In the first of a series of dispatches from Ukraine, Foreign Editor David Pratt takes stock of a war that is now almost six months old

I’M back in Ukraine. As I sit down to write this, I’m conscious that in a few hours’ time I’ll be out on the road making the comparatively short journey from Kyiv to the towns of Borodyanka and Bucha that lie north and west of the Ukrainian capital.

Though having just arrived a few days ago, my return has already been something of an eye opener. A chance to take stock of how this war is now perceived by Ukrainians and where it might be heading in the weeks and months ahead.

It was April when I was last here. Back then the Russian invasion was still in its early bloody stages and the horrors that took place in both Borodyanka and Bucha were only just being discovered, setting the dark and sinister tone of what was to follow.

In the intervening months the names of both towns have become synonymous with some of the worst war crimes carried out at the start of the invasion.

In Borodyanka more than a dozen apartment blocks were reduced to rubble and ash along the town’s main street at the end of February when Russian tanks rolled in from the Belarusian border, 200 miles north.

Russian bombers too flew low and fired missiles indiscriminately in an onslaught that from a military point of view made no sense but took a terrible toll on civilians in this community which before the war had a population of 13,000.

With whole apartment blocks obliterated, hundreds were killed, but it remains difficult to determine the total number who died, and some remain unaccounted for.

The Russian occupation of Borodyanka was to last a month, as it was in neighbouring Bucha which is closer to Kyiv on the same road. The barbarism of Russian occupiers in Bucha was to shock the world as in their wake bodies of Ukrainian civilians were strewn across the streets or abandoned in the surrounding forest, many having been killed after torture.

Last Monday on the very day that I arrived back here in Kyiv, Bucha’s deputy mayor Mykhailyna Skoryk-Shkarivska, announced a grim tally based on months of forensic investigation of those killed in Bucha. Almost all are known to have been civilians.

Of the 458 bodies examined, 419 were discovered to have been shot, tortured or beaten to death. A total of 366 of the bodies were male, and 86 were female, while five had deteriorated too badly to determine. Nine were children under age 18.

Shocking as the losses and nature of the deaths were in Borodyanka and Bucha, they represent only a tiny fraction of those inflicted on Ukraine by Russia’s invasion.

To give but one other chilling example, Mariupol, the south-eastern port city that has been mostly levelled in a Russian siege, had a population 40 times larger than Borodyanka.

Returning here and speaking with Ukrainians is to listen to a litany of loss. No doubt families in Russia are all too painfully aware of their own losses with many young Russian soldiers used as little more than cannon fodder in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s still scarcely believable military “adventure”.

Even just days after my return to Ukraine already I’m acutely aware of the way the war has touched countless lives. Over coffee in Kyiv’s once again busy cafes it’s hard to comprehend what has happened and is still happening not so far away.

Over the past few days, I’ve listened to Ukrainians recount sad, poignant, discomfiting and sometimes remarkable personal stories the impact of the war has had on them and their loved ones. Stories like that of the young medical student serving on the frontline and having to perform endless surgery on wounded comrades and the affect it had on him psychologically.

Stories like that of another soldier given up for dead after being terribly wounded in a tank battle but who miraculously survived against the odds but is still unable to speak because of his injuries.

MANY of these personal accounts are incredible testimony to the courage and resourcefulness war brings out in people who could never have imagined just a few months ago how their lives would be turned upside down or irrevocably changed.

Accounts like that of the man who was one of the last to leave the embattled eastern city of Severodonetsk on a bicycle. Pedalling more than 100 kilometres he escaped to safety ahead of advancing Russian forces despite the roads he used being shelled and bombed.

If one thing is already clear from the past few days since returning, it’s that there is no let up or respite in this war. Tuesday’s still unexplained blasts at a Russian airbase in Crimea, should they – as most likely – be the result of military action, once again show the war’s capacity to escalate.

So too does increasing talk here of a coming Ukrainian offensive against the Russian held southern city of Kherson and build-up of Russian forces in the south.

If as many analysts say, Russia hopes to degrade the morale of the Ukrainian resistance and undermine European support for Kyiv and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, then from what I’ve seen so far of ordinary Ukrainians, weary as they are of the conflict, still they remain undaunted.

With every day that passes Ukraine on one level at least is a nation split, by that I mean one of separated families and dislocated communities. From the men and women fighting in the east or south to those who have fled westwards with their children or over the border in Poland or elsewhere, there remains however a solidarity and bond that holds this nation’s people together.

In the coming days and weeks, I hope to be able to bring to you some of their stories and cast some light on where this conflict might be heading.

For the moment though it’s time to pack a bag and head off to Borodyanka and Bucha to see for myself how those Ukrainians affected by the war there are faring now almost six months on from the trauma that entered their lives.