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In mid-February Darko Skulsky sensed it was time to leave Kyiv with his family. What was seen by many at the time as sabre-rattling by Vladimir Putin was enough to convince him it was not safe to remain in Kyiv.
Unsure of when they might return, he packed several bags before boarding a plane to Poland.
In Warsaw, he began preparations to help as many of the 62 employees at his production company Radioaktive Film — part of the Emmy-winning team for HBO’s Chernobyl mini-series — who wanted to escape as well.
Seven weeks later six of his industry colleagues are dead. Another 12 are serving in frontline units, and more are helping the Ukrainian war effort using their TV production lorries to move food and equipment.
They have witnessed real-life horror under the brutal Russian occupation. A producer in a village near the town of Bucha, the scene of a massacre, barely survived a tank round hitting her home. A casting director held prisoner for 21 days witnessed indiscriminate executions.
The company has donated its sophisticated 3D printer to the war effort. Working out of temporary offices in Warsaw, Radioaktive’s model-making team, more used to creating lifelike sets for films, are using them to assemble missile parts for Ukraine’s combat drones.
Ready to return
Nine days after he left, Darko’s country was visited with horror, brutality and destruction when Russian troops invaded. So far, 4.7 million people have fled the country, according to the UN.
But, he told The National, that this has only reinforced his desire to return. “Everybody wants to go back. We want to rebuild Ukraine again.”
A handful have already returned to Kyiv from the relative safety of Lviv in western Ukraine.
When Kyiv’s Boryspil international airport reopens that will signal normality, with Darko and his team going home to rebuild their lives and business.
It is a dramatic turnaround from when Darko arrived in Warsaw with his wife and one of his two children.
“I left Kyiv because I had a bad feeling, there was a lot of tension, things were sketchy. I decided to take my family to Poland for a month and see what happens.”
When Russia invaded on February 24, Darko helped the evacuation operation while assisting those who remained. A ban on men leaving had been introduced. “All the men stayed, along with a lot of the women,” he said.
In the first weeks, they scrambled to find hotel rooms, apartments, a new office and the legal paperwork for employment in Poland. The operation has so far cost the company $500,000 but with clients from Apple, Meta and Nike providing generous deals it is a cost they can absorb for now.
Suffering of those who stayed
But that money has little bearing at a time when lives are being shattered and lost. One of Darko’s first hires when he started his business in Ukraine 25 years ago was Olya, a producer.
A few days into the conflict a brief SMS message from her read: “Tank fired into my house, while I was hiding in the bathroom. My house burnt down. I was injured by shrapnel and now in a hospital.”
The terror and pain Olya suffered only later became apparent. She had been hiding in her village, close to the town of Bucha where more than 500 residents were later massacred, when a Russian tank thundered down the main street firing shells indiscriminately.
As the blasts got closer, Olya lay flat in her bath tub, terrified that she would be next. The tank round that hit her house tore it apart and left the producer with two broken arms, a fractured vertebrae, multiple shrapnel wounds and a hole in her head.
Hours later she was found but it took 12 days for her broken arms to be dressed. She awaits an operation for her head wound in Ukraine.
At the same time, Darko’s company began receiving terrifying text messages from their casting director Sergiy.
“Mate, we are occupied”, he wrote. The Russians had rapidly taken over his town north of Kyiv and Sergiy had been forced into a basement with his wife and child. Then two other children he barely knew joined him after their parents were killed.
“The Russians were indiscriminately killing people to cause havoc and fear,” said Darko at his office in Warsaw.
Other messages — immediately deleted by Sergiy after sending — came in. “Woman can cross the road, man can’t, will be fired immediately.”
Then a hint of the number of civilian dead: “They cleared basements in some houses to use as morgues.”
But not all the stories were bleak. His spirits have been lifted by colleagues who have told him how they have been able to help the war effort.
Lighting chief Mykhailo had only 10 minutes to pack and leave Bucha with his wife and four children as the Russians approached. Once in Kyiv he ditched his lighting equipment from Illuminator company lorries and filled them with humanitarian aid to deliver east.
There were happy moments too. On the 16th day of the war, production co-ordinator Yuliana got married and shared images with the team of her big day, even if it was not how she had imagined it would take place.
Life as a refugee
The first four weeks were a scramble for the Radioaktive team in Poland as colleagues arrived from the conflict. “We were all in shock,” said Darko. “We sat around trying to figure out how to help people, setting up databases to track where everyone was.”
By April 1, the company was fully up and running, lessons learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic making remote working easier.
With the Russian retreat from Kyiv, they are planning to return, perhaps within weeks.
It is quite a turnaround for Darko, who after the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea vowed that he would leave Ukraine permanently if there was another conflict.
“I thought if this ever happens again, another disaster in Ukraine, I'm done. Too many wars, revolutions, devaluations, I'm sick of it. But when it started, everybody said ‘Well, what do we do now?' I realised we have to calm down a bit, that we have to go back and rebuild Ukraine.”
Darko, 48, who was brought up in Philadelphia, US but whose grandparents are Ukrainian, has been in the country since he was 21 and is married to a Ukrainian.
“It's my home and I want to live there the rest of my life,” he said. “When Kyiv is open I'll be working there again.”
For now, he is waiting for Kyiv to be declared safe. Recently its mayor, Vitali Klitschko, warned people to keep away until all the mines and booby-traps are cleared.
The return will be highly emotional, with much of the country unrecognisable and a population utterly changed.
Darko knows that he faces a challenging moment when he goes back to his country home in the village of Markhalivka, 30km south of Kyiv. The community of 1,300 was devastated by a Russian bombardment on March 4 that killed 29 of Darko’s neighbours, including children.
They are among the many thousands of deaths that the nation has suffered.
But it appears many Russians believe President Vladimir Putin’s claims about his “special military operation” in Ukraine, Darko said.
“What kills me is that there's so many Russians that just don't see it,” said Darko. His eldest son just returned from a trip abroad to Indonesia where he was stunned by what he heard from Russians. “They were proud of what they're doing in Ukraine, he told me. They don’t understand.”
Some former Russian television colleagues called Darko to apologise for their country’s actions but he no longer takes their calls.
“What Russia has done to Ukraine is pure evil. You can't compare it to anything that we've seen in our lifetimes. There's no right to it. It's just pure evil.”