The fight for the Kharkiv region. Correspondence from Ukraine

Paweł Pieniążek from northeast Ukraine – 05/23/2022. Originally published in Tygodnik Powszechny.

The Ukrainian army is taking back towns near Kharkiv. It may soon regain control over other sections of the border.

A burnt out Akatsiya self-propelled gun stands in the middle of the road near a destroyed house, right next to a shell crater. The torn hull, the remains of the turret with a long heavy barrel, broken caterpillar tread and a pile of casings litter the ground.

“This is the work of our boys,” boasts their General, Serhiy Melnyk, commander of the Kharkiv garrison, who has just visited the troops fighting at the front.

Nearby, in the trench, lay discarded 122 mm shells. It is here that some of the soldiers take shelter when shots, whistles and explosions reverberate in succession nearby.

At the moment, this area is a gray zone—the Russians were forced to leave it, and Ukrainian troops were just about to occupy positions there. The area is littered with bomb craters and many nearby buildings have been damaged. You can hardly meet inhabitants—most of them have evacuated to safer places. This is what most of the villages around Kharkiv that were occupied by Russia, and are now liberated, look like.

To the north and east of this city, the second largest in the country, Ukrainian soldiers now carry out subsequent successful operations. They quickly occupy nearby towns, thanks to which they distance danger from Kharkiv. The city, located 40 km from the Russian border, has ceased to be devastated by shelling, rockets and bombs. Some inhabitants have returned, and life is returning to the streets. In this section of the front, Russian soldiers occupy ever smaller scraps of land and are gradually being pushed across the border. After a failed attack, mainly on Kharkiv, the Russians are transferring their forces to the Luhansk region, where they are conducting a massive offensive.

Pardoned at the front

The Russian offensive on this border metropolis began immediately on February 24, when the Kremlin launched a full-scale invasion. On the same day, tanks appeared on the Kharkiv ring road, the city was shelled, and villages on the way were occupied by Russian troops. The front line lay to the north and east of this city of 1.5 million, and the suburbs became a line of defense—as well as a target of artillery strikes.

“My soul hurts. I love Kharkiv. It is one of the key cultural, industrial and economic centers, and what does the Russian world bring to it?” 36-year-old Oleh Shiryaev, commander of a company of the territorial defense, asks rhetorically.

Given his turbulent biography, this is quite an unexpected statement. After the war broke out in Donbas in 2014, Shiryaev fought in the vicinity of Mariupol and was associated with the Azov nationalists. However, in recent years he has come into conflict with Azov and moved closer to Illia Kyva—a politician with a bad reputation, supporter of Russia, until recently a deputy of the Supreme Council of Ukraine.

Shiryaev spent a lengthy period detained as a result—accused of attempting to take over a grain silo in the Kharkiv region by force, during which there was a shootout and six people were injured. After February 24, President Volodymyr Zelensky announced an initiative “not easy from a moral point of view” to release from detention all those who had significant combat experience in the war in Donbas, allowing them to make amends for their wrongdoing by defending the country. Shiryaev was among those released as a result.

Now he is fighting at the front and, along with his company, regaining territories occupied by the Russians. The day before I met him they, together with an airborne unit, destroyed a Russian armored personnel carrier.

“I am proud that we have people like the boys from my unit, whom I educate and with whom I go to fight, says Shiryaev. “Although of course I understand that the war will continue for some time, and along with joy there will also be sadness.”

The term “educate” seems spot on: Shirayev explains that many members of the territorial defense do not have military experience. Until recently, they were locksmiths, truckers and taxi drivers. It is these units that constitute—along with regular troops—an important strike force that is effectively pushing the Russian army from the vicinity of Kharkiv.

A revolution in reconnaissance

46-year-old Oleh, commander of a mobile artillery squadron, emphasizes that the responsibility for liberating territory rests on the shoulders of the infantry. “A position or a town is not taken until the foot of an infantryman steps foot there,” he says.

However, it is artillery, including his squadron, that enables the infantry offensive.

Oleh and several soldiers are currently conducting aerial reconnaissance using unmanned aerial vehicles that were developed for commercial activities. Equipped with controllers to which their phones or tablets are attached, soldiers send the buzzing machines out time after time. They focus on locating the opponent’s positions on their screens. Under other circumstances, you might think that they are playing a video game.

“Oh, I found a tank!” One of the soldiers exclaims. A formidable machine appears on the screen of the tablet. Oleh and the soldier determine the coordinates and communicate them to one of the mobile artillery platoons. After receiving the order, they shell the target that had just appeared on the screen.

By using drones, Ukrainian soldiers neutralize obstacles on various sections of the front. Oleh points out that unmanned aerial vehicles, which were produced for purposes other than military, have serious limitations. First of all, they a very short flight time of up to 30 minutes. For comparison: military drones can be in the air for more than a day. In addition, machines intended for civilian purposes are much easier to disrupt or even intercept, which the Russians are constantly trying to do. Finally, civilian drones are not designed to fly high in the air, so they can easily be struck from the ground.

Oleh, a soldier with considerable experience (at war since 2014), emphasizes that drones have revolutionized reconnaissance, thanks to which the effectiveness of artillery has significantly increased. “Due to the shape of the terrain and the long distances, we cannot conduct optical reconnaissance,” he says.

Despite this, the Ukrainian army has been developing the use of commercial drones for years, not only for reconnaissance, but also for combat purposes—grenades are attached to the machines, which are then dropped onto the target.

Nobody smiles anymore

As in the years 2014-15, the war with Russia after February 24 is characterized by numerous artillery duels. In this stage of the conflict, they occur with even greater intensity. The 2S1 Gvozdika self-propelled howitzers under the command of Oleh hit targets at a distance of 15 km.

“We direct fire at the enemy, who is located in nearby towns. In this way, we provide support to the boys in our mechanized battalions,” explains Ołeh.

The howitzer platoons under his command have a lot to do. Vitaliy, the 37-year-old commander of one of the crews of a self-propelled howitzer, assures that they sometimes fire more than 150 shells a day. “They don’t always inform us about the result, but we usually hit [our target]. We destroy tanks, mortars and tankers,” says Vitaliy.

He first did service as a conscript, then signed a contract with the army. It was supposed to end in May this year, but Vitaly did not even think about whether or not to extend it. In the current situation, no one will let him come back to civilian life. He found himself in a self-propelled artillery crew from the very start.

On that Thursday, February 24, Vitaly was flummoxed. Chaos reigned on the first day of the invasion. They were sent to positions in the Kharkiv oblast, but had no orders to open fire on possible targets. A Russian column passed them on the way. Soldiers from the enemy army smiled and waved at Vitaliy, calmly continuing on their way along a designated path, as if they did not understand that they had ended up at war in a foreign country. Even today, Vitaliy wonders what he saw that day.

“Nobody smiles anymore. Only failure awaits them,” he is convinced.

Soon after that incident, Vitaly came under mass shelling for the first time. They still had no orders to shoot, meanwhile the sky was glowing as if night was ending prematurely and the earth was shaking so much that the almost 16-tonne Gvozdika seemed to weigh nothing. Vitaly and the rest of the crew waited for permission to open fire for half the night, convinced that something would strike them before that happened.

He doesn’t worry about orders anymore. The gunner takes aim, the loader places the shell in the breech, the commander orders to fire, there is a roar, the missile cuts through the air and flies somewhere far away, smoke rises and clumps of earth splash all around. And so on again and again until the crew has to change position so that they will not be caught by enemy fire. The enemy tries to locate the Ukrainian guns and reach them with its artillery. That is why the Gvozdiki remain in constant motion.

Corpses in the trenches

Some of the occupied towns, which in recent days were first shelled by the advancing Ukrainians and then the retreating Russians, have been destroyed. The ruins of buildings and roads dotted with wrecked military equipment catch the eye. The fields, in turn, are covered with trenches and detritus left behind by uninvited troops. This is what Mala Rohan, just outside Kharkiv, looks like. The village was liberated by the Ukrainian army in the last days of March, but many residents have still not returned home.

There are still bodies of Russian soldiers in the trenches, some of them covered with earth. Then only the sweet-smelling odor of decaying human flesh betrays their presence.

A Ukrainian soldier with a group of volunteers and gravediggers from a nearby cemetery have gotten to work removing them. One of the bodies must have belonged to a stout man and they struggle to pull it out of the trench. They tie a tow rope around the corpse and pull. Then they put it on the grass and place it in a sack. That day they found another four. Besides these, there were 63 more in a refrigerated trailer in Kharkiv. More than three-quarters of them are Russians, and the rest—I’m told—are Ukrainian citizens fighting on the side of the Kremlin (perhaps pro-Russian separatists, members of the so-called people’s militias from Donetsk and Luhansk).

“We found them all in liberated villages. The bodies were labeled, their DNA was taken and registered in a database. If anyone ever searches for them, they are ready to be shipped. We will exchange them for our living boys or for our fallen ones,” explains Anton Ivannikov, a captain in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, responsible for the collection of the bodies of Russian soldiers.

And life returns

So far, Ivannikov has only been active in a few towns. He does not have access to many, because military operations are taking place there. He learns about bodies either directly from servicemen who find them in military positions, or when the inhabitants of liberated areas report them to him. Most cannot be identified—they are too charred, sometimes they don’t have heads.

Meanwhile, a few hundred meters away, near the wreckage of a tank, electricians are already repairing the high-voltage line. Residents come to see what is left of their homes, and those who have not left are glad that peace reigns in the area again.

Life returns to where the traces of war are still fresh. ©

On the road of life: correspondence from the front in Donbas

Paweł Pieniążek from the front in the Luhansk oblast (Donbas, Ukraine) – 05/16/2022. Originally published in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Ukrainian soldiers defend the last scrap of the Luhansk Oblast. Soon, it too may fall into the hands of the Russians.

Thick black smoke rises above the area. A Ukrainian refinery, bombed by the Russians, has been burning for several days in the vicinity of Lysychansk. The refinery is surrounded by picturesque canola fields – canola, like sunflower, is one of the key crops for the local agriculture. As in the case of wheat and corn, Ukraine has until now been a world leader in the export of vegetable oils, especially to Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

The refinery fire cannot be extinguished and it probably won’t be until it burns out. Smoke has become an inseparable element of the local landscape. It appears on the horizon at different points and from different directions.

The target here is not only the refinery. The densely falling Russian projectiles and rockets sometimes raise a cloud of smoke and dust only for a moment. Other times they cause long-lasting fires. The sky is marked with white streaks of Russian jet engines or surface-to-air missiles chasing them, from which the pilots are fleeing. They don’t always succeed: here one of the fighters launched flares designed to confuse anti-aircraft missiles, but after a moment black smoke comes from the machine. Shot down, it dives to the ground, somewhere in the direction of the forest.

The aim of the Russian offensive

In the foreground of the landscape of this place — and the vicinity of Lysychansk is the most eastern part of the Luhansk Oblast controlled by Ukraine; looking at the map, it now looks almost like a “sack”, surrounded by Russian troops from the north, east and south-east — artillery dominates. Its booming is loud and incessant.

A large part of this “sack” is already within its reach. Russian shells have just hit a Ukrainian post; in the coming days, they will reach it regularly. The command withdrew the policemen and soldiers who had staffed it until now so as not to expose them to certain death. There remained only smoldering cars and shell craters.

The recently smooth asphalt is now marked with furrows and holes left by projectiles and the tracks of armored vehicles — this is what seven kilometers of the “road of life” looks like, i.e. the last route connecting the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. And thus linking the Lysychansk region with the rest of Ukraine.

The “road of life” has also found itself in range of Russian artillery. Both the evacuation and military & humanitarian aid deliveries use this road. It is hard to believe that a dozen or so days ago this route was completely safe.

Serhiy Haidai, the head of the military administration of the Luhansk Oblast, explains to me that the cutting off the road connecting this region with the rest of Ukraine is — apart from a direct attack on Severodonetsk, the provisional capital of the oblast — the key direction of the Russian offensive in this area today. “Unfortunately, the situation is not good. But we are hanging in there as best as we can, says Haidai. “The situation changes every hour.”

It is the Luhansk Oblast — or rather the tenth of its area that remains under the control of the Ukrainian army — that has now become the main target of the Russian offensive.

I saw Donbas for the first time

When Russia launched a full-scale war on February 24, it was this region that became — initially also alongside Kyiv, Kharkiv, Sumy and Chernihiv — one of the first targets of the attack.

This was due to unfavorable geographic conditions. Most of the Luhansk region was then already surrounded from three directions. In the north and east it borders with Russia, and in the south with the unrecognized Luhansk People’s Republic subordinate to the Kremlin, which emerged as a result of the war started in 2014.

As a result, in the first days of the Russian offensive, towns such as Stanytsia Luhanska, Schastia or Svatove were seized [there is a large psychiatric hospital there, which readers of Tygodnik have helped in recent years; today its employees and patients, whom we wrote about several times, are under occupation – ed.].

Then the Russians captured Kreminna, approached Rubizhne (which neighbors Severodonetsk) and broke the Ukrainian line of defense — the one held since 2014 — as far as Popasna. It was for this last city that fierce battles took place from March until the first days of May, and concluded to the disadvantage of the Ukrainian army. The defenders had to take up positions west of Popasna.

Not only experienced military men who had fought since 2014 made it to the deep trenches found there, but also novices in the profession of war, such as 29-year-old Jaroslav from Vinnytsia, who until recently worked in the Roshen food company owned by former president Petro Poroshenko. Jaroslav was a technician-operator.

On February 24, he drove his wife and five-year-old daughter to the Polish border. After returning to Vinnytsia, he himself wanted to report to the military commission, but he was pre-empted by a phone call summoning him for duty. His life changed drastically. “I shot for the first time in my life, saw Donbas for the first time and went to war for the first time,” he admits.

An ordinary infantry soldier

Jaroslav was trained as a sharpshooter. After two months, he is used to weapons and knows how to use them. “It’s already mine, well-used. But it has not met anyone yet,” he says.

However, it was not weaponry that was the most difficult element to master, but life on the front in spartan conditions: sleeping in the field, when snow was falling, it was cold and Jaroslav did not yet have thermal underwear, nor time to prepare a better earthen shelter (here they say: blindage). Or when his unit was sent to positions he couldn’t even locate. They didn’t have time to dig in properly because artillery shelled them all night. Jaroslav lay flat in a shallow foxhole and waited for it all to end.

Now, in the vicinity of Popasna, they are in well-established positions. The trenches are so deep that usually even the top of the head does not stick out. But still, life for an ordinary infantry soldier is difficult. The enemy comes close occasionally, so Jaroslav and his squad listen to the whistles and explosions. When it whistles or hits nearby, they bend down mechanically.

Jaroslav says he wanted to join the army to defend his country and his home from violence. So that inhumanity would not occur there. Such as those which the Russian army committed in Bucha, for example.

“Our motivation is great, because we do not want something like this to happen here,” says Jaroslav. “I will be helping here to make this end as soon as possible. But war is not for me.”

The mere mention of home makes him sad. Therefore, he tries not to think about when he will return. But he would like it to happen any day now.

Make friends with a shovel

There are many tired and scared faces in the trenches. On the turbulent front, it is difficult to get used to the brutality of war. Especially when you only have a rifle in your hands and you are facing invisible artillery. To boost the spirits of those who are in such a situation for the first time in their lives, soldiers from more experienced units accompany them.

“The detachment in this section of the front does not have much serious combat experience. The task of our group is not only to support them with concrete issues, but also to motivate, teach and to by example show how to behave in war,” says 46-year-old Oleh.

He is a soldier of the so-called mobile group. This is a lightly armed unit deployed on various sections of the front. Their tasks include supporting the troops standing guard there, preparing ambushes, as well as special reconnaissance activity.

Oleh was a journalist for a local newspaper in the Chernihiv Oblast for 20 years. In 2014, he joined one of the volunteer battalions. A few years later, he signed a contract with the Armed Forces of Ukraine and was trained as a sapper. He emphasizes that this work requires attention, accuracy and calm. When we meet, he is pushing a wheelbarrow full of anti-tank mines. He will later place them in the earth nearby to hinder any potential Russian attack.

The main problems faced by Ukrainian soldiers include the artillery advantage on the enemy’s side and ignoring losses in their own ranks. Ukrainian soldiers often say that the Russians keep coming with no end.

“In line with the traditions of the Soviet Union, they hurl steel and cannon fodder at us,” says the commander of the mobile group, 33-year-old Roman, who has also been serving for eight years. “They try to suppress our fighting spirit thanks to advantages in equipment, artillery and aviation. But if you’ve made friends with a shovel, entrenched yourself, it’s much easier. They have a lot of ammunition, we have the same amount of time, and sooner or later they will run out of people.”

The second issue is the Kremlin’s tactics, which do not take into account the destruction of civilian infrastructure or civilian casualties.

“We have experienced soldiers who have seen a lot, but even they, looking at all of this, often say that it would be better if man had never invented war,” admits Oleh.

He believes that most sections of the front line are holding well where battles of position are taking place. “The initiative is on the side of Moscow. They strike first and determine where. They have countless options. We are forced to react to threats. I do not think that they will manage to occupy the entire territory of the Luhansk region, says Oleh.

He admits, however, that maintaining the currently occupied territories will entail significant losses not only for the advancing Russian troops, but also for the Ukrainian forces defending them.

Three categories of people

Breaking through the positions defended by Jaroslav, Roman and Oleh would bring the Russians closer to cutting off the “road of life”. The soldiers and the inhabitants of the Luhansk region who have not yet left their homes would then be surrounded.

Although Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, which make up an agglomeration, seem like ghost towns at first glance, you can meet many people in courtyards, staircases and cellars. According to Haidai, the head of the military administration, there are still over 40,000 civilians in the territories controlled by Ukraine. Despite appeals by the authorities, they do not want to leave, although their houses are often riddled with shrapnel, now without windows, with holes in the walls.

“There are three categories of people who remain. The first is the elderly: they believe that if they were born here, they will die here. The second hopes that nothing will hit their building. The third are those who are waiting for ‘russkij mir’” says Haidai. “Honestly, I cannot understand those who have decided to hide in the cellars, hoping that nothing will come flying their way.”

Haidai was born and spent his childhood in Severodonetsk. During his last visit to the city, he saw that his family property was also under fire.

How can you not believe in God?

Three people stand in front of a building in Severodonetsk, which a shell hit back in March. An older couple is talking to a neighbor who lives in a different stairwell. They belong to the first group that Haidai mentioned: they do not want to leave their hometown. They are standing right next to an old shell crater. The shock wave threw a concrete bench a few meters, ripped open the balcony and smashed windows. Although you can hear explosions and whistles every now and then, they don’t even flinch. They have been living in such conditions for over two months, so they’ve fallen into apathy. They only react when something lands really close.

“How are we doing? It stinks. We are vegetating,” says 70-year-old Halyna.

There is no water, electricity or gas in the city. They prepare food on a fire, and collect water from wherever it is available. Sometimes it is handed out by the military, sometimes a tanker will arrive. Humanitarian aid made it from time to time, but since the “road of life” started being shelled, support has practically stopped. There is an open shop in the area, but the prices are outrageous.

“If you have a pocket filled with dollars, you can go,” says Halyna.

She is already completely without cash because her retirement pension is flowing into her account, and banks and ATMs in Severodonetsk stopped working shortly after February 24.

Halyna and her husband Volodymyr live off what they receive. Everyone tries to help each other. A neighbor left them a sack of potatoes and they are just finishing eating it.

“How can you not believe in God? There were times when we were running out of food, I thought about what we would do tomorrow. And here the next day someone would bring us something, leaving us jam or canned meat,” says Halyna.

Halyna and Volodymyr do not go down to the basement because the living conditions there are not good. They sit in an apartment without windows. It is on the ground floor, so when the shells begin to fall nearby, they sit down in the hallway and wait for the barrage to stop.

Halyna has lost weight, her nerves are frayed. The only thing that keeps her spirits up is the hope that this war will soon be over. Although it is difficult to say where she draws it from, regularly hearing the bangs of artillery and looking at the surrounding smoke-filled forests.

“We somehow got used to it,” she says.

The road is scarier than the basement

There were as many as 20 people left in the next two stairwells. Most live in the basement. It is a low room in which, at one meter eighty, it is impossible to strand up. There is no light, there is however a lot of dust and dirt. There are sleeping mats, blankets, quilts, sleeping bags and pillows on the ground. Although it is warm outside and you can be tempted to wear a short-sleeved T-shirt, here, underground, everyone is dressed in jackets, fleece and hats, as if February never ended.

Dim light reaches deep into the basement. Here Serhiy teaches his 11-year-old daughter Anastasia mathematics. He uses a textbook. “I am learning to multiply and divide fractions,” says Anastasia, a bit embarrassed. “It seems to me that we learn a lot.”

I ask if she misses school. She replies that she does not particularly. Parents do not have access to the school curriculum, but there are textbooks, so they study with their daughter one lesson after one, as long as they the energy. But Anastasia was delighted when a neighbor brought her chocolate ice cream. She hadn’t eaten any in a long time.

Next to Anastasia are her mother Svitlana and 18-year-old sister Kateryna, a first-year student of philosophy at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. Due to the pandemic, Kateryna was learning remotely but now, without electricity and the Internet, this is out of the question.

It is difficult to say whether this family falls into any of the categories mentioned by Serhiy Haidai. The parents are in their forties, educated and not pro-Russian. What keeps them here is the lack of an idea about where to flee, as well as a lack of money, inertia, and the fear of dropping everything and heading off into the unknown.

“We have nowhere to go and nothing to do it with. This vagueness, leaving with nothing at all, is a big liability,” says Svitlana.

“But they’re not shooting right now,” I cut in.

“The road is scary. In the basement it seems more peaceful somehow,” says Anastasia.

“Suppose we make it through all the gunfire. But what then?” Svitlana asks.

Nobody has an answer.

Svitlana does not want to let Kateryna go to Kyiv alone. Kateryna, on the other hand, does not want to leave the city alone, because her family will be in her thoughts all the time. And so the whole family keeps each other in the basement, leaving themselves no way to escape.

They still hope it will all be over and life will return to normal.

Despite almost three months of shelling, the turmoil of war may just now hit Severodonetsk with full force. And if the “road of life” is cut off, there will be no chance of leaving. ©

Donbas: I’m leaving because I want to live

Paweł Pieniążek from Lyman in the Donetsk oblast – 05/10/2022. Originally published in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Lyman has become another city that the war has reached. Some residents are deciding to leave at the last minute.

There are thirteen people standing by the corrugated steel supermarket hall. All of them have decided on the first day of May to leave Lyman, population 22,000, in the Donetsk oblast. In the road near the store lay branches cut by shrapnel. Two shots are heard, one whistle merging with the other, and successive blasts. Loud enough to feel as if they were tearing you from the inside. They must have fallen somewhere close. Some people throw themselves to the ground.

“Why did you fall?” An elderly man asks, laughing.

He only bent down slightly. He was leaning against the thin wall of the supermarket, pretending nothing had happened, but his face was unconvincing.

“You have already lived out your life, sir, but we want to live a little longer,” says another man, lying on the ground.

He looks younger by two or three decades.

“We hope they will get us out of here today,” he adds.

He hardly finished these words when the sequence is known again: shot, whistle, blast. This time louder, thus closer. These thirteen hope that an evacuation bus will come for them and take them out of this city, into which the war has crept suddenly. The Russian army is attacking from the east and trying to surround Lyman, where up to 10,000 residents still remain.

A nice city

With each shell falling closer, more people fall to the ground. However, not everyone can. An older woman is standing on crutches, fear painted on her face.

“They’re shooting civilians. What are we suffering for? Tell me. I haven’t come out of the basement in a week. I’m shaking,” she says, and begins to cry in the process.

Despite the calls from the authorities to leave Lyman as soon as possible, many people did not want to hear it. They did not believe that their city could become a target. On the day when the thirteen decided to leave, the most intense shelling of Lyman since 2014 took place.

When the artillery duels finally fade, police collect people from the city. A minibus with police officers speeds through the dense forest. A dozen or so meters by the supermarket there is a shell crater and dirt is scattered around. Frightened people board the bus.

“Quickly, while they’re not firing,” one of the policemen urges people.

Finally, the bus departs to a safe location a few kilometers away. Only police commander Ihor Uhnivenko remains. At the supermarket wall, he waits for his subordinates with whom he is to travel into the city to pick up the wounded. Every now and then a shell whistles over the store. Uhnivenko admits that this is the worst day.

Other policemen go to places near Lyman, where the fighting is even more fierce. They transport those who remain, mostly the elderly and the wounded.

Evacuation more and more difficult

The next day, a Russian rocket fell on the bridge connecting Lyman with the rest of the Donetsk oblast. You can leave the city and the surrounding villages only through an old and damaged river crossing, which is also under threat of attack by the Russian army. Heavy fighting for Lyman is taking place and the advancing troops are trying to cut Ukrainian soldiers off from the hinterland.

Only on the third day of regular shelling, and after leaving the city became almost impossible, have more people decided to leave Lyman. The policemen arrived with a bus and minibuses accompanied by an ambulance. About fifty people were waiting outside of the supermarket, accompanied by sporadic booms of artillery.

According to the data of the regional authorities, at least nine people died and seven were injured in Lyman and nearby towns during those three days. According to Uhnivenka, as of February 24, no less than 20 people have died in the city. According to data from the governor of the Donetsk oblast, Pavel Kyrylenko, at least 345 people have been killed and 1,019 injured in the region since February 24, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion. These estimates do not include the victims in Volnovakha and Mariupol, as it is currently impossible to determine their exact number.

Just on the other side of the river in Rajhorodok, the evacuees could catch their breath, although emotions still prevailed. You could still hear artillery, but now only in the distance. Seventy-year-old Volodymyr has only bags and a dachshund, Nika, which his granddaughter left him.

“I stayed alone in the apartment with the dog, the whole family left,” he says. “I wanted to wait it out until the end, but I did not know that they would be shooting like that. We ran down into the basement as soon as they started pounding.

Volodymyr stops himself from crying.

“We were waiting for the bus and — sorry for the word — they were right fucking overhead. Whistling, then an explosion. My nerves couldn’t stand it. I don’t want anything else but to be where they aren’t shooting. I want to survive.”

He knows that he is going to Dnipro in the neighboring Dnipropetrovsk oblast, but beyond that he does not know what to do.

You always want to come back home

Also among those waiting is the seventy-two-year-old Kateryna, who left Lyman with her daughter. Until the very end, she did not believe that the war could reach the city.

“I was born in such a time that I knew war only from history, but it got us,” says Kateryna.

“Has history come home?” I ask her.

Kateryna sighs deeply.

“Please, let’s not talk about sad things.”

Kateryna is going to visit her grandson in Rivne, western Ukraine. The last time she was there was in the 80’s; she doesn’t know what to expect. However, she is sure that it will not be as beautiful as it is in her town.

“We live among forests. There were times when people from Donetsk came to us and would only drive in before they were almost jumping out of the car window because they wanted to breathe our fresh air,” says Kateryna.

Today the beautiful forests full of animals, mushrooms and neighboring tourist resorts are shrouded in fire and smoke that spreads through the surrounding towns. Falling shells and rockets set off fires, so the beauty of Lyman may soon be lost for years. As the head of the Donetsk Regional Department of Forestry and Hunting, Viktor Storozhenko, told Free Radio, 3,700 hectares, or as much as 20 percent of the forests of Lyman, were on fire.

“We can only hope that it all ends well.” I think that God will get us out of it, even if having to pull us by our ears,” says Kateryna.

Though she has just left, she can’t wait to get back to her apartment.

“It is said that the walls of a home heal, while the foreign remains foreign. That’s why you always want to come back. You worked for it. In addition, I am of such an age that I cannot imagine any other home,” she admits.

She adds: the most important thing is to survive, and then we’ll see.

Mobile defense. What’s happening on the front line?

Paweł Pieniążek from the front line in Kharkiv oblast – 05/07/2022. Originally published in Tygodnik Powszechny.

The Russian army is trying to cut off Donbas from the rest of Ukraine. Somewhere east of Kharkiv, on a now pivotal stretch of the front, Ukrainian troops are fighting to frustrate this plan.

There are no extensive, deep and winding trenches here, which are associated with war fronts. You can only see pits carved into the ground, covered with branches and hay, scattered over the territory sheltered by trees. It is there that soldiers can find a moment of respite, as well as shelter in case of danger. And it is incessant: artillery shells whistle overhead every so often.

“It flew over us,” says the 21-year-old soldier Serhiy after one such particularly loud whistling sound.

“God bless their gunner,” says 39-year-old Andriy.

Serhiy admits that when it is really hot, they have already learned how to jump into the cavity at great speed. There they wait out the shelling, and then immediately go to their positions so as not to be surprised by a Russian diversionary-reconnaissance group. It can happen that, under the cover of artillery, such strike groups try to approach Ukrainian positions in order to surprise attack and break through.

Serhiy and Andriy are separated from the Russian army only by gentle hills and anti-tank mines deployed by Ukrainians.

“Their positions are over there. A tank sat there until yesterday,” indicates Andrij. “Every day they try to break through. They mainly use artillery and helicopters. They don’t send infantry because they won’t make it.

Battle for Donbas

Here, on the northern section of the front — the one that stretches today hundreds of kilometers from the vicinity of Kharkiv in the north through Izyum, Rubizhne and Popasna in the east, to the steppe plains of the Zaporizhzhia and Mikolayiv Oblasts in the south—the Ukrainian army not only defends itself, but also counterattacks. It is trying to recapture the territories occupied by Russian troops in the first days and weeks of the invasion launched on February 24.

The key element of this stage of the conflict is Donbas: the same region in the eastern part of the country where Russia unleashed this war in the spring of 2014, creating two puppet quasi-states under its control. In turn, one of the key places deciding the result of the current battle for Donbas is where Serhiy and Andriy are fighting.

Because although the Russian army has been pushed away from Kharkiv, it still controls a large part of the Kharkiv region. Thanks to this, the Russians can easily supply their troops, who are trying to attack the Donbas from the direction of the city of Izium (in the south-eastern part of the Kharkiv Oblast), already occupied by them. If the Russians succeed, they may cut off Donbas from the rest of Ukraine’s territories, and thus surround the Ukrainian grouping fighting there, estimated at tens of thousands of soldiers.

If, on the other hand, Ukrainian forces manage to push the Russians even further east of Kharkiv, then they may flank the Russian grouping attacking from the Izium region. If the Ukrainians succeeded, then the Russians themselves could be encircled.

At war, but close to home

At the beginning of the invasion, the Ukrainian 93rd Independent Mechanized Brigade “Kholodnyi Yar”, in which Andriy and Serhiy serve, resisted the Russian army in the Sumy Oblast. Then it was transferred here to the neighboring Kharkiv region.

The 93rd Brigade is one of the most experienced units in the Ukrainian army. It took part in key battles in the Donbas in 2014-15, such as those for Ilovaisk, the Donetsk airport and Debaltseve. Now too, from the first hours of the full-scale Russian offensive, “Kholodnyi Yar” constantly takes part in the fighting.

Serhiy has additional motivation to fight. The front line runs several dozen kilometers from his hometown. After what happened in Mariupol, Bucha and many other places, Serhiy realizes that bestiality can strike anyone. The number of civilian casualties and the scale of war crimes is still impossible to estimate.

His mother stayed at home and is currently making camouflage nets. She wants to somehow support her sons — because it is not only Serhiy; his younger brother too serves in the zone of military operations. When the opportunity arises, Serhiy talks to his mother on the phone. She assures that she is not worried, that nothing is the matter. But sometimes she can’t take it and starts crying.

“I’m at war and close to home at the same time. That’s why I have to make a stand here and protect it,” says Serhiy.

Conditions at the positions are spartan. It is cool in the foxholes and there is not much space. The dugouts are quite shallow. They had deeper trenches in the Sumy Oblast, where they could hide properly and move freely. Here that is lacking—when a projectile is incoming, they must simply hit the dirt or jump into the nearest foxhole.

Serhiy does not complain about the monotony of war, the waiting and the long days.

“You come back from the post, you have a place to sleep and something to eat. We prepare food on the fire. If it wasn’t for the bulletproof vest and rifle it would be like a picnic here,” he tries to joke.

Avoid getting caught in the pincers

The lack of field fortifications is due to the fact that the soldiers took up these positions recently, and also due to the dynamics of this stage of the war.

Over the years, right up to February 24, clashes in Donbas took place in more or less the same positions that both sides had held since the beginning of 2015. They consistently strengthened them, knew them and the entire neighborhood like their own pocket. Trench warfare, usually of low intensity (which does not mean no casualties) — this is what the conflict in Donbas has looked like in recent years. Now the 93rd Brigade is fighting under different conditions.

23-year-old Oleksandr, despite his young age, is the commander of this hidden position on the edge of the forest. It is also demarcated by numerous holes hidden among the trees. Oleksandr has already been in the service for four years. However, he admits that the experience he has acquired in recent years is significantly different from what he has had to face after February 24.

“Before that it was trench warfare but now there are mobile actions. We are constantly on the move. It is rare for us to sit in one place for long. We used to spend eight to nine months in one position, moving only slightly. And now, in the last two months, we have already changed positions several dozen times,” explains Oleksandr.

In many places the frontline shifts almost daily, so there is no opportunity to strengthen it either. The scale of military operations and the arsenal used are also incomparable. The Russians now make extensive use of aviation, drones and long-range missiles. There are also massed artillery attacks. That is why infantry units rarely go into direct combat. They spend most of their time hiding, waiting and defending against enemy attacks.

“If the enemy breaks through, they’ll take us in a pincer.” However, I doubt they will succeed. We are doing everything so that this does not happen,” says Oleksandr.

Drones guide artillery

Everyone was in a good mood that day at Oleksandr’s position. They sat around a wooden table and analyzed a successful tactical action: the people of his platoon had just managed to knock out a Russian infantry fighting vehicle (BMP); they hit it with a guided anti-tank missile. It was still on fire.

The platoon leader steered the drone over the site where the BMP was burning to confirm and record that it had indeed been destroyed. According to Ukrainian law, the destruction of such an enemy vehicle is subject to a financial award of almost 43,000 hryvnia (i.e. almost $1,500). The soldiers assure, however, that it is not money that motivates them.

“This is the best job in the world because we defend our land. What could be better? First we damaged a Kamaz truck, now we destroyed the BMP. Little by little, we push them out of here,” says Oleksandr.

But the Russians also hunt Ukrainian military equipment. Due to the large number of Russian drones that help guide artillery fire, the crews of Ukrainian self-propelled guns have a very difficult task. Like the infantry, the Gvozdika howitzer is hidden under the trees. The Gvozdiki must move efficiently into firing position, shoot quickly and then look for cover again.

“The Russians use a lot of artillery, and above all a lot of unmanned aerial vehicles. We see and hear some of them, so you can get away in advance, hide or move. But some are not perceptible — admits Ivan, commander of the Gvozdika howitzer. “In spite of everything, we outwit them, we dodge them and drive to new redoubts, from where we strike the enemy.

Look at my darling

When we are heading for artillery positions, damaged Russian military equipment appears by the road from time to time. Like, for example, a tank standing on a dirt road with the letters “Z” painted on its armor. Or rather – what was once a tank. The hull is devoid of a turret, which, due to the explosion, flew somewhere far away.

“This is all the work of our boys,” says Ivan.

“Yes, that’s us,” confirms one of the self-propelled gun crew. “But we get it too. Look at my darling.

He points to an iron machine, the thick armor of which is covered with fragments; the tank was damaged as a result of shelling. 21-year-old Danyło, the commander of the knocked out gun, explains that it happened during an artillery duel. The shell fell a few meters from them, and the shrapnel did some damage.

“Our crew is still working on it, but the self-propelled gun can now be used,” says Danyło.

After Bucha I was torn from the inside

This time it occurred without losses. But earlier, while they were fighting in the Sumy region, one of their comrades died. First, he was wounded during shelling. The rest of the crew wanted to save him, but before they could get to him, more shells fell. The soldier could not be saved. The self-propelled gun also suffered serious damage then, but was quickly repaired.

“Losses do not demoralize us, they only add to our anger,” says Oleksandr, commander of the second self-propelled gun.

Oleksandr has a two-and-a-half-year-old son. He hasn’t seen him for a long time. Sometimes, when they go to nearby villages, he see children there. Though war is near, seeing them makes him glad.

“When I saw what they did in Bucha, it was as if I was being torn from the inside. They have no mercy, nor will there be any for them. Knight’s honor has ceased to apply,” says Oleksandr.

On the basis of conversations with soldiers from his brigade, Ivan claims that most of them today have the same motivation: they are fighting to prevent the Russians from occupying new territories, to prevent them from reaching their families, their relatives and loved ones.

“The enemy has invaded our land and we must drive him away,” says Ivan.

The fate of Donbas is not a foregone conclusion. The Russians are attacking from different directions and trying to break the Ukrainian defense in many places, hoping to hit a weak point.

The war of maneuver continues. ©

Text completed on May 6.

I didn’t think that this would reach us. Correspondence from Donbas

Paweł Pieniążek from Kramatorsk (eastern Ukraine) – 05/05/2022. Originally published in Tygodnik Powszechny.

The Russians are shelling Kramatorsk. During one of the nighttime attacks, 25 civilians were injured.

It was after three o’clock when two loud explosions rang out. Viktoria, 54, went outside to smoke. She quickly finished her cigarette because it was chilly out and went back to bed, covering herself with a duvet. A moment passed. There was a flash, a boom, and dirt, glass and rubble pelted down on her. Viktoria did not move from her bed. She only screamed to her 24-year-old daughter Karina and their old Pekingese dog to see if they were okay. They were silent. Viktoria was terrified. Her husband’s head was wounded. Her legs were cut, likely by glass that had been flying at high speed. Karina was in worse condition. Her whole hand was bloody, and splinters had sliced up her shoulders as well. The dog was terrified but intact. Victoria’s family was quickly taken away by ambulances, dressed in an emergency room, and returned home to take care of what was left of their apartment.

It was only when the light of day flooded the yard that the extent of the destruction became visible. In the yard there was a giant crater left by a rocket, one of several that fell on Kramatorsk that day, where 200,000 people lived until February 24. Twenty-five civilians were injured.

The shock wave broke the windowpanes on both sides of Victoria’s building, tore out the doors and window frames, removed the inner walls, turned apartments upside-down as if a hurricane had passed through them. Even the load-bearing wall had cracked.

“We’re not in the military! There is no target here. Next to our building, there was only a heating substation and a broken boiler room. Why are we being hit?!” Viktoria asks.

In the morning she is still angry, shaking and scared.

“I’m not doing well! I have no home! I have an wounded daughter. My husband too!” she screams.

As she says these words, the piercing sound of an alarm siren is heard. She curses officials for not doing anything and not telling them what’s next. She sits on a bench by her home. Her friend holds the scared Pekingese dog in her arms.

“I grew up here, gave birth to children, furnished apartments from scratch, put a lot of money into them. Now all I have left is this,” Viktoria points to her clothes.

She is wearing slippers, a bathrobe and a jacket thrown over it. She’s goes to get Karina. The girl doesn’t quite know what’s going on as her mother slowly takes off her denim jacket and shows me the wounds her daughter has sustained. Her hand is completely bandaged up and her shirt is covered in blood. Fine wounds are visible on her shoulders.

Residents clear their apartments, try to dig out personal belongings.

For several weeks now, the regional authorities have been calling on the people of Donbas to travel deep into Ukraine. It is these territories that are the main target of the Russian offensive. Fierce battles take place near cities such as Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, Popasna and Lyman. Although Kramatorsk is still over 30 km from the front, it is within range of Russian mrockets. The most serious incident took place on April 8, when the train station was shelled. At that time 59 civilians were killed, including seven children. Over 110 people were wounded.

“There were still a lot of people in our building. Nobody wanted to leave, but now I am definitely not staying. Everyone who had money left, while we waited for a miracle, but it did not occur,” admits Karina. “I never thought that something like this would reach us and in one moment I would be homeless.”

Severodonetsk under fire

Paweł Pieniążek from Severodonetsk (Eastern Ukraine) – 04/15/2022. Originally published in Tygodnik Powszechny.

The Russians are preparing for a major offensive in Donbas. Missiles and rockets fall on front-line towns every day.

Shot-up and burnt-out buildings, broken windows, rubble scattered all over, the thunder of cannons and the whistle of missiles have already become part of the landscape of this city, which is the temporary capital of the Luhansk oblast.

Until recently, over 100,000 people lived in Severodonetsk. Now less than a fifth of them remain. One encounters people in the streets sporadically, because most of those who remain are hiding in cellars. Some buildings have the words “People” written on them.

Serhiy, 65, and seven of his neighbors, men and women with whom he is hiding in the basement of their house, did not want to do this. They believe that bringing attention to themselves can only be dangerous. “It’ll cause a rocket to fly in,” adds 72-year-old Yuri.

Their basement consists of several rooms and a long corridor that leads to basements under other staircases. Sometimes a faint glow reaches them from there so neighbors suspect someone is living there too — but they’ve never checked.

A shockwave blew out the windowpanes in their home and a missile breached the roof. Another projectile hit one of the nearby buildings in such a way that it tore the walls and the roof off of a corner apartment. There was a fire, but no one came to put it out, so much of it burned down. The residents now have nowhere to return to.

Severodonetsk, like other cities in the Luhansk region, has found itself under heavy fire. It slowly turns to rubble. The Russians, standing not far from gates, are preparing for a great offensive on Donbas, i.e. the parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts controlled by Ukraine. The inhabitants of Severodonetsk are convinced that the worst is yet to come.

Give them flowers for what?

In the basement, in addition to eight people, there are also two dogs, a cat and a parrot.

People and animals are reluctant to go outside. They sit underground, rarely seeing the sun. The temperature here is around 11 degrees Celsius. The sounds of explosions even reach underground.

When one of them reverberates, a woman dwelling in the basement says only: “Oh, it has already flown over to us somewhere.”

They have electricity here, so they aren’t sitting in complete darkness. They can also prepare hot meals on the electric stove. Shops are closed, but they have their own supplies. In addition, volunteers have brought humanitarian aid twice. One of the neighbors will occasionally go to the city center to get drinking water.

Serhiy has completely lost track of time. It happens that he asks a neighbor for the hour. He further inquires whether that indicates day or the night. The whole situation makes him angry. Soon after February 24, the day the Russian offensive began, Severodonetsk became a battleground. He is suffering incomparably more than eight years ago, when war broke out in Donbas.

“Putin is coming here. Supposedly to set me free. So why is he destroying everything? He can kill me, destroy my apartment and ruin my life,” says Serhiy. “What do I need him for here with such liberation? He thought he would be greeted with flowers, but no one does.”

“Give him flowers for what? For all this?” A neighbor asks rhetorically.

Serhiy had a business engaged in, among other things, transporting people. He had five buses, but all of them were destroyed by one barrage.

Still, he wants to stay in the city. He asserts that he is not of an age at which he can throw everything away and start over.

“Even if I was 50 years old, I would spit at all of this and go to Poland or to another country in the European Union. I would try to get a foothold there somehow,” he admits.

Another fear that motivates him and his neighbors to stay is that burned block near their house. It is like a warning. Because if something hits their house, at least, while they remain there, they will be able to try to extinguish it so that it does not catch the fire all.

“The most important thing is to live through the war and for the house to remain standing, as for the rest we’ll see,” says Serhiy. “Everything will be alright. Knock on wood.”

He knocks on the unpainted wood table top.

People of iron

Not far from Serhiy’s cellar, a married couple, 57-year-old Larysa and 60-year-old Viktor, walk down the street. They pass the burnt apartment building and stare at it attentively. They walk slowly, ignoring the roar of artillery.

“We don’t even flinch anymore,” says Viktor.

“We’re used to it. At the beginning, when there was a bang, we immediately ran to hide, and now we hear that it was a distant shot and it flew somewhere far away,” says Larysa.

This is how the majority of the inhabitants of Severodonetsk respond. Some of them sit on the benches in front of their block of flats, pensive. Others talk or just sit. They don’t even twitch or avert their gaze — as if they had turned into a hunk of iron.

Viktor and Larysa say that this is the first time in a while that they have gone out onto the street. They do not want to do it often, because shelling is conducted from at least three directions and it is difficult to tell exactly where fire will fly in from.

The destruction is most severe in the eastern and southern parts of the city, but missiles and rockets also fell on the western edge. They were not selective — they hit houses, shops, markets, hospitals, schools and gas stations.

As per the words of the Ukrainian authorities in the oblast, practically the entire infrastructure of the city has been destroyed here. There are no safe places in Severodonetsk.

You lie in wait for something to fall on your head

Larysa and Viktor emerged because they read on the Internet that a shell fell near the house where Larysa’s mother lived. The couple went to see what had happened and if the house was okay. As luck would have it, they didn’t find any damage. They were now on their way home.

If it is reasonably quiet, Viktor and Larysa spend time in their corner apartment on the third floor. There is only one story above them. When they saw the burned down apartment building, they understood what could happen to their home after a single strike.

Only when the shelling intensifies does the couple descend into the basement.

“It is impossible to sleep peacefully at night. Actually, it is impossible to do anything,” says Larysa.

“During the day it is quiet until dinner…” adds Viktor.

“…but not always…” Larysa interjects.

“… then we lie down, sleep the night. You just fall asleep, and then something wallops and we jump out of bed.”

“We hear a shot and wait for it to fall on our head.”

Larysa and Viktor do not leave the house on a daily basis, even for humanitarian aid. They are afraid because several times already the distribution points have been shot at, with no regard for the people standing there. In April alone, the Russians did it twice, injuring at least five people.

Make myself at home again

It was sometime in the second half of March that Olena, 47, went for help. Suddenly there was a strike not far from her. The shockwave threw her to the ground and shrapnel from the shell pierced a hole through her leg.

She was dazed. Unable to walk, she crawled around calling for help. She was lucky that a man was passing by who called an ambulance. It came quickly. The shard hadn’t damaged the bone.

Olena has been in hospital for three weeks now, she has fresh bandages on her leg. She is alone in the city, with no family. She is an only child, and her father and mother both died years ago. Olena, as well as all the other patients on this floor, are looked after by one nurse and two orderlies. On the most difficult days, they struggle to cope with dozens of wounded. The rest of the staff left, fearing that Severodonetsk might be occupied by the Russians.

At least one hospital building has been hit so far. The shell got stuck in the roof. An entire floor is out of commission. The building where Olena is located has six floors and rises above the horizon. The sound of fighting constantly reaches the ears of the people staying here, who have come to terms with the fact that they can be shelled at any moment.

For Olena, these are still better conditions than at home.

“It’s a little quieter in the ward and our girls, the orderlies and nurse, calm us down,” admits Olena.

However, the medical staff constantly asks the patients to go to safer parts of Ukraine. Olena didn’t want to hear anything about evacuating until a shell almost killed her. Now she is waiting to be able to stand on her feet. Then she will go to see if her house is intact, and after that she will leave.

Where? She has no idea. And although she has not left Severodonetsk yet, she is already thinking about how she will live in it again.

“Our city is beautiful. I would like to come back here and make myself at home in it again,” she admits.

For now, it is difficult to think about good times. The battle for Donbas is about to enter a new, even more terrible phase. ©

Text completed on April 13.

Donbas: Julia wants to fight for her home

Paweł Pieniążek from Kramatorsk – 04/12/2022. Originally published in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Not everyone wants to leave the Donbas, which is threatened by war. Some residents are ready to stand up for it. Like Julia, a 34-year-old Information Technology lecturer who volunteered for the territorial defense after the attack on Kramatorsk.

It was another day of evacuations from the 150,000 person city of Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine. 34-year-old IT lecturer Julia Dovinova wanted to help somehow. All her volunteer friends left, so she decided to help at the crowded train station. People were waiting there for an evacuation train to Western Ukraine. Dovinova wanted to make for the tent standing next to the station, where those departing could warm themselves, drink water or tea, and receive food. She was right next to it when she heard an explosion, followed by more. She immediately fell to the ground. The car she was lying next to suddenly caught fire. When she got up, she saw wounded people and bodies near the tent she was heading to.

A few dozen meters away lay the body of a rocket launched from the Tochka-U system with “For the children” written on it, which the writer no doubt meant was revenge against Ukrainians for attacking cities controlled by Russians and separatists. 57 people were killed, including five children, and 109 were injured as a result.

Dovinova came out of it without a scratch, though she was shocked and her eyes were glazed over.

“I have to do something, because if I sit still, everything that I’ve seen will probably flash before my eyes,” she admits.

When she realized that she was safe, she started helping people get to a safer place by carrying their luggage. Among them was a woman who lost her daughter. She was covered in blood but said she could walk. Dovinova escorted her to a nearby church that giving shelter to these terrified people.

For many days the thought of leaving had been on her mind. The oblasts of Donetsk, of which Kramatorsk is the capital, and Luhansk are the main targets of the Russian offensive. According to representatives of Ukraine and Western countries, in the coming days Russia may launch a massive attack on Donbas, where the war that continues to this day began in April 2014. Regional authorities urge residents to immediately leave for safer parts of Ukraine. Kramatorsk has largely been deserted in the last two weeks, and almost everything in the city is closed. So far, Dovinova has not decided to leave her home. First of all, because her mom, dad, grandfather and boyfriend remain. Second, she wants to help somehow.

“I’m not going to leave. I don’t know what will happen to me. I have a shelter in my building,” says Dovinova.

On February 24, when Russia launched a massive attack on Ukraine, she immediately called the conscription commission to enroll in the territorial defense. In the receiver she heard: “Girl, you must be crazy.” After the attack on the train station in Kramatorsk, she decided to try again. This time she did not call, but went to the draft office and applied to be admitted.

The war returns to Donbas

Paweł Pieniążek from Kramatorsk – 04/08/2022. Originally published in Tygodnik Powszechny.

CORRESPONDENCE FROM PAWEŁ PIENIĄŻEK: Eight years ago, the war started right here, in Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. Today, anyone that can is trying to evacuate from these cities.

It is just before noon on Friday, April 8. Bodies lie near the train station in the Donbas city of Kramatorsk from which an evacuation of Donetsk oblast residents has been taking place for many days. Streaks of blood are visible here and there.

A woman passes by. She is in tears, looking for her loved ones. Lyudmila, a pensioner, was at the station when a rocket launched from a Tochka-U system hit. Her husband, Volodymyr, had just gone to the bathroom and was hit by shrapnel.

Now the two of them are sitting on a bus. One that is supposed to take people from Kramatorsk, because the evacuation trains have been paused. In recent days, the tracks leading from Donbas towards the Kharkiv Oblast have come under fire several times. No one knows how much longer the trains will run.

Volodymyr was bandaged up immediately after the attack. It is already completely soaked with blood. “No, there’s no point in going to the hospital,” he says calmly. “I’ll take care of everything on arrival.”

Volodymyr and his wife Lyudmila want to leave Kramatorsk as soon as possible after what they’ve experienced. The shrapnel in his leg and the oozing blood are not enough to stop them. He says he has already been bandaged and there will be no further discussion. He’s going somewhere far from home, somewhere deep into Ukraine.

Bracelets

Almost in the center of the square in front of the station lies the body of the rocket, with the phrase “for the children” spray-painted on it. What the Russian soldier who wrote it meant is unknown. He probably figured it would be revenge for the missiles that also hit cities controlled by Russians and separatists. This particular rocket with the inscription “for the children” killed — according to preliminary information — 39 people, including four children. About 100 people sustained injuries, many severe, including the loss of limbs.

The body of the girl — maybe a few or a dozen years old, it is impossible to tell — has already been placed on foil, covered with a white sheet. Fragments of clothing stick out from under it: jeans, a light jacket, and bracelets. As military medics lift the sheet to transfer the body to the car, which is already crammed with corpses up to the roof, the men struggle to hold back tears.

They know that it’s just the beginning. Two cities — Kramatorsk with a population of 150,000 and the neighboring Slovyansk with 110,000 inhabitants — are now threatened by another much more terrible version of the current war: a new Russian offensive aimed at conquering the entire Donbas.

As luck would have it, the Donetsk war began in these two cities exactly eight years ago, in April 2014.

Not quite precise weaponry

A few days before the Russians fired on this station, the roar of a jet engine was has heard flying over Kramatorsk in the night. Then there was a loud explosion. 38-year-old Vitaly had earlier gone to sleep in the hallway, where it is safer. He did so because he was awakened by the sound of a siren warning against an air attack. Now awakaned again, he ascertained that the whole apartment building was moving and the mirrors were shaking. He ran out onto the balcony and saw a glow. He didn’t know where exactly it hit.

It was only in the morning that he found out that a bomb had fallen on the school he had attended years ago. The bomb made a huge crater in the ground which quickly filled with water from broken pipes. It destroyed the building structure where the sports hall and canteen were located, leaving only rubble. Fortunately, no one was inside that night.

In the morning, Vitaly came to see the damage with his own eyes. He tried to remember which classrooms he had taken lessons in, but he couldn’t think very clearly.

“Russia is crazy,” says Vitaly.

About the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, he only speaks impersonally: “he”.

“He’s just crazy. He says they use precision weapons. So where, suka, is that precision?“ his voice rose.

The Russian pilot might have wanted to hit the adjacent police station.

Russia marches on Donbas

The Ukrainian authorities estimate that after withdrawing Russian troops from the Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy oblasts, the main goal of the Kremlin should be an offensive on Kharkiv and above all on Donbas.

“The enemy is gathering all possible strike forces to achieve at least some tactical and strategic success in the territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts,” Pavlo Kyrylenko, chairman of the Donetsk Regional Military Administration, admitted in an interview.

This was also one of the initial goals of — as the Kremlin calls it — the “special operation” launched on February 24, 2022: the capture of Donbas. And as with other goals, the Russians have not yet achieved it.

“The situation is difficult. There is continuous fire, and clashes along the demarcation line,” says Kyrylenko. “Many towns along it are in ruins.”

The “demarcation line”: this is the official name for the de facto front line in Donbas.

At the end of the first week of April, the situation looks like this: the Russians are attacking from the city of Izium in Kharkiv Oblast to the north (some 40 kilometers north of Slovyansk), as well as from the south. The goal is clear: they are trying to surround the territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, which have been under the control of Ukraine since 2014, and to encircle the Ukrainian forces fighting there. They are in turn trying to break Ukrainian positions along the demarcation line (front) from the east in the vicinity of Popasna in the Luhansk region, and near Avdiivka & Mar’inka in the Donetsk region.

It is because of this threat that Ukrainian authorities have been calling for the inhabitants of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts to evacuate deep into Ukraine for the past several weeks. The aim is to reduce the number of possible casualties among the civilian population, as well as to facilitate the operations of their own armed forces.

Road into the unknown

The inhabitants of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, neighboring cities, have been gradually leaving them since February 24 — since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion. Recent days, however, have been panicked. The cause is the calls by the authorities (now taken more seriously), difficulties in everyday life and the slowly approaching sound of artillery barrages. And also, probably, the scenes from Bucza and other cities from which the Russians have withdrawn, leaving behind the graves and bodies of killed civilians.

Shop windows have been boarded up with plywood. Large signs are visible on the few that are still operating: “Open”. Their shelves grow more empty every day, although food prices have risen significantly. Top-shelf products that people cannot afford usually remain. Bread appears from time to time.

Most of the store owners plan to close them in the coming days, as soon as they sell the remaining stock. Products that are not popular today, as well as equipment (e.g. self-service checkouts), are being transported away. Banks have closed almost all their branches and only individual ATMs are in operation, now crowded with people. Bicycles are gaining popularity, because lines of cars stretch in front of the few operating gas stations.

Recently, many people have been waiting for the possibility of evacuation at railway stations, especially in Kramatorsk. Mainly women, children and older men.

A few days ago, 61-year-old Nina with her 35-year-old daughter Anastasia and three grandchildren (the youngest girl is one year old) were waiting for a train from Slovyansk to Uzhhorod in western Ukraine, more than 1,100 kilometers from Slovyansk. They took one suitcase and one bag in which they put away clothes and food for the children.

“We haven’t arranged anything. We do not even know if we will be able to get on the train,” said Anastasia and pointed to the stroller with the baby. “We don’t even know when this train will arrive.”

As we talked, the air-raid alarm siren wailed without pause, but no one paid any attention to it. These alarms are so common that people are already used to them.

It is precisely this journey into the unknown, the uncertainty and the prospect of starting all over again that keep many Donbas residents from evacuating. Especially the elderly, who have rarely or even never left their oblast. Some are also staying for the sake of sick or infirm family members.

“I don’t want to leave, but what are we supposed to do, where can we hide? I have to save the children!” Anastasia said.

Her husband stayed behind in Slovyansk.

This is a more terrible war

Back eight years ago, in April 2014, after the protests in Kyiv’s Maidan and the annexation of Crimea, local separatists and Russians arriving from the Russian Federation occupied Slovyansk, as well as Kramatorsk and several other cities.

This gave rise to the establishment of two unrecognized republics subordinated to Russia in the territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. For almost three months Slovyansk, being the headquarters of anti-Ukrainian armed groups, became the main site of conflict. It was quickly surrounded by Ukrainian forces. There were fierce battles, during which mainly the outskirts of Slovyansk were affected. The city was withering and after being blockaded it began to run out of almost everything, including water, electricity and gas. Finally on July 5, 2014, Ukrainian troops regained control of the city. Its inhabitants for a long time afterward continued to live with the uncertainty that the conflict would again return to their homes.

Nevertheless, Anastasia and Nina remained in Slovyansk this whole time. They did not think that — despite the gunfire and fighting, despite the difficulties with procurement of everyday items — the situation was serious enough to leave. Now they are leaving Slovyansk before the fighting even reaches the city.

The belief that it may be worse than in 2014 is based on what is happening in other parts of Ukraine — like say those that are after all located not so far from Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, such as Mariupol in the south of the oblast, which has been under siege for over a month; a large part of the city has already been destroyed. The exact numbers of civilian casualties in Mariupol are not known, but could be in the thousands.

Nina has friends in Izium, which has been fiercely fought over and is now controlled by the Russians. “They told me that there they wipe everything off the face of the earth,” she concurs. “That is why we take the children, leave the house and go with almost nothing. There is no one left on our street.”

According to the data of the Ukrainian authorities in Izium from the beginning of April, 80 percent of the buildings there have been destroyed, and the Russians seem to be using a scorched earth tactic — destroying everything so that there is no means by which to defend and nothing to fight for.

“People”

Only part of the city’s inhabitants leave the city by train. Others leave them in their own cars. Hand-written signs: “Children”, “People” or “Evacuation” are often stuck to the windows. Others wait for buses to take away residents. Some of them leave from the Good News Evangelical Church in Slovyansk.

Yevhen, 42, has been associated with the Church for over two decades. Now he is one of the volunteers.

He himself is already an internal refugee: at the end of summer 2014, he along with his wife and three children left Khartsyz’k in the Donetsk Oblast, which has since found itself in the territory controlled by the unrecognized republic. They fled when, in nearby Ilovais’k, regular Russian troops and separatists were gradually surrounding Ukrainian forces. At the time, in August 2014, the fighting for Ilovais’k was one of the most terrible battles of that year. They also decided the course of the war then, because they stopped the Ukrainian offensive and deprived Kyiv of the possibility of regaining these territories for the next few years — although earlier, in July 2014, it seemed to be within reach.

Yevhen came to Slovyansk because — like in Khartsyz’k — there was an Evangelical church here, and, he emphasizes, its proximity is very important to him. At the time Slovyansk was once again controlled by Kyiv. And the Church transported people out of the cities under fire.

It was because of this experience that everyone knew what to do on February 24. As soon as the situation in Donbas worsened again, they began to help other people leave the most dangerous towns.

Recently, Yevhen and other volunteers thus helped the inhabitants of cities under fire in the Luhansk oblast. Now more and more people from Slovyansk itself are asking for help.

Hope

30-year-old Anastasia and 28-year-old Dmytro sit on a church bench with their three children; the oldest is 10 years old. They are waiting for a bus to Dnipro, the capital of the neighboring Dnipropetrovsk region. “We want to go anywhere. I have no exact plans for now. The most important thing is to get the children out. The strikes are getting closer and closer, and I can’t take it anymore,” says Anastasia.

She adds that after 2014 they already have experience: they know what war means. And this one is even more terrible than the one eight years ago.

Dmytro left Luhansk then, which is not controlled by Kyiv to this day. “This is the second time that I am leaving with the hope that I will return soon. It didn’t happen last time. I really want this time to be different,” he admits.

Fierce fighting took place in Luhansk eight years ago. Dmytro lived through it once, now he has no intention of experiencing anything like it a second time. So I do not want to delay evacuating — sometimes one day’s delay may decide whether a route is still passable.

The Donbas rail station: concert and evacuation

Paweł Pieniążek from Kramatorsk – 04/05/2022. Originally published in Tygodnik Powszechny.

The situation in the Donbas is worsening. The authorities are appealing to the inhabitants to leave for safer regions of Ukraine.

Over a thousand people wait for evacuation trains at the station in Kramatorsk. Among them, women, children and the elderly. Men of draft age only come to escort their families, help them with their luggage and depart after giving them a hug. Families stand in line. They patiently wait for their turn, despite their emotions.

Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, one of the most famous pop music performers in Ukraine and frontman of the band Okean Elzy, approaches those who are leaving. He travels to various Ukrainian cities, bringing humanitarian aid and lifting the spirits of those who find themselves in a difficult situation. There is commotion when Vakarchuk appears in a crowd, as if everyone has temporarily forgotten that they are leaving their homes, perhaps forever.

“I’m glad to see you!” says one of those departing.

“I am also happy,” replies Vakarchuk.

“Let’s take a picture,” another woman almost orders.

In a moment they are posing together while her friend takes a photo.

“Why don’t you sing?” a woman in line asks dolefully.

“I’ll sing in a moment.”

“We will come to your house,” someone jokes.

“Everyone can come. I can leave my mother’s phone number,” says Vakarchuk.

The authorities urge: leave the city

Although the authorities of the Donetsk region have long been calling for inhabitants to leave Kramatorsk, it is only now that more people from this city and its vicinity have decided to leave their homes.

According to the General Staff of Ukraine, after Russian troops withdrew from the Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy oblasts, they are to focus on capturing Kharkiv and the entirety of Donbas.

It was in Donbas, as the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts are commonly known, that in 2014 the war between Ukraine and Russia & its puppet republics began. As of February 24, 2022, at least 13,000 people had died here. Kramatorsk was one of the first cities to be seized by separatists supported by Russian soldiers. The offensive that started in this region on February 24 may now be decided. Russian troops are trying to cut off and occupy Donbas.

Lviv is waiting for you

Vakarchuk enters the crowded train station and is greeted by applause. He stands on a chair so that he can be seen better. He persuades people to leave and assures those who want to go to Lviv that the city is waiting for them with open arms. The singer grew up and spent a significant part of his life in this West Ukrainian city.

“The people there are very friendly, they all love you very much and are worried. That is why you will go there and feel at home,” he says to the assemblage. He asks them not to worry if they fail to board the first train. They will make it on the next one because, as he assures, the evacuation will continue.

“The war will end, the Ukrainian army will win…” Vakarchuk says, but people interrupt him with a wave of applause. “…it’ll do it so that you can return to your homes.

When the day comes, the war will end

After ending the speech with the slogan, “Glory to Ukraine – Glory to Heroes!” Vakarchuk says:

“My guitar is far away in the car, so I’ll just sing.”

“Yes, it’ll make us happy,” a woman replies loudly.

“When the war ends!” screams another, hoping to convince the singer to sing “Embrace”, which has become very popular again since February.

“You want that one?”

“Yes! Please!” the woman says, sniffling.

Wakarchuk on the chair sings:

When the day comes

The war will end

There I lost myself

I looked down to the bottom

Embrace me, embrace less, embrace me

So gently and don’t let go

Embrace me, embrace me, embrace me

May your spring come soon

People sing along with Wakarczuk during the chorus, some of their eyes filling with tears, refraining from crying.

An uncertain evacuation

People move towards the wagons after Wakarczuk’s performance. They try to find a seat on the rapidly filling train. Those who remain on the platform wait hopefully for the next one. The star’s visit momentarily made their departure more pleasant, often into the unknown, where they have no contacts, family or friends. Most of the inhabitants of Kramatorsk and the surrounding towns have still not dared to take this step. They hope that by some miracle the war will bypass their homes after all.

That night, the tracks near Kramatorsk were damaged as a result of attacks. The evacuation was temporarily suspended.

Home can’t be packed up. Correspondence from Kharkiv

Paweł Pieniążek from Kharkiv – 04/04/2022. Originally published in Tygodnik Powszechny.

At least 10 million Ukrainians had to leave their places of residence. They dream of seeing them again.

Two days before the Russian attack, Maria and Dmytro nervously paced the apartment, smoking cigarettes one after another and changing their minds about every half hour: to leave Kharkiv or stay.

They bought tickets for a train to Lviv just in case. They chaotically slipped things into suitcases and cartons. Maria, 27, packed two of her favorite dresses. She chose her most broken-in shoes because they’re the most comfortable. She forgot — regrettably — her boxes of photos. In the back of her head, she had a feeling that she might not return to her apartment or even to Kharkiv at all. “I felt a bit cowardly because I left everything I care about and everyone I love,” she admits.

Although even two days before the Russian offensive many still thought that the invasion was not a foregone conclusion, a warning light went off in Dmytro’s head after Vladimir Putin announced that he would recognize two puppet republics in parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Maria and Dmytro expected an escalation of the conflict in Donbas, which had been going on since 2014. Kharkiv, with a population of 1.5 million, neighbors Donbas, so they thought that it could also become a target.

Half an hour before the train departed, Maria’s parents came to the couple’s apartment. She handed them the key and cried in front of them for the first time in many years. They quickly ran to the station, got on the train and departed without telling anyone else. After more than a month, they still have not returned to Kharkiv, which is regularly under fire.

Between 10 and 15 million Ukrainians had to leave their homes due to the Russian invasion. Over 3 million went abroad, most of them to Poland. They left their homes, personal belongings and memories behind. They don’t know if they will see their homes again.

Make someone else’s apartment yours

Back in 2018, Maria and Dmytro lived elsewhere. They were once walking through the neighborhood where their home is now. Maria doesn’t want to reveal the location. They looked at one of the balconies and one of them said, “How great would it be to live here!” Maria liked the neighborhood and the fact that many friends lived nearby.

Soon they rented the apartment they were looking at from the street. It was in terrible condition, but the owner wanted little for the rent and agreed to any renovations. They gradually renovated it with their own money. In the second half of last year, Dmytro fixed up the balcony. It was already chilly, but the couple were glad that when spring came they would be able to hang out on it.

“Renovating an apartment that is not yours can be tiring. As long as you are enthusiastic, it’s great. But doubts arise when you start to think that it is not yours and you don’t know how long you will live in it,” says Maria.

Nevertheless, they were still wondering what else to change. Maybe aside from the furniture that they had been moving around for a long time to find the optimal placement. Out of someone else’s apartment, they created their own. Maria spent most of her time in a room arranged as a modest study. She set up a desk there and sat at it for hours. She worked remotely for an IT company. “Your place is where you spend most of your time. It is your home. Although I’d call all of Kharkiv home” she admits. For her, home is made up of the people close to her.

After their departure, there are still some things left in their apartment: a bicycle mounted on a wall, hanging laundry, posters, plants that were watered from time to time by a friend, and boxes of things that might eventually be forwarded to them. One friend who had keys to the apartment removed and hid under the bed some work by the Kharkiv artist Hamlet, which Maria received from him for her birthday. It reads: “I am a salesman with nothing to sell.”

Searching for a place

There were times when Maria went on a spontaneous journey. A few years ago she went to the USA. She was going into the unknown with no plan, some money, needing to stay with people.

“It’s similar this time, but I’m not sure if I have anywhere to go back to,” says Maria. “I want to believe that everything will be fine, but who knows how the situation will develop.”

Maria left Lviv after four days and went to Poland (Dmytro stayed in the capital of Galicia). She did not want to leave the country, but in recent months her health has deteriorated due to an autoimmune disease. She was afraid that she would be a burden on others, so she left. She spent the first three weeks in Warsaw. She stayed at her brother’s apartment. She waited for her parents, who later also left Kharkiv, and left for Berlin, where she has friends. Because Poland is too close to Ukraine for her, she often thought about returning.

She found peace in Berlin. She would like to cool down a bit and then take care of the necessary bureaucracy to be able to stay longer in the Schengen zone than the 90-day visa-free allowance. If everything works out and she finds a job, she will stay in Berlin.    Otherwise, she will move on. She can only stay in the apartment that she lives in for a little while longer, so she is looking for something to rent. “I need to find a place where I can stay for the long term,” says Maria.

Will this be her home? “No, I only have one home,” she replies.

Beloved four corners

33-year-old Tetiana Dehterova has been living in a bright apartment with a beautiful panorama of Kharkiv for over two decades. First with my parents and then with my husband Denys. After her father and mother moved out, the couple undertook a major renovation. Only the bathroom remains to be finished, and they were to get to it in the near future. Now Tetiana is glad that they did not have time to renovate it.

They chose decorations at flea markets in Kharkiv and other cities they visited. They brought them from places like Poland, Germany and Cyprus. She can’t pick one favorite object.

“Everything from the furniture to the candlesticks, I chose together with my husband,” admits Tetiana. “Maybe if we rented this apartment, we wouldn’t love it so much.”

There is order in the spacious apartment. The fact that something has changed is evidenced by taped windows, plants hidden away in a safe corner, and mirrors removed from their places.

Order is important for Tetiana. A clear plan for the day in concert with orderly surroundings were the pillars of her daily life. She worked from home, so she had to keep everything organized for the passing days to not slip through her fingers. She wanted her surroundings to inspire her. During breaks, she liked to look out of the windows at Kharkiv, and five churches that stood out among the sprawl caught here eye.

Tetiana worked in the support center for the victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster; among other things, her organization collected the stories of the victims. In 2014, when the war in Donbas broke out, many refugees from the areas affected by the fighting came to Kharkiv. It was then that the center started to serve them as well.

Tetiana admits that it is ironic that she has gone from caring for refugees to being one of them.

Me or the city

Air raids have thundered over Kharkiv since dawn broke on February 24. The city became one of the targets of the Russian offensive. Later that day on the outskirts there was fighting with the use of tanks and artillery. Nevertheless, Tetiana and her husband remained at home that night. However, as the fighting intensified, Tetiana and Denys packed a change of clothes and underwear, toothbrushes, toothpaste and soap, and then went to a basement not far from their building.

“When I felt danger in a place where I should feel safest, it was cognitive dissonance. The ground moved from under my feet,” says Tetiana. “There are things in this new reality that do not depend on us.”

Nobody in Kharkiv has a say in what happens to their home, no matter how active they are. They could act, organize networks of volunteers, humanitarian aid, or support others, but they could not influence where a bomb from a plane or a rocket would hit.

In the first days, you had the opposite impression. The more determined the people in the city remained, the more bitterly it seemed to be under attack. In early March, bombs fell on the center. There was so much pounding and shaking in the basement where Tetiana and Denys were staying that it was hard to tell if there was anything left standing outside. He didn’t want to leave. She was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She set an ultimatum: either her or the city.

We hang by a thread

They gathered the essentials and left. It was difficult for them. “I took medication, a change of shoes, personal hygiene items, but you can’t take the whole house. Everything in it is loved, every detail. Therefore, when I left my apartment, I felt as if a part of me was taken away. I can pack before a trip, but I don’t know how to pack my house and myself into a suitcase,” says Tetiana.

She especially wishes that she had taken her old embroidered shirts. She admits that it was her family pride. If she could take anything else, she would take the plates they always ate from because then she’d feel closer to home.

Tetiana and Denys arrived — with stops along the way — in the city of Khmelnytskyi in central Ukraine where they rented comfortable accommodation. The situation here is incomparably calmer than in Kharkiv. Despite this, Tetiana often thinks of her hometown and her apartment. She would like to return. She wakes up and doesn’t comprehend where she is. It takes a moment to realize that she isn’t in her bed or her bedroom.

“We all feel as if we are hanging by a thread in Ukraine. We can be left with nothing at any time. We don’t know when we will be able to lie down on our own pillow, cover ourselves with our own duvet in our own bed,” states Tetiana.

Couldn’t wrap my mind around the war

About the same time as Tetiana, Natalia left Kharkiv with her boyfriend Serhiy and cat Cirilla. The 27-year-old is a PhD student at the local polytechnic university, as well as an aerial acrobat and personal trainer.

On February 24, like everyone in town, she was awakened by explosions at 5 in the morning. She couldn’t wrap her head around the idea that this war had come. She called friends and asked if they heard what she was hearing. Everyone answered affirmatively. After President Zelensky’s address, there was no longer any shadow of a doubt. That day she apologized to her mother, with whom she had argued the day before because she was fed up with constantly being told to get supplies and leave. Natalia had angrily replied that everything would be fine and Russia would not attack.

Now Serhiy and her quickly got some things together. They packed essentials into two backpacks: computers, medicine, food for themselves and the cat, some clothes. They packed the suitcase with items that were useful, but could be left behind in the worst case if they had no way of taking it. The basement in their building was uninhabitable. They hid in the bathroom the first night, then decided it would be safer in the hallway. They set up mats and blankets there.

After six days and an exceptionally loud explosion, Natalia got a bad feeling. She told Serhi that they should move to friends who lived in a building nearby and were now taking refuge in an underground parking lot. Their friends were ambivalent about leaving. They had two cars, so they could also take Natalia, Serhiy and their cat.

They were finally convinced to leave when they entered their friends’ apartment on the seventeenth floor. A plane flew by so low while they were inside that the walls of the house trembled. Shortly thereafter the sounds of exploding bombs reverberated. The friends got scared and everyone ran down to the basement. They collected their belongings and, in two cars, started out toward Lviv together. Everyone convinced themselves that they were only leaving for a moment. But Natalia had a feeling that it would be longer.

A chat message

They got stuck in terrible traffic jams every now and then along the way. In addition, every evening there was a curfew when it was not permitted to be on the road. As a result, it took them five and a half days to drive to Lviv.

On the third day, as evening approached and they were nearing Vinnytsa, Natalia’s phone screen displayed messages from a group chat of residents in her building. They showed broken and torn out windows, destroyed balconies, facades, and even the roof. She unleashed a stream of expletives. The courtyards are very similar to each other, and she thought that their windows were still in good condition. Serhiy immediately recognized their blue bedroom and the hole in which previously there had been a window. But they decided not to worry in advance and wait until morning for more information. Natalia convinced herself that it was not their building that had been fired upon. She fell asleep.

After waking up, she saw more videos and photos sent by neighbors. She could no longer deceive herself. She could see her blue bedroom clearly. The rocket hit the yard and the shock wave smashed into their windows and pushed the entire frame in so far that it blocked the entrance to the room. Debris and glass poured onto the window-facing bed on which Natalia and Serhiy had slept until recently. The dressing table next to it was scratched, but whole, including the mirror and bulbs, which better illuminated the room while she put on makeup. She got it as a gift from Serhiy for new year’s. The only thing that made her happy was that no one was killed and there was no fire in their building. It will probably be possible to rebuild it.

“In a way, I was calm about it. Maybe because home is where those dear to me are and they are next to me. I don’t deny that if I saw it in person, it would elicit more emotion,” says Natalia.

They moved into the apartment in October 2020. It is the first one they’ve owned. It wasn’t finished then. They installed the last element, bedroom window sills in the bedroom, just before the new year.

No sirens or explosions

They spent two weeks in Lviv. They thought that the situation would calm down in the meantime and they would return to Kharkiv. The days passed with Kharkiv under fire. In addition, alarm sirens sounded constantly in Lviv, and rockets fell on military facilities on the outskirts of the city a couple of times. Natalia felt bad again. So they set off for Budapest. There, the company where Serhiy works provided them with a hotel. They want to stay there and calm down for now. Then they’ll think about what to do next.

The generic decor of the hotel is a contradiction to the cozy home in which Natalia would like to spend time. There is no kitchen or space for everyday life. She appreciates, however, that there are no sirens or explosions jolting her from bed.

She hopes that the same calm will soon reign in Kharkiv. Then she will return to her home.

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