As MMA fighter Yaroslav Amosov wanders the streets surrounding his hometown of Irpin, which lies about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) west of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, there are fleeting moments when it looks like an ordinary day in May.
The sky is clear and calm, and birds can be heard chirping in the trees above. Amosov describes the evening as “calm”.
But for many Ukrainians, such moments have been rare since Russia began its invasion on February 24, and with every step Amosov is reminded of the destruction Vladimir Putin’s war brought to his homeland.
In April, local authorities said around 50% of Irpin’s critical infrastructure had been destroyed.
“It’s hard to look at your city which was once full of happiness, of life,” reigning world champion Amosov told CNN Sport in an exclusive interview from Ukraine.
“It was always very beautiful here, people were happy, they were happy with their life and enjoyed it.
“Then you just have to look at the city now, which is on fire, which is being destroyed and which is becoming horrible to watch. You couldn’t really drive 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 boasts the longest active unbeaten streak in all of MMA. On May 13, he was set to defend his world welterweight title at the Bellator event at Wembley Arena in London.
Amosov was chasing Khabib Nurmagomedov’s unbeaten record of 29-0 and was scheduled to fight Michael Page in a highly anticipated fight, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forced him to retire.
The 28-year-old had returned home from a training camp in Thailand four days before the start of the war. Once Russian troops started 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 help civilians in and around Irpin. .
The grim reality of war quickly became apparent.
“The first days it was very difficult to watch, to get used to all these events, to see how people are fleeing their homes,” Amosov recalls. “Not everyone could leave, some people had relatives they couldn’t leave behind, who were very old and couldn’t move properly.
“People are running… picking up their children, hugging their parents and running, crying, they don’t know what to do. People run with their pets.
“I saw this situation when a soldier was running with a child in his arms. The child’s things were all covered in blood, but the blood wasn’t 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 difficult to watch.
“The child was probably two or three years old, but he didn’t even understand what was going on, I didn’t hear him cry, he was probably in unreal shock.”
Such was the frenetic nature of those early days of the invasion, Amosov and his friends – who he says had never held firearms before – received only brief training in how to use their weapons because the fighting had already started in the city.
Amosov says one of the moments that stood out to him the most came a few weeks later, after much of the city had been liberated from Russian occupation.
His team had circled Irpin distributing aid and found civilians who had been hiding in basements for almost a month with limited food and water.
He vividly remembers a man they found bursting into tears after being given bread. “Seeing a person cry just because they are holding a piece of bread is very painful and very painful to watch,” Amosov says.
Irpin Mayor Oleksandr Markushin said in a statement last week that the bodies of 290 civilians had been found in the town since the withdrawal of Russian forces.
Markushin said 185 of the dead have been identified, the majority of whom were male. The cause of death was “shrapnel and gunshot wounds”. At least five of the dead suffered brain damage and starvation, according to Markushin.
In total, more than eight million people have been displaced inside Ukraine, according to the latest report from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a United Nations agency.
In his darkest moments, Amosov admits he didn’t know if he would survive the day to go to bed every night. What kept him going, he says, was the “crazy help” and kindness of Ukrainian citizens on a daily basis.
Amosov and his group often didn’t have time to eat until evening, but were regularly met by the side of the road by civilians who had cooked food and made hot drinks for those helping the war effort in Ukraine.
Even those who had next to nothing tried to give the soldiers something, sometimes just a bar of chocolate.
“I’m proud that we have people like that and that we live in a wonderful country like this,” he says.
CNN takes a close look at the destruction in Kyiv’s suburbs
While Amosov survived the worst fight in Irpin, not everyone he fought with was so lucky. After taking a few days to go visit his wife and son, Amosov says he returned to find one of the young men who had joined home defense with him was dead.
“It’s hard to see when a mother buries her child and his girlfriend, who has 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 to the way they were. We were living well, we were content with everything.
“When you look at all these people, women, children, when you see these mothers who have 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 posted by Amosov of himself retrieving his Bellator World Championship belt from his mother’s home in Irpin went viral.
In the video, Amosov climbs 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 then posted a photo of himself holding the title aloft as he was surrounded by a group in military uniform.
“At that time it was good because the belt was safe and sound,” he says. “It was good that my mum hid him well and he survived and that day the 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 quiet in our city and everything is fine, 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 being in these situations where there are all the time shelling and shooting.
One day during the war, Amosov says his friends introduced him to one of his fans, a young man who practiced martial arts but now ended up injured in the hospital.
Amosov started texting the boy and quickly arranged to go visit him. Upon arrival, Amosov was devastated to find that the young fan, who was only 20 years old, had lost both of his legs in the fights.
“I don’t understand why people don’t believe what’s going on here, they think [Russia] have a ‘special operation’ underway to save people,” he said, referring to the euphemistic description used by Russian officials to describe the country’s invasion of Ukraine.
“But you look at what is happening in Mariupol, look at all the other towns we have in Ukraine that have been damaged and many civilians have died who just wanted to live. They didn’t want war, they were content with everything.
“I don’t understand how one can fight so cruelly, without any rules. I have this feeling that it’s almost like something that’s not human. How can you do this? How many people were injured? How many died? How many have lost their homes? And they talk about saving? It’s not saving, it’s destroying.
CNN travels to Irpin, where heavy shelling left the city in ruins
Once the fighting in Irpin started to calm down, Amosov says he immediately resumed his mixed martial arts training.
Logan Storley was the fighter brought in to replace Amosov for Friday’s fight against Page and the Ukrainian says he is looking forward to getting back in the cage and will be watching closely to see who wins.
“Now [I’m] restore my form… I want to come back,” he says. “I want our whole country to get back to the way it was and I would like to defend my belt.”
Amosov admits he doesn’t know when that will be, but he does know what his home country will be like once the war is over.
“For every citizen of Ukraine, it will look like this best, most beautiful and beloved country in the world.”