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Ukrainians talk about how the war changed them

Alexander Savitsky | Eugen Theise
August 24, 2022

A fighter with the National Guard, a Kyiv-bas and a refugee from Mariupol tell DW what they've gone through, since Russia invaded Ukraine.

A Ukranian tank flying the national flag makes it way through a wooded area
August 24 marks six months since Russia invaded UkraineImage: Dogukan Keskinkilic/AA/picture alliance

It has been six months since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Many Ukrainians have taken up arms against the aggressor. Millions of refugees, mostly women and children, were forced to flee the country. And those who did not go abroad or join the fight had to get used to life during wartime — with the constant threat of shelling and the regular howl of the air raid sirens.

A member of the Ukrainian National Guard, an artist from Kyiv and a refugee from Mariupol tell DW how they have spent the past six months.

'I don't want to go back to that hell'

A member of the Ukrainian National Guard, call sign "Buddhist," from Kyiv, fighting in the eastern Donbas region:

"Before the war, I worked as a translator in a successful IT company. I already held the rank of junior lieutenant, since in college I had specialized to be a military translator. Just like many Kyiv residents, for the last eight years, the war in Donbas [ongoing conflict since 2014 between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces in Donetsk and Luhansk regions] seemed far away; I was not overly concerned with what was happening that far east.

And then, the morning of February 24, I heard the air raid sirens and the rumble of Russian rockets exploding. ... On social media, I saw posts about the threat of Russian forces entering my city and other posts about forming impromptu resistance units. This is when I went out to the street and joined the guys who were digging trenches and building a checkpoint. Territorial defense forces gave us guns while we were on duty, and we would go home to sleep during breaks.

A man in military gear stands in front of a pile of fabric in different camouflage colors
The National Guard member, call sign 'Buddhist,' who spoke to DW about his serviceImage: privat

Then I learned that Russians had razed my grandma's village in the [southeastern] Zaporizhzhia region to the ground, and that my father's home city, Nikopol, was getting shelled. I understood that I needed to go and fight. But I received no mobilization order, and at the end of March, the other guys and I started 'besieging' the military recruitment center. Eventually they let us join the National Guard.

We went through a weeklong training at a military training center and immediately got the order to deploy east. We did not know where exactly, they only told us that we would be at the second defense line. But once there, we were ordered to move onward to 'ground zero' — near the village of Voronove, not far from Sievierodonetsk [in the Luhansk region]. 

There were woods there, and we barely saw the enemy but had to dig trenches and reinforce them under constant fire. Only when the cannons and mortars went silent and the airstrikes stopped would the enemy infantry attack. And then it would all start all over again. I had forgotten the last time I had slept properly, although I reached this point where I could just drop and shut down for a few hours. And then I'd wake up again from the blast waves, deafening detonations, and I'd go back on duty. We were left there, unrelieved, for a month and a half.

When the orders arrived to retreat from Sievierodonetsk, they also started moving us away from the front lines. Our orders arrived in the morning; we had to move out in broad daylight, with scorching heat and unrelenting energy fire from Grad rocket launchers and artillery.

They gave us the opportunity to take leave to recover and even let us go home to Kyiv for three days. Then we went back to Donbas, to a position in Zaitseve, outside Horlivka [a city in Donetsk], and it all started again never-ending shelling, moving between dugouts only at night, because we had enemy drones constantly hovering above us to guide strikes from enemy tanks and artillery.

It would stop sometimes for a few hours when their infantry and tanks would move to attack. We would repel those attacks and wait for more shelling and more attacks. That went on for another five weeks, until we were relieved by fighters from one of the Ukrainian military brigades.

Not much remains of our company. Shame about the young guys, who died at 20 or 25! But we needed to stand our ground over there because to retreat would mean to give up on our country. At the front line, I understood the real state of the war, and now I don't care about the news or opinions provided by military experts. What's left of our company is now being taken away from the front to reform. I volunteered to go to the front line, but now I don't want to go back to that hell. But it is impossible not to go! I think that with some therapy I can get my head somewhat straight, recover from a mild contusion and go back to fight again."

'I feel exhausted, emotionally burned-out'

Svitlana Bohachenko, an artist and volunteer, in Kyiv:

"Many people I know left Kyiv on February 24, but I couldn't just leave behind the civilians who had joined the territorial defense forces with no vests, helmets, no thermal underwear or other supplies. The state could not provide supplies to everyone, because so many people rose up to defend Ukraine. The only hope were volunteers.

It was almost impossible to buy all that was needed in Ukraine; many stores were closing. You had to look for Ukrainians in other European countries, also in Canada and in the US, to set up purchases and the supply chain to transport military supplies and medication across multiple borders. The thought of escaping to safer parts of Ukraine or to other countries never crossed my mind — there was simply no time for that. I didn't even have energy to sleep properly or prepare a meal.

Svitlana Bohachenko stands against a floral peach-pink background
Artist Svitlana Bohachenko, who lives in Kyiv, has organized aid for Ukrainian forcesImage: privat

It did help a lot that I already had some volunteering experience from the Euromaidan movement in Kyiv in 2013 and 2014, and the first years of the war in Donbas. Back then I asked for help on social media and called up people who had been buying my paintings.

Back then, each of them sold for €1,000 on average, and the buyers were very well-off. And they were donating generously to help the fighters. This went on until 2016, by which time the state could provide our fighters with everything they needed. After that I would only send treats to our boys for the holidays. And all those years I kept on painting.

In the first weeks following February 24, I was scrambling to find supplies for territorial defense fighters, the military and the volunteers fighting in Irpin, Bucha and Hostomel [near Kyiv], and also to organize food for single people and elderly in Kyiv. In the evenings I would take coffee, tea and candy to the boys at the checkpoints. Sometimes it was scary when there were shootouts in the streets with enemy diversionary groups. At my son's house, near the [area where the official institutions are located], you could hear the blasts. And I didn't even react to air raid sirens  there was no time to run to bomb shelters. 

In mid-March, during the defense of Mariupol, a man who was very close to me died. He was the instructor of the Azov battalion, Bahva Chikobava. ... After that, I would receive news about the deaths of soldiers that I had helped, who had become my family, my close friends, almost once per week. It was very upsetting.

But, now, if I manage to find a truckload of diesel fuel for our boys, ship out a few hundred tourniquets, sterile bandages for surgery, coagulants, burn medicine for tank crews, my spirits rise immensely. I rejoice, because earlier I didn't have a clue how to find all of it and deliver it to the front lines, and now everything is just flowing out. And the next morning there are new phone calls, new lists of necessities.

Right now, I feel exhausted, emotionally burned-out. I was only able to go back to painting in recent weeks, but there is nobody to sell pictures to in Ukraine right now; some of the wealthy people have left, and the others are helping the fight, so there is no money to be made anymore. I live entirely off the help of my child and my friends. Everything I raise goes to buy what is necessary for the army. It is saving many lives over there."

'We loved our city very much'

Alina Kovailova, a refugee from Mariupol who has been living near Hamburg since April:

"During the last six years, I was working in the advertising department of a large medical center in Mariupol. It was destroyed during the fighting. My husband used to work as a crane operator at the Azovstal [steel] plant, and in recent years he got into the business of trading household items. We lived well. We had almost finished renovating our home, bought new furniture. We built a shed in the garden. My husband did it all with his own hands: a stone firepit, a big wooden table. All we needed to do was finish decorating it. We had already invited friends to come over as soon as the weather got warmer.

Alina Kovaliova and her son, Oleksandr, smile for the camera in front of a chalkboard
Alina Kovaliova and her son, Oleksandr, in his school in Mariupol before the warImage: privat

In Mariupol, our 9-year-old son, Oleksandr, was in fourth grade. We were preparing a big celebration for his move up to the higher grades — something festive, something interesting. I was the head of the parents' committee. We were waiting for spring to take photos with his classmates. Today, almost all the children from our class are aboard. Thank goodness, they are alive. Out of 31 children in Oleksandr's class, four or five stayed in Mariupol. 

We loved our city very much. We never thought about going anywhere. The war changed everything. It is a catastrophe for our city, which had gotten so much more beautiful in the previous five years. There were so many new parks.

Not far from us, there was a park called Rainbow that had thousands of different flowers and trees. In the spring, when everything is blooming, it is incredibly beautiful. They built quite a few nice fountains. It is wonderful, because in the summer in Mariupol it gets very hot; it's often above 40 degrees Celsius [104 Fahrenheit]. Every city neighborhood had a park like that. People would take their children there. They built an ice rink in the city — figure skating was getting popular. They renovated the Philharmonic and many historical buildings. Now all of that is gone.

Oleksandr stands next to several letters in the Cyrillic alphabet
Kovaliova's son, Oleksandr, poses in the family's favorite park in Mariupol, before the warImage: privat

We've been in Germany since April 29. We drove here by car — eight days through occupied Crimea, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria and half of Europe to boot. The main thing is we are safe here, and our son no longer sees the hell of war. For the last two months my child has slept normally. At least when he goes to bed, he is no longer saying he is afraid he will die. It used to happen every night, when I would tell him goodnight. Now his drawings are also normal, childlike, not bombs like before; it's now robots, dinosaurs, still life.

It's hard to build a life in Germany; everything is taking a very long time. We still live in a hotel, because we can't find an apartment, despite sending out dozens of applications every day. It's very hard to find a place without having a job. But we cannot work, because we still don't have residence permits and permissions to work. And once we get those, it will still be hard to find a job not knowing the language. But without having the residence permit, we cannot take integration and language courses. That's the vicious circle we find ourselves in. They won't even put us on a waiting list. We only go to German courses a few times per week, the courses that are set up by volunteers. Still, we are thankful to Germany for accepting us.

And we still dream about returning to Mariupol one day — but only when the city is Ukrainian once again. My husband said: 'You'll stay with our son here at first, while it's still dangerous over there, and I will go rebuild Mariupol.' We will never go back to Russian occupation. The worst thing is that the occupiers took away people's freedom. Never mind them saying that the water supply is being restored in the city, lights are coming back on; there are even people who believe everything is back to normal. But how could you live in a place where you have to watch your every word? I'm used to being able to speak out if there is something I don't like — be it about the mayor, or the president. We were free people in Ukraine."

This story was originally written in Ukrainian.

Correction, August 24, 2022: A previous version of this article gave the wrong year for the start of the ongoing conflict between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. It was in 2014. DW apologizes for the error.