Mykolaiv spreads out around the silver mirror of the Southern Bug River. The bridge over the Bug is raised, lowered, raised again. Every day, buses full of women and children depart for Odesa, which remains safe for now, though some flee farther still, to Moldova or to those parts of Ukraine not yet subsumed by war.

There are Russian divisions twelve miles to the north and east. They are shelling the outskirts of town.

Governor Vitaly Kim
Elena Kostyuchenko / Novaya Gazeta

Mykolaiv operates in blackout mode, no lights allowed after nightfall. The city administration has warned that a single individuals failure to comply will result in the electricity being cut off for their whole building. Only the grocery stores and pharmacies remain open. Schools and day cares have been on break since the war began; no one wants to separate children from the adults. Many of the bus routes have been canceled; some of the buses have been requisitioned by the army and others deployed in the evacuation.

There are heaps of car tires sitting at the citys intersections, ready to be ignited when Russian troops enter the city. Some still bear traces of paint from when they served as decorative borders for municipal flower beds. One useful thing about the war,said the mayor, is that at least well get rid of the rubber swans.

Elena Kostyuchenko / Novaya Gazeta

The lines for humanitarian aid packages are orderly: grains, tinned food, butter.

Everyday life takes place between air raids. The trauma center has been converted into a field hospital. Patients are evacuated as soon as their surgeries are completed and their wounds are patched up. Beds are then quickly cleared for incoming patients. The medical staff lives on-site and have done so for the past two weeks, since the war began.

Humanitarian aid comes through Odessa. The bigger city watches Mykolaiv with awe: Odessans believe that Mykolaiv is the only reason Odessa has not yet been besieged.

Mykolaiv is partially surrounded,says Yaroslav Chepurnoi, press officer for the Seventy-ninth Brigade. There are seventeen Russian battalion tactical groups [BTGs] positioned around town,he says. Say each one consists of approximately a thousand men: that means seventeen thousand soldiers and fifteen hundred units of military tech—weapons, equipment, vehicles. We dont know their command centers plans, obviously; we can only assume that some of these BTGs will go north, possibly to Kryvyi Rih. But some of them will stay back and storm the city. We know that the Russian command has been ordered to take Mykolaiv, that its been ordered to take Odessa, and probably also to punch a land corridor to Pridnestrovie. So we are building up our defenses. Each day that goes by while they wait to attack Mykolaiv we use to build up our defenses.

The Russian troops attacked a few times already. Four times, I think. The first three were just to gather intelligence. They came in small numbers, and we repelled them, blew up their vehicles. . . But March 7 was a proper attack, with rockets and tornado missiles at first, then they threw two BTGs at us.

Heres something interesting. They had plenty of weapons and carriers, but all it took for them to turn back and retreat was our blowing up a few tanks and a couple of armored vehicles. As soon as they took a bit of damage, insignificant damage, they turned around and retreated. We were surprised, frankly. When you launch an attack with tanks and armored vehicles, you expect to lose a few of them in the course of fighting. That shouldnt prevent you from pushing on.

According to the official count, there are three thousand captured soldiers across Ukraine. I trust those numbers. Even here, there are dozens and dozens. A couple days ago, we had twelve people surrender after some fighting. The fighting was over, even.

Theyre shelling the city with Grads and Hurricanes and Tornadoes. Grads may be only 122 millimeters, but Hurricanes are 240 millimeters and Tornadoes are 320: these are all multiple-rocket launchers. At first they targeted military installations. On February 24, they shelled our military airbase at Kulbakino, but our planes were already gone, so no dice. On the evening of the fourth, they targeted the railway station and the fuel storage tanks. Then the bread factory—I mean, God knows what theyre thinking. . . . And then, on the sixth and the seventh especially, they started heavily shelling the military units, as well as just residential areas. Theyve already hit the water treatment plants on the outskirts of the city a few times, so we figure theyre trying to mess up the water supply for the civilians. Theyve stationed artillery in the towns and villages between Mykolaiv and Kherson, thats where theyre launching from.

Shells rain down on Khersonskaya Street. This is Balabanovka, a residential neighborhood on the southernmost tip of the Korabelnyi district. The homes are so badly damaged they look half built. Slate tiles blown off the side of a fence, roofs sliding down into craters. The streets between the houses are strewn with the detritus of everyday life. A wall has shattered into bricks, though a little sign with the building number—22—survived. Theres no glass left in the windows, which makes the buildings look abandoned. A crumpled Gazelle van sits stowed behind a green gate.

Beyond the gate, a vegetable garden, the earth recently plowed. A cherry tree, strafed to the ground, its branches scattered across the warm earth. There are three gaping holes in the attic roof.

Consequences of shelling, Nikolaev
Elena Kostyuchenko / Novaya Gazeta

Sasha with a shell fragment in his hands
Elena Kostyuchenko / Novaya Gazeta

Sasha is up on a ladder, clearing the shattered slate tiles off the roof. He seems not to notice the tears running down his own face.

First the shelling. A big whoosh over the wheat, all our windows blew out. Then it seemed to get quiet. My wife was on the porch, I was in the kitchen. She sits down. I take a look out the window and see these two airplanes from who knows where, black like the stealth ones. My wife fell over, and then rat-a-tat-tat! Some kind of white smoke. I threw myself over my wife and we started crawling. Ive been picking up all the shards. Look how sharp they are, you can cut a person in half with that.

His wife, Nadya, sits with her palms on her knees. This is where I sat down. I was sitting right here. Im sitting here, and theres no sound at all. No sound for me to be afraid of. These two airplanes, they were scary, black or dark gray, but I didnt even move from where I was sitting. I thought, Theyre not going to bomb civilians.And right at that second they started in on the ceiling. . . . I cant tell you how terrifying it was. . . . Look at the gate, all the holes. Another moment, and that would have been me. Im still in shock, I still cant feel my legs. Im terrified. Because the idea of leaving is terrifying, too. You still have to make it somewhere. This family I saw on the news, they were fleeing and they got caught in an air raid. The children died, and the parents, everyone.

Nadia, Sasha’s wife
Elena Kostyuchenko / Novaya Gazeta

The Mykolaiv orphanage was evacuated immediately after the war began. There were ninety-three children living there, aged three to eighteen, all social orphans,children with living parents who cannot look after them. The children were taken to Antonovka, a village forty-one miles northwest. Five days ago, Russian troops assembled next to the village. On March 8, at 9:20 a.m., the troops fired on a car driving orphanage staff down the Kirovograd highway. Three women were killed.

Anatoly Geraschenko was the driver. He shifts anxiously from foot to foot. Theres a piece of shrapnel lodged in his right leg. The surgeon said that theyll operate if it starts to rot,he says, but for now theyve left it alone. Masha stays close to her father. One of her eyes is blue, the other one brown. Ive got three sons and two daughters,Anatoly says proudly. Hes visibly shaking now, Its cold,he says.

This was his third trip to Antonovka. He wouldnt accept any money, only enough to cover the gas. He had stuck a red cross made of packing tape to his windshield. His van, a Mercedes Sprinter, burned along with the bodies inside.

We made it past all the checkpoints, showing our passports every time. I had six women with me, and two in the back. At one of the checkpoints, they said something had gone down in the night. They shouldnt have let us through!

There was no oncoming traffic, just empty lanes. We made it about twenty-five kilometers. My visions not great, but two hundred and fifty meters out, the women spotted something, they tell me theres something up ahead, something military. I said, Ladies, what do we want to do?I slowed down. Then came the machine gun fire, I didnt hear it or see anything. I only saw the gravel spraying out in front of me. Now I know why.

I cant remember exactly how they shot at us. Either Id stopped completely by then, or maybe the van was still rolling a little. I didnt see the blast, I only felt something shredding, dropping off of the van. A burst of light at my feet. I got out of the van, and they run over to me with their rifles. Im lying facedown on the asphalt, screaming: There are women inside! Women inside!

The Russians opened the back door—there were four more people in there. The women came out into the field. They ran over to them shouting, Drop your phones!The women, four of them, all tossed their phones on the ground by the soldiersfeet. I threw mine into the grass. I had a small one on me, in my pocket. My smartphone was still in the car, on the dashboard.

When I go back to the van, its gone. I start looking for it. There was a woman sitting by the door—she had no face left. Just her guts out. Her finger was lying on the running board. Her face was gone! It was gone! And the woman sitting right behind me was dead, too, but her I didnt see.

Burning car after shelling
Archive of Anatoly Gerashchenko

The Russians are saying: We warned you! We gave you a warning round.But Im no soldier! Warning rounds arent the kind of thing I encounter every day. One of the women was wounded in the shoulder. They lifted her up onto her feet. One of the soldiers, a Yakut, or maybe he was a Buryat, bandaged her wound. The other one was very young, a kid, really. He had the same sunglasses as me. I remember his face. My leg was bleeding from all the shrapnel. This kid, he drew back when he saw me. Maybe he got scared or something. I said to him, How do we get out of here?He says, Take the fields. All the road signs have been taken down.I said, We are going to walk on the road. If any of your men are up ahead, you tell them.They said, Weve informed them already.

They seemed completely indifferent, the Russians. They didnt even care that the car was on fire, that there might still be people inside. I said to them, Help me put it out, at least!They just stood there.

I saw someone in the back lying there when the van first stared to burn. I got inside. It was this woman, her husband had seen her off, kissed her goodbye. I pulled her out—another woman helped me. We laid her out on the road and her back was all bare. Id been dragging her by her jacket. Her back was shredded with shrapnel. I didnt check her pulse or anything. Her husband called me today. I told him, She didnt burn, I pulled her out. . . . Shes still lying there.

There were two bodies left inside, they burned with the van. That car really burned. My birthday is November 11. And now its March 8, too.

Principal Svetlana Klyuiko shows photos of the dead teachers. In the photo – Elena Alexandrovna Batygina
Elena Kostyuchenko / Novaya Gazeta

The three women killed were Natalia Mikhailova, Elena Batygina, and Valentina Vidyuschenko. The director of the orphanage, Svetlana Kluyko, tells me about each one of them: Natalia Mikhailova, shes been with us since 2014, a teacher. She used to work at a special-needs school so she was very experienced. She was the best sort of human being, kindness personified. If only there were more like her. She loved children, she was so wise, so good with her hands. All of my staff are excellent, but she in particular found a way to get on with everyone. She looked after the older boys. She would have been fifty on May 4. We were going to throw her a party. Elena Batygina took care of the little ones, dressing and changing them. Her children were always dressed so nicely. She had a big stock of different outfits, and party dresses. The children loved her, too. She was so kind. Twenty years with the orphanage. She was sixty-four. Valentina Vidyuschenko, she hadnt been with us long. It was her second year as a teachers assistant. She was working with the new intakes, one of the most difficult groups. . . . When the children first come to us, theyre in tears. . . . Theyve been dropped off somewhere strange, its so stressful for them. She was one of the first people they met. She helped them wash, dressed them, changed them, talked to them, made them feel better. Thats the sort of people they killed. The children were inconsolable. They had been waiting for the teachers to come, wed told them that they were on their way. The children screamed and screamed and wouldnt stop.”

It was not possible to collect the bodies—or rather, what was left of the bodies: We cant get to them.They remain where they were, fifteen and a half miles from the nearest Ukrainian checkpoint.

The wounded are in the Mykolaiv hospital: Anna Smetana, another teaching assistant, and Elena Belanova, a psychologist. The others, Galina Lytkina and Natalia Vedeneeva, have also been hospitalized, with severe psychological trauma.

Ninety-three children and ten teachers await evacuation farther into Ukraine in a village encircled by Russian troops.

Orderly in the mortuary bureau of forensic examination
Elena Kostyuchenko / Novaya Gazeta

All the dead pass through the office of the regional medical examiner. According to Olga Deryugina, its head, since the start of the war they have processed over sixty bodies of Ukrainian soldiers and more than thirty civilians. When I ask for the exact numbers, she replies: Whats the point? New ones arrive every day.Each body is examined by a team of investigators preparing to file documents with the International Criminal Court at the Hague.

Weve never had so many bodies at once. Shrapnel, bullet wounds, bomb blasts . . . shrapnel, mostly. Weve had two corpses with unexploded munitions, the bomb-disposal technicians had to come out to defuse the bodies.

Thats right, there was an unexploded ordnance attached to the body, I removed it myself,says Yuri Aleksandrovich Zolotarev, one of the medical examiners. It hadnt gone off because the fuse was damaged. I pulled out the casing to give to the bomb-disposal experts so that they could examine it. I told the women to stand back. . . . These had been soldiers. . . . I pulled it out very carefully and handed it over to the bomb-disposal technician. The fins were up inside the rib cage, but the fuse was inside the stomach—it hadnt blown up because the stomach walls are too soft. That was when they were shelling Ochakovo—these were mostly bodies from there. . . . The other guy, it was only a part of an ordnance. When the women came to identify them, the wives, the way they wailed, I havent heard anything like that in my twenty years on the job. I was in the Bosnian war—I never saw such savagery. Two of our soldiers I autopsied—it wasnt enough that they finished them off with bullets, they also had to knife them in the back. . . . On March 6, two young guys went over to the aircraft repair facility, to try to torch it with Molotov cocktails. . . . The soldiers caught them, tied them up, shot them in the head, and then finished them off by stabbing them in the back. They had knife wounds, dagger wounds under the shoulder blade. Its barbaric, taking the wounded and finishing them off like that.

First they shot them and then they finished them off?

Ive been a medical examiner for twenty years! I know which of those wounds came first.

The bodies are piled up in two sections of the cold storage. But there isnt enough room in there, so the ones that have already been autopsied are stacked outside in the street, beside the wall. Eight of them, in black body bags. An outbuilding that was used as a shed before the war is now full of bodies, too—two rooms, each of them sixty-five feet across. There are bodies all over the floor. Five Russian soldiers lie in a corner. Were keeping them while its cold outside. Nobody knows who we should hand them over to, or how.

These are all war fatalities, the burn victims are already body-bagged. . . . Step over them, dont be scared. Ive got some others here, too. Once weve worked them over, we have to pack them up in these black plastic bags, because, to be honest, theres nowhere to put all the autopsied bodies, youve seen the state of the rooms.

There are bare feet and feet still wearing shoes. Here is a scorched, blackened young man on his back, arms spread wide, a charred black mess for a face. Half of a human body, flesh fused with grass, a jacket covering the head, and a mans hand hanging down from under the jacket. A naked man wrapped in a floral sheet. A Russian soldier with his hands behind his head; his camo jacket is riding up and you can see a clean undershirt and the yellow strip of his belly.

The bodies in the cold storage are stacked up in layers. Two girls lie one on top of the other. They are sisters. The older one is seventeen. All I can see in the heap of bodies is her hand, her slim, long fingers with neat pink nail polish. The younger girl is three years old and lies on top of her sister. She is blond. Her jaw has been tied shut with gauze, her hands tied together to rest on her stomach.  Little red wounds from the shrapnel cover her body. The girl looks alive.

Arina Butym and Veronica Birykova. Same mother, different fathers. They came in on March 5, at five p.m. Theyre from the Meshkovo-Pogorelovo village, Shevchenko Street.Nikolai Chan-Chu-Mila is an orderly here. He doesnt look at me when he speaks. Im their godfather. . . . I did their baptisms. Were old friends. They brought the girls in during my shift. Of course I recognized them straightaway. I cant describe what I went through when I first saw them.

Dmitry Butym is the girlsfather. He waits on the other side of the fence, hes taking their bodies home today. Deep red folds rim his eyes. Vera was heating up food in the kitchen. Arina had gone out to play in the yard. They didnt have a chance, either of them. The little one died instantly, a piece of shrapnel through the heart. The older one, they got her heart going for two minutes, but it wouldnt beat on it own. Their mother is in the Dubki hospital, she has shrapnel in her thigh—it damaged things as it went through. You have to excuse me, all I can think about right now is burying my children.

Theres a new body being brought in. The attendants are unwinding a striped bedsheet. Its a man, the breathing tube still in his throat and his body flayed. Somebody tried to save him but couldnt. He is left to lie in the yard.

Four men with dark roses are waiting for their colleague to be released to them. Igor was a security guard, a civilian. That goddamn Tornado comes down, and thats it.

Elena Kostyuchenko / Novaya Gazeta

A body in camo trousers is carried out from the shed. The body is purple, with a wide gash where a face should be. Two men from the investigations unit bend over him. They take down a description of his clothes, remove his trousers, take a DNA sample by dipping a piece of gauze in his blood. One of them pokes his fingers into the crushed mess of the mans mouth—they need to establish which of the skull bones are broken.

A light-haired woman wrapped in a black headscarf speaks: My mother lived on the fifth floor. She couldnt get down to the bomb shelter in the cellar. Her next door neighbors, they helped her, they were like family. She died in the morning, peacefully. As much as you can call it peaceful—she was on the bathroom floor, hiding from all this horror. The next day, at exactly the same time, a rocket hit the building next door and blew out all of her windows. But she was already gone by then. I think it was some kind of miracle, that she died peacefully on the Sunday. The next day she would have died in a state of terror. She was seventy-seven. I have a photo of the apartment, what was left of it, from the neighbors. This is the view from her window, the building next door that was hit. It was the next day, she wouldnt have survived it. She died on Forgiveness Sunday. And on the seventh all of her windows burst. She would have been so frightened. If it had to happen, Im glad it was on the sixth and not on the seventh. Im so grateful. My mother was named Svetlana Nikolayevna. She was half Russian. Her husband, my dad, was born in Russia, in Krasnoyarsk. He was stationed here, thats how they met. My maternal grandfather was from Kursk. We were a Russian-speaking family. Were going to the cemetery now. My son is in Kyiv. My name is Oksana.

Barracks of military unit A0224 after shelling
Elena Kostyuchenko / Novaya Gazeta

Army base A0224 is one of the two military installations at Mykolaiv that was hit by artillery fire. On March 7, at 5:15 a.m., the barracks were struck by a Caliber rocket. Nine dead, including five conscripts who had not yet seen fighting. Fourteen wounded. Two of the conscripts initially presumed missing in action were found several hours later—they had fled and hidden.

A chunk of a three-story building has been reduced to rubble. Theres a bunk bed still sitting on an intact bit of floor. Emergency responders dig through the rubble by hand. They work with the military personnel, passing the pieces up a human chain. They are searching for the body of the last missing man. His name was Stas. He was a native of Western Ukraine and had been drafted eight months ago.

Yaroslav, the press officer, had a lucky escape that night. He is squinting at the sun, his hands never not on his rifle. They sounded the alarm at about five fifteen. I shot up and shouted, Boys, everyone out!We were the first ones out of the barracks, we didnt even put our boots on. . . . There were guys standing outside, and I told them to get inside. God forbid that they hit us with something, the shrapnel would go everywhere. . . . I started to go back inside. I ran back in and when I got to the second floor, maybe seven meters from me, I saw the tiles flying up, then a flash—fire. I saw fire. At five seventeen they hit us.

I was knocked back by the blast. I covered my head with my arms. There was glass raining down on me. I try to turn on my . . . Fifteen seconds pass and I turn my flashlight on and Im crawling. I can hear people screaming, a woman was screaming. Im crawling and crawling, but I cant feel the ground under me anymore. There is no ground. I hear the sergeant shouting, Everybody outside!I managed to get back and started to run out. I had my rifle with me. Everybody I saw, whoever was left, I told them: We have to get down to the shelter.And thats how we made it out. Taras, Danila, some of the other guys, they were all buried under the rubble. There had been twenty-nine of us in the sleeping quarters.

I dont want to start cursing . . . but Im not taking prisoners, not after this. And I dont care about their parents or wives. I dont feel any pity. Im twenty years old, I was training to be a veterinarian, but I dont have any pity left for anyone.

Anthony and Yaroslav
Elena Kostyuchenko / Novaya Gazeta

Somewhere up at the front lines, the Ukrainians have shot up a Tiger infantry mobility vehicle. Its Russian crew of four has surrendered. At HQ, they think that the Russians were doing reconnaissance, but those who were actually there think the Tiger was probably just lost.

Arthur has a black bandanna over his face. In his former life, he was a specialist in economic cybernetics. There was a car driving up from the direction of Kherson. When it got here, I saw it was armored. They rolled down a window. I look inside: Russians, in uniform. I say, Surrender.I cursed at them, too. The guy rolls the window back up before I could shoot. I started shooting out their tires. The car rolled for maybe another twenty seconds. Somebody threw a grenade and the car burst into flames. They didnt want to come out at first. We smashed the windows in, and then they began to surrender.

Did you talk to them?

We tried not to. These terrifying warriors. All our guys were laughing their asses off. It was the usual bullshit: they thought that they were just doing military exercises, all of that crap. I dont even know where I am.Total bullshit, of course they know.

They handed the prisoners over to the Security Service.

Someone has graffitied Death to the enemieson the dividing line in the middle of the road. The soldiers are warming up by the wood-burning stove. Those Russians fucked up our spring.

I heard that it came from those towers,says a soldier nicknamed the Actor. A sniper or a machine gunner, I dont know for sure. One bullet hit forty centimeters from my foot. After the third bullet, I finally clocked that they were aiming right at me.

Are you waiting for them to storm the city?

Im waiting for all this fuckery to fuck back off. And I hope that the residents of the occupied territories are making plenty of Molotov cocktails. And Id like to wish my daughter happiness. Shes three. I named her Maria.

My family stayed. My brothers house is a little bigger than mine. We all live in the same village—my brother, our mother, and me. My brother is older, so hes the head of the family, you know how it goes. His job is protecting the women and children, my job is to be here. I was in Varvarovka when they shelled the Kulbakino air base, working at a shipbuilding plant. My uncle woke me up at six thirty, and we could hear the air base being shelled. I was at the central recruiting office by eight twenty. They gave me my enlistment papers and said to come back at six oclock the next morning, all packed. I only told my wife after I got back. She knew, though—she knew I would do that.

Where could we evacuate to? This is our land,says another soldier. My family is in Odessa. They wont touch Odessa while Mykolaiv is standing. Thats why Im here.”

Ukrainian military
Elena Kostyuchenko / Novaya Gazeta

We keep saying: Russians, go home! Just go home, thats it. We didnt ask you to come here. You dont have to die here.’”

Why wont they collect their corpses? Theyre just fertilizer for our fields. So sorry, but your son will come here and youll never see him again, no neat little grave for you to visit. Something happens to me, though, my mom will grieve for me and bury me herself.

People who used to be like brothers to us are our enemies now, because they attacked us—thats not what brothers do. We have to defend our land, we have to stand our ground. We didnt want this war, we didnt see it coming.

Im from Mykolaiv myself. Am I supposed to just sit home and wait? I went down to the recruitment office on the very first day.

We dont want to wage war against Russia. So dont you come and wage war against us.

They think Ukraine is weak. No. Ukraine is really good. We know every hole and every burrow here. This is our land youve come to.

We dont want war. We want you to leave us alone.

Maternity room in the basement of maternity hospital No. 3
Elena Kostyuchenko / Novaya Gazeta

So far, twenty-two babies have been born at the Mykolaiv maternity hospital No. 3 during the war, two of them in the makeshift bomb shelter in the basement. All of the babies survived.

There are almost no C-sections anymore, because the stitches need rest, peace, and quiet, and theres no peace now, not with the air raids. A maternity ward has been set up in the basement, but the operating rooms are still on the third floors. This is very dangerous. A siren blares. Expectant mothers walk down to the basement, step by step, holding on to the walls, their descent slow and ponderous. The midwives carry the babies down.

Lena Sylvestrova lies on a metal gurney under a woolen blanket. Her husband, Aleksei, is trying to soothe her. The palm of his hand is on her neck. Lena gave birth at 4:30 a.m. by C-section. She had tried for a natural birth, she labored for almost twenty-four hours. She is twenty-eight and her husband is twenty-six. This is their first child. She went into labor early in the morning, after curfew. Aleksei drove her to the hospital himself.

My due date was just around when the war started. I was so worried, waiting for it all to kick off. I was constantly on edge, waiting. Worrying that wed get caught in an air raid or shelling in town. I was lucky—they managed to do my C-section between two air raid sirens. Imagine, you are in labor, all you want is some peace and quiet for your baby, but instead, your city is being endlessly bombed!

Alexey and Lena, a young mother
Elena Kostyuchenko / Novaya Gazeta

Aleksei strokes her cheek.

Id love to remember what its like, walking around without worrying about getting shot.

The light in the basement is dim, the women sit along the walls. The chief physician takes Aleksei to the archive department and quietly opens the door. Inside, a midwife sits on some mattresses and cradling a white bundle. She holds the bundle out toward Aleksei. I dont want to hold it, Im scared,he tells her.

Better get used to it. Dont be scared, nothing to be afraid of.

Aleksei holds Masha in his arms. Its his first time. The midwife gently adjusts his hands.

Shes so tiny,Aleksei says. He falls silent, his face dipping ever closer to his daughters. My little girl. Hello there! Are you sticking your tongue out at me? Really, Masha? Were going to be together every day, every single day, deal?

Alexey and newborn Masha
Elena Kostyuchenko / Novaya Gazeta

We only want peace. Please write that,says a woman in a white lab coat. My name is Nadezhda Sherstova. Im a senior nurse anesthetist. Ive been doing this job thirty years. Since the war started, whenever a baby is born, theres no joy in the parentseyes. You worry about the mothers, their milk coming in. Thats what scares me. There is no joy for the parents.

She was a real pain,Aleksei tells the chief physician. Constantly kicking. Shed hear my voice and start in on her dancing in there. Wouldnt let her mom sleep at night. Shes kicking a little right now. I thought she would look like me. When we did the ultrasound, they said she looked like me, but look how pretty she is.

The next shelling of Mykolaiv began at 8:00 p.m. on March 11 and lasted most of the night, with brief pauses. According to Mayor Oleksandr Senkievichs official statement, more than 167 residential buildings sustained damage, including City Hospital No. 3 (which was filled with wounded civilians), a prepared-food plant, eleven schools and day cares, and an orphanage. Eleven private homes were completely destroyed. Shrapnel shredded the yard of the cancer ward and the emergency department. Kuzya, the beloved hospital guard dog, was killed. They covered him up with a towel. The cemetery was shelled, too. Fires have broken out all over the city.

The Last Witness

Kolya is lying in a cellar. The only thing separating him from the bare earth is a bit of Styrofoam to protect against the cold. The walls are moldy, the air icy and damp. Kolya wears two pairs of pants on top of each other, two pairs of socks, a cap and he’s wrapped in a blanket, he will later recall. And yet he’s still freezing. It’s March in Mariupol, and temperatures are dropping below zero.

There’s no more electricity and no water. No safety. Barely any food. The Russian army has surrounded the city, and now it is starving the population. Bombs rain from planes, Kolya can even hear them in the basement. A whistling noise followed by a tremendous thunder. The walls tremble as if he were lying in a house of cards that could collapse and bury him at any instant. A bullet recently hit the neighbor’s house and a man died. They buried him in the vegetable patch. They didn’t dare go any further because of the fighting.

Kolya’s sister Polina, 11, is lying next to him in the basement. She snuggles up to her father Vladimir, a slender, serious man. Polina is the youngest of the three children. Varya, 14, lies at Kolya’s feet. Next to her mother Natalia, whose corpulence keeps her warm. Between them is Kolya, who has just turned 17 years old.

He’s not religious, but he is praying right now. In his mind, he will later recall, he speaks the same sentence over and over again: Everything will be alright, we’ll get through this. But he doesn’t really believe what he’s saying. Kolya is certain he’ll die in Mariupol. And his family with him.

Before February 2022, Kolya had been a teenager who had discovered his love for Metallica and dreamed of changing the rigid Ukrainian school system as a civil servant. His sisters Polina and Varya were fond of folk dances and painting. Parents Vladimir and Natalia, both 47 years old, sometimes lacked the energy for three children. But after many conflicts during puberty, Kolya was growing closer to them again.

Today, six months after the start of the Russian war of aggression, they are dead. Polina and Varya, girls with long braids and high cheekbones, were likely killed by debris in the basement of their home. Vladimir, the father, died in the apartment, perhaps he had gone upstairs to get some air. The body of their mother still hasn’t been found to this day, presumably her body got pulverized by the explosion.

The only one still alive is Kolya, a child from whom the war took everything: his home, his family, his future and even his past. He no longer has anything except a pair of jeans and wool socks knitted by his mother. Kolya’s clothes, his identity papers, the people he loves – all these things lie under the rubble of Mariupol. Just like the other tens of thousands killed by Russia in its campaign against Ukraine.

A few days after the invasion in February, the Russian army cut off the city’s connection to the outside world. The network collapses, and it’s not a coincidence. The world isn’t supposed to see what is happening in Mariupol. To this day, there are few images from the city, and Russia has dismissed the ones that do exist propaganda.

But Kolya witnessed what happened in Mariupol. He is able tell you about it without hesitation or faltering, as clearly and distinctly as only someone who has nothing left but their story can. To corroborate his account, DER SPIEGEL spoke to Kolya’s former neighbors and friends. Videos and satellite images provide proof of the destruction of his childhood home. But only Kolya can still report about his family. He says he owes it to them to speak out about what happened. If he couldn’t save them, the world should at least be told how they died.

“My family is from Mariupol, but I was born in Donetsk, on December 19, the day of St. Nicholas. My parents named me after him: Kolya. They had to wait nine years for a child. The fact that they were able to then have daughters gave my parents great joy.

Dad worked in a steel factory and Mom was an accountant. They worked like slaves. Together, they earned 23,000 hryvnia a month, about 600 euros. It was enough for a small house. Varya and I shared a room, Polina slept with Mom. Dad slept on the sofa in the living room.

 He was on shift duty and often had to work at night. He was always tired. Dad and I fought over little things, like the fact that I was supposed to do more to help around the house than my sisters. Today I think: how silly.

In the end, though, I would say the relationship in our family was ideal. All the problems seemed to have dissolved. Maybe also because I had grown up and become more serious. I could understand my parents and sisters better. Our lives had just begun.”

On February 24, a Thursday, Kolya wakes up to go to school. He’s still in bed when, half asleep, he hears his mother tell the girls in the room next door that class has been cancelled. Putin has declared war on Ukraine.

Many people in Mariupol still believe they’re safe. They believe that the troops won’t harm them. Putin allegedly wants to protect the Russian-speaking population with the attack, and it would be hard to find a Ukrainian city that is more Russian than Mariupol. More than 90 percent of the residents speak Putin’s native language in everyday life. Many feel closer to Russia than to Ukraine.

Kolya’s parents count among those people. They grew up in the Soviet Union, they speak Russian with their children and they stay out of politics. Their only desire is a modest, worry-free life. They hardly cared at the time whether that be under the Russian or Ukrainian flag.

During the first hours of the war, Kolya’s family, whose last name will not be used here to protect Kolya’s identity, buys food, but they don’t flee. They wouldn’t even know where to flee to. They’re simple people without relatives or relations abroad. Kolya never left Ukraine before the war. The family decides to ride out the Russian attack like it’s a thunderstorm.

As Kolya and his parents wait in line in the few supermarkets that are still open, the Russian army draws a ring around Mariupol. Already in the first hours, Putin’s military had shelled residential buildings and a school. Nevertheless, three quarters of the inhabitants remain in the city. They trust their “brother people,” who are pretending to protect them.

Kolya’s family is holed up in their building, a one-story structure on a quiet side street. The parents get out games for the children, and Vladimir, the dad, watches “Lord of the Rings” on TV. The shelling is still far away, and they can still tell themselves that the war isn’t affecting them. Kolya leafs through books he would otherwise have no time for because of school. He gets caught up in George Orwell’s “1984,” a story about a country turning into a totalitarian surveillance state. Between explosions, Kolya thinks about how much the plot reminds him of Russia.

“In the early days of the war, we even had online classes. There were explosions outside, but the teacher was talking about how we should do our homework. Everyone believed the Ukrainian army would be able to hold out in Mariupol. That it was only a matter of time before everything would return to normal.

One evening I was watching Star Wars with my friend Vika, with each of us as our own computer. Vika and I know each other from school, we have been a couple for two years. Her family also stayed in Mariupol. We lived only 10 minutes from each other. Visits weren’t possible, but we shared our screen on Skype and watched TV together.

Suddenly, the picture froze and the sound stuttered. I said: Vika, I can’t hear you anymore. Then there was a bang outside, sparks flying in the sky. The power went out.”

The Russians cut more than a dozen power lines in the first weeks of the war. After that, the only things providing warmth were the open fires many lit on their balconies. By now, at the latest, the residents of Mariupol are coming to realize that Russia has deceived them. But it’s too late. The way out of the city is already mined and blocked.

“It was freezing cold at home. We wore four sweaters on top of each other and also wrapped ourselves in blankets. It didn’t help, it was always cold. And then, just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, the water disappeared.

At first, it was still dripping out of the tap. At some point, though, nothing came at all. That was the beginning of the apocalypse – I don’t have any other way of describing it. We lived like savages. We could no longer wash, and instead of a toilet, we used a bucket or plastic bags. To get water, we had to leave the house and go up the street, where there was a spring. The path was dangerous and the water was dirty. We boiled it over the fire. But it still tasted terrible.”

In the beginning, the family still lives in the house, they sleep in their beds and eat at their table. Although the rumblings of war are approaching, their dad initially refuses to prepare the basement as a shelter.

Each family member is confronting the threat differently. Kolya’s dad Vladimir with stoic denial, his mother Natalia with concern for her children. Polina, the youngest, is overcome by nervous hysteria: Instead of crying, she laughs herself silly all the time. Kolya, for his part, shakes uncontrollably, and he is no longer in full control of his hands and legs. He can barely sleep at night out of fear he won’t live to see the morning.

Then a shell strikes their neighborhood for the first time. Screeching, it flies over the building before dropping on its target with a bang. The ground shakes like an earthquake, Kolya feels it too.

The Russians destroy a gas station located only 200 meters away. Why, Kolya asks, would you fire on a gas pump? Russia, he says, explaining the attack, doesn’t even want to leave a few liters of gasoline for the population.

After the attack, the family does move into the basement, which is barely 1.70 meters high. They usually store canned cucumbers and tomatoes here, supplies for the winter. But it has now become the place where they sleep. They find some Styrofoam panels in the garage that they had bought to insulate the house. They lay them on the ground and place all the blankets they can spare on top of them. They only go upstairs to fetch water or to cook on the fire.

Kolya hates the basement. The walls are covered with mold, and there’s barely enough room for the family. But it muffles the sound of the carpet bombing of the city.

“The building shook with every impact. Dust settled on my face. I used to be ashamed of getting close to my parents, but now I wanted to be as close to them as I could. I took turns hugging my Dad’s and Mom’s shoulder, telling them I loved them.

Every day, I was prepared to die – even if I couldn’t understand what for. I was lying in the basement, listening to the explosions and wondering: Why was I brought into this world in the first place? Will I ever accomplish anything to be remembered by? Or if I die now, will it be as if I never even existed?”

Kolya, a child of 17, utters these sentences with the seriousness of an adult. During hours-long interviews with DER SPIEGEL, he doesn’t cry once – he doesn’t even sound accusatory. He just talks about what happened to him, and sometimes it seems as though he’s surprised anyone actually cares.

In the second week of March, Kolya remembers, a Russian rocket hit the building next door. And then further buildings on the street. When the bricks burst from the heat of the explosions, the sound penetrates all the way down into the basement. When, in a quiet moment, Kolya steps out onto the street, the asphalt in front of his door looks as if it has been dug up.

Kolya’s building is also slowly succumbing to the war. A blast wave damages the roof and the windows burst. The chandelier in the living room crashes down, along with part of the ceiling. At one point, an explosion is so powerful that parts of the kitchen walls bury the basement hatch. It’s only with a little luck that the family are able to dig themselves free.

It now just feels like it will only be a matter of time before they die. There are few search teams left in Mariupol. People who are trapped – and there are many – are rarely rescued. People are dying in their basements, in their living rooms, in a school and in the theater where hundreds of people seek refuge. Ninety percent of all buildings in Mariupol are damaged during the war. Anyone who has seen images of the bombing, of rockets indiscriminately launched at the city, inevitably wonders how anyone could survive here.

Vladimir, Kolya’s father, presses himself against the farthest basement wall day and night and stares into space. Kolya’s mom is no longer able to calm the children. Once, she wants to stroke her son’s cheek, whisper to him that everything will be all right, but when Kolya feels his mother’s hand, he collapses. Natalia’s skin is scratchy like sandpaper, scraped up from the debris. She notices his defensiveness and bursts into tears. “Is it my fault our building was bombed?” she cries. Then they cry together, mother and son, both helpless and vulnerable. This moment burns itself into Kolya’s memory – he still remembers every detail months later.

When the Russian shelling subsides somewhat, Kolya musters up his courage. He hasn’t heard from his girlfriend Vika in two weeks, he doesn’t even know if she’s still alive. He decides to take the 10-minute journey to her home to see she she’s doing.

Kolya’s home, part of a quiet residential neighborhood, had seemed especially safe to him at the beginning of the war. But Vika lives in a 14-story building, visible from far away – an ideal target for the Russian army. When he arrives at Vika’s building, it’s almost unscathed.

Of course, there’s no guarantee the people will survive here either. Here, too, people are buried in the yard; and here, too, residents are running out of food. But maybe, Kolya thinks, it would make it easier for him if he lived with Vika for a while. His family would have more room in the basement and one less person depleting the supplies. Vika’s parents agree.

“When I went back home, I said: Mom, I’ll probably move in with Vika. We were totally crammed into the basement. She agreed.

I packed a few things. Then I wanted to say goodbye. I don’t remember what my sister Polina was doing at that moment, but Varya was sitting in the basement, crying. She had always been strong, but she could no longer handle it. I stroked her head and tried to comfort her: We’re going to make it, everything will be OK. Please don’t cry.

When I was almost out the door, I turned back to my father. I said: Dad, I’m leaving now. He had been in a state of shock for days, lying on the floor and breathing heavily. Dad sat up, looked at me and said: ‘Well, go.’ It was the last time I saw my family alive.” 

On March 10, Kolya moves from his parents’ house to his girlfriend Vika’s apartment. Meanwhile, the third week of the Russian war of aggression is raging. The first mass grave is dug in Mariupol. On March 13, the municipal government reports that the last water and food supplies have been consumed.

Vika’s family prepared and have supplies. They stored pasta and grits, and even the gas tank in the kitchen is still filled. Kolya can hear the impacts here, too, but at least he is no longer crouching in the cramped basement, but in a windowless hallway, the safest place in the apartment.

Vika, now 16 years old, seems lively and bubbly, Kolya serious and composed. They both like Nirvana and astrology, wear dark clothes and have a penchant for mysticism. They pass the time by talking about the war: What are the odds that Russia will win?

But it’s a useless endeavor: There has been no mobile phone network and no news for weeks. They can only guess the course of the front. Instead, Kolya and Vika consult their tarot cards. Vika pulls the card with a man standing on a hill, his gaze fixed on a sea full of ships. They conclude that a fleet will come to save Mariupol.

The reality, though, is that Mariupol is falling, district by district. In mid-March, there’s a sudden knock at the door of Vika’s apartment, with a man’s voice demanding in harsh Russian: “Open up! This is an inspection!” Putin’s soldiers are standing at the doorstep. They search the rooms and threaten to take the men away. Kolya is too young for them, and Vika’s father happens to be out looking for food. The Russians are combing all the floors, and shots are fired on one of them. Later, a neighbor tells Kolya that two bodies have been carried out to the street.

The Russian army now controls Vika’s neighborhood, and the shelling shifts to the southwest, where Mariupol’s main military unit, the Azov regiment, is still resisting. The fighters have retreated to the local steel factory, and Kolya’s family lives nearby. When he looks out the window, he sees Russian tanks being refueled and then driving off in the direction of his parents’ house. Kolya says he feels like he was a traitor. As if he had abandoned his family.

That’s also why he decides to stay in Mariupol when Vika and her parents leave the city. Since Russia has control of large parts of the area, it’s possible to get to Crimea. On March 21, his girlfriend gets into the car and drives off. Kolya stays in their apartment on his own.

“When everyone was gone, I burst into tears. I thought: What do I do now? Would it have been better to go with them? But I wanted to wait until my parents showed up. I was sure they would come for me at some point. And then I wanted to be there so they wouldn’t have to worry.

It wasn’t easy living alone in the building. The gas had since run out. I had to cook with fire and I had never done that before. Fortunately, a neighbor helped me. A family that had stayed in Mariupol lived a few floors above Vika. The man’s name was also Kolya. One of his sons spotted me on the balcony trying to make myself something to eat. He told me how to do it, and they also gave me some food later.

One night, it was March 24, I dreamed about my parents. I saw my father standing in the yard of our building. He had no arms left, as if someone had chopped them off. I screamed: ‘Dad, Dad, what have they done to you?’ Then I woke up. I didn’t know what the dream meant.”

The next day Kolya asks a neighbor to accompany him to his parents’ house. It’s a potentially deadly journey because of the fighting, but he wants to see how his family is doing. By now, all the remaining residents know the boy who lives alone on the fourth floor. The neighbor, a devout Christian, agrees to go with Kolya during a a break in the shelling. They say a last prayer and then they set off running.

They head in the direction of the Prospect of Metallurgists, a central avenue that was leafy during more peaceful times and filled with neon signs. Now buildings are shot up, trees have fallen and street lights are strewn all over the place. There isn’t a human in sight.

The first streets in Kolya’s neighborhood give him hope: The homes are battered but not destroyed. He sneaks around mines left by the army along the way. Finally, he’s standing in front of the gate to his house.

At first, he thinks: everything as usual. Then he looks again – and realizes that his parents’ home is no longer standing. Meter-high chunks of stone are piled up where the dining room once stood, the ground is churned up like a field. Bricks are lying on the wood, the ground and on pieces of furniture. Kolya’s home, the place where he spent his whole life, looks like someone ran it through a meat grinder.

“I looked at the ruins and didn’t grasp what had happened. I called for Mom, for my Dad, for my sisters. I ran around the house looking for the basement hatch, trying to squeeze through the rubble to them. But it couldn’t be done, it was too tight.

Suddenly, the neighbor said: ‘Kolya, look, there is a piece of clothing or a toy. What is that?’ I looked, it really looked like clothing, perhaps with fur trim. I moved closer and realized: It was Dad. He was lying face down, most of his body buried. Only his hands and head stuck out. His eyes were squeezed shut, his nose broken. He looked as if he had aged decades.

I began to dig for him with my hands. I was certain: If I managed to get him out, he would get up and run. But then I touched him with my fingers and his body was completely cold and hard. My Dad no longer felt like a person, but like a bag of dirt.

I lost it. I screamed, I cried. I yelled that I loved him. That I was sorry because I didn’t say goodbye the way I should have. Because I really thought this war wasn’t going to hit us.”

In the days that followed, Kolya tried to shovel his family out with the help of neighbors. One helper recorded the rescue attempts on a mobile phone: You see people pressing against the concrete with spades and metal rods. They couldn’t do it. Only an excavator could lift the debris. And there have been no excavators to dig out people buried in Mariupol for a long time.

Videos of a rescue attempt like this are also a rarity. In Mariupol, where there is no electricity, most mobile phones are out of juice. But a neighbor in Vika’s apartment building deals in electronics and happens to have a solar panel. He regularly charges his phone on it and films what is happening around his building. Dozens of recordings document the Russian siege. One of them shows Kolya standing in the ruins of his parents’ home, his face frozen with shock. As he and the neighbors try to make their way to the basement, loud bangs can be heard above them.

“I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to look for my mother and sisters, but I thought: If we stay here any longer, I’ll wind up getting us all killed. And even if we make it to the basement, the chances that Mom, Polina and Varya are still alive are slim. People in the other buildings said the rocket hit our house on March 17. That was more than a week ago.

I squeezed through the rubble with a flashlight, almost to the basement. The hatch was slightly open. I called out, but no one answered. I saw that there were bricks in the entrance to the basement. I couldn’t see any people.

I briefly held out hope that maybe Mom and the girls weren’t in the house when it was hit. That they had gone to church to pray or something. But I also had to realize that this was unlikely. If Dad was in the house, then Mom and my sisters were there too.

I realized that we would not find them alive. And that we had to stop digging for them so we wouldn’t die as well.

I wish I had come sooner and brought them over to where I was staying. I could have saved them. I felt so guilty.”

Kolya returns to his parents’ house only once after that. He has a homemade sign with him: a peg, broken from the door of an abandoned daycare center, along with a piece of wood he found. He writes the names of his family on it with a black felt-tip pen: Vladimir. Natalia. Varya. Polina. Born between 1974 and 2010. Died on March 17, 2022.

Kolya takes a brick and hammers the sign into the ground in front of the destroyed house, as a message to the Russians, who have since also taken control over this part of the city. They will begin removing the rubble, and they should know that there are still people under the concrete. Kolya hopes that they will dig up and bury the bodies of his family. But probably, he thought at the time, they would throw them away like garbage.

After Kolya puts up the sign, he once again sees his father lying among the rubble. The sun is shining over the city now, spring is getting closer. The bodies are starting to decompose and Kolya can smell it.

He climbs over the debris of his family home looking for something to cover his father with. Amidst the rubble, he finds a green down jacket that belonged to his sister Varya. There’s a video of it: Kolya asked his neighbor to record the impact site. He doesn’t want anyone to be able to claim later that he made all this up.

It shows Kolya throwing the jacket over the corpse of his father. He looks for a second garment in the rubble and places it over Vladimir’s head. After that, he leaves the destroyed building and walks away, perhaps forever.

Why did Kolya’s family have to die? According to international law, civilians are given special protection in war. But no price was too high for Russia’s army to conquer Mariupol. The soldiers shelled residential areas and hospitals, escape routes and shelters. It was intended to make Mariupol residents feel unsafe wherever they were. It looked like chaos, but it was calculated hell.

A hell that Kolya has been left to deal with alone. His family is dead, his hometown destroyed. A young man left to cope with this catastrophe on his own. He spends three days in Vika’s apartment: He remembers crying, beating the floor with his fists and convulsing. There’s still no electricity, no water, barely any food. Kolya knows he can’t survive without help.

The neighbors living a few stories above him turn out to be his salvation. The father of the family, who share’s Kolya’s name suggests: “Move in with us. We’ll take care of you.”

“His son had once helped me to make a fire and his wife told me how to boil noodles. Otherwise, I barely knew the family. But the man immediately said: ‘You no longer have a father, so I will be like your father. We won’t leave you alone.’

He and his children were there when we tried to dig out my family. They were the worst moments of my life, and they experienced them with me. That brought us closer together. I also had no choice: I had no one and nowhere to go back to.

The fighting in Vika’s neighborhood ceased in April, but everything was destroyed. No one knew if civilization would return in a month or in a year. So, the family that had taken me decided to leave Mariupol. They had a few cans of gasoline on hand and two cars that were riddled with shrapnel but still roadworthy. We left on April 18.” 

From the windows of the car, the buildings they drive past look like Armageddon. Entire sections of the city are burning, cars are shot up and turned over. Kolya remembers an “atmosphere of death,” with mines lying all over the road. And his fear of not surviving as they escaped. But they make it to the front line, the border between Russian-occupied territories and Ukraine.

In the town of Manhush, the family waits for a week in a line of cars of the people fleeing. Hundreds are waiting for Russia soldiers to conduct checks on their cars. When the time comes, many men are taken away, but Kolya and his neighbors are lucky. Because they have Ukrainian and Russian citizenship, the soldiers wave them through. Kolya, the teen in the back seat, goes unnoticed.

He only remembers some of the rest of the trip. He no longer knows how he found out about their destination, nor how they got the to border with the European Union. Nor how the officials waved him through even though he has no identification papers – they burned in Mariupol. He only knows that he arrived in early May in a country he had never heard of. A green and quiet place, surrounded by mountains. We are not publishing the exact place where Kolya lives in order to protect his privacy.

Since July 2022, Kolya has been living in a refugee shelter, with six people sharing a few square meters. The family with whom he fled Mariupol lives there with him. It’s cramped, but Kolya is happy he’s not alone. The conversations with his rescuers keep him in the present, like an anchor that prevents the past from sweeping him away.

He calls it “losing touch with reality,” and it happens to him a lot. When it does, he no longer sees the meadow in front of his house or the blue sky, but instead the ruins of Mariupol. The worst, Kolya says, is when he lies awake at night. He then stares at the ceiling above his bunk bed, and in his eyes, the room becomes the basement where his family died. 

“I miss Dad most of all, maybe because I saw him dead. I remember how he laughed and how I hugged him. He was very warm and soft. Later, when I found him, he was so cold.

What were Dad, Mom and my sisters thinking at the moment of the explosion? Did they have time to realize that this was the end for them? Did they feel fear? I imagine what it would have been like to be with them. Then I get scared.”

Mariupol has been fully under Russian control since May 20. There’s still no water in many places, and residents collect it from puddles using buckets. Dead bodies aren’t recovered by search teams, but by volunteers who receive food in return. Some young men have recently been forced to do military service and fight against Ukraine, their own country.

Kolya knows this – he follows every report from the city. On the only table in his room, there is a laptop that is almost always showing the news. He manages not to let the reports get to him too badly. People who have experienced trauma often compartmentalize what they have experienced afterward, and perhaps this explains Kolya’s composure. There are two Kolyas: The one who lies awake at night thinking about death. And the one who tries to look ahead so that he doesn’t break.

Kolya is now attending six-hours a day of language school. He bought himself a guitar, and the seller even gave him a discount when he heard that Kolya was Ukrainian. He spends his free time doing homework and dealing with the bureaucracy of his new country. And with Vika, his girlfriend, who against all the rules of probability is with him again.

He calls her just before he leaves Mariupol. He tells her that he’s alive and that he loves her – then the connection breaks off. The next time they talk by phone, Kolya has already reached Western Europe.

Vika’s family is living in Crimea at this time, but they don’t want to stay there. On the phone, Kolya asks her to come to him. Vika agrees. At the end of May they fall into each other’s arms at the train station, and there’s a video of that moment.

Vika now lives with her mother in a hotel rented for refugees from Ukraine. It’s located just a few streets away from Kolya’s accommodation. They are attending the same language school and spend time together every day.

They formed a band together with other refugee kids, with the local youth center providing instruments. When Kolya is on stage there, he smiles between songs. He teases Vika, who only recently started playing drums, when she can’t keep up. In the evenings, they sometimes ride bikes that people had thrown away to McDonald’s and eat fries.

Kolya says he owes it to Vika that he’s still alive. He says that when he feels her gaze, it grounds him again, brings him back to the present. Then he’s able to focus on today and push yesterday away.

Kolya has two wishes for the future. One goes like this: He wants to become an interpreter and rent an apartment, move in with Vika and marry her. He wants to do his family proud, even if they weren’t able to live long enough to see it.

The second wish is about Mariupol. Someday, Kolya would like to walk along the sea there again. He wants to show his children where he lived and where their grandparents died. He wants to see his hometown in peace and in Ukrainian hands.

Kolya knows that moment may never come. There are rumors that Russia is planning to annex the city, which would make it unreachable for Kolya. Posters are already hanging in the streets emblazoned with the words: “Russia is here forever.”

A relative still holding out in the city recently wrote Kolya that helpers had recovered the bodies of his father and sisters. They have since been buried in a mass grave. Kolya hopes to one day be able to search for them and give them a proper burial.