It’s almost a year since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, and I’m attending a funeral in the UK for a relative. One of my younger relatives pulls me aside, whom I hadn’t seen in quite a while.
“Stuart, my mum told me you were shot in Ukraine. But were you actually shot or just making it up?” “I was shocked and a bit lost for words.
I asked him why didn’t he believe what had happened.
“It’s just online people saying it was fake and you weren’t really filmed, and I think that they may be right.”
The full story of Sky News’s brutal ambush in Ukraine
While I don’t think I’m naive, there are many theories, almost comical, on social media, about what really happened to me and my team. But I didn’t expect to be mistrustful from someone so close.
I showed him the bullet scar in my lower back. It’s a scar that has become part of me so often I forget it exists. I also wondered if I should show him my life-saving flak jacket, which had more rounds.
I described to him what had happened at the beginning of the war. I was shocked when I saw something strike the car, and the tyre burst.
The first round cracked the windscreen just as Martin Vowles, Andrii Lytvynenko, and myself managed to get out. Richie Mockler, Dominique van Heerden, and I tried to find some cover inside the car under the hail of bullets.
I told him how terrified we were all when we were attacked.
I was curious if my death would be painful
Bullets poured through the entire car, including tracers, bullet flashes and windscreen glass. The dashboard was also disintegrated.
I thought back to how I had wondered if my death would be painful and how I was shot. It hurt so little that it was surprising.
I took him through the steps, one at a time. We all miraculously got out of the car alive.
As a result, we hid in a nearby warehouse as there was a gun battle outside. The police finally rescued us a few hours later.
Misinformation in Ukraine war
He wanted to know how I knew it was Russians and not Ukrainians. I went over the sequence of events again in detail, relaying the evidence that war crimes investigators had gathered.
Although I believe I got through to him, I was shocked by the fact that one of my family members, who has known and loved me for all of his life, didn’t believe me.
This is the incredible power of misinformation in war.
It was business as usual in Kyiv while we waited 12 months for the invasion’s start.
I had lunch in a cafe the day before and ate dinner with hundreds of young people in trendy districts, drinking beer and eating burgers.
Many Ukrainians believed that Russians were lying when they talk about war.
However, journalists and foreign governments knew something was up; all intelligence pointed towards war.
Most people believed that Ukraine would collapse in days, just like Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. Remember that the United States offered Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukrainian President, the “ride” that he refused to take. He said, “I need ammunition, but not a ride.”
We are here now, one year later. One year has brought about a change in the future of the nation and in the lives of millions.
Dominique, my producer, called a meeting with the team on the morning of Day Five of the Invasion.
Two of the four previous days, we were stuck in our Kyiv hotel and observed a strict curfew by Ukrainian security forces to catch so-called Russian “saboteurs”, who they claimed were terrorizing civilians.
We met in the abandoned cafe of the hotel. We were the only ones left, along with the friendly staff of our hotel.
Dominique shared two basic facts with the team. We could hear war, but not see any buildings in the city. We knew that civilians were being killed and some were even targeted. The team agreed and nodded.
While it is great to know that you must go to see the facts, doing so in a new conflict, where you cannot be certain you don’t know what is happening, raises concerns about the potential danger.
A city synonymous with death
We chose to travel to Bucha as it was a small town with no significant historical significance. Since then, it has been synonymous with death.
Contacts said that some fighting had subsided, but that there were still casualties and remnants of an armoured convoy from Russia that had been destroyed.
After many hours of travel and dozens of checkpoints, we were finally near the town. But we could see Russian helicopter gunships crossing the battlefield just a few kilometers ahead.
Ukrainian soldiers claimed that the fighting had intensified, and they had no idea where their front line was. This made it treacherous to go forward, but also more likely to commit suicide.
We called it quits at late afternoon and headed back to Kyiv. But that’s when everything went wrong. We were attacked.
After my surgery and recovery three months later, we returned to Ukraine.
Officers from Bucha Police Department told us about how they had to flee the area after Russian tanks and soldiers overtook their positions on the same road.
In a maelstrom involving airborne rocket strikes, artillery tanks, and infantry, Russian forces took the towns of Bucha (and Irpin) just a few kilometres from the M06 highway.
Campaign for indiscriminate destruction
According to them, the Russian army units began terrorizing and killing the population from the beginning of February through the first week in March 2013. People trying to flee thought they could escape along the main road. However, neither the police nor civilians realized that the front line had moved and that Russians were now stationed there.
Soldiers, tanks, and armoured vehicles were hidden in the trees along the motorway. Civilians couldn’t find them until it was too late.
They waged a campaign to indiscriminately destroy buildings and infrastructure over these days – and they killed civilians without apparent motive.
The brutal attacks on civilians in the early days of war, as well as the pillaging and taking over of towns, and other human rights violations and war crimes, made those early days very difficult.
It has now evolved into a more brutal but less indiscriminate war against attrition.
Both armies are bombarding one another with heavy weapons. There are many military casualties but far fewer civilians to worry about.
A large army contract in Russia is a good deal for high casualties.
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The stricken Ukrainians are still determined even after a year of war
Since 2014, I have been covering the Russian takeover and annexation in Ukraine.
In the beginning, I was in Donetsk, Crimea and the south of the country. This was on the “Russian side”.
Remember the “little green people” of Crimea or the Debeltseve tank battalions? Moscow excused them as soldiers on holidays… with their tanks, of course.
This was the most extreme example of state misinformation or disinformation.
It was and still is cynical and bogus. But it has been incredibly successful.
We have seen hundreds of brave Ukrainians survive over the past nine years and even more so in the last year.
We have met people from the east who identify themselves as Russians, not Ukrainians, in parts of the region. Their voices are also important. We have been treated with equal respect.
While we can report on the ground what we see and hear from people about their lives, there are very few things we can do. Perhaps telling their stories can help in some ways.
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Despite what President Putin claims, Ukraine is its country and its people are proud.
We are still far from the point where there will be punishments and questions.
We are still working on the first draft for this modern Ukrainian story. We will continue to tell this story.
Stuart co-authored the report with Dominique van Heerden, a senior foreign producer.