Exclusive by Matias Grez, CNN Video by Amy Li, CNN
As MMA fighter Yaroslav Amosov walks through the streets surrounding his hometown of Irpin, which sits around 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) west of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, there are fleeting moments when it seems like an ordinary day in May.
The skies are clear and quiet, and birds can be heard chirping in the trees overhead. Amosov describes the evening as “calm.”
But for many Ukrainians, such moments have been few and far between since Russia began its invasion on February 24 and every few steps, Amosov is reminded of the destruction Vladimir Putin’s war has brought to his homeland.
Back in April, local authorities said around 50% of Irpin’s critical infrastructure had been destroyed.
“It’s hard to look at your city that was once full of happiness, life,” Amosov, a reigning world champion, tells CNN Sport in an exclusive interview from Ukraine.
“It was always very beautiful here, people were happy, they were happy with their life and took pleasure in it.
“Then simply to look at the city now, which is on fire, which is getting destroyed and it becomes horrible to look at. You couldn’t really go driving around the city because the roads were covered with trees, in some places, there were parts of houses. Destruction.”
The Ukrainian is one of the best pound-for-pound fighters of his generation and, at 26-0, currently holds the longest active unbeaten streak in all of MMA. On May 13, he should have been defending his welterweight world title at Bellator’s event at Wembley Arena in London.
Amosov was chasing Khabib Nurmagomedov’s all-time unbeaten record of 29-0 and was scheduled to fight Michael Page in a highly-anticipated bout, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forced him to pull out.
The 28-year-old had returned home from a training camp in Thailand four days before the war began. Once Russian troops began advancing, Amosov says he took his wife and six-month-old son to safety on the outskirts of Ukraine before joining the territorial defense to aid civilians in and around Irpin.
War’s grim reality quickly became apparent.
“In the first days, it was very hard to look at, to get used to all these events, to look at how people are running from their houses,” Amosov recalls. “Not everyone could leave, some people had parents who they couldn’t leave behind, who were very elderly and can’t move properly.
“People are running … taking their children, taking their parents in their arms and running, crying, they don’t know what to do. People are running with their pets.
“I saw this situation when a soldier was running holding a child in his arms. The child’s things were all covered in blood, but the blood was not his, it was his father’s. The mother was running behind. I don’t know in the end what happened to the child’s father, but it’s very hard to watch.
“The child was probably aged two or three, but he didn’t even understand what was happening, I didn’t hear him crying, he was just probably in some unreal shock.”
Such was the frantic nature of those first few days of the invasion, Amosov and his friends — who he says had never held guns before — were only given brief training on how to operate their weapons as fighting had already begun in the city.
Amosov says one of the moments that has stuck with him most came a few weeks later, once much of the city had been liberated from Russian occupation.
His team had been going around Irpin to distribute aid and found civilians who had been hiding in basements for almost a month with limited food and water.
He vividly recalls one man they found breaking down in tears after being handed some bread. “Seeing a person crying just because he is holding a piece of bread is very painful and very painful to watch,” recounts Amosov.
Last week, Irpin mayor Oleksandr Markushin said in a statement that the bodies of 290 civilians have been recovered in the town since the withdrawal of Russian forces.
Markushin said 185 of the dead have been identified, the majority of whom were men. The cause of death was “shrapnel and gunshot wounds.” At least five of the dead suffered brain injuries and starvation, according to Markushin.
In total, more than eight million people have been internally displaced in Ukraine, according to the latest report from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a United Nations agency.
‘You want to defend this country’
In his darkest moments, Amosov admits he didn’t know whether he would survive the day to make it to bed each night. What kept him going, he says, was the “crazy help” and kindness of Ukrainian citizens every day.
Amosov and his group would often not have time to eat until the evening, but were regularly met at the roadside by civilians who had cooked food and brewed hot drinks for those helping the Ukraine war effort.
Even those with almost nothing would try to give the soldiers something, sometimes just a chocolate bar.
“I’m proud that we have people like that and that we live in a wonderful country like this,” he says.
While Amosov survived the worst of the fighting in Irpin, not everyone he fought alongside was as fortunate. After taking a couple of days away to go and visit his wife and son, Amosov says he returned to find one of the young men who had joined the territorial defense with him had died.
“It’s hard to watch when a mother buries her child and his girlfriend, who planned a future with him, is standing there too,” he recalls. “This is our home, our families live here and we want things to go back as they were. We lived a good life, we were content with everything.
“When you look at all of these people, women, children, when you see those mothers who buried their children, when you see what is happening to your city, when your city is on fire, you want to help and you want to defend this city, this country.”
Last month, a video Amosov posted of himself recovering his Bellator world championship belt from his mother’s home in Irpin went viral.
In the video, Amosov climbs back up a ladder in the house carrying a plastic bag, which he opens to reveal the belt.
He laughs and says he was “getting the belt for the second time” and later posted a photo of him holding the title aloft while surrounded by a group in military uniform.
“At that moment, it was nice because the belt was safe and sound,” he says. “It was nice that my mom hid it well and it survived and that day Russian soldiers were retreating from our part of Ukraine, so the mood was better.
“But at the same time, I’m standing here now and it’s calm in our city and it’s all good, but I understand and know what’s going on in other cities and it’s hard to just laugh with friends, it’s hard to be in a good mood because after I’ve been in these situations when there’s bombing all the time and there is shooting.”
‘This is destruction’
One day during the war, Amosov says his friends made him aware of a fan of his, a young man who used to practice martial arts but now found himself injured in hospital.
Amosov began texting the boy and soon arranged to go and visit him. When he arrived, Amosov was devastated to find that this young fan, who was just 20 years old, had lost both of his legs in the fighting.
“I don’t understand why people don’t believe what is going on here, they think that [Russia] have a ‘special operation’ going on for saving people,” he says, referencing the euphemistic description used by Russian officials to describe the country’s invasion of Ukraine.
“But you look at what’s happening to Mariupol, look at all of the other cities that we have in Ukraine that were damaged and many civilians died who just wanted to live. They didn’t want any war, they were satisfied with everything.
“I don’t understand how one could fight so cruelly, not by any rules. I have this impression that it’s almost like something not human. How can you act like this? How many people were injured? How many died? How many lost their houses? And they talk about saving? This is not saving, this is destruction.”
Once the fighting in Irpin began to subside, Amosov says he immediately returned to his mixed martial arts training.
Logan Storley was the fighter brought in to replace Amosov for Friday’s bout against Page and the Ukrainian says he is itching to return to the cage and will be watching keenly to see who wins.
“Now [I’m] restoring my shape … I want to return,” he says. “I want the whole of our country to return to its previous life and I would want to defend my belt.”
Amosov admits he doesn’t know when that will be, but he does know what his home nation will look like once the war is finally over.
“For every citizen of Ukraine, she will look like that best country in the world, the most beautiful and the most loved.”
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.