The war in Ukraine is a year old. Here are the stories of some who have survived.
BY LIZ COOKMAN FOR FOREIGN POLICY
A wounded soldier waits for treatment at a military hospital in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on March 31, 2022.
EMRE CAYLAK PHOTOS FOR FOREIGN POLICY
Dmytro Hapchenko, 45, has worked for the Bucha City Council since 2015 and took on the role of manager of affairs in 2021. An early Russian offensive to take the capital, Kyiv, saw nearby Bucha turned into the front line. When Ukraine retook the city, evidence of Russia’s mass killings was unearthed.
The first sign I saw of Russian presence in Bucha was on Feb. 25. A car had been fired at. The driver, his wife, and kids were injured. They said they had tried to leave Bucha, but soldiers in the suburbs started shooting. Russians moved farther into the city on Feb. 27. They told us that if you mark yourself as a civilian with a white bandage, you will not be killed. It wasn’t true. I have access to CCTV—they were just shooting pedestrians who were crossing the road. The bodies were left lying there; they didn’t allow us to take them. I think it was an order to destroy our people.
I feel a lot of hate, because killing was a game for Russians. My friend died after he looked over his balcony and a sniper shot him. People who lived through this time call me all the time just to talk—those who didn’t experience it can’t understand.
On March 15, me and some other volunteers were waiting for evacuation and supply buses when Russian soldiers came. They took our phones and documents. They tied our hands and put bags on our heads. They accused us of being territorial defense [units]. We waited hours for a captain to interrogate us, but he never came. Soldiers talked among themselves, saying they could take us to the forest. I thought that was my end. I knew people were shot in the forest; many have still not been found.
The next morning, six of us managed to escape from the basement they kept us in overnight. There were others down there, but I don’t know what happened to them. Some of those who were captured were taken to Kursk (in Russia). We found out later the captain we were waiting for was FSB [Russian Federal Security Service]. He was a Ukrainian traitor from Crimea.
On March 30, I had lunch with a friend. He had to call his wife, so he climbed up to the ninth floor to get a better signal and saw a column of Russian tanks firing. They shot him in the leg [with small arms].
Two days later, there were rumors the enemy troops had left. I got on my bike and did a tour of the city and found only Ukrainian military. We’re still worried they could come back, though, because we always hear there could be an attack from Belarus.
I make more time to see and call my family now. War changed everything. It changed our vision of the world. Bucha was one of the most comfortable places to live in Ukraine. We never wanted massacre fame, and now we’ll do everything possible to make our city known for something else.
A soldier climbs on top of a destroyed Russian tank in the village of Mala Rohan in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on May 6, 2022. Vladymir Balabanov, 60, worked in a homeless shelter in Kharkiv and, before that, in an orphanage. Kharkiv was bombarded with missiles for months, leaving parts of it destroyed, while much of the region was Russian-occupied for more than six months.
Before the war, Kharkiv was full of young people because there were a lot of universities; the polytechnic alone had 20,000 students. The city was growing. There were modern parks and many tourists—it was developing.
We didn’t believe a war could start, even when we woke at 4 a.m. on Feb. 24. My daughter-in-law gave birth early the following day due to stress. At the beginning, the air-raid sirens were nonstop; it was unreal. Most of our staff fled. Only three of us stayed because there were 20 residents who did not want to go.
The homeless began using the shelter supplies to make hot food for the families who were hiding in the underground metro stations because of the constant bombardment. Trains that evacuated people to the west came back with supplies. We, the homeless and the staff, helped unload them and distributed goods around the city. We took food to places under constant shelling.People wait for an evacuation train at the station in Dnipro, Ukraine, on March 5, 2022. Ukrainians find shelter in an underground subway station in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on March 10, 2022.
I live on the edge of the city. It’s private houses there, rather than apartment blocks, so there were no basements to hide in. The buildings were shaking all the time as missiles hit. Tanks passed nonstop. Not just Russian, but also Ukrainian. That gave us hope.
The building next to mine was destroyed. It was three floors high. All that was left was two walls. When I evacuated my family, they said, “Maybe we will never come back,” but I was sure that Kharkiv would stay with Ukraine.
There was only one shop open and the line was hours long, while enemy jets flew overhead. My friend and I took food to people who couldn’t queue, but his son and another volunteer got killed doing that.
In May, the shelter started filling up with people who had lost their homes or were fleeing occupied territories. When those areas were liberated in September, the mood in the city completely changed—it brought us an inner calm. We knew there was still a threat, but it was a danger we could overcome.
People who fled are coming back now. We see our country in a new way. We have changed, and we want to change Ukraine for the better. A year of war has left us tired, but with hope.
Galina Uminets, 69, from Kherson, is a former entrepreneur. In 2014, when protests erupted in Kyiv, she organized her own local versions. She helped evacuate people from Crimea ahead of Russia’s sham referendum the same year. She took humanitarian aid to eastern Ukraine twice a week during the worst of the violence with proxy forces. She was twice captured near Olenivka, Donetsk, and has been awarded a medal of bravery by former President Petro Poroshenko. Kherson, in the south of Ukraine close to Crimea, was occupied by Russian forces from the beginning of March for almost nine months.
Kherson was prosperous, beautiful. There was a lot of green space and happy people, not like you see it today. My husband died young from illness, and my children lived poor in a basement with no light. My dream was to build a house with windows from the ceiling to the floor and a garden, and I did it. Now it has no windows and no flowers. Everywhere in Kherson is the same.
Our city was not prepared for war. There was a bridge across the Dnipro from Kakhovka. It was very easy for Russians to come. Their tanks just swept through the city and kept going to Mykolaiv, but they couldn’t get in, so they came back here and occupied us. We had nothing, no weapons, just Molotov cocktails.Ukrainians greet liberating soldiers with hugs and kisses in Kherson on Nov. 13, 2022.
I was an organizer at the volunteer center where we made the Molotov cocktails. I hid most of the time, but on May 3 a man put a bag over my head, handcuffed me, and took me to the police station. Russians tortured me for eight days in a row with electric shocks. I was naked, and they beat me. They gave me a bag as a toilet.
They brought Russian TV and made a report about the “neo-Nazis” they had found in Kherson. The day before the invasion, a photographer had visited the city to take pictures of soldiers, volunteers, and schools. I know now he was a scout. He was there and about 200 of his pictures were on the table. Soldiers said, “Tell us who these people are and where they are.” I refused, and they took me back to the prison unconscious.
The troops used to threaten me that they would cut off my breast and replace it with the face of [Stepan] Bandera [a controversial Ukrainian figure reviled by Russia but revered by some Ukrainian nationalists], but by June 26, I was in such a bad way they thought I was dead and threw me into the park.
When Ukrainians liberated us on Nov. 11, I was still in pain from my broken ribs. People flooded into the main square holding flags and hugging soldiers. A man I rescued in 2014—I found him lying injured in a field of sunflowers—was one of the first to free the city. He just recently got seriously wounded again. When he called from the hospital, I told him that, after we win, we’ll throw the biggest party, wear the prettiest dresses, and celebrate with all our hearts.
It’s painful to see Kherson now. It’s more destroyed than it was under occupation because of the increased shelling. My home was hit in January, and I am staying with one of the volunteers. It has only given me more power to fight. This war has united people, and there is one goal: victory.
Viktorii Voytsekhovskyy (right), her husband, Andriy, and their 5-year-old son, Leon, protest the impending Russian invasion in Mariupol on Feb. 22, 2022.
Viktorii Voytsekhovskyy, 29, is an animation designer from Moscow. She met her husband, Andriy, when she worked at Russia 1, a state-owned TV channel known for its pro-Kremlin stance. He opened her eyes to the reality in Ukraine, and she left her job and moved to Mariupol with him in 2015. They have a 5-year-old son. Viktorii and her son got visas to the Netherlands after fleeing Mariupol but soon came back to be with Andriy in western Ukraine. Mariupol, which is majority Russian-speaking, is the site of the greatest atrocity of the war to date. It is now occupied by Russia.
On the first day of the war, my husband was walking the dog near our home in the city’s east when a Grad [a Russian rocket] crashed past him into the window of a ground-floor apartment about 15 yards away. The next day, we got on a train out of the city.
Many friends and family members were sheltering in our church, which happened to be underground. They decided to leave after the city’s drama theater was hit on March 16. The next day, a bomb was dropped on the church.
My husband’s parents, with his grandmother, sister, and nephew, didn’t make it out of the city, because they got a flat tire from shrapnel that was lying on the road. Russians took them forcefully on buses to filtration camps. There was no phone connection, but the sister managed to send us a message somehow.
Because I’m from Russia, I knew people who live near the border, so I asked them to help. They went and basically kidnapped our family from a huge line of people waiting to register. The Salvation Army got them to Moscow, and from there we got them to Latvia, where friends of friends got them to the airport in Riga. I met them off a flight in Amsterdam. The friends in Russia who helped us, they have had to leave the country now. First to Georgia, then Armenia, and now they’re somewhere in Africa.Valentyna Konstantinovska, 79, trains before the Russian invasion in Mariupol, Ukraine, on Feb. 13, 2022.
Not everyone we know in Mariupol got out. The other day, I spoke with a young designer who’s there. He said everything is terrible. People are freezing in winter without heating. At his school, they tell students that Ukraine is not a real country.
Neighbors told us our building was hit and our stuff stolen, including my computer and vacuum. I would prefer everything had burned than that someone is using my things. I’m most sorry about our pictures.
My son started to ask me why we speak Russian at home instead of Ukrainian. It’s quite hard for me to respond so we decided to speak Ukrainian instead. Now he refuses to speak Russian, and if we do, he says, “Oh, you’re saying it wrong.” I speak Ukrainian well and people don’t always believe I am from Mariupol. Little do they know.
We miss our city so much. For us, it was the best place on earth. I want to go back to these memories, to our old life, but it can never be like that again. I feel so much shame for what Russia has done.
We try to plan for the future, but tomorrow maybe they will drop a nuclear bomb. Then nothing would matter. I keep a box of iodine and a stack of water bottles just in case. I used to wonder why my grandmother would collect things like tinned food and salt. Now I’m doing the same.
Russian soldiers raped her for a week: the story of a 19-year-old girl who went through hell in Mariupol.
Before telling the journalist of «Vchasno» about her experience, Nastya smokes three cigarettes — a habit that appeared after everything she has been through. She started smoking and stopped it at school, but after her hair went gray because of three inhumans, she always carries at least two or three cigarettes in her pocket. She says, just in case, «If I will feel overwhelmed.»
Miraculously, she was not killed by an enemy shell
«From the first day of the war, we lived in the basement. Our house is on the outskirts of Mariupol, and our area was one of the first to be captured by Russian troops. The first days we were in the basement of our house — there was food, we pulled down the blankets, my little sister slept on a cot, and we — on the pallets. When I say „we“ I mean me, my sister, and my grandmother. My father died in 2015, he was defending Ukraine. He was killed by a shell fragment and didn’t make it to the hospital. And my mother did not live long without him, fell ill, and died the same year. On their anniversary — December 3. So when Russia attacked a second time, it was just a shock. I knew even then that we would not survive this easily, something would happen. My grandmother calmed me down, but I felt it in my heart,» Nastya says.
Fate saved them from death — in mid-March, they ran out of bottled water — had only several tens of liters. When Nastya, her grandmother and 12-year-old sister went out for water, a shell hit the house. Only two outer walls remain of the house, everything was destroyed, the basement was «buried» under the rubble. Nastya is sure that if they had been sitting in it at the time of the attack, no one would have survived.
«On the same day, we went to the shelter 100 meters from the house. There was a generator, so we did not freeze at home. We left the basement only to breathe air for five minutes. My sister didn’t let me go anywhere at all — her panic attacks began as soon as my grandmother or I went upstairs.
But on the 27th or 28th, the three of us went to get clothes. We wanted to take warm and clean ones because ours were already worn out. Literally walked 30 meters from the shelter, and there were five soldiers. Even then I saw that it was not our soldiers — red ribbons, narrow eyes … I somehow understood. And we had already turned back to return to the shelter, but two men pointed guns at me and my sister. Grandma didn’t move. One, perhaps the main one, then said: «Whoa, beautiful girls,» Nastya recalls.
«I was asked several times if I was ready for anything and whether I would obey»
After this, the Russians put garbage bags on the heads of all three of them, Nastya recalls her bag stank of fish.
«We were with bags on our heads in the car, and while walking from the car. I could not raise my head, but already inside I realized that we were in someone’s house, there was a laminate under our feet. We were left in the room ourselves for ten minutes, perhaps, and then I heard that my sister was suffocating. Another panic attack, whether it started at that moment, or in the car, I don’t know. I just do not know. I cried, asked her to breathe, to feel the floor, her hands, everything she could. Even when grandmother started talking to her, she calmed down a little, but she was crying.
To be honest, I don’t remember how it was. I remember that five Russians came. They removed the bags from our heads, my teeth began to chatter with fear, and I was shaking all over. One sat down next to my little sister, patted her on the head, then on the back, and said, «What a beauty.» I died then, I swear. I don’t know what he meant, but I began to beg to let her go with grandmother, and leave me. One put a gun to my head. Now I think that it should have been scary, but then I even thought: «Shoot.»
I was asked several times whether I was ready for anything and whether I would obey. I said I would do anything. Then they brushed a gun against my cheek, it became very cold. And they all laughed so loudly! But the one who put the gun said that he would let my sister and grandmother go if I will be obedient. He told me to swear, and I swore. So just said, «I swear.» They put garbage bags on my sister and grandmother and took them away, I still seemed to hear the sound of the car as they were leaving. Although, I think it was already a fantasy because in the following days I did not hear any sounds from the street,” Nastya recalls.
Nastya adds: when her grandmother and sister were taken out, she remembered that she had a smartphone in her pocket, and there were memes and pictures in the style of «shoot the rashist» on it. After that, she was praying that the phone will not be unlocked. But she was worried in vain — when the smartphone was found, one of the men simply trampled it with his boot.
«The psychologist says it’s good that I don’t remember how I was raped»
The girl was left alone in the room for several hours. Nastya admits that there weren’t even tears — she just froze and waited for what would happen next. And then the three came to «introduce themselves».
«I only fully remember the first day. Those three came, and asked my name and age. They asked who am I studying for. I said that was an artist, and in response heard that I definitely wouldn’t be useful. And then they began to undress me,» Nastya recalls.
That night or evening she was raped by all three of them. For how long — the girl does not know. She remembers that they mocked her: put weapons to her mouth and intimate parts, laughed, and asked if she liked it. Several times two soldiers raped her at the same time, and the third watched.
«I remember it was already at the end. A fat, nasty, old man, finished, patted me on the back, and said: „If someone would do it to my daughter, I would have killed him with my own hands.“ Now I’ll be honest: at that moment I dreamed with all my heart that it was so, that several men would pass her around,» Nastya says.
They didn’t leave her for long. They came one or two. In the evening (Nastya thinks so, because it was completely dark outside the window. Although one window was blocked with bags, and the other was boarded up), all three came. Assaulted her a few times. Once it got to the point that they took out a weapon — they put a knife to the girl’s throat and demanded to say what she liked, otherwise they would cut her.
«I have always been silent. I didn’t even think about anything, I just closed my eyes and it was dark there. And then they made me feel it. They liked it very much. At some time, they said, «You are a good woman.»
It was all «traditional» — they came with guns as if I could do something to them, and they assaulted me. Sometimes from the front, sometimes from behind, sometimes two of them. Once, only once, three of them tried at the same time. But it didn’t work out. I don’t want to talk about it,” Nastya says.
«Demons gathered in the east of Ukraine»: how Nastya was saved by an occupier who wanted to rape her
Nastya did not count how many days they assaulted her in that room. Later, the grandmother said that she had been gone for six days. Probably, on the last day, Nastya managed to escape.
«That day a fourth man came to me. I had never seen him before, one of these three brought me food. Or they came with bread or water (sometimes with cookies) and started doing this to me. And this one I saw for the first time. Narrow-eyed smelled very bad. It was not sweat, but something… Sour. He said that wanted to «have some fun». I said «No». He grabbed my hand and said that didn’t want to do it here, that it was «dirty» around, and he told me to shut my mouth because it would be worse. Then he took me outside. I recognized the place where they kept me. And when we crossed the road, he stumbled and fell to his knees (it seems he was drunk or on drugs — because when we walked, he staggered). My hands were tied, I could not stay on my feet and also fell, but while he was getting up, I crawled on all fours, and then got up and ran.
Ran to nowhere, just ran. I didn’t know where were ours, where not. I just wanted to run away and untie my hands, in some basement or somewhere. I remember that I ran to the store, where I saw an open door to the basement, and ran there. Fell down the stairs and hit my head. Blood poured from the forehead. But I got inside. And there were two women. They started running at me, I got scared. Then I fainted,” Nastya recalls.
The first memory after that is in the hospital. As the girl later found out, she and two women were evacuated by volunteers. They did not go down to the basement — the same women she saw carried her in arms. However, she does not know what their names are, they did not leave any contacts.
«The first question was where are my sister and grandmother. Because they weren’t on the list of evacuees, that means they’re still there. Best case scenario. A military man (he was in uniform) came to me and asked where they were hiding. I thought that we are in the territory controlled by Ukraine, so I can trust, right? And I told him. Two days later they were brought with two more evacuated children and a man. Their car was shot at when they were driving,» Nastya says.
Now Nastya lives in central Ukraine. And sure that she has already outlived those three invaders who raped her — because the military man who came promised to arrange «hell on earth» for them. However, the belief that everything is left behind is not enough — now the girl goes to a psychologist and meditates every evening. She tries to meet people but warns everyone from the start that she hates touches. Even with his sister and grandmother, she hugs «dosed» — when the sister really asks or the grandmother forgets that she should first ask.
«I know that we will win. It just hurts a lot, at what cost it will be … And I’m also glad that my parents are no longer there — because they wouldn’t survive what had been done to me,» Nastya says.