Reports from Ukraine: This feature is part of an original Milwaukee Independent editorial series that recorded news from cities across Ukraine, including Milwaukee's sister city of Irpin, in May 2022. It was the first and, at that time, only news organization in Wisconsin that traveled to the country since it was invaded. The purpose of this journalism project was to document personal stories and events that detailed or showed the conditions of the war at that time, and their connections to Milwaukee.

“I am often asked what the war in Ukraine is about. And I have three answers to that question. It is a war for the future of the world, for its ability to unite for its future. It is a war of decolonization, because Ukraine is fighting for the right to exist. But for me, as a journalist, it is also a war of truth and lies. The war for the right to call a spade a spade. Thanks to journalists, the world saw the truth about Bucha, Borodyanka, and Irpin.” – Sevgil Musaieva

Often times it is hard to put experiences into words, at least in a way that other people can understand. That is why I am a photojournalist, standing behind images so I do not have to write about things. But writing became a necessity for context. Pictures can tell powerful stories, but not the entire story.

Upon arriving in Milwaukee’s Sister City of Irpin, we walked right into the thick of its destruction. We drove north from Kyiv and stood on the southern side of the bridge destroyed by the Ukrainian military to prevent invading Russian forces from crossing the Irpin River.

Next to the demolished bridge was a makeshift aqueduct, a road with pipes that allowed the river to keep flowing. A more permanent bridge will be built one day, but the fix allows traffic to cross. We arrived at sun up and enjoyed the quiet and somber tranquility of the site. But before too long, a flow of cars started and I was puzzled about why.

I was told that it was the morning commute of workers to Kyiv. The information was both logical and bewildering. Up until a few weeks before, the city of 60,000 had mostly been a ghost town even after its liberation on April 1. Yet by our arrival in late May, people were back to the normality of commuting to work.

Everywhere we went in the city, there was horrendous destruction. And swirling around it was also the busting of life. Along the street of a neighborhood that had been completely decimated, we saw crews working to replace power lines. While none of the homes where they worked could ever functionally use electricity, surrounding areas could.

It was that contrast of sorrow and hope that seemed to hang in the air of Irpin. Proud to have survived, eager to rebuilt, but unable to shake the trauma of its brutalization by Russian forces.

At “Mama Park” near Irpin’s city center, the Milwaukee Independent team saw mothers with strollers and fathers walking with their children. In a patch of grass could be seen an empty space of dirt, the only remaining evidence of two bodies that had been buried there in the early days of the war. They had long been relocated to the cemetery, which had been too dangerous to reach during the Battle of Irpin.

We still saw the burnt remains of cars across the city. But most areas that have been heavily damaged had been cleared. A parking lot at the entrance of the main cemetery was piled with the rusting metal skeletons.

While walking the streets, looking a blast patterns of the illegal cluster bombs Russian troops had used, a man showed us the ruins of his home. He had been away, and only just returned to see the damage. It was total, worse than he had feared. The heavy metal front door was cast aside and swollen like a Jiffy Pop container.

The destruction that had been a hallmark of the winter was giving way to the rejuvenation of spring. But it would be a long summer of processing and healing. Irpin was a disaster zone, but the defenders of the city had saved the nation by preventing Putin from reaching the capital. While there was an immense pride about being a Hero City, that honor did not bring back the dead, displaced, or damaged lives of survivors struggling to pick up the pieces.

This collection of images offers a last look at the condition of Irpin as we found it. The Milwaukee Independent team is already in the early stages of planning a return trip. But there is no estimated timeframe yet. A lot depends on the course of the war that continues in Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions. And the pace of foreign aid to Irpin has slowed its recovery process.

Many celebrities were eager to see the city, and have a photo op taken while they surveyed the damage. They promised help to bring funding, and pledged to support Irpin get back on its feet. So far none of those things have materialized, and Irpin has pushed ahead on its own. Another example of its determination and resilience.

The current priority is to have schools working again by the September start date, to help families who have returned to Irpin to work. Many businesses remained smashed, so stable employment will remain a problem with few short-term solutions.

Later in September, Irpin will celebrate its City Day, much like Milwaukee’s 414 Day. It will be the first gathering since the war, and likely a contemplative time to both celebrate and mourn. If at all possible, Milwaukee Independent hopes to raise enough funds to again send staff there and continue documenting Irpin’s incredible story.

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© PHOTO NOTE: All the original editorial images published here have been posted to the Facebook page of Milwaukee Independent. That collection of photos contains the MI copyright and watermark for attribution, and may be used for private social media sharing. Do not download and share images directly from this page.

Series: Reports from Ukraine
  1. Reports from Ukraine: Traveling from Milwaukee to a country at war just to take a vacation from America
  2. Images from Ukraine: Latino artist travels to Irpin to paint mural inspired by "Echoes of Guernica"
  3. Images from Ukraine: Irpin residents welcome reissue of Russian Warship Stamp as latest sign of victory
  4. Stories from Ukraine: Wandering in the ruins of a shattered life after surviving Russia's invasion
  5. Images from Ukraine: Similar to the Alamo, martyred cities bought precious time to save a nation
  6. Stories from Ukraine: Tent camp offers shelter for displaced residents until Irpin can rebuild lost homes
  7. Images from Ukraine: Graveyards of Russian war machines show the scale of Putin's failure to seize Kyiv
  8. Images from Ukraine: Following the invasion convoy's 40-mile route and exploring an abandoned base
  9. Stories from Ukraine: Illegal weapons and proof of Russian War Crimes easily seen along streets of Irpin
  10. Images from Ukraine: How Irpin’s cemetery processed the staggering massacre of its local citizens
  11. Stories from Ukraine: Healing remains slow as Borodyanka residents recover from occupation
  12. Images from Ukraine: The deep scars of war remain visibly etched across the landscape of Borodyanka
  13. Interview with Oleksandr Markushin: Mayor of Irpin and the hero of a Hero City
  14. A Meeting of Sister Cities: Former and current Mayors of Irpin ask Milwaukee's business community for help
  15. Stories from Ukraine: Having a shared purpose helped Irpin's leaders protect the city and stop the invaders
  16. Stories from Ukraine: How Milwaukee helped a bakery feed hungry survivors in Bucha with fresh bread
  17. Stories from Ukraine: Bucha resident recalls how Russians turned neighborhood into a street of death
  18. Stories from Ukraine: How a mass grave of executions overshadowed accountability from Bucha’s leadership
  19. Images from Ukraine: Putin’s attack on Babyn Yar is a painful reminder of the broken vow of “Never Again”
  20. Images from Ukraine: An unexpected encounter with Jewish history and the bloody legacy of persecution
  21. Images from Ukraine: Listening to timeless voices of ethnic heritage etched in stone at Lychakiv Cemetery
  22. Images from Ukraine: The experience of attending a military funeral in Kyiv while children died in Uvalde
  23. Images from Ukraine: Stepping out of the fog of war to see the beauty of faith in ancient places of worship
  24. Images from Ukraine: The cities of Kyiv and Lviv were divided by history but remain united in identity
  25. Stories from Ukraine: Anya Nakonechna shares why the Lviv Opera is a symbol of her nation’s culture
  26. Images from Ukraine: A folk village where visitors can experience the life of past generations
  27. Images from Ukraine: Signs of renewal sprout from under Irpin’s rubble as city looks to the future

Lее Mаtz

Lее Mаtz

Milwaukee Independent editorial team for this special series: (UKRAINE) Lee Matz, photojournalist; Oleh Pinta, translator / reporter; Yaroslav Zdyrko, security / videographer; (MILWAUKEE) Halyna Salapata, logistics / translations.

Milwaukee Independent has reported on the situation in Ukraine since it was invaded on February 24. Coverage originally began with reactions and rallies from the local Ukrainian American community, and relationships with Milwaukee’s sister city of Irpin. Through partnerships and good journalism, sources were developed that enabled Milwaukee Independent to publish developments about the unprovoked war in realtime. In late May, a team from Milwaukee Independent spent nearly two weeks on the ground in Ukraine. The award-winning daily news magazine was the first and, at the time, only media organization to send staff into the country since the war began.

Reports from Ukraine: An extensive news series by Milwaukee Independent from a country at war