Irina Verbievska has already seen the worst of the war.
She hid in an underground bunker this past February with her 83-year-old grandmother, Rita, and her pitbull, Nigel, while Russian planes flew over Ukraine during the launch of the war.
She fled to Moldova, hiding in a tank convoy, as she held her breath and waited for the Russian missiles to arrive and end her life.
But when the 37-year-old entrepreneur from Cherkassy, Ukraine, arrived in Germany last April, she was shocked to see a different war on German TV than the atrocity-filled war she had fled.
“People knew the war was going on – but they didn’t show how horrible it was,” said Verbievska.
So she decided she would return to her bleeding homeland—secretly, on weekends, whenever she could—to document and show the world the cold realities of Vladimir Putin’s war.
But the scenes she recorded alongside her traveling companion, a journalist named Igor Zakharenko, were so striking in their horror that German news did not report them.
Rows of dead people with their faces crumbling like rotting pumpkins.
Charred bodies on the sidewalk, their blackened arms twisted like charred chicken wings as they tried to escape from their burning cars.
The stands of abandoned prams, baggage, and stuffed animals were surrounded by lakes of blood staining the bricks they sat on.
“I want people to see the real side of the war,” said the former travel agent and professional translator.
I saw people without heads, being tortured to death. Only civilians, not soldiers. Heads smashed. Bodies piled together, people burned… Those pictures matter.”
It was much different before the war.
Verbivska was a self-taught woman, an entrepreneur who knew how to make money.
She said she used to own a travel agency with offices in three cities and run a translation office with 44 employees.
She and her family also had a resort in Crimea, which is a vacation hotspot that offers tourists the chance to dive and hop on local excursions.
All this changed when the Russians came.
They took it all, Verbievska said.
You still remember when you heard the first airstrike warnings on February 24, 2022, around 6 p.m.
They hid in the hideout of a milk factory in Cherkassy before fleeing the city to her grandmother’s village of Sinyavka, about three hours west of Kiev.
“It was panic—children crying, people running,” she recalls.
“One of the bunkers didn’t allow dogs and said my dog had to stay outside – but my dog is like family. We were looking for another bunker and didn’t know what to expect.”
“We spent the whole night in a bunker with cats and dogs and people. We were sitting there underground and didn’t know what was going on above us.
“People thought that Ukraine no longer exists.”
It was a rude awakening for Verbivska, who thought the war would be over in two days.
And it was a nightmare come alive for her grandmother, who had survived the brutality of World War II.
“She knows what war is,” Verbievska said.
“I did not know.”
They hear the planes flying over – not knowing if they are Russian or Ukrainian – and the explosions that destroy Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.
Also, the water was running out.
It was time to go.
“We didn’t feel safe,” said Verbevska.
When she eloped to Moldova with her mother, grandmother, dog, and two cats in March 2022, they had nothing more than each other and a few small suitcases.
The family hid their car in a row of tanks, waiting for Russian airstrikes.
“We were afraid that the Russians might know about the line of tanks,” she said.
“It was the longest flight of my life. My mother and grandmother were crying, and I tried not to show my fear.
“But inside, I had so much fear. I was smiling and making jokes outside, but I was more afraid of them. I was shaking while driving.”
But the missiles never came.
The family crossed into Moldova, reaching Germany by April.
They have been there ever since.
Verbivska was safe at last, but she could not stand still.
Frustrated by what she thought was the sterile international coverage of the war, she decided to return to her disfigured nation.
Because there was an ugly truth that needed to be told.
So, under the guise of going to Berlin on business, I crept back across the border again and again to chronicle Ukraine’s bloodiest time.
The scenes she received were touching.
They found charred corpses piled up on highways and corpses of naked women surrounded by condoms who they believe were raped before being butchered.
In Bucha, she and Zakharenko stumble upon killing fields rarely found in Europe since 1945.
“There were a lot of dead bodies in the streets – animals, women and children,” said Verbievska.
We would visit homes and see people shot dead in their beds. They went to animal shelters and killed dogs. How do you protect yourself when you kill dogs?
We saw the body of a man on a fallen bike, shot dead. These were not soldiers. They were civilians trying to flee.”
In the battered port city of Mariupol, the couple played a game of possum by hiding in a field of corpses as Russian fighters flew overhead.
“We were lying on dead bodies,” she said.
I was thinking that now I will die, and my mother will not know where I am. I thought I was in Berlin.”
Twice they were caught in a fierce crossfire that threatened to take their lives.
Both times, she was worried her family wouldn’t know where to find her body.
She put the visits on hold last fall after a close call in Irvine left her somewhat traumatized.
“There was a lot of shooting – that was the moment I thought I was really going to die,” said Verbievska.
She now lives a dignified – albeit relatively quiet – life in Germany.
She works in the mayor’s office in Kornwestheim, and has joined the Rotary Club.
She plans to return to Ukraine when the war is over, though all her work is smoke and ash.
However, her eyes caught fire when she spoke of the Russian enemy, who tortured and burned his way across the Ukrainian steppes.
“People shouldn’t say they hate people,” she said.
I hate all Russians now. even when [Russian] People say they are defending Ukraine, and I can’t help myself. I hate them “.
She continued, “I know there are a lot of good Russians out there, and I have friends in Russia.”
But I don’t talk to them anymore. After what I saw… this is the feeling I have now.”
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