A Travel Diary to the Ukrainian Front Lines
Two Documentary Filmmakers Record the Early Months of the War
By Brian O’Dea | Photos by Frank Vilaca | August 18, 2022
Read all of the stories in our cover package, “Three Stories of Getting to Ukraine,” here.
Editor’s Note: Brian O’Dea requested that the words “russia” and “russians” remain lowercase, as he wishes to express his great disrespect for that country’s aggression against the sovereign nation of Ukraine. His autobiographical book, High, is available at Chaucer’s Books (3321 State St.).
Brian O’Dea and Frank Vilaca were among the earliest filmmakers to begin documenting the war in Ukraine in the spring of this year. O’Dea, a writer and filmmaker, was in Santa Barbara visiting his family when the war broke out. He contacted his friend and longtime war photographer Frank Vilaca, and together they have spent months recording a documentary about the war. What follows are lightly edited excerpts from the diary O’Dea kept during the harrowing first month he and Vilaca spent traveling about the country, helping to deliver supplies, speaking with Ukrainians struggling under constant bombardment, and visiting soldiers and volunteers fighting on the front lines.
It wasn’t until this war in Ukraine started that Frank and I spoke again. We had first met while working together on a television show several years ago in Canada. Frank was an award-winning photographer who had documented conflicts around the world for 30 years, including the horrific war crimes in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Herzegovina for the International Criminal Court.
When I contacted him again, I had just returned from spending four months with my children in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. I was, as so many were and are, incredibly disturbed by the news reports coming back from the front, and I needed to speak with someone who could give me some “war perspective.”
After an hour conversation on this new terror, we agreed to go to Ukraine together.
A few calls later, we were able to get the financing needed for the trip. Scott Stirling, who owns Canada’s Super Channel, NTV, among other media properties, is a heart-directed guy and without hesitation said yes. His wife, Judy, told me her grandfather had fled Ukraine years ago. And Johnny, my lawyer brother, helped us get funding from the Newfoundland Film Development Corporation.
So now we had the funds to make this happen, and truthfully, I was actually freaking out inside. I had to take some immediate actions that would close the exits, so buying
non-refundable airline tickets seemed like a good start.
The airspace in Ukraine is closed; the closest we could get by air was Krakow, Poland, and from there, we would have to get a driver to take us to a border town called Przemyśl (don’t even try). Once there, we could catch a train to Lviv, Ukraine.
When you don’t speak the language, or know the customs, and you’re going to be required to explain yourself a hundred times a day at military roadblocks, you will need a fixer. But it turns out we weren’t the only people needing such help. Everywhere we tried, all the traditional routes, we could find no one available.
Then I remembered a cameraman, Kamil Chrapowicki, I had once worked with was from Poland, and perhaps he could help. He was able to come up with a man who had been a captain in the military, Andrij Ishchik, who has his own car, and is willing. “I am honored to be asked to help you. I thank you; all of Ukraine thanks you.”
We arrived at the train station in Lviv around 3 a.m. The rain was pouring down, drenching the thousands of refugees coming and going. There were those who could not stay any longer, fearful for bombs falling on them, and then there were those who could no longer stay in Poland and simply had to come home.
I realized I would have much to learn in the coming days.
Tents populated the parking lot, tents filled with humanitarian aid workers. As there was, and is, a curfew in place, very few people are permitted on the road. But one of the volunteers there found us a ride in a small car with five others. The big bag with our helmets and body armor rode to the hotel on my lap. But in 10 minutes, we were dropped at Hotel Dnister on one of Lviv’s famous hills. Police-looking people everywhere, plain clothes, uniform, all staring at us, suspiciously, nervously. No sudden moves.
Around 4:30 in the morning, I was tossing and turning on an ultra-firm mattress when I heard my first real air raid siren begin to wail. This was a sound I had not heard since the Cold War Red Scare of the ’50s and ’60s.
At 9:30 the next morning, we’re off, or on. First stop: Lviv train station. This place is humming, even busier than last night. Thousands of displaced people, people blown from their homes by cruise missiles and plain, garden-variety bullets shot at them from ignorant russian soldiers who brought their dress uniforms with them because they were told they would be pelted with flowers by the people of Ukraine, who would greet them as liberators. Instead, they were met by Kalashnikovs, the very guns they brought with them to kill resisting Ukrainians.
Dr. Tirej Brimo is a Syrian refugee who fled his homeland 11 years ago, only carrying what he could fit into a woven plastic carry bag. An ethnic Kurd, he had no chance there, where he was only a year away from graduating medical school. When he arrived in Great Britain, however, he had to start medical school all over again. It took 10 years, and now he spends all of his free time, his vacation time, tending to displaced people, refugees, around the world. (An interview with Dr. Brimo can be found at Independent.com).
At a secret location outside Lviv, we filled a truck with supplies for the front. Cigarettes, medicines, food, first aid kits, socks, sanitary products, and more. Serhiy has been behind the front lines 11 times prior to this trip, and he invited us to come along. This is one of the few times in Ukraine that I really felt the need to wear the body armor. We visited a number of outposts on the front. At one location, where we were delivering supplies to a group of Ukrainian fighters, they pointed out a building about 100 yards away where they told us a unit of russian soldiers were gathered with orders to take out where we were now standing. Quickly, a fire fight began. And also quickly, the russian soldiers failed in their mission.
We left Serhiy on the front lines as we headed back west to Odessa. We made the bad mistake of using Waze. Never use Google Maps or Waze in a war zone.
May 7th: Andrij left at 7:30 this morning to get fuel for our drive to Odessa. At 10:30, we were beginning to worry. Air raid sirens have been going off non-stop, and there is a very real chance that something happened to prevent his return. Finally, his little Chevrolet diesel station wagon pulls up to the hotel. Andrij was able, through a connection in the military, to get a full tank of fuel, plus two five-gallon jugs. We manage to get everything in the back of the wagon and climb in to a terribly smelling and ultra-dangerous vehicle. That’s when we made the mistake of turning on Waze for directions. Immediately, we are led directly to a bombed-out road.
Andrij becomes agitated; Frank is telling him to “shut that fucking thing off. It’s going to lead us right into russian hands. It doesn’t know where the russians have control of the roads; it only knows the fastest routes.” You see, the main roads are in places under russian control, and if they get us, Frank had better get used to the taste of tattoos. A soldier at the front told us that russians would cut the Ukrainian heart tattoo off my arm and make Frank eat it. That is a gruesome thought. I’m not sure which would be worse — getting a tattoo removed from my arm, non-surgically, just cut off with a pocket knife, or having to eat it. Frank tells Andrij, “In times like this, Andrij, slow is fast, and fast is slow.”
We finally made it to Uman, nine hours later. Despite war going on all around them, the people seem unconcerned, as they do everywhere shells are not falling directly on them.
Now, 6 a.m. The last air raid siren to go off was in the very early morning, a few hours ago, so we want to get moving before anything changes here.
Mother’s Day in Odessa: As one-fifth of the population will probably have fled Ukraine within the next month or so, life goes on in the region as though nothing extraordinary was happening.
There are supermarkets on either side of the hotel where I am sitting writing this in Odessa. Other than the language on the labels, and the prices, I could have been in Whole Foods. They were filled with Sunday afternoon shoppers, casually picking through produce, checking the various cheeses and vast array of meats, buying incredibly inexpensive breads (Ukraine is called the bread basket of Europe, after all), and using the self-checkouts like any other market anywhere.
People lingered in the malls, smelling perfumes, trying on the latest fashions, buying kitchenware and bedding, all while air raid sirens blared through the air, piercing everything. And out on the street, mothers and fathers gently pushed their strollers along promenades adjacent to the roadway, in no apparent hurry to get to a bomb shelter or underground. This despite the fact that this city was bombed four times yesterday, and many more bombing efforts have been called for today and tomorrow.
I don’t think complacency is the right word, but people seem to be tired of running and hiding every time the sirens wail, and so, they carry on living.
Happy Mother’s Day from Odessa.
In downtown Lviv, there is a Palace of Arts, a beautiful building dedicated to Ukrainian arts. Today, however, it is a center for the distribution of supplies to refugees. Medicines, diapers, sanitary products, clothes for women, men, and children, all arriving in huge boxes that had to be sorted by gender and age into different rooms. These rooms are at one moment filled to overflowing, and the next, empty. Medicine no sooner arrives than it is out the door. Vika Murovana is a cartoonist and animation designer, but today, she eats, sleeps, and works here, running this incredible enterprise. She was on her way to Denmark to pick up a truckload of supplies. She is in this for the long haul. “I must do this. My soul gives me no choice, and even if it did, I would still do this.”
Lviv’s main library is another amazing building: old-world architecture and brimming with first editions and books of every subject. There is a special section here for scientific research, another on the historical figures of Ukraine and the world. The Head Librarian and chief historian of Lviv is Dr. Ivan Svarnyk, a vibrant, silver-bearded man. He tells us of Ukraine’s historical issues with russia, and russia’s need to take as much from Ukraine as they can, from words to culture to people. (As I write this, more than one million Ukrainians have been shipped off to the outback of russia, paperless and homeless, and far from their families. And in the occupied regions of Donbas and Luhansk, several thousand members of the families and friends of those who were fighting in the Azovstal steel plant have been locked in concentration camps. Their fate is unknown.)
Major General Sergiy Rud is the head of Protection of the State of Ukraine. That is the equivalent of the Secret Service in the U.S. Sergiy is a fit 45-year-old man, personally selected for this job by President Zelenskyy. As we were talking together by his office, one of his officers found a trip-wire bomb near where we were walking. It turned out there were many officers checking for sabotage everywhere, all dressed in civilian clothes. He tells me that when russian soldiers are wounded in the course of battle, if they are not fit enough to be sent back to the front lines, they are shot on the spot. Now, normally, I would have a hard time believing such a story, but having been to the Donbas and behind front lines, I know this to be true. There are so many gruesome tales from this war, and almost all of them are about the atrocities of the perpetrators, the russians. (I was introduced to Major General Rud by a Ukrainian living in Santa Barbara, Yulia Ssen, who hopes to go home one day soon.)
Peyton Robinson is a 20-something young man from Tennessee. We met in Bucha, where I was filming the devastation there. We found ourselves in front of a bullet-ridden monument in the square. Everything around us was completely devastated, high-rise buildings evaporated with ultrasonic missiles, bullet holes everywhere from advancing russian soldiers. I asked Peyton what he was doing here. His translator answered before he could. She said, “This beautiful, brave young man identifies the dead bodies. He does forensic analysis so that families can be notified, even for the russians. He risks his life every day here.” Peyton smiled humbly; we shook hands and went our own ways.
A short walk from this battle-scarred monument was what used to be a kava (coffee) shop. There was a man out front mowing the lawn, and there seemed to be some activity inside, so I walked up the path and peeked in the door. Inside were Alex and Maria a young couple in their twenties, cleaning and trying to put things back together. “Any coffee today?” I asked. Alex replied, “The russians took my espresso machine.” This is a story heard everywhere, russians looting like pirates. “A customer gave me another machine, but it has bullet holes in it and I have not been able to make it work yet. Maybe later.”
I could go on and on and on, and I have only been here for a month. The horrors are endless, but the resilience of these beautiful Ukrainian people is moving. They are determined to find their rightful place in the world despite this russian aggression.