How the war changes us, by a war reporter
On day 94 of this war, a young man with short-cropped hair whom I barely recognize appears on my cell phone via video call. Igor Sirosh, 32, lies in a striped T-shirt on the bed of a military hospital in western Ukraine. He looks pale, his voice weak. He says in brittle German that he is suffering from “a stomach ulcer” after a Russian missile attack and that he also has “minor psychological problems.” Igor, I realize only with this phone call, is now a soldier.
At the beginning of the year, the Ukrainian had been nursing sick people in Magdeburg, a city in central Germany. At the end of February, not even a week after the Russian invasion began, we met at the Polish-Ukrainian border. The man from Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine was standing at the Przemyśl train station, the first stop for tens of thousands fleeing the Russian bombs, and at the same time the last stop for intrepid people like him who set out to fight Putin.
“I’m going home to join the army,” he said at the time, which sounded funny, given that he looked more like a student traveling the world with a backpack and a hoodie. Seeing him now in a hospital bed frightened me.
-A failure of grand ambitions-
Russia has been waging a war of aggression in Ukraine for over 100 days, and I've spent more than half of that time on the ground as a reporter. We traveled through a proud country, united and death-defying, fighting for its own existence – and successfully so. The most important insight is that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has so far failed in his grand ambitions.
Not only did he lose the battle for Kyiv, but tens of thousands of soldiers were killed or wounded. In addition, according to US figures, he's lost about 1,000 tanks alone. Putin’s dream of a new Russian empire currently seems more like a joke.At the same time, Russian troops have displaced millions of people and bombed entire cities like Mariupol to rubble. They rape and murder, commit massacres like the one in Bucha. About one-fifth of Ukrainian territory is currently under Russian occupation.
For me personally, this war, the first I've experienced as an observer on the ground, has changed many things. For one, it has finally shattered the illusion of my generation that security is none of our business in this country. We have to radically change our way of thinking. On the other hand, on some days I experienced for the first time that Germans abroad can be met with ridicule and bitterness.
-Will and defiance in Ukraine-
In early March, six-year-old Misha sat on the stage of a converted theater in Lviv in western Ukraine and told me how the war came to his hometown of Kyiv. “I remember waking up on the first day and hearing an explosion near us. It was probably in Zhuliany [a neighborhood in Kyiv].”
Again and again, they ran from their home to the bunker, Misha said. With his mother and his little sister Masha, who was prancing around next to him, they had now come here “to hide from the bombs,” he said.
In western Ukraine in those days, hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived from all over the country, many of them families moving on to Europe. Misha’s mother said at the time that they had acquaintances in Poland. At the beginning of this war, Lviv was not only a place of refuge, but also a center of resistance. Grandmothers, students and workers sat in a converted art gallery in the city center, volunteering to make camouflage nets for the military.
In the morning before going on duty, they sang the national anthem, shoulder to shoulder. I was impressed by their will and defiance: “I will never leave Lviv. Even if there will be a nuclear war, I will stay here,” said 64-year-old Nena Syniakevych.
-Protective helmets — but no weapons-
All over the country, Ukrainians armed themselves in the first weeks before the war. I particularly remember the image of young men in Stryi, western Ukraine, crawling across a soccer field at lunchtime with wooden training weapons. Beginners received basic military training. Among them were electricians and hip-hop dancers. I noticed anger building up in those early days about the federal government’s behavior.
President Volodymyr Zelensky had said days before the war began that the country would defend itself with or without Western support. “It doesn’t matter if they supply us with hundreds of modern weapons or just 5,000 helmets.” This was a veiled criticism of German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht’s announcement at the time that protective helmets would be sent to Ukraine – but no weapons.
Germany’s hesitation became a running gag. When we were filming with Ukrainian soldiers at a secret military site in mid-March, one of them was grinning at the campfire and pointing to open cans of food with German labels. After all, the Maggi canned ravioli and lentil stew had gone down well. The commander showed us pictures of a sniper rifle on his cell phone: “Those would help us more than a few cans of ravioli,” he said.
-The war in my ears-
In mid-March, I was awakened for the first time in my life by an explosion in western Ukraine, a deep, menacing rumble. The impacts sounded a little further away. It was the morning Russian missiles struck the Ukrainian military base at Yavoriv near the Polish border, killing at least 35 people.
When I traveled back to Berlin for a few days’ break in early April, I was startled at night every time a trash can slammed shut. It’s hearing that forces the war back into your head.
I’m 30. My generation grew up with the supposed certainty that our security was being defended somewhere in Afghanistan. For a long time, my peers' bigger problems consisted of a chat partner who didn't text back on Tinder. In the summer, we went to the Mediterranean and toasted to ourselves and to life. When I talk to friends about the war in Ukraine, I continue to perceive naiveté in some.
They think 100 billion for the Bundeswehr (the German armed forces) is too much. They demand that the money be better spent on education and climate protection. In short, they have understood nothing. For me, it’s clear that we need to rearm massively, even beyond the new 100 billion package.
We must be able to defend ourselves independently. No one should have to justify being part of the Bundeswehr anymore. We need a new self-image.
-Scared to go to bed-
Bashtanka is a place that shows more than almost any other what Putin’s invasion is doing. The small town lies on the drive from the south to the east of the country and is considered strategically important. Russian forces tried to advance here at the beginning of the war, but the attack was repelled. Since then, several missiles hit the city. They hit the poorest of the poor.
I remember the Ira, who's 30 and pregnant with her seventh child. In purple slippers, she stood in front of the rubble of her neighborhood on the outskirts of Bashtanka. She heard five explosions when the rockets hit. They were lucky: only their windows were destroyed. There was no money to repair them. Putting the children to bed has become difficult, Ira said, “because they are so scared.”
-On the frontlines-
There is one scene in southeastern Ukraine, captured on camera, that I will never forget. In Orikhiv near the front, where artillery fire is the sound of everyday life, I met an elderly couple in a settlement. For 20 years they had lived in the grey high-rise building that we met in front of.
The wife, Ala, burst into tears when I addressed her in my school Russian. “I am Ukrainian! I won’t want to speak the language of the aggressor anymore, the language of the people who are killing us,” she cried out to me.
I understood her anger when she told me that they were just the last remaining of their apartment block to leave the city. They lived here day and night with the constant shelling, hiding in the basement. They just couldn’t stand it anymore. Shelves in the supermarket were already empty in the town.
Days after this encounter, we met soldiers in the frontline region who showed us their base, surrounded by fields and meadows. One young soldier, Alex, presented me with a guest gift: a pack of airsoft coffee with an AK-47 pictured on it.
-Germany losing money, Ukraine losing lives-
In early May, the first evacuees from the Russian-encircled steel plant in Mariupol arrived outside a hardware store in Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine. Some burst into tears right away, others were simply exhausted. They had just gone through weeks of struggling to survive.
Next to us were not only dozens of reporters from all over the world, but also Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk. We spoke to her about Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who had just ruled out a trip to Kyiv and sulkily referred to Ukraine’s dealings with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Vereshchuk’s was furious. The Ukrainian government had always warned that Putin would “manipulate” Germany. The German government had ignored this. The war is now leading to Germany losing money “while we are losing lives.”
That’s why Ukraine has the right to be “emotional now”: “And we have the right to demand more – more weapons, diplomacy, economic sanctions, and a full embargo on Russian gas and oil.” I could only nod mutely at the end.