield.
We advance toward some destroyed tanks when Naseem, as is his habit, shouts to a friend and invites him over to meet me. The man’s name is Vanya. Short in stature with fair hair and a deeply lined face, Vanya is happy to oblige and eagerly shakes my hand. Naseem urges him to share his story of imprisonment by Russian soldiers.
“Can you tell me what happened?” I ask Vanya.
“Well, what happened, the orcs came and started looting, taking young people prisoner,” Vanya begins, going on to explain that he was unable to get to the Ukrainian side of the river before the Russians took over his half of Peremoha. What followed was a monthlong reign of terror. The Russian soldiers wandered the village, threatening residents, and killing indiscriminately. According to the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, on March 11 Russian forces fired on a civilian convoy leaving Peremoha, killing seven. The dead included a 13-year-old boy, Ukrainian news outlets reported.
Vanya recalls how some Russians arbitrarily tossed grenades into cellars if they suspected someone was hiding inside. They also shot at civilian cars and people on the street. Vanya observed bodies on the roads and estimates that the Russians shot dead some 17 people in Peremoha — not cut down by shrapnel, but shot in cold blood.
“You leave the yard, and they immediately shout, ‘What are you looking out for?’” Vanya continues. “And then, about half a month passed, and they began to take young boys away, put them in the cellars, tie their hands, pull a hat over their eyes, and tie it with a rag.”
Vanya says Russian soldiers came to his house and demanded his documents. They later took him and some other locals to see their commander. It was impossible to know the commander’s rank, Vanya explains, since Russian officers had apparently removed their insignias. The commander demanded to know the names of members of a local resistance cell, Vanya recalls.
During Vanya’s imprisonment, Russian soldiers repeatedly fired their rifles over his head or near his legs. “They were shooting to scare, threatening to shoot me in the leg. I was telling lies to make them leave me alone,” Vanya says.
The Russians released Vanya on March 30, the day they retreated from Peremoha.
“I won’t forgive, I saw what the Russians did. They were beasts,” Vanya says. “I dragged away the bodies of people, kids, a 20- or 21-year-old guy who was killed in a car. Putler, he’s a devil, and people who used to be okay were made into zombies [by him].”
When Russian troops entered his side of Peremoha and parked a BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicle in his yard, Oleksandr went right up to them and said, “Get the fuck out of here.”
Oleksandr had heard the Russian tank column advancing down his street and evacuated his home ahead of time, but he turned back to retrieve some documents. By the time he tried to strike out again it was too late — several Russian infantry fighting vehicles had already parked out front. He waved at one of the Russian soldiers, and the soldier waved back. And that’s when Oleksandr artfully demanded that they get off his lawn. The six Russian soldiers dropped to the ground and pointed their rifles toward Oleksandr. He said to them, “Why do you guys lie on the ground when an old man speaks to you?”
We meet Oleksandr at the end of our walkabout in Peremoha. We knock on his door, and he emerges a moment later wearing sweats and smoking a cigarette. A gray cat lazily follows him out the door and immediately goes to work on a polished log that Oleksandr has set up as an outdoor scratch post.
Naseem makes introductions, and we shake hands. Naseem mentions that I went to university in Colorado, and Oleksandr cracks a joke about Colorado beetles (look it up on Google). In my halting Russian, I jokingly assure him that I’m not part of a CIA plot to infest Ukraine with a destructive new species of insect. Oleksandr smiles and offers me a cigarette and then leads me to his car to show me where a Russian bullet went in one side and out the other while he was driving and barely missed him.
“One bullet practically killed me,” he says.
He is sturdy and square, with cauliflower ears, and Oleksandr’s background as a champion Greco-Roman wrestler is clear. In fact, his wrestling pedigree endeared him to one of the young Russian soldiers who took over his street. The soldier approached Oleksandr and, while gesturing toward the older man’s misshapen ears, asked if he was a wrestler. Oleksandr said yes, and the 23-year-old Russian explained that he was a wrestler, too.
“This boy enjoyed talking to me,” Oleksandr says.
Oleksandr did not shy away from the Russian occupiers. Rather, he urged them to surrender, plying them with cognac and a place to hide in his basement. By Oleksandr’s account, he told the soldiers, “Boys, I’ll say this as it is: Putin’s a great villain. My President Zelenskyy, I don’t like him, to be honest, but I respect him and this is our right to choose the leader — not yours.”
The Russians listened, and Oleksandr pressed his case. He recalls, “I said, ‘You won’t get anything for your heroism — not a memory, not a hero medal, nothing. Best case, pension for being handicapped, and in that case your motherland does not need you. So, I propose to you, I have a basement. Enter it without weapons, armless, take the ammunition so you won’t think I will shoot you. […] Guys, I propose to you your life. When our army comes, we will leave with the Ukrainian flag and you will be safe, you will live.’”
The Russians ultimately refused to leave. Weeks later, a blasted, burnt-out BMP-2 sits in Oleksandr’s yard, evidence of another Ukrainian anti-tank weapon strike. Oleksandr later identified the 23-year-old wrestler’s remains by the coat he wore. His body had been ripped to shreds in a Ukrainian anti-armor strike.
“There was meat everywhere,” Oleksandr says.
Despite some superficial shrapnel damage, Oleksandr’s home survived remarkably intact. “I’m lucky my house didn’t burn,” he tells me. Oleksandr’s good fortune included his health. After weeks of living on an active front line, he acquired only a few minor wounds, including a concussion from an artillery shell that landed in his backyard. And on April 1, Oleksandr had a minor surgery to remove some shrapnel from his body. All in all, however, he managed to avoid anything serious. Now that the Russians are gone, he says his biggest problem is the silence.
“During the artillery, I slept like a child,” Oleksandr says. “When it’s quiet, I get nervous … when it’s quiet, I can’t sleep.”