”It felt like the building lifted off the ground." The then acting Vice-Rector of the State Tax University — on the occupation of Irpin, study and return to the city
Irpin is located in the northwest of Kyiv and can be reached by car in 15 minutes. The town, which was actively developed and where young families recently bought apartments, became an outpost of a full-scale russian invasion.
An international event was scheduled to take place at the local State Tax University on February 24. This is the only educational institution in Ukraine that reports to the Ministry of Finance and trains specialists in economic security. That day, at five o'clock in the morning, residents of Irpin, like the whole country, woke up to explosions.
About 700 students, teachers and citizens were in the shelters of the educational institution. Now the university is in ruins, having survived fires and occupation. But the educational institution is being revived: after the liberation of Irpin, a humanitarian hub operated here. On August 01, the University started a new academic year — in a remote format.
Vasyl Chmeliuk, who at that time worked as acting Vice-Rector for international affairs and investment, tells about the life of teachers and all those who found shelter in the University's bunkers during the battles for Irpin.
Next is a direct speech.
A major international conference on state and corporate economic security was scheduled for February 24-25 at the University. Representatives from seven countries were supposed to take part in it, but since February 20, we began to receive refusals to participate offline, so we decided to postpone the event. On the evening of February 23, the organizing committee and I summed up the results and, according to the good old tradition, drank champagne: we didn't even think about what was waiting for us in the morning.
On February 24, around five o'clock, my wife woke me up: she said that the war had begun. We packed up our things, called her parents, and they took the woman from Irpin. And I quickly packed up and went to the university. Four shelters are officially registered on our campus. The university administration understood that everything was serious, so they were arranged in advance so that people would have shelter: there were sleeping places and sanitary areas. Each of us took the initiative to come to the university. On that day the administration announced that it was not necessary to go to work, but the Acting Rector, assistants and vice-rectors decided to come.
Already at ten o'clock in the morning, there were about 700 people in these shelters: our students, teachers, and residents of Irpin who live nearby. People were panicking a lot.
On social networks, we posted an announcement that our employees can join patrolling on the territory of the university and volunteer work — in half a day a team had already been formed.
The university had several disciplines in the speciality of "Law Enforcement": tactical medicine, fire training, organization of law enforcement activities, etc. We had devices that were used in the educational process in practical classes: tactical first-aid kits, tourniquets, hemostatic agents, walkie-talkies that could operate within a radius of one kilometre, and flashlights. We distributed it to a team that patrolled the university and set up observation posts.
The first night was sleepless. There were four infants and a lot of children over the age of five in the shelters. Some of the locals stayed for a day or two, grew mentally and physically tired, and left the shelters, but our teachers and students, especially orphaned students who had nowhere to go at all, remained in place.
The invaders planned to storm Kyiv. We saw K-52 helicopters heading for Hostomel Airport. There was a battle and the invaders captured this airfield. The explosions were very loud, we saw smoke. I think no one in Ukraine could have imagined that there would be an invasion in such a format that Irpin, Bucha and Irpin's neighbourhoods would become an outpost, a shield, a place of great battles. I could never imagine this happening at all.
The next day, columns of enemy vehicles moved out of the Chornobyl zone. In the village of Zdvyzhivka, behind Hostomel, there was already a column of 300 pieces of equipment — tanks, armoured personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles.
We organized observation points: we selected the four highest points on the campus and accumulated information about the movement of equipment and the movement of sabotage and reconnaissance units. In the first days, there were a lot of sabotage and reconnaissance units in Irpin. They had their own ways of recognizing each other: one day they walked around with an empty Coca-Cola bottle, the other day they had black clothing items. We even detained one saboteur on the territory of the university accommodation. Most likely, he sent our coordinates for the mortar's operation.
Participants of the Irpin Territorial Defense received such information from the relevant units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and identified such people in the city. After the liberation of Irpin, it became known that some members of the sabotage and reconnaissance units came to the city six months or a year before the full-scale invasion, rented housing, and encrypted themselves to do their dirty work.
On the third day of the full-scale invasion, the Romanivka and Zhytomyr highway bridges were blown up to prevent enemy vehicles from moving toward Kyiv. Our soldiers recaptured the airport in Hostomel. All this was very well heard at the University. Although we were convinced that the russian military would not go through Irpin, it is now clear that if they had come here, everyone involved in teaching would most likely have been shot.
Somewhere on the fifth day, the evacuation from the town to the Kyiv railway station began by rail. One of our volunteers had a large cargo bus, and we tried to evacuate the students: for two days we boarded everyone who wanted on the bus and took them to the Irpin railway station. But this did not last long — shelling began, and the railway track was damaged. The children who attempted to leave on the third day after the evacuation began returned to the bomb shelter.
We saw that the enemy troops were advancing: they had already occupied Makariv and were placing artillery on the Vorzel line. This was enough to shell Irpin. There was a serious question about the organization of evacuation. There was no confirmation of the “green corridors”, and we began to think about it at our own discretion and risk.
During the first evacuation attempt, we had about 100 to 120 people left. We had two buses. One was fully fueled and prepared. I brought our full-time driver to the campus in my car from the central district of Irpin, where he lived. But there was a command about the danger of artillery attacks. Everyone took cover in the shelter.
On March 4, the university was attacked. The first bomb drop was on the street, where we caught a member of a sabotage and reconnaissance unit. Eight shells hit the room. When the shells hit the university building, everyone jumped: the building did not just shake, it felt like it lifted off the ground and landed. And so six times in a row.
There was no light or water, the roof partially burned down, and we realized that we needed to try to break through and get out of the city. The military announced the possibility of a "green corridor". In the morning, one bus for 75 people was sent, and I accompanied it.
It was something terrible: immense chaos, traffic jams. Everyone was trying to leave the city, mines were just whistling overhead, the bombing of Irpin was in full swing, and the artillery was working.
We were allowed to pass without waiting in line — the entire Universytetska Street up to the village of Stoianka was stuck in a traffic jam, so we drove into the oncoming lane. The driver opened the door and we explained why it was important for us to “break out”. That's how we forced the way through.
We didn't have a second driver at that time, but Yevhen Kotukh, a graduate of the tax police faculty in 2002, agreed to help. However, the other bus didn't have enough fuel. Luckily, some residents gave 20 litres of diesel fuel, thanks to which the bus was able to leave Irpin.
This happened two hours after we left, taking another 35 people. At this time, russian vehicles were moving along Mechnykov Street in Irpin from Bucha. After an hour and a half, it was no longer possible to leave this way: russian tanks were standing there, and a russian checkpoint was organized. From that moment on, the partial occupation of Irpin began. We went to the town of Storozhynets in the Chernivtsi Region. There is a branch of our university, so our colleagues have arranged conditions for living and organizing the educational process.
When Irpin was partially occupied by russian troops, the guys responsible for critical infrastructure, with the help of the military, managed to remove servers from the university. This happened approximately in the Twenties of March, even before the big fire, when the central building burned out. Diplomas, personal files, workbooks, other documents and information storage devices were also taken to the Chernivtsi Region, so the training did not stop.
A week before the liberation of Irpin, a russian intelligence group was at the university. They captured four of our employees who were just walking to get water. And then they started shooting at them. But, thank God, they spent only a few hours in captivity: our troops began to advance — the russians were forced to retreat.
In one of the buildings, there was a combat position, a firing point — there we found shell casings. In one auditorium, there were places where the russian military slept. It is clear that they placed books under machine guns at observation posts: they did it on purpose to make it easier to keep weapons ready. There was written “Donbas” in large letters on the blackboard. Combat ration boxes were scattered all over the place. But they didn't stay there for long, I think, for a day and a half.
When the russian army realized that they could not take Irpin and had probably already decided to retreat (it was around March 24-26; Irpin was liberated on March 28), powerful bombardments took place for two days in a row. They fired from everything they had. It was then that they struck the central building of the university. From the inside, it burned out completely. This is a historical building, where the Peat Technical School used to be located, there were wooden floors. The shell hit the roof, the upper floors caught fire. People who were here said that it had been burning for three days.
In general, there is not a single building in the university without damage: bombs and missiles were dropped everywhere, which led to fire or destroyed networks, walls and roofs. 90% of the windows were blown out by the blast wave.
There are several symbolic things. When February 16 was declared the Day of Unity by the President, we replaced the flag on the tower of one of the buildings. Despite the destruction of the roofs, the flag continued to flutter, the russians couldn't do anything with it.
Although the central building burned to the ground, on the second floor there is a green wall bearing the name of the university, next to which graduates are always photographed — it has survived. There is a burned area all around, and it is almost intact. I think that the architects who will propose designs for a new central building should keep it.
I returned to Irpin after the bodies of the dead were removed from the streets. There were a lot of them. The godfather of my child returned three days earlier and helped the head of the cemetery collect killed in action. It was generally a horror: there were a lot of stray dogs — we understand what happened to these corpses.
When I arrived in the city, the streets had not yet been cleaned. The feeling was that all these events happened just half an hour ago: the smell, broken wires, the feeling that the fire was just extinguished.
Our Irpin is a young and sporty city. This is a city of parks and happiness. But then there was a feeling that this was not Irpin, but a heat haze: the city was like tortured and raped one. There are areas where 70-80% of buildings are destroyed.
In the central square, nothing indicates that something was going on. Although, if you look around, you can see that there were bomb or shell drops: the windows are broken, and there are traces of fires.
After the de-occupation, the university was the only humanitarian hub for a long time. Now there are a lot of such places, they are powerfully organized by deputies, so there is no need for a university hub.
We do not stop: we work not only in the academic field but also as volunteers. And the university is preparing for the new academic year — it is reborn as a phoenix. The buildings that have survived are ready to welcome students. The situation contributes to the integration of the university into the European educational space, fundraising is being carried out to restore the educational institution, so there are going to be lots of consultations with the European Community.
Writer: Olha Katsan