Serhiy Voinalovych, Mykolaiv-Kyiv

On the first day of the war, Y. called me and said it’s started. I thought he was exaggerating - it was 5am. I told him we’d discuss it when we meet. He said he doubted that.

After an hour of restless sleep, I turned on my phone and saw that it started indeed. I shaved my head. I was supposed to be going to Ivano-Frankivsk to visit R., so almost everything was already packed. I spent an hour getting in touch with family and friends. It was still quiet where I live in Kyiv. In front of the military office, there was a huge line. I got a call from my military unit and was told to be there within a day. I returned my tickets to Ivano-Frankivsk and got the new ones.

The nearest subway station shuliavska is a few kilometres away, everyone is walking in the opposite direction. At the railway station, there are crowds of people, I text K. and tell her to not set out yet. She and her daughter managed to buy tickets to Lviv. They will take one of the evacuation trains then. I get in touch with S. She and the kids are in bucha, sitting in the basement. I reach O. She’s been in  the basement since early morning, in Kharkiv.

The Intercity train first let in people with tickets only but then they start accepting everyone. My first day ends on the train.

The second day of the war.

We are at a changing station, waiting for the train. It’s delayed for one hour. Two hours, three, four, five. We sleep in shifts. Dad switches to Ukrainian, I follow. I’m sending audio messages to R. to let her know how I sound. She laughs and says I sound good. I get one last message from S. from bucha, she’s asking me whether she should try to evacuate. She asks me to be in touch.

The train arrives but the final destination is not the city I need. Just to kriviy rih. And then it’s all up to you. If that works for you, get in. I do.

Half of the people on the train have their phones dead, the majority wants to go to Kherson or kakhovka. Kakhovka is occupied. An elderly woman’s asking where she should go in that case. I say nothing.

At night, we arrive to kriviy rih, this is the final stop, please leave the train. I regret T. not being here with me, it’s her city. At the station, we team up with some man, a boy and a grandma. We get the taxi to the bus station, there the man asks how much it would be to get to Mykolaiv or Kherson. 5 and 6 thousand respectively. We don’t have that money. The bus station is still closed, we form a line in front of the doors to be the first to buy tickets when it opens. The boy has all his money on his phone, the phone’s dead. The man buys a ticket for the grandma, I help the boy. More people are arriving at the station, day is breaking. Eventually, the bus gets filled with people and bags. To the full. The road takes long as news about blockages of bridges arrive. I try to sleep.

We arrive at Mykolaiv. Some people have no place to go. We hear news about the siege of Kherson, but some say it might be fake.

I go to my parents’ place. I take some more items of the uniform - dad managed to prepare some army boots and other stuff. Mom scolds me for smoking.

I go back to the bus station. There are no buses running inside the region. I team up with some women, we get a taxi. One says she has covid, but it’s already been 14 days after recovery. I still wear a mask though, she says.

After about 10 kilometres, I catch some local mini-bus. The passengers ask the driver whether he’s gonna be there tomorrow as well. To that he just smiles. I get off the bus, the driver tells me to check whether my military unit is still there. 20 more kilometres to go. I bump into a column of military cars, I hide. Someone on a Volha gives me a lift. It’s a family, the daughter on the passenger seat is reading the news aloud. I get to the unit. But this is not the end of day two yet.

It turns out they still remember me at the military unit, although 7 years have passed. At least some of the officers. While they register me in the basement, a siren goes off. Not an air one it seems, but just an alert about the enemy. I help the officers to pull out some hard drives, we dig them up in the ground. I regret not taking any screwdrivers with me.

I don’t manage to get changed into the uniform as the military alignment is announced. I consider joining in my civilian clothes but am not allowed to. I put on the bits of the uniform I have. Outside I look like a military man but underneath I have my ordinary clothes. It’s cold. A bulletproof vest is thrown at my feet. While I’m putting it on, a car arrives with another officer in it. I get a machine gun (people call it a whip) and a walkie-talkie. The vest doesn’t zip so I fix it with some kind of carrying system. Turns out the vest has to be set up to fit. You have to know how.

A reserve unit is formed. Night comes. We’re sitting next to the duty room. It’s cold. We haven’t eaten anything. We’re sitting on the empty boxes that had weapons in them.

Someone brings a box of bombshells. Also some exploders in a kind of aluminum cans. No one knows how to use that opener thing that comes with them. I open one with a knife. Everyone gets two bombshells and two cans with explosives. Two per each, one per each pocket. We’re going to patrol the territory. In the field, as far as we know, there might be a landing operation coming. We lie on the ground, shivering. Looking into the darkness, we see nothing. Everything is black, and the stars are piercing. That reminds me of matsenko and her quantum landscape, when a group of land artists was watching the landscape for it not to change. Now we are such land artists too. I watch closely until I start getting hallucinations. You can’t tell a star from a plane. We are going back, I’m very happy. We drink coffee in the duty room. At dawn, we go down to the basement, there are matresses on the pipes. We sleep on them. I don’t have a helmet yet. Everyone sleeps as they are, dressed - that’s how it’s supposed to be. Someone lying above me is tossing and turning for half a night, hitting me on the head with his feet. This is the end of day two.

In the morning, we get fed. It’s only now that I notice that everyone is unshaved. Straight after breakfast, they put us in groups to patrol the territory. We work in threes: one stays, another one patrols the perimeter and the third one rests. Then we swap. I meet an old friend of mine, he’s one of the commandants. He promises to get me a reefer jacket, I got very cold at night, especially in the basement and when we were in the field. Between the fruit trees, there lie bombshells. A pack of water near the bench and a pack of sweets. Nearby, there are packs of bullets. The head commandant jokes they are not bombshells but nuts for squirrels on the trees.

Nine hours later, we are gathered for alignment. I still don’t have the jacket, but at least he got me a helmet. Brave warrior)

We are put into pairs, three shifts per night. Three by six. While I am trying to memorise my partner’s face, an air siren goes off. Everyone runs around and drops on the ground. We’re on the ground, I can’t see anything. We are told to go to the shelter. I run to the nearest one. At the opposite side of the building, there are our soldiers. One of the officers is shouting to them to mind the air. An order to start the fight is given. The soldiers must be mercenaries as they don’t just remove the fuse but also add bullets to the cartridge. That means they’re just one pull away from a shot. The officer next to me is shouting to them to use the fuse and take their positions. I do it. I watch my zone of the unit. A soldier is walking in the distance. He doesn’t care about the air, the sirens or the bullets. He’s on a mission and he is determined to complete it.

People are slowly getting back to their things, although the air alert is still there. I go back to the place we had alignment at, it turns out people are already waiting for me. We go to the battle station. We examine it for quite a while. Our officer has a friend from the neighbouring station. But he is here with us, and his brother is there. We called for the mercenaries and the crane and start arranging the station. We arrange the sandbags till the early morning. Then we have an alignment again. The first shift is the worst. We sit on a pipe, staring into the darkness. Are those lights on the horizon or are they just torches? Is it Venus or the enemy’s plane? The binoculars don’t help. No matter how exactly you sit, you start trembling after 20 minutes sitting on the metal pipe. We see columns of military cars passing by on the road. I don’t know whose they are, but those on duty know. Our task is to watch everything and report on it, except hallucinations. A light rocket. White or orange? Do white ones exist?

Flashes on the horizon. Bang.

I go back to the barracks, me and the officer had arranged to meet there in 6 hours. In the barrack, the head duty-man tells us to keep our uniform and boots on. In case of an alert, we won’t have enough time to get dressed. The commandant is furious after 5 hours of duty and says he doesn’t give a damn. He washes his face, I follow him. He goes to bed in his underwear. I only take off the vest, the boots and the helmet. I get a text from O. She’s still in Kharkiv, still in the basement. She needs to talk - she’s scared. I text back while I still can, then switch off my phone, hoping she’ll be still alive tomorrow. Just a few hours left to sleep. I cry, my eyes get wet for about 2 seconds. That happens quite often these days. Several times per day. I’m full of love and full of hatred. I close my eyes.