Politics & Society
Diary of War
This is a story—based on the diary entries of and interviews with those who have survived the war in different parts of Ukraine—chronicling the swift and brutal destruction of people’s lives and the country they call home. It is an ongoing story of bombs and silence, fire and snow, family and loss. It’s a story they want to share with people who witnessed the war through TV screens and on news apps. It’s a story chronicling the first month of a war that changed everything.
Vesna is 16 and has never left her country—though her consumption of American pop culture gives her words and thoughts a cosmopolitan flair. Oleksandr is about to turn 20—but he never imagined he’d do so under the sound of shelling and air raid sirens.
I’ve never been to a church that looked quite like this. Then again, everything around me looks, sounds and smells unlike anything I’ve ever experienced—and I’ve spent most of my life in this city.
We’re in an unfinished basement. The floor is made of those boards made of leftover scraps of wood. They still smell like wood, too. I like the smell. There are a few blue chairs—the ones you’d expect in an office or a dentist’s waiting room. There are mattresses, too, plastic bags with stuff spilling over their edges, and a bunch of coats. People spent the night here. Parents and teenagers now play board games and kids do somersaults on the mattresses.
I would have expected more from a church. More light, more colours. More silence, too. People are talking in hushed voices that make the hair on my arms stand up. I wish I could hear what they’re saying. Do they know anything about what’s going on? Do they have plans?
I’m just outside of the room, whispering to my friend. She’s evangelical, and has known this church from before the war. What a crazy thing to say, “before the war.” The war started years ago when I was in kindergarten. We live just 10 kilometers from Donetsk, and my father died defending it in 2015. We’ve all felt the tension for so long, but this time, it feels different. Even closer than before. Bigger.
Anyway, my friend’s mum insisted they come here, but she forgot her phone charger and sent me a message on Snapchat. My mother insisted on staying in our flat, not wanting to show fear after Putin’s war declaration. Still, I wasn’t allowed to leave the house. I hope to sneak back in before she notices.
I know I’m doing something stupid. The streets are almost empty—anyone I pass has their eyes cast downward, hurrying along with some kind of controlled panic surrounding them like a bull-headed aura. The cars that pass are cramped with people and suitcases. But they drive slowly, and not one honks at the stray dogs running around.
I shouldn’t walk these streets alone, but it’s just one block. One there, one back. Feeling courageous, I Snap a quick picture and my phone rings. My friend is letting his dog out on the street east of the city. I guess he’s as stupid as I am. The sound of sirens on his side of the line sings in canon with the ones surrounding me. Then, a whistle, a thunderous boom and the sound of shattering glass. It’s so loud I drop my phone.
The phone is just there, on the ground next to my feet. So close to me. The line is still open—I can see the seconds adding to our call time on the screen. I can’t move. I just can’t pick it up. And then suddenly, Mom’s next to me. She sweeps the phone off the ground and mumbles: “Who’s this?” “It’s Sacha,” I hear through the phone, ‘I’m okay.” I start to cry.
I wake up and—without a minute wasted—my mum and I pack up our stuff. We’re leaving.
Aside from our emergency backpacks, I take my laptop to keep myself entertained and write this very diary. My mum’s packing food, water and other supplies that I gladly carry on my shoulders.
We leave our lights on—there are looters in the area—and lock the door. It takes us an hour to reach my grandparents’ country house on foot. Car after car passes us. People are armed—I think they’re from the territorial defense of Zaporizhzhia. They guard crucial infrastructure and buildings that might be targeted.
I don’t film them or share the news with my friends—Russian troops might use these videos to find out when our troops are moving and where to. The streets are empty. Each and every business is closed. Public transport has stopped bringing people to their destinations. It’s eerie—the silence only interrupted by the wind.
Once we reach the country house, we make a deal with my grandparents. We stay together.
Tonight, I only hear distant explosions.
We’re completely surrounded. From Donetsk in the east, tanks have crept up on us. From the Azov Sea, warships keep us in their crosshairs. It’s weird how vehicles can be so slow yet so effective. We have nowhere to go. Even the sky is our enemy now.
My older brother, Aleksey, used to love Pocahontas when we were kids. It used to be his big secret—apparently, it’s not a very manly movie. But who cares about any of that now, right? “Steady as the beating drum,” they sing in the movie’s opening scene. Artillery hits my city now, steady as a beating drum. It’s a rhythm that has taken over my life, reverberating in my bones, taking over my heartbeat.
My brother and our neighbor checked the roof of our building for Russian tags yesterday. They used to fight all the time, but now they’re a team. On Telegram, we had read that undercover saboteurs earmark buildings with signs for fighter jets to zone in on the targets. I don’t know if I should believe that or if the Russians are just bombing anything they feel like. My brother didn’t find any tags, but no one feels safe anyway.
The constant bombardments have shaken my mother, too. We spend most of our time in the common corridor of our building, hoping it’ll protect us from direct hits. The shelters are too far away. We have all brought food, blankets and emergency bags into the hallway. There are at least 20 of us here, a few cats and many children. I’ve never seen them this quiet.
As surreal as it sounds, I’m grounded for leaving the house last Friday. I guess Mum wants to keep some sense of normalcy, even though she hasn’t yelled at me for leaving. She’s taken away my phone and I’m not allowed to leave her side—though I don’t know why I’d do that. The internet has been down most of the day anyway, and I have little else than a book to keep me busy while we shelter. It’s about magic and demons—but for the first time, I’m unable to escape the world around me. I put down the book and stare at the ceiling.
A light bulb hangs there, unadorned. Its yellow light reveals the tiredness on everyone’s face and casts shadows on the cold, humid walls. Then, the light goes out. No one screams like they do in the movies. There’s just one collective sigh.
We received a message from the mayor to turn off all heaters, refrigerators, kettles—anything electrical to save resources. From the window of our flat, I can see that the traffic lights are dark, too. Before the water got cut off, we filled up a third of our bathtub. Then, the tap sputtered and gurgled with a heartbreaking sound. Every two hours, we fill up a mug to drink a little.
Yesterday, the sound of shelling went on for 14 hours. Dead silence now reigns in Mariupol. Raindrops pound on the windows. I spend most of my time there, and every time I go into our flat, I listen for the telling whistle announcing a new strike.
I am dead tired and I nod off all the time. My brother stays close to Mum and me, watching me intently. He must miss Dad now more than ever, wondering how to keep us safe. I cannot decipher the look in his eyes, but then the corners of his mouth perk up a bit. “Go to sleep,” he says, and offers the nook of his arm as a cushion.
The roof is on fire. The second stairwell of our building is on fire, too. The smoke is spreading from floor to floor. We need to get out.
It’s freezing outside and windy. One of my neighbours says it’s -6 degrees. We don’t know where to go, but at least we have our emergency bags with us. Aleksey’s bag has a first aid kit, and he uses some eye drops to clear out the smoke from our eyes. We wash off the ashes in a puddle of melted snow on the street. It’s the first time I’ve been out of the house in a week and there are dead bodies everywhere.
We need to go somewhere. A man is loading up his car. His partner is dragging possessions onto the street—I’m not sure if these are his or if they’re looting.
An older woman holds onto the wall of a building, shuffling forward. She can barely walk. I freeze and think about what will happen to her. Someone tugs my sleeve—we can’t stop. There’s smoke and shelling, and we need to find a place to hide. We hold hands so we don’t lose each other.
“There’s smoke and shelling, and we need to find a place to hide. We hold hands so we don’t lose each other.”
My father’s brother lives in Enerhodar, 50 kilometers 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 they promise to come back. At 3pm, they show up again, start shooting at the 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 Russians 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, killing and injuring multiple people. Thankfully, a nuclear meltdown is avoided.
Next up in Russia’s route would be Zaporizhzhia, my city.
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.
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 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 is experiencing the war on a different level. She doesn’t allow anyone to leave the house. She’s afraid we could get killed or arrested for suspicious behavior just by being in the streets. It’s understandable, I guess, but wouldn’t it be awesome to just go out and have a little time to yourself outdoors?
I decide not to test her nerves further. She takes her medicine to keep it together during this time.
Yes, today, it’s peaceful. But it’s an anxious kind of peace.
We should have never left. Now, he’s dead. Aleksey—my brother, my hero—is dead.
We tried to escape yesterday, or was it the day before? Aleksey had heard there was a ceasefire, and we would be able to get out if we could find a car. An older man sold us his beaten-up white Volvo. Well, he wanted to just give it to us, but his daughter asked for money. We gave her most of what we had on us—then she demanded Mom’s wedding ring. It was all she had left from my father. She gave it anyway.
We scraped mud from the ground to write messages onto the car’s roof. We weren’t press, or doctors, and didn’t have children in the car. What should we write? We kept it simple: “Help”.
The ceasefire was a joke. We saw plumes of smoke from shelling all along the corridor. A huge column of cars was trying to get out, but they told us all to turn back. Aleksey had a plan, he said. A friend of his has a house on the outskirts of town. We could sleep there, stock up, and wait for the moment the corridor opened again.
We should have argued. We should have said no. Maybe we could have stayed in the column, maybe we should have gone on foot. But he promised us a shower and some cheese.
I never even heard the whistle. I never saw the fireball or the glass of our windshield shattering into tiny pieces. All I saw was Aleksey’s open mouth, blood spilling out of it. It looked nothing like in the movies.
Mum hasn’t said a word since we crawled through the bushes, leaving Aleksey behind. Ironically, we found shelter at a hospital after hours of walking last night. I wonder if any of the people here could have saved my brother.
I wonder if I could call anyone. My cellphone has run out of battery, the electricity is out most of the time, and phone lines and internet connections have been dead for days now. The last time we watched the news, no one said a thing about Mariupol, as if we’re all dead and buried already.
Now, we’re subject to rumors passed on between airstrikes. They say the Ukrainian army will break through the siege. But the only radio station we can catch says that Ukrainians are holding Mariupol hostage, broadcasting: “Mariupol is surrounded. Surrender your weapons.”
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 bubble. I don’t have any prior military experience or training. 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. But isn’t that what cowards usually do? I’m a pacifist and have no interest in 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.”
"Maybe I'll get drafted another day. But not today."
Grandpa Sasha drives me to the commissariat where I’ve been summoned. On the way, he suggests I tell the drafting officer that I am a journalism student and that I speak English.
I show the guard my ID card and pass through the gates. The ask me to stay put and wait for further instructions. There are many people here—most wearing sports clothes and carrying duffel bags. They’re waiting for their ride to the training camps.
I’m not one of them, at least not yet.
It’s so cold I start to feel numb, but I’m called into the building after half an hour. The office is on the third floor, and again I must wait in line before entering the room.
“Good morning,” I say as a sign of politeness. “State your age,” the clerk responds rather strictly. “Um, 19,” I mumble, leaving out that I’ll turn 20 in a few days. “Goodbye,” is the only response I get.
I’m guessing it means “Get out, we don’t need you now.” I can’t hide my smirk and walk out of the building. I had resigned to my new fate to fight. I spent an hour in the queue, getting ready for mobilizations. And then—poof—I’m not eligible?
Well, at least my girlfriend Lisa will be happy. She is so upset I might get drafted that she’s been crying tears of sadness the whole day. Telling her the good news brings new tears—this time of happiness.
“Damn, I messed up my makeup again.” I can only laugh.
Maybe I’ll get drafted another day. But not today.
Three days ago, Mum left the basement where we sheltered with dozens of strangers to find some food and water. She never came back.
I’m out of money, I’m hungry and I’m tired. I’m alone.
For the past two days, I have looked for her, turning around each body with even the vaguest resemblance. Was she wearing her long black skirt or trousers? We haven’t changed clothes since we left our flat so many days ago, and still I can’t remember. She cut her hand deep on a fence the day we lost Aleksey, so I focus on the hands of people scattered in the streets. There are so many bodies I lose count.
Finally, I notice that more and more cars pass me. I think the corridors are open again—I should talk to people and find out what’s happening, but I haven’t spoken to anyone in hours, if not days. My voice croaks when I approach a family packing up their car. I haven’t drunk real water in a long time, sipping on snow and ice to keep going. They agree to take me with them for free—I don’t even ask where they’re going.
We’re seven people crammed into a small Dacia car. The windows have been blown out and plastic wrap is now taped onto the bodywork as a replacement. It slowly unravels, blowing violently in the wind.
Every few minutes, an airstrike hits and the ground we drive on shakes so much the driver’s forehead creases with lines of worry and stress. I don’t know his name. They don’t ask mine.
We cross over a dozen Russian checkpoints with heavily-armed soldiers. The girl next to me squeezes my hand to mush at each one. I don’t necessarily like the contact, but I stay quiet. I make no sound, take up no space, afraid they’ll kick me out for being a burden. One soldier spits on us as we pass. Another one sticks the butt of his gun through the plastic, hitting my jaw, before laughing and turning around.
It takes us hours before I finally hear Ukrainian voices at the last checkpoint. These are our guys. The mother sitting in front turns around, looks at me and finally asks: “Where’s your mother?” “Gone,” I answer. “How old are you?”—”16,” I say.
“God bless you,” she mumbles when they pull over. I get out of the car and walk away.
I’m having panic attacks. I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, immediately check my newsfeed and then try to sleep again. Until two months ago, I would sleep in until eight or nine in the morning. Now, I wake up at six each day. The artillery attacks, the sounds of sirens and tension in the city leave me grasping for the scattered bits of my mental health.
During the day, I fall asleep two or three times a day. It happens at any time, but I still don’t feel refreshed afterwards. I always fall asleep in my clothes in case of an emergency, but there is another reason—it’s ice-cold in the house.
February was somewhat warm, but March went down to -7 degrees Celsius. And my health isn’t in the best condition right now. Even if this war ends, I might not believe it’s over. I might wake up early and have panic attacks because of random sounds, like a balloon popping or exploding fireworks. If Russian rockets don’t kill me, my own mental and physical state might.
I wake up early again and begin browsing on my laptop. Believe me, my laptop is my only source of leisure in the cold country house.
At seven in the morning, I hear a massive explosion. A series of little explosions follow it. The house shakes and our windows tremble—which means these explosions are closer to me than ever before. Sirens go off and we wait quietly, looking out for another hit.
After an hour, I hear the same explosion, again followed by little ones. Again, the whole house starts shaking.
It feels like the longest time before the sirens stop. Our mayor and community leaders on Telegram channels advise us not to share information about where and how the bombing happened. They don’t want the intel to get picked up by the Russians.
Our mayor reports that the Russian invaders used a BM-30 Smerch, a modern multiple rocket launcher system dubbed “Whirlwind”.
It’s a truck with a large gun that can fit a lot of rockets. But these rockets contain smaller bombs that are released upon explosion and cover a much larger area, destroying it entirely.
Today, the aftermath of the bombing is clear. Three sites now lay in ruins: a military base, a factory and a quarry where the manufacturer mines stone. Nine people died. 17 more are injured. Half of these victims were hit after the first rocket landed. When the rescuers arrived at the scene, another rocket hit them, resulting in a number of casualties. One rescuer died. I have no words to describe the cruelty of Russian commanders who pushed a simple button to hurt civilians.
For 24 days, Zaporizhzhia was left alone. I’m devastated to report that we have now officially entered the list of cities where civilians have died due to Russia’s “special operation”. Special operation of what? Killing the innocent?
Vesna (Chișinău, Moldova)
It’s spring and sunlight shines through the blinds of my new home.
The war started exactly one month ago. Bombs continue to fall on Mariupol every 10 minutes, but I’m no longer there. I’m no longer in Ukraine, but in the Republic of Moldova. Once out of Mariupol, we got food and water from the Ukrainian army. They even allowed me to charge my phone at one of the shelters. A million messages and updates came in, mostly from my friends, some from distant relatives. None from my mother. I texted my aunts and uncles—even though I don’t know them that well. That’s how I ended up taking a bus to Chișinău to join my aunt Oksana. The city is nice enough, it almost looks a little bit like home. I doubt anything will ever really feel like home.
Everyone here is afraid Russia will target them next. They all have prepared their own go bag: big plastic bags with checkerboard patterns, the ones they sell at the market. They’ve had time to prepare here. The bags have money, heirlooms to trade, medicine, clothes, school diplomas, vaccination cards, knives and canned food. But I’m most jealous of the family pictures they’ve selected to put in there.
It’s spring, and that’s exactly what my name—Vesna—means. But my body and heart feel cold. What is spring if you can’t share it with your loved ones?