Infobae in Zhitomir: the bombed school, a shooting at the town hall and the beginning of the invasion in the west

The city of Zhytomyr is being bombed in silence. It doesn’t appear on the front pages but every afternoon the attacks begin. They are, at the moment, exclusively by air. First it was a school, then a hospital, and finally the city’s water distribution system.

Zhytomyr is known for its large concentration of military complexes, and the density of control posts to get there is greater than that of many other routes. The check-points are also huge, higher and longer than in the less attacked areas.

Getting a driver to agree to go to Zhytomyr was difficult. No one wants to get close to battle zones or cities under fire. After talking to half the town, we succeeded. It takes us Victor, a former combatant of the war in Navorno Karabakh in the eighties, as part of the Soviet army. At that time he was shot in the right leg and since then it has been slightly shorter than the left.

The city of Zhitomir is being bombed in silence Credit: Joaquin Sanchez Mariño

In this invasion he wants nothing to do with fighting, but he is 51 years old and cannot leave the country. One night before leaving for Zhytomyr, Victor received a call from the militia requesting his services. He managed to delay it, but he knows that if they insist, he will have to show up. From time to time, he shows videos of shootings against the Russians sent to him by a friend who is on the front lines in Mikolaiv.

As we ride in the car, in silence, we hear the sound of a plane passing overhead. All the airports in the area are being bombed: Vinnytsia, Lutsk, Ivano-Frankivsk. All from the western side of the country, closer and closer to the territory of the European Union. But the plane we heard, we will find out later, is Ukrainian. The Air Force is permanently flying over Yitomir to defend it from missiles. It is there that the offensive against the western part of the country began in some way.

Coverage Sánchez Mariño - Mayor's Office of Zhitomir
Part of the damage caused by Russian troops in Zhitomir Credit: Joaquin Sanchez Mariño

Attacks on Zhytomyr are not by land yet. The road to Kiev from there, however, is taken by the Russians, to the south west of the capital. Taking the route in that direction is either capture or certain death. Around Zhytomyr for now all the fire comes from the air. Drones, missiles and some Russian planes that dare to challenge Ukraine’s defenses.

Coverage Sánchez Mariño - Mayor's Office of Zhitomir
Around Zhitomir for now all the fire comes from the air Credit: Joaquin Sanchez Mariño

At the moment, according to Mayor Sergei Sukhomlyn, the attacks in the city have produced 14 deaths, of which four were minors. In an interview with Infobae, he assures that 40% of the population of Zhitomir has already evacuated the city (just over 100 thousand people), and they are prepared to resist any invasion attempt.

Coverage Sánchez Mariño - Mayor's Office of Zhitomir
Mayor of Zhytomyr Sergei Sukhomlyn

The state of alert is reflected in his own office on the second floor of the mayor’s office: he has bags of sand accumulated on the window to protect himself from a possible air attack, and there are long weapons in every corner: on the chair, next to the library, under the window. Next to his work chair is his personal weapon, which he claims to know how to use.

Coverage Sánchez Mariño - Mayor's Office of Zhitomir
The office of the Mayor of Zhytomyr

Unfolded on the office table is a huge map with the city areas painted in different colors. As soon as we entered, it closes the map, it does not allow to photograph it. It also has four screens next to the table, where different streets of Zhytomyr are seen.

On the wall behind his desk, guarded by two flags (Ukrainian and city), an unsettling painting: a small portrait of Mahatma Ghandi, India’s pacifist leader. We ask him about the painting and he answers with a small smile, aware of the contradiction that it means that in an office full of kalashnikovs the only painting is a peace leader.

Coverage Sánchez Mariño - Mayor's Office of Zhitomir
On the wall behind his desk, guarded by the Ukrainian and city flags, is a small portrait of Mahatma Ghandi Credit: Joaquin Sanchez Mariño

“I am a pacifist, that is why I have Gandhi here. But when the tools of peace are exhausted, only the tools of weapons remain”, it says. Before saying goodbye, he asks for a photo with the three journalists that she agreed to receive. We do.

The plans for the rest of the day are to tour the affected areas of the city, but the alarm starts to sound and we are forced to stay in the town hall for security reasons. Already with a mayor allegedly kidnapped by Russian forces in Melitopol, and with the one from Gostomel assassinated by the occupation forces while distributing food to the population, the mayor’s office does not seem like the safest place to be. But the militias assure us that we are safe and we must wait.

At the entrance to the town hall there is another huge barricade and you have to zigzag out through the bags, as if you were escaping from a maze. The entire central square is covered with bags covering the entrances. “There are two very thick walls, if a bombardment comes, we are safe. On the ground floor it is safe. On the first and second floors no, but here yes”, Vira tells us, the person in charge of communication for the mayor’s office.

Coverage Sánchez Mariño - Mayor's Office of Zhitomir
At the entrance of the municipality there is another huge barricade and you have to go out zigzagging between the bags Credit: Joaquin Sanchez Mariño

A few minutes later, his words don’t seem very reliable. The thing is the militias begin to shout and run through the area and suddenly a strong shooting is heard. The shots come out of the central hall of the building, exactly where we are waiting. “Drone, drone”, some shout. Vira asks us to protect ourselves in a corridor. A young Ukrainian kneels down and shows us a defense position in case an impact falls. The shots continue to ring out, they are the militias shooting from the window into the sky trying to shoot down a drone. We’ll never have confirmation, because they can’t talk about it. A soldier will say “there was a little incident”, but he will say it laughing, as if it was all a game.

We still waiting. I ask about the communications and they tell me that that same day they received one of the Starlink antennas donated by Elon Musk. They show it to me, they still need to install it. And finally, a while after the shooting, the air-raid alarm goes off and we’re allowed to approach the school. The alarms in a city that was hit by the missiles are respected more than in those that were not. The inhabitants of Zhytomyr have already seen a rocket fall from the sky that destroyed their school, and although the city is still standingthey prefer to respect the sirens.

Coverage Sánchez Mariño - Mayor's Office of Zhitomir
One of the Starlink antennas donated by Elon Musk Credit: Joaquin Sanchez Mariño

The image of the bombed and destroyed school cannot be explained. It is about school number 25, a huge complex of buildings that fortunately was not inhabited at the time of the attack. The entire front of the central building has hanging glass. Towards the inner wing, the construction became a kind of ravine: It no longer has the shape of a building but of rubble dune. Around, a lot of papers and plastic bottles blown up. A basketball court is covered in strange dirt, like dusty notes that got there.

Behind the property a clearing opens up, a playground, and from there you can see a worse image: the entire high school in ruins. On the left, the building where the library was. The books are still there, no longer on the shelves but fallen on the floor. They form an irregular carpet of literature and text, and the paper serves to dampen the tiresome sound of footsteps. Between the noise of the shooting and the noise of the rubble, the second is more terrifying. It is that, although it has already happened, walking through a bombed school leaves no doubt of the real horror that war supposes.

Coverage Sánchez Mariño - Mayor's Office of Zhitomir
Behind the property there is a clearing, a patio for recreation Credit: Joaquin Sanchez Mariño

At the end of the library, a classroom. In the classroom, a blackboard. There is nothing written on it, just green. The wind moves one of the three plates that compose it. Metal sounds, like in scary movies. Vira says we have to go, it’s not safe outside right now. Some teenagers play basketball on the court invaded by dirt. They laugh, they get upset, they do something that seems like a small bullying. One manages to score and then they leave. I don’t know if heading to the shelter, they must be tired of not seeing the sun.


He is a translator of Borges into Ukrainian, he is 75 years old and does not plan to leave Kiev: “I am going to die here”

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