The Witness, week 2

Diary of the Russian Invasion

My name is Oleksandr. I’m almost 20. I live in Zaporizhzhia, a city in southeast Ukraine.

Last week, I woke up to a Russian declaration of war—even though they call it a “special operation”. This week, humanitarian corridors were shelled by Russian forces, maternity wards bombed, whole cities targeted and occupied. Kyiv, Mariupol, Kharkiv: they’re in the eye of the storm. So far, Zaporizhzhia is still a safe haven. But for how long?

In the morning I drive from my grandparent’s country house to the city to see Lisa again. She complains about back and leg pain and a headache from her work as a meat seller in one of the biggest retail chains of Ukraine—a job she took as a student desperate for money. 

Although she has a part-time contract, Lisa now has to work six days a week to make sure the abnormally high number of customers is taken care of. These days, she sells her whole stock—up to three tons of meat—in under 3 hours. After that, suppliers send a new shipment and the cycle starts all over again until the end of her shift. People are stocking up on food, unsure of how to best prepare for the future. Cereals, meat, toilet paper, towels—anything that people can get their hands on. She even spotted that the same people come again and buy more, suggesting that they might be reselling it for their own profit.

Later on, I go out to collect a package at Nova Pochta, a popular mail service in Ukraine. It’s a certificate of completion for an educational course that I was supposed to pick up on the 24th of February.

But we all know what happened that day.

On the way, I see long queues of people at the banks and ATMs in my district. Most people look panicked and tired of waiting for their turn. One man curses a lot. When he finally gets his turn to use the ATM, he gets rejected—all of the money has run out. He’s furious.

When I get to Nova Pochta, the large metallic gates are closed. It’s a shame. I should’ve checked their opening hours on Google maps.

And with the thought that I’ll only get my package after the war is over, I hitch a ride with my grandpa back to the country house. Good news awaits us there. Despite the dire situation, the Ukrainian government has sent my grandparents their pension. It’s just 1300 hryvnyas, about 38 euros, but it’s something.

My father’s brother lives in Energodar, 50 kilometres from here. It’s a nice town with beautiful parks, situated near the river Dnieper. It’s also home to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant—the biggest nuclear plant in Ukraine and in Europe.

And today, it’s in the hands of Russian forces. Initially, they were greeted by a large protest on the main road. No need to worry, the Russians told the townspeople: they only wanted to take a picture in the power plant and send it to their high command. Then, they would leave. 

A ridiculous thing to demand. 

I contact my uncle. Luckily, he’s not on duty today. I check my incoming messages and watch the news the whole day. At some point, the Russian forces leave—but promise to come back. At 3 pm, they show up again, start shooting at the civil protesters and throwing grenades, which secures their passage to the power plant itself. The plant sustains shelling, too, and a part of it catches fire.

My uncle hides in the basement with his family. Firefighters try to come into the power plant to extinguish the fire, but the Russian soldiers won’t stop shooting. 

Looking at the news scares my whole family. The nuclear power plant is near our city! We would be the first to experience a tragedy far worse than Chernobyl. 

Eventually, Russians breach in, killing and injuring multiple people. Thankfully, a nuclear fall-out is avoided. 

Next up in Russia’s plan would be Zaporizhzhia, my city.

As the day passes, I don’t hear any sirens. We’ve been able to catch up on some sleep and do house chores safely without having to hide. We’ve even had the chance to help our people!

A family of three asked my grandparents to drive them to the railroad station so they could flee to Poland. I think it’s a good thing they escaped.

But I can’t leave this place, no matter what. It would be illegal to do so. No men aged 18-
60 are allowed to leave the country in case of grand mobilisations. I totally understand it. We are fighting against one of the most powerful armies in the world and every man should be defending the future of our country. 

Can I fight? Of course. Would I? I don’t know. I’m a pacifist by nature and I’ve always thought about peaceful resolutions to problems—or just avoided confrontations entirely. 

But if Russian forces threaten my family, I will gladly take responsibility into my own hands.

My brother is now enlisted and my grandpa just went up to the armed forces—but he is too old to join. Both of them are big opponents of the Ukrainian government. They always saying that they hate it and tell me to emigrate far away to a better place. At all costs. But when things got heated, they threw out their old beliefs and did the right thing. And I’m feeling proud of them.

So many people want to defend the country that the territorial defense has a waiting list. You heard that right. There are so many people that want to fight that the government doesn’t have enough equipment to take on more volunteers. 

It makes me feel secure—as if Zaporizhzhia is a safe island in the midst of it all. 

But I still keep a recipe for Molotov cocktails. Just in case.

We are gathering up and fortifying Zaporizhzhia, getting more supplies to survive a possible siege and sending humanitarian help to the occupied regions.

Wow. 

I can’t believe this is the second day without hearing sirens and freaking out over and over again. Though in all honesty, you get used to it. The sirens, the notifications about the sirens, our mayor asking us to go to the nearby shelters—it now seems routine to me. 

It’s still scary because the tension never leaves you.

Today, it’s quiet. Really quiet. I’m sitting in my room, watching videos and chatting with my girlfriend to the background noise of my grandparents watching the TV in the other room. Not being able to walk out and do whatever I want to do is slowly driving me crazy. 

My mum… She is experiencing the war on a different level. Having a nervous personality has taken its toll on her. She doesn’t allow anyone to leave the house. She’s afraid I could get killed or arrested for suspicious behaviour just by passing through the streets. It’s understandable, I guess, but wouldn’t it be awesome to just go out and have a little time to myself outdoors?

I have decided not to test her nerves further. She takes her medicine to relax and keep herself together during this time.

Yes, today, it’s peaceful. But it’s an anxious kind of peace. The calm before the storm.

Another day of not leaving the house, sitting in front of my laptop and doing nothing productive. Another day of not hearing a single siren. Good.

But the calm hasn’t yet convinced me to relax. That’s something I can’t afford.

Our family from Energodar are saying that they are fine, but the phone connections keep breaking up and we have to try several times to reach them. Russian troops aren’t letting anyone in or out. No evacuations, no visits. 

Energodar has become a base for Russian troops—dangerous people with unpredictable behaviour. But as long as they’re safe, I’m happy. As more and more Russian troops are gathering to invade Zaporizhzhia, I subscribe to a volunteer channel on Telegram. We are gathering up and fortifying Zaporizhzhia, getting more supplies to survive a possible siege and sending humanitarian help to the occupied regions.

All of the help to Mariupol and other occupied cities is being sent from our city. Now, we’re a target.

As the days of the war drag on and on, I barely leave the country house, not even to breathe a bit of fresh air. And what do people do when they don’t go out and have lots of free time? They start thinking a lot—too much. 

Today, I started feeling guilty. 

It’s a new feeling to me. And to be honest, everybody in Ukraine has some sort of guilt. I feel guilty for not joining the territorial defence, for not volunteering enough, for just waiting it out in the country house. My friend Vlad feels guilty for escaping Kharkiv on the first day of the war, leaving his girlfriend behind. And my father feels guilty for not being there for us.

I feel guilty for many reasons and one of them is being in a relatively safe place. Just look at what’s happening in Mariupol. The city is being shelled every hour, Russian soldiers are shooting at civilians and humanitarian help isn’t allowed to enter and evacuate people to a safe place—like Zaporizhzhia.

Just imagine what these people are going through. And I’m just sitting here, in a warm house, eating and sleeping well. It doesn’t feel right at all. It feels devastating. I pray for the people surviving worse and hope that they will stay alive no matter what.

Guilt is an ugly thing to have, but I know for sure that I’m going to stay, defend and rebuild my country. It’s my land, my soil—my home. Ukraine needs me not only now, but also in the future.

Knowing that is how I fight against the feeling of guilt.

As the days of the war drag on and on, I barely leave the country house, not even to breathe a bit of fresh air.

Mum is going to the city. She wants to cash out all of the money we have. It’s a good opportunity to visit our flat, rest and have a shower. God, it’s been weeks since I’ve showered. Clean-washed, I feel like a new person. I’ve missed this. 

And then I get a call. The call. “Oleksandr?”, a man on the other end of the line asks me. I don’t recognise the number or his voice. “Yes?”

“We ask you to come to the military commissariat where you’re registered. Grab your documents. We’ll see you at the mobilisation office between 8am and 5pm.

The sudden shock kicks me out of my relaxed bubble. Why am I called? Why me? I don’t have any prior military experience or training. I feel scared because it’s war after all. I’m a bit mad because none of my friends have received the call. I’m anxious about what will happen tomorrow. But I feel courageous at the same time. 

Mum tells me that we could just flee. Or maybe I can stay hidden in the country house?

But isn’t that what cowards usually do? I’m a pacifist and have no interest in things like war and fighting. But I have promised that in case things go south, I’ll do something. If they need my help, it’s the right choice to make.

“I’m going to enlist tomorrow.”

About Oleksandr Derevyachenko

About this article