This report from Ukraine is by Neale Bayly, a motojournalist and photographer with more than 20 years under his belt. He also founded the nonprofit Wellspring International Outreach in 2011 with a mission to “bring aid and attention to the abandoned and at-risk children throughout the world.” Bayly recently returned from a three-week, 6,600-km (approx. 4,100 miles) motorcycle trip across Europe and into war-torn Ukraine, which he described as a “beautiful country with incredible people standing resiliently against a brutal regime intent on their destruction.”
The idea for the ride came about a few days into the war back in February when my friend, Kiran Ridley, called me from Ukraine. Covering the war from Lviv in Western Ukraine, he was using a cheap Chinese motorcycle to navigate the 30-km lines of refugees fleeing Ukraine at the Polish border. The access he was getting to people and their stories with the motorcycle was a game changer, but the bike was running badly, and he was improperly dressed for the winter weather and alone in this incredibly high stress environment.
As the phone line went dead after that first phone call, my mind went into overdrive. Images of the destruction and devastation the Russians were inflicting on the civilian population was keeping me awake at night, and after a couple more calls, a plan was set.
Oleg Satanovsky at BMW Motorrad USA had a pair of F 850 GS Adventures lined up in Munich with hard bags and navigation. Matthew Miles provided Rev’It protective clothing, Jeff Weil at Arai sent helmets, and my long-term donors jumped in with support. With the easy part done, we went to work on securing the myriad of details that remained: international press passes, approval from the Ukrainian military, high-grade plates for bulletproof vests, fixers, hotels, and most importantly, deciding on the stories we would chase.
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Ukraine: ‘Nowhere is safe when the Russians start shelling’
In total, we spent close to three weeks in Ukraine, riding from Lviv to Kyiv, Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel, scenes of the worst atrocities early in the war. Then we rode to the seaport of Odessa. At times, we were based out of local hotels for a few days and chased a wide variety of stories.
We toured a Soviet-era coal mine to learn how the energy front is being fought 1,500 feet below the surface of the earth, and we spent the day with young soldiers recovering from recent amputations at a horse therapy farm. We also visited a 16th-century monastery housing refugees. Mirroring the work of the monastery 80 years ago during the holocaust, their presence is kept secret to avoid the potential for shelling.
We hitched a ride on an old wooden rowboat from a couple of fishermen in Vylkove, 25 miles from Snake Island, the 42-acre Ukrainian outpost in the Black Sea that garnered worldwide attention early in the war when Ukrainian soldiers refused to surrender despite calls from a Russian warship to put down their arms.
The two fishermen we met have lost their livelihoods, as they are no longer able to fish their normal waters.
This was just one example of when we left our motorcycles and traveled in the car with our “fixer,” Andriy (last name withheld, and specific locations are not provided for safety and security reasons), when the places we were visiting were too “hot” – the local term for areas receiving active missile strikes.
Mykolaiv was probably the most tense. While documenting an apartment complex where a series of strikes had just taken place, we got caught in the city as the warning sounded in advance of another air strike. All we could do was put on our vests and shelter in place in a local park, having made the decision to be as far away from the buildings as possible.
But realistically, nowhere is safe when the Russians start shelling, a fact that was brought home a few days later while working a story about the winter crop harvest outside of Odessa.
The air alert app went off on Andriy’s phone, and we learned of a massive series of strikes on Vinnytsia, a city that hadn’t been hit since March and was providing refuge for many Ukrainians escaping the front lines. We had planned our lunch stop on one of the historic, shady tree-lined streets at a nice restaurant earlier in the day, but that changed in an instant.
We rode for Vinnytsia, deep in thought but with no idea what to expect. The smooth two-lane highway cut through beautiful fields of sunflowers, grain, and corn, and white clouds floated on a tranquil blue sky. It was a stark contrast to the scene we found in Vinnytsia, which was indescribable for so many reasons.
Even as fireman fought the last fires in the charred remains of the buildings, World Central Kitchen was on-site handing out water and meals to people rendered homeless by the strikes. Cleanup crews were hard at work, and all the bodies had been removed – just not quite all the parts, which made me glad we had skipped lunch.
The physical destruction was mind blowing, the scale of it beyond comprehension, and the stoic resolve of the emergency workers clearing the site humbling. We saw cars being lifted onto flatbed trucks by machines and war crimes inspectors documenting.
News crews broadcast that 35 people were dead and 65 badly injured to an audience tired of the war and waiting for their next media addiction to scroll through.
A temporary calm, the smile from a child, and the familiar darkness
The following days were spent in a calmer region as we rode deep into the Carpathian Mountains along the Romanian border. We had connected with a Ukrainian film crew that wanted to film a couple of Brits riding BMW motorcycles through their country, and they had identified an old Soviet listening station on top of the mountains for us to photograph. Long abandoned, it remains as a testament to the Soviet occupation the Ukrainian people endured before independence.
Traveling with our crew, smooth two-lane highway turned to heavily patched, broken tarmac and eventually to dirt. The mountains rose up, and we rode through scenery at times rivaling the Alps. Hour after hour as we rode back in time, the road deteriorated, and we had to abandon the car and rent a local Mitsubishi four-wheel drive. We fought our way up a narrow dirt trail, eventually having to park the BMWs and pile into the Mitsubishi, the bikes’ road tires just not allowing any more progress.
Our fixer down below found a guest house and a homecooked meal for our return from the surreal photo session on the top of the mountains. Late into the night, we broke bread with our friends, dirty and tired but happy from an incredible day.
As we ate, we learned from our producer, Omel, of life under Soviet control, the democracy and freedom they had built in Ukraine, and how they were again fighting against this massive totalitarian regime hellbent on destroying them and their way of life.
Out of the Carpathians, we had one last story waiting at a children’s hospital in Lviv. There we met an 11-year-old boy named Leo, a refugee from Severodonetsk, where the constant bombing he had endured left him unable to walk. He had also just undergone surgery to remove a tumor on his leg. He and his mother told us their story of escape, and we were left speechless.
Thanks to all the donors, we were able to leave a check for $10,000, and it felt like Leo really enjoyed hanging out with a film crew and a couple of dirty, hairy British journalists on motorcycles.
After the heart-warming meeting, wheeling back to the hospital, the air alert warning howled across the city in the warm afternoon air as Leo turned to wave one last goodbye. If the smile on his face was the sun that lit our day, the thought that after all he has endured, this 11-year-old boy could never be safe there, even in a children’s hospital, cast a shadow across my heart that sent me spiraling into the darkness that so often came as my mind tried to comprehend the brutality of this war.
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