So, I’ve been moving around quite a bit in Ukraine on volunteer missions. My journey has led me to each part of this country: north, south, east, west, from safety hubs in the west to the edge of the frontline in the east. I spent one night in Kharkiv where my first experience with exploding missiles took place. Kharkiv is less than 20 miles from the Russian border. Here, I was performing a transport of an elderly lady to a nearby village where she was reunited with family. This was a night to remember. Air alarms are frequent, nearly an everyday occurrence depending on location in Ukraine. In some areas, you may hear several on any given day. Air alarms are simply a potential to danger. There is no guarantee strikes will occur when alarms and honestly, it’s quite unlikely. This is great. Air defense (AD) has been great since systems were put in place. Compared to early 2022, successful strikes are much less frequent when Ukrainian allies had yet to provide AD assistance. Unfortunately, this delay in aid likely caused thousands of unnecessary civilian, volunteer and military deaths.
Ukrainian alarms sound when missiles and/or drones are detected in air by either infrared or radar. Many alarms are simply precautionary as pinpointing exact and even approximate target areas is not possible. All areas in the path of these missiles will hear an alarm. It’s certainly better than nothing. However, and unfortunately, this has lead to many people ignoring alarm warnings. These warnings, or alarms, typically last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and often occur in the middle of the night, which is when Russia is highly active with their air strikes. I presume one would understand why people are ignoring these alarms. To be honest, I’ve been here for over two weeks now and I’ve yet to see a bomb shelter while an alert is active. At this point in the war, It’s highly unlikely one will be killed here in Ukraine as a result of this war. Not impossible however, and it appears those staying put have accepted their fate. I am referring to citizens here. Those fighting along the front are obviously highly at risk of serious injury and death and are dying by the day. When compared to other causes of death, my statement holds true. As a citizen of Ukraine, you’re more likely to die from cardio vascular disease, oncologist disease, fatal accidents, digestive tract disease and respiratory disease than from symptoms of this war. And again, now that AD has been given to Ukraine, many missiles are not successful in reaching their targets. However, there are certainly highly active areas which I would not recommend visiting. The majority of evacuations have taken place in the East, close to the front lines of war. Do not visit here.
Terror in Kharkiv
A few days ago, I had just arrived to Kharikiv where Russian tanks recently roamed. This is in Eastern Ukraine near the warfront. Many people here continue to speak Russian and tune into Russian media. Needless to say, ties here with Russia are strong, so it would be fair to say Russia believed attacks in this region could’ve helped justify their anti-terrorism propaganda and rhetoric with the citizens of Kharkiv. Kharkiv also holds access to significant routes from Belarus to Russia and there are many educational buildings there. As academic cities in the west tend, Kharkiv is no different with liberal leaning philosophy and vibes. Obviously, Russia has different beliefs so we have many reasons why Russia was, and is, so eager to launch missiles and send tanks to this region. I don’t think the real and honest answer will ever be revealed, even from Russia, so we can speculate only.
Hours of driving and walking the city. One destroyed building after another, this second largest city in Ukraine did not look anything like it. Sidewalks were empty, restaurants and shops closing early. After 8pm, it was nearly a ghost town. Once I finished some last minute grocery shopping in the only market open, I returned to my flat to prepare dinner and get into bed as I had another eight hour drive the next day. Alarms sounding on the mobile and nearby buildings, I continuously checked to see if I was in harms way. I then received notice in a local volunteer group chat. The notification stated this night would be an active one and that Kharkiv was a target. Ahh, great! This held to be true, as hundreds of previous days and nights had too. I was here for 12 hours only! Getting rest this night was not easy as I am a bit uneasy with all of the alerts and notifications coming through. Each alarm followed by another awakening from restless sleep. Come 03:00, another alarm sounds on the phone and on local buildings.
I don’t even know where the bomb shelter is or if there is one one for my flat. I put faith in either Ukrainian air defense or Russian inability to launch missiles accurately. In all seriousness, I was a bit more excited for the adventure than scared. I am single, no kids, never married and with little family around. I have few ties on this Earth so I can be selfish with my time and risk tolerance. So for now, I will! The 03:00 alarm turned to 03:15, I was just about to fall back asleep when I hear a humming sound, almost as if there was a small propeller plane flying by. It wasn’t a plane. This was a missile! These missiles and drones have a buzz or vibration sounding engine. It hums as it passes by, or enters your flat! Thankfully, this one was shot down by air defense (AD).
Ukraine has done a great job shooting down these missiles and drones with the air defense they received. It’s quite impressive. Thank you to the military of Ukraine this night, perhaps you saved mine and many others’ lives. We will never know where the landing zone was ultimately going to be and yes, apartment buildings are frequent targets. You can hear these missiles up to 20-30 seconds before they either pass or explode upon impact or when intercepted. It was the loudest explosion I’ve ever heard and I grew up in USA, where it seems every other person has an assault rifle, and uses it. Almost as if the sky is an enemy! Silly people. Moving on.
Following the explosion, a yellow cloud of light illuminated the sky for miles. When these missiles explode, it produces an unimaginable scene. One I’ve never experienced, as if the universe was opening a black hole and inviting me in. It was an incredible site, adrenaline fueled moment and experience I will never forget. At first, I didn’t know the missile had been intercepted. I assumed it exploded in a neighboring building so I threw on my clothes, put on my shoes and ventured toward the front door. I wanted to help anyone who may have been injured. I also wanted to see what the hell the scene looks like after such an event. Before I went out, I made a phone call to a local whom I recently met. I wanted to asses the situation and ask for advice on what I should do, if anything. She just happens to assemble bombs for a living working for the US military so I specifically solicited her advice this night. Shout out to her, thank you for answering my call so late! She informed me it was not a good idea for me to wander outside, not to mention during curfew hours. She checked with her resources and informed me of the situation. The missile had been intercepted, exploding in mid-air.
My night in Odessa Region
Two nights later, this event replayed itself as I ventured over to Odessa. Odessa is a region in the South of Ukraine near borders with Moldova and Romania. More speculations can lead us to believe reasons for heavy attacks by Russia in this region are simply due to the fact Odessa lies along the Black Sea. More control and access in this region may be appealing to the Russians. In Odessa, I was greeted with recent destruction from attacks just days prior. This attack caused severe destruction to an educational building, apartment buildings, shops and restaurants (photos below). My last night in Odessa offered another adrenaline filled moment, quite similar to the night in Kharkiv. This time, two missiles were intercepted. The buzz of the engines could be heard for several seconds before being intercepted in the skies above. Yellow and orange lights filling the entire sky from the balcony of my flat. Was there a third, fourth or fifth coming? I had no idea, until the subsequent alerts came through signaling the end to this current missile threat.
Personally, I enjoyed both cities very much other than the frightening moments in the skies. As much as one can considering the times. People are moving around in their day to day lives and hunkering down come night fall when missile attacks are prevalent. It’s far from normal day-to-day life but inspiring to see a portion of these cities still active. There is also a curfew in place which is true for the entire country, so this forces people in doors come nightfall. Odessa is a bit more active than Kharkiv as the region did not experience much on the ground in the early days of the most recent outbreak of war. I say “recent outbreak” because fighting and conflict between Russia and Ukraine has been active since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. My opinion, this will continue for years to come. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out and what deals are made. Perhaps land will be traded or swapped to ease fighting and calm the storm. Let’s watch.
Is Ukraine headed to the EU?
There is potential for Ukraine to enter the EU which will help their side but with so much destruction to infrastructure and the ongoing uncertainty with some legislators, corruption and the human rights issue, further delay for entry is likely inevitable. Internal chaos within the EU is another obstacle Ukraine faces for entry. The EU currently has 27 member states and not all are aligned.
I hope this gives you an idea of what locals may be thinking when making their decision to A, either leave their country or region as a refugee or B, adhere to alarms and enter a bomb shelter each time one is sounded. If you aren’t ready to see destroyed buildings, missiles exploding in the sky and buildings at 03:00, corruption, manipulation and exploitation; do not come here. As volunteers, we are here for several reasons. I cannot speak for all but I see many of us offering our assistance and time for free, where many others (non-volunteers) charge big money to “assist” whether it’s to rebuild a home, offer transport, assist with travel documents etc. Many volunteers are burning through life savings in order to be here and help. It’s a lifestyle which is coupled with a fearless attitude of survival and empathy.
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