Ukraine War Diary: “You can never really get used to the air raid sirens”

Now in its third month, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has stunned the world and sparked the biggest international security crisis of the twenty-first century. Beyond the headlines, the war has plunged an entire nation of more than 40 million Ukrainians into a barely imaginable world of grief, fear and chaos. Leading Ukrainian media personality Vitaly Sych has kept a war diary recounting his experiences and observations during the past two terrifying and heroic months as Ukrainians have adjusted to the new realities of Vladimir Putin’s criminal invasion.

UKRAINE WAR DIARY: PART I

When my wife hurriedly woke me up in the early hours of Febuary 24 and I first looked out of the window, I could not believe my eyes. The familiar panoramic view from our apartment on the twentieth floor overlooking the Dnipro River was now dotted with huge columns of black smoke. Our entire building was shaking from explosions as missiles rained down on the outskirts of Kyiv.

The unthinkable had happened. Even though we all knew Russia had amassed a huge army on the Ukrainian border, I remained convinced until the very last moment that it was all a geopolitical bluff. Like so many Ukrainians, I could not believe anyone would launch a full-scale military invasion in the center of Europe. Such things simply did not happen anymore. Not in 2022.

I grabbed my phone and was immediately confronted by footage of Russian President Vladimir Putin proclaiming the start of a “special military operation” in Ukraine. His speech was completely unhinged and full of wild historical distortions. “This is war,” I said to my wife. 

For weeks I had downplayed her concerns about a possible war, often while gently teasing her and making sarcastic remarks. Despite my apparent confidence, my wife had remained unconvinced. She kept the tank of the car full, evening purchasing and filling an extra petrol canister. She packed changes of clothes and personal documents for all the family and bought lots of dry food. I thought this was over the top and said so. Sadly, she turned out to be right.

The day had barely begun, but it was already time to get our eight-year-old twins Peter and Anna out of the city. We had read numerous reports from the British and US intelligence services describing in detail how Russian security forces had compiled kill lists of Ukrainian journalists, activists, and politicians hostile to Moscow who were to be rounded up and executed during the initial stages of the occupation. My wife and I knew my name must be somewhere on those lists.

A brief look at my Facebook profile or a glance through the magazine I manage would be enough to get me into trouble with the Russians. My magazine’s last cover page before we were forced to suspend publication due to the war had featured Putin alongside senile Russian dictators Lenin and Stalin. All three were portrayed in wheelchairs styled to invoke a well-known Soviet photo of Lenin’s last days. The headline read “Kremlin Madhouse.” This was entirely in keeping with the spirit of the publication. It was clearly unwise for us to stay in Kyiv.

We picked up my wife’s mother and tried but failed to leave town. By 9am, all roads leading out of the Ukrainian capital were at a standstill. A massive exodus was underway as terrified Kyivans looked to escape the city and head west away from the advancing Russian tanks.

After a couple of hours spent hopelessly stuck in traffic we gave up and went home, only to learn that the Russians were already trying to land troops at Gostomel Airport, which is located in the Kyiv suburbs to the northwest of the city. It was obvious that we had to evacuate urgently. This time we chose the southern highway instead of the jammed western route. As we moved slowly toward the city limits, jet fighters roared low above our heads. I still don’t know whether they were Russian or Ukrainian planes. Eventually, we managed to exit Kyiv.

We headed to Vinnytsya where my mother lives. A 250-kilometer trip that typically takes three hours took us 10 hours. We drove mostly along godforsaken backroads that would normally be empty except for the odd tractor or perhaps even a horse and cart. But today these roads were jammed with caravans of cars ranging from simple hatchbacks to luxury jeeps. It seemed as though half of Ukraine was on the move, carrying their worldly belongings with them.   

My wife cried the whole way. With good reason, she thought we might never be able to go home again. We had left our entire lives behind us in a matter of minutes; our apartment, our house near Kyiv that we had spent so long saving up for, our jobs, everything.

We could not even take our beloved cat with us, who can barely cope with the one-hour trip out to our summer house and would have been unable to handle the long and stressful escape in a crowded car. Thankfully, we were able to save our cat by mailing our apartment keys to neighbors who now make sure he is well fed and cared for. During those first nightmare moments of the war when we were forced to make life-changing choices in an instant, the most difficult decision of all was the one to leave our cat.

It soon became clear that we had made the right decision as our journey evolved into a three-day marathon with six people crammed into one car. By midnight we reached my mother’s apartment in Vinnytsya. It was the first time we had felt relatively safe since that horrible day had dawned.

After a brief stopover, we decided to take my mother with us and head further west. The journey from Vinnytsya to Lviv is normally a five-hour drive but it now took more than three times as long. At some point during the night we lost our navigation signal while passing through a forest and found ourselves in complete darkness. As we tried to get our bearings, a nearby airbase was struck by a Russian missile. It was the kind of scene you expect to see in a horror movie and it will remain forever imprinted on my mind.

We eventually reached Lviv. By this point, I was completely exhausted. I had been driving for more than 24 hours and was running on pure adrenaline. Stress had robbed me of my appetite and I had barely eaten anything since leaving Kyiv.

The last leg of our journey still lay ahead and was perhaps the hardest. I had to get my family to the border but I would not be leaving Ukraine with them. Due to the imposition of martial law in the hours following Russia’s invasion, I could not exit the country. No Ukrainian men aged eighteen to sixy could. And to be frank, I would not have gone even if it had been possible. All of my male workmates and lots of female colleagues had stayed behind, some of them even remaining in Kyiv. I would never have forgiven myself if I had left. 

After a short sleep in Lviv, we began exploring our chances of getting to the border. Poland is less than eighty kilometers from Lviv, but crossing into the EU in the first days of the war was no simple matter. All of the checkpoints were completely jammed with people and the delay times were insane. At some crossings, cars were advised that they could be waiting for up to a week.

We checked the train station and it looked like Kabul before the arrival of the Taliban, with women and children screaming and trying to squeeze onto trains departing for Poland. Many families had simply abandoned their suitcases on the platform.

This scene was enough to convince us against taking the train. Instead, we decided to head south toward the Slovak border where, according to reports, queues were significantly shorter. This last stretch took me a further 16 sleepless hours, with our journey regularly broken up by document checks at the many paramilitary block posts that had sprung up like mushrooms in those first few wartime days. 

The plan was to get my family over the border into Slovakia where friends of friends would pick them up and drive them to Bratislava. From there, they would fly to Dublin. My sister is married to an Irishman and was waiting for them in the Irish capital.

After more than three days of almost non-stop driving that felt like three weeks, we finally reached the border. Our farewells were mercifully short. As we kissed and hugged our goodbyes, I had no idea if I would ever see my family again. They crossed into Slovakia and were finally safe. A week later, The Irish Times would publish an article about my family’s escape headlined “Now we have a chance to cry.”

I remained on the Ukrainian side of the border. I was now alone. Like everyone else still in Ukraine, I was facing a future of grave uncertainty. I returned to Lviv and my wartime life began.

UKRAINE WAR DIARY: PART II

“Are you still alive?” read the text message from my colleague and radio show partner Serhiy Fursa. I immediately understood that the noise which had woken me up minutes before was the sound of Russian ballistic missiles. I peered out of my window and saw smoke rising from somewhere in the downtown area of Lviv. Five Russian missiles had hit the city, leaving seven dead and dozens wounded. Serhiy said he actually watched three of the missiles from his balcony but failed to take a video.

This was the third Russian airstrike on Lviv, a city close to the EU border that is generally regarded as safe. “Are we still going to do our radio show today?” I asked Serhiy. “Why not?” he replied. So we did. Since settling in Lviv during the early days of the war, we have already broadcast more than 40 episodes of the show. We go on air every day, always around lunchtime.

My accommodation in Lviv is an apartment rented by a colleague of mine who is a partner in the investment banking firm that owns our media house. All of the partners in the company, including the Czech owner, have relocated to Lviv. Even though his Czech passport would have allowed him to leave Ukraine, he decided to stay with his people.

We soon learned that we had been very lucky to get an apartment for just the two of us. Others have had to cram four or five into a single apartment as internally displaced people from across Ukraine have flooded into Lviv. As a result, the city is now packed full and finding available accommodation is next to impossible. We have even begun to joke that we shouldn’t invite any colleagues over to our flat in case they stop talking to us when they see our luxurious living conditions. 

There are only two problems with our flat. The first is actually more of an inconvenience. I have to share a bed with another man. We have bought separate pillows and blankets, of course. But the fact remains that I’ve been sleeping with a man for more than a month. Life will never be the same again!

The other problem is more significant. As with all real estate, location is the most important feature. And in our case, this is definitely a problem. The apartment we are renting is close to a huge military base and the local headquarters of the Ukrainian intelligence service. This makes it an obvious target for Russian missiles.

The threat of Russian airstrikes is no longer hyperthetical. Indeed, the ambassador of Kazakhstan was living just a few blocks away until recently but was advised by his security team to move out of the neighborhood. This apparent danger is a source of amusement to locals. When they find out where we live, they joke that our landlord should actually be paying us. To make matters worse, the apartment is on the top floor of the building. A prime location indeed!

The military base next door has an outdoor area with all sorts of old Soviet-era military equipment on display. There are tanks, artillery, and rocket launchers dating back to WWII and the Cold War. Given the often poor quality of Russian intelligence and satellite imagery, we wonder whether they might mistake these museum exhibits for the real thing and launch an airstrike. Such speculation would once have been amusing but it is now no longer funny.   

After several deadly Russian missile attacks that killed dozens of Ukrainian soldiers, the Ukrainian military has introduced new protocols. When the sirens go off in the city, hundreds of military personnel with Kalashnikovs stream out of the military base next to us and disperse in order to make sure there are no concentrations of soldiers in any one place. They then hang out for hours on end in nearby parks and residential yards. 

Air raid sirens come every day and every night, often at about three or four in the morning. You can hear the sirens throughout the city. It is ubiquitous and sticks in your head like the beat of a bad pop song. After a few hours, the second siren indicates that the danger has passed. I still can’t distinguish between the two. If you miss the first one because you are asleep, you think the second one is the start of an air attack. Sometimes we have to ask each other: is this the first or second siren?

To liven things up even more, my apartment mate has downloaded an application that notifies him of airstrikes with a tremendous alarm. He jumps up in bed and obviously I cannot avoid also hearing it. After that, nobody can sleep. Digital technology is not always helpful.

Living under the constant threat of Russian airstrikes is a chilling experience. The missiles themselves are accompanied by the distinct smell of death. Even though the Russians insist they only target military infrastructure, in reality they often hit civilian targets and kill ordinary Ukrainians.

In Syria, Russia fired a total of about 100 missiles over a five-year period. In Ukraine, the Russian military launched more than 1,500 missiles during the first month and half of the war alone.  Some were launched from Belarus. Others were shot from bombers over the Black Sea. Their range leaves nobody in Ukraine immune. Nowhere in the country is truly safe.

Everybody in Lviv seems to have grown used to air raid sirens. I was out jogging in the park one morning when the siren sounded. It had almost no visible effect. Parents continued strolling with children and old people remained engrossed in their conversations on park benches. One elderly lady turned to her granddaughter and said calmly but firmly, “Don’t worry. We’ll be fine.” 

I can’t help thinking that this sense of calm is false. We won’t be fine. In truth, you can never really get used to the air raid sirens. The first thing I’d like to do when this war is over is go somewhere abroad where I will not have to hear any airstrike warnings at all.

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UKRAINE WAR DIARY: PART III

The first days of the war were incredibly tough professionally as I attempted to somehow keep our media holding from collapsing. I lost contact with colleagues and had no idea whether they were being bombed in Kharkiv or were somewhere on the road trying to evacuate their families. Some people simply disappeared. Others struggled to cope with the emotional stress of the situation and were unable to work. One of our most prominent colleagues suffered a breakdown and began publishing crazy fake posts on social media.

I eventually had to accept that I could not help everyone and decided to focus on sustaining our operation and supporting as many colleagues as possible. Without exception, the war has been a personal crisis for all of us.

About a week after the war begin, the dust began to settle and we were able to get an idea of where we might be heading as a media organization. Nothing was straightforward. Our star reporter was sheltering from Russian airstrikes in Kyiv’s metro system. Our weekend editor was stuck in Kharkiv under heavy bombardment and we temporarily lost touch with him. Thankfully, we later learned he had survived.

The head of our English-language operation, a Scotsman, had to evacuate his family to Glasgow. This meant that responsibility for English-language coverage fell to a young Ukrainian editor who was also busy trying to help her grandmother cope in an apartment with poor wifi connection on Kyiv’s left bank.

Our financial and IT reporters had joined the Ukrainian army. Our chief designer and political editor weren’t planning to join the army but were drafted in Lviv when they arrived with their families. Our two most prominent radio presenters joined the territorial defense force in Kyiv. The procedure for signing up in wartime was so simple that they merely had to appear with their IDs in order to receive a Kalashnikov.

For a while, I feared we would not have enough people to run our company. Despite having been one of the largest news organizations in Ukraine on the eve of the war, it looked like we might not survive.

Then things stabilized. Or at least, we achieved as much stability as is possible during wartime. The Russians turned out to be far less sophisticated that everybody had expected and failed to knock out the Ukrainian internet. Dozens of our team reached safe places with decent internet connections in western Ukraine. Despite facing unfamiliar and often highly challenging living conditions, we gradually got back to work.   

For obvious reasons, we ceased publication of our weekly magazine. Colleagues who normally focused on topics like sports, tech, auto news, entertainment and science were asked to forget about their previous lives and strengthen our war coverge. We went into 24/7 mode, pumping out non-stop content during night shifts and over weekends in Ukrainian, Russian and English.

We were soon producing 300 news items per day and ranking among the top two most visited sites in Ukraine. In March, our audience skyrocketed and reached 25 million unique users along with around half a billion page views.

In recognition of this success, we became the target of a major Russian cyber-attack. Despite being under physical Russian bombardment in Kyiv Oblast at the time, our chief programmer managed to get us back online. He was also able to upgrade our cyber security to levels that have prevented any repeat cyber-attacks.

While we cranked up our online coverage to a wartime tempo, we relocated part of our radio equipment to Lviv and organized an improvised new studio in a shopping mall where we were given two rooms free of charge. Before the war, our FM radio covered 44 major cities across Ukraine. This number has been slightly reduced by the Russian habit of taking down our transmitters in occupied Ukrainian cities like Kherson and Melitopol. Nevertheless, we continue to broadcast to more than 30 cities as well as via YouTube and online.

I started a daily radio show in tandem with a well-known investment banker and blogger who also relocated to Lviv. He speaks Ukrainian and I speak Russian on air. Our idea was not just to analyze key events but to support our audience. Working on the assumption that listeners already knew the most recent headlines and were aware of any bad news, we figured we would focus on positive developments such as Russia’s economic woes, international support for Ukraine, and signs of internal divisions in Moscow.

We are not fools and understand the gravity of the situation. At the same time, we want to provide a glimmer of hope and also some much needed humor. Russia’s top officials and propagandists are all legitimate targets and there is certainly no shortage of good reasons to ridicule them.

Air raid sirens can be very disruptive when you’re trying to do a live radio broadcast. Every time the sirens start up, the shopping mall shuts down and everyone runs to the shelter. We eventually decided to stay put and continue our broadcasts. The alternative would be to leave our radio frequency blank for hours on end.

Ukrainians seem to appreciate what we’re trying to do. Our YouTube audience grew fivefold in just one month, even though we have no cameras in the studio and only offer an audio stream.

The single most rewarding episode of our wartime broadcasting experience came from Bucha, the Kyiv suburb where Russian forces committed war crimes that shocked the world. One old lady emerged following the liberation of Bucha and recounted how she had spent weeks in a basement listening to nothing but our radio station. When she met our reporter, she hugged her and burst into tears. This tale alone made all our efforts seem worthwhile.

UKRAINE WAR DIARY: PART IV

When I first arrived in Lviv in the last days of February, the city looked and felt like it was on the verge of an apocalypse. This usually vibrant hub of tourism, culture and history had become a ghost town. The streets were empty while only a few of Lviv’s famed cafes and bars remained open. There was a ban on alcohol sales and all shops were closed except for food stores and pharmacies.

Despite this eery quiet, Lviv was by then already packed with refugees from Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities. I often ran into acquaintances from the capital including restaurateurs, bankers, and fellow journalists. It felt as though we had all become part of a new chapter in Erich Maria Remarque’s classic WWII refugee novel “The Night in Lisbon.”

The many members of this displaced tribe tended to spend most of their time on the phone trying to help friends and family who were still under bombardment or stuck in occupied regions of the country. I was no exception.

My eldest daughter, Masha, who is twenty-six, was trapped in Kyiv with her boyfriend. By the time they had decided that they needed to leave the city, it was too late. Evacuation had become too dangerous. Their home district in the north of the city was the scene of shelling and street battles as Russian troops sought to advance into the heart of Kyiv.

Masha spent a week in a basement hiding from Russian bombs. She would call me regularly, crying and sharing reports about Chechen forces who were said to be closing in on Kyiv. The Chechens would soon enter the city and rape all the women, she said. As we later learned, these fears were justified. But at that point, I was more interested in trying to calm her down by telling her that the Chechens had already suffered catastrophic losses in Bucha, including the death of their most notorious general. This was also true. One week later, Masha and her boyfriend were eventually able to leave the city and head south. It was a huge personal relief for me. Millions of Ukrainians were not so fortunate.

Even though Lviv didn’t experience anything like the problems in Kyiv, food did become scarce. Buckwheat, rice and pasta were the first to disappear as people prepared for the worst and stocked up on long-lasting foodstuffs. I must admit that I was partly to blame, purchasing enough food for an entire month. Supply chains for things like chicken and dairy products also soon broke down, leaving shoppers with little to choose from except the most expensive brands of tea, coffee, delicacies and cookies. With all the empty shelves in the stores, it started to feel a little bit like going back to the USSR.

During the early weeks of the war, many people in Lviv feared that Putin would convince Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka to join the invasion and launch an offensive into the Volyn region. This would bring the war right to the borders of Lviv. Despite at least four separate warnings of an imminent invasion, the Belarusians still haven’t ventured into Ukraine. Lukashenka is certainly a monster but he is not a complete idiot, it would seem. He also has access to reliable data on the sheer scale of Russian losses in Ukraine due to the fact that many Russian casualties have been brought back across the border to Belarusian hospitals and morgues.  

When not doing my radio show, I found myself sharing an office with investment bankers who had also moved to western Ukraine from Kyiv. Like millions of their fellow Ukrainians, these finance professionals followed frontline military developments closely online and cheered the destruction of each successive Russian military convoy. 

Monitoring Russian losses quickly became the most popular form of wartime entertainment for Ukrainians. The idea of deriving pleasure from footage of military carnage and dead soldiers would have seemed perverse or even obscene just weeks earlier, but graphic content now circulated in large quantities through a growing number of telegram channels, often accompanied by black humor. Many women discovered that they also enjoyed looking at such grim images.   

You wouldn’t expect this kind of behavior from a healthy person during peacetime. But everything changes after you’ve read hundreds of reports about children bombed, ordinary Ukrainians executed and women gang-raped, especially when the crime scenes are so familiar and the victims are personal acquaintances.

The endless accounts of Russian atrocities have taken their toll on Ukrainians in many ways. Almost everyone I know has trouble sleeping. There is also much fury and hunger for revenge. One of our radio hosts asked listeners what they would do if presented with a button that could instantly kill all Russians, including friends and relatives. He was half-joking, of course, but was also honest enough to admit that he would personally press the button without hesitation. The general consensus among listeners seemed to be that such an opportunity would be tempting.

During our radio discussions, we also pondered the question of how much blame could be attached to ordinary Russians. Had they given Putin a mandate for the war and the mass murder of Ukrainians, or was it all his personal responsibility? After the first few weeks of the war, this debate became redundant when independent polls indicated that more than 80% of Russians supported the war.

Of course, it is difficult to find entirely objective opinion polls in a totalitarian country. But the figures emerging out of Russia as the war progressed were entirely in line with a wide range of anecdotal evident suggesting that a clear majority of Russians backed the invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainians are also well aware that it was not Putin who personally bombed Kharkiv or executed civilians in Bucha. These crimes were committed by Russian servicemen who received their orders from Russian officers. They could have refused but they chose not to.    

My wife’s sister lives on Moscow. She moved there when she was 16 and is now a Russian citizen. She and her husband were terrified when the war began. They were ashamed and called many times to offer words of support. They followed news of the war closely and knew all the details about the horrors taking place in Mariupol, Kyiv and Kharkiv. This demonstrated once again that talk of Russians living in an information vacuum is wishful thinking. If the average Russian wants to access accurate information about the war, they can do so easily.  

Three weeks into the war, my sister-in-law’s fourteen-year-old daughter came home from her Moscow school and asked whether it was true their country was killing children in Ukraine. They answered that yes, it was true, but asked her not to tell anyone. By then, the old Stalinist tradition had returned to Russian schools, with teachers asking kids what their parents were saying at home about the war and reporting any criticism to the authorities.

The reality is that the Russian public does not want to know the truth. The lies they are fed by the Putin regime make them feel good and they are afraid to leave their comfort zone. For years, highly emotional propaganda on Russian TV has fueled imperialistic sentiments among the Russian public while dehumanizing Ukrainians. Many Russians now simply refuse to believe information about atrocities in Ukraine and dismiss the overwhelming evidence of war crimes as fake. I am not at all surprised by such attitudes. It is extremely difficult to admit that you’ve been so comprehensively misled by your own leaders and convinced to support a criminal war.

Millions of extended Russian-Ukrainian families have been divided by the conflict. A former classmate of mine from Chelyabinsk, a Russian city in the southern Ural Mountains, moved to Ukraine many years ago. He recently tried to explain the realities of the war to his mother back in Russia. She refused to listen and declared that everything he said was fake. “Am I fake, too?” he asked. They have not been in contact since.  

UKRAINE WAR DIARY: PART V

My taxi driver yesterday was Serhiy from Mariupol. He and his family had managed to leave the devastated Ukrainian port city just before the Russians encircled it. He had since become a taxi driver to make a living. Mariupol is not just a global news headline. It is a vast and unfolding human tragedy that casts a pall of sadness and terror over all Ukraine. If there is a hell on earth right now, it is Mariupol.  

So it was only natural that I wanted to talk. Serhiy said 95% of residential buildings in the city, including his own, had been destroyed. Around 100 people among his personal acquaintances had been killed. He said that most of the information he had came from survivors, both those still trapped inside Mariupol and the lucky ones who had managed to escape. As he recounted these horrors, I was struck by the lack of emotion. Maybe he had become apathetic or didn’t want to offload the burden of his pain onto me. 

What astonished me most of all was his plan to return home and rebuild Mariupol. “As long as it remains in Ukraine,” he added. I know plenty of people who have serious emotional reservations about going back to cities that have suffered much less destruction than Mariupol. His experience moved me deeply, but there was little I could offer him except a generous tip.

Russia has good reason for pushing so hard to take Mariupol. Putin desperately needs some kind of success for domestic consumption ahead of Victory Day on May 9. The annual celebration of the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany plays a central role in modern Russian mythology. This year’s holiday must be marked by a new triumph.

There is another less obvious but equally important reason why Russia is determined to seize Mariupol at all costs. The Kremlin simply cannot afford to let the world see what it has done to the city. Current estimates indicate a death toll of between 10,000 and 30,000 civilians during the two-month siege. In other words, the destruction of Mariupol dwarfs the atrocities committed in Bucha and is likely one of the biggest war crimes in Europe since WWII.

At the other end of Ukraine, life has returned to Lviv. The city’s population has grown by 30% since the start of the war. Shops and movie theaters are now open once again. The alcohol ban has been partially lifted with everything available except for hard liquor. As a result, restaurants and bars are full. The crowds are cosmopolitan and often include lots of foreign journalists as well as people who have relocated to Lviv from across Ukraine.

During the weekends, the shopping mall that serves as the Lviv base for our radio station is absolutely full of people. The main indication that life is still far from normal remains the ubiquity of air raid sirens. Most shoppers would probably be happy to stay, I imagine, but due to wartime regulations all stores close and everyone must take cover.

I have recently received news that my summer house north of Kyiv in the village of Nova Bogdanivka was pillaged by Russian soldiers. I invested so much of my time and energy there renovating, building a summer terrace, and planting a garden. It is also a home where my family spent most of our weekends and nine whole months during the height of the Covid pandemic. At least the Russians didn’t burn it down.

Nova Bogdanivka was on the frontline and was the scene of heavy fighting for a month. I learned about all the developments there from a Telegram channel that united all residents of our 250-house community. When the war began, most of us left for other parts of Ukraine or for the relative security of nearby Kyiv. A handful of residents stayed behind in the village. During the fighting, they were forced to hide in basements to survive and were very cautious about discussing their situation in case any of the details somehow leaked out and reached the Russians.

At some point, a village resident published a photo of my neighbor’s SUV dotted with bullet holes. His son recognized the car in the photo and begged everybody in our Telegram group for help. It was a terrifying moment. Nobody could do anything and everybody knew it was our neighbor. Later we learnt he had died.

On reflection, our village was actually lucky. One resident was killed and all of our houses were looted by Russian troops or “orcs” as they are universally referred to in our Telegram group. The neighboring village was far less fortunate. Every third house was completely destroyed by heavy artillery. The fate of this neighboring village became the subject of a harrowing feature-length report by independent Russian news site Meduza detailing multiple murders and rapes by Russian troops. Relatively speaking, we have nothing to complain about.

My neighbors from Nova Bogdanivka have begun uploading photos from their security cameras to our messenger group. It turns out that the Russians stole anything they could carry from carpets and vacuum cleaners to used clothes and kitchen cutlery. Some of them filled up suitcases with stolen items. I can understand why a soldier might decide to steal money or jewelry, but why would anyone want to take somebody else’s clothing or knives and forks?

“The second army in the world,” as my neighbors sarcastically describe the Russians, turned out to be a bunch of impoverished bums. Nova Bogdanivka residents who managed to talk to the invaders discovered that most came from the poorest regions of Russia including the North Caucasus, Siberia and the Far East. Some of them admitted that they had only previously seen asphalt roads on TV. Whether he intended to or not, Putin has conducted a “special operation” to show the whole world the poverty and degradation of the Russian military and modern Russian society as a whole.

I have not yet learned the full extent of the damage to our house. It is still too early to check as the retreating Russians left mines and booby traps throughout the village. I don’t know when we will be able to go back, but I am already terrified by the thought of our eight-year-old twins Peter and Anna going for a walk in the village or just playing in our garden. I fear this lingering sense of dread will be with us for many more years to come.

Vitaly Sych is Chief Editor of NV media house which includes a weekly magazine, national talk radio station, and news site (NV.ua). This war diary was originally published in the German language by Die Zeit newspaper.

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Image: A Taras Shevchenko bust in Kyiv region town Borodyanka stands next to a building destroyed by Russian bombardment. (Photo by Celestino Arce/NurPhoto)