In the early hours of Feb. 24, 2022, Russian tanks and artillery opened fire all over Ukraine. The invasion began the largest armed conflict in Europe since World War II, killing tens of thousands on both sides, reducing whole cities to ash and rubble, and forcing millions to abandon their homes.
One year on, Ukraine still stands defiant in the face of Russian aggression. Its people have suffered waves of indiscriminate missile attacks, torture, kidnap, and mass killings, as well as attempts to break their morale with disinformation campaigns and strikes on energy infrastructure. Yet Ukrainians have largely responded with unity and grit.
Foreign Policy has been there from the beginning, reporting on key developments and some of the country’s most dangerous hot spots to chronicle the horrors of this brutal war. These are the stories of some of those who have lived through it.
Dmytro Hapchenko, 45, has worked for the Bucha City Council since 2015 and took on the role of manager of affairs in 2021. An early Russian offensive to take the capital, Kyiv, saw nearby Bucha turned into the front line. When Ukraine retook the city, evidence of Russia’s mass killings was unearthed.
The first sign I saw of Russian presence in Bucha was on Feb. 25. A car had been fired at. The driver, his wife, and kids were injured. They said they had tried to leave Bucha, but soldiers in the suburbs started shooting.
Russians moved farther into the city on Feb. 27. They told us that if you mark yourself as a civilian with a white bandage, you will not be killed. It wasn’t true. I have access to CCTV—they were just shooting pedestrians who were crossing the road. The bodies were left lying there; they didn’t allow us to take them. I think it was an order to destroy our people.
I feel a lot of hate, because killing was a game for Russians. My friend died after he looked over his balcony and a sniper shot him. People who lived through this time call me all the time just to talk—those who didn’t experience it can’t understand.
On March 15, me and some other volunteers were waiting for evacuation and supply buses when Russian soldiers came. They took our phones and documents. They tied our hands and put bags on our heads. They accused us of being territorial defense [units]. We waited hours for a captain to interrogate us, but he never came. Soldiers talked among themselves, saying they could take us to the forest. I thought that was my end. I knew people were shot in the forest; many have still not been found.
The next morning, six of us managed to escape from the basement they kept us in overnight. There were others down there, but I don’t know what happened to them. Some of those who were captured were taken to Kursk (in Russia). We found out later the captain we were waiting for was FSB [Russian Federal Security Service]. He was a Ukrainian traitor from Crimea.
On March 30, I had lunch with a friend. He had to call his wife, so he climbed up to the ninth floor to get a better signal and saw a column of Russian tanks firing. They shot him in the leg [with small arms].
Two days later, there were rumors the enemy troops had left. I got on my bike and did a tour of the city and found only Ukrainian military. We’re still worried they could come back, though, because we always hear there could be an attack from Belarus.
I make more time to see and call my family now. War changed everything. It changed our vision of the world. Bucha was one of the most comfortable places to live in Ukraine. We never wanted massacre fame, and now we’ll do everything possible to make our city known for something else.
Vladymir Balabanov, 60, worked in a homeless shelter in Kharkiv and, before that, in an orphanage. Kharkiv was bombarded with missiles for months, leaving parts of it destroyed, while much of the region was Russian-occupied for more than six months.
Before the war, Kharkiv was full of young people because there were a lot of universities; the polytechnic alone had 20,000 students. The city was growing. There were modern parks and many tourists—it was developing.
We didn’t believe a war could start, even when we woke at 4 a.m. on Feb. 24. My daughter-in-law gave birth early the following day due to stress. At the beginning, the air-raid sirens were nonstop; it was unreal. Most of our staff fled. Only three of us stayed because there were 20 residents who did not want to go.
The homeless began using the shelter supplies to make hot food for the families who were hiding in the underground metro stations because of the constant bombardment. Trains that evacuated people to the west came back with supplies. We, the homeless and the staff, helped unload them and distributed goods around the city. We took food to places under constant shelling.
I live on the edge of the city. It’s private houses there, rather than apartment blocks, so there were no basements to hide in. The buildings were shaking all the time as missiles hit. Tanks passed nonstop. Not just Russian, but also Ukrainian. That gave us hope.
The building next to mine was destroyed. It was three floors high. All that was left was two walls. When I evacuated my family, they said, “Maybe we will never come back,” but I was sure that Kharkiv would stay with Ukraine.
There was only one shop open and the line was hours long, while enemy jets flew overhead. My friend and I took food to people who couldn’t queue, but his son and another volunteer got killed doing that.
In May, the shelter started filling up with people who had lost their homes or were fleeing occupied territories. When those areas were liberated in September, the mood in the city completely changed—it brought us an inner calm. We knew there was still a threat, but it was a danger we could overcome.
People who fled are coming back now. We see our country in a new way. We have changed, and we want to change Ukraine for the better. A year of war has left us tired, but with hope.
Galina Uminets, 69, from Kherson, is a former entrepreneur. In 2014, when protests erupted in Kyiv, she organized her own local versions. She helped evacuate people from Crimea ahead of Russia’s sham referendum the same year. She took humanitarian aid to eastern Ukraine twice a week during the worst of the violence with proxy forces. She was twice captured near Olenivka, Donetsk, and has been awarded a medal of bravery by former President Petro Poroshenko. Kherson, in the south of Ukraine close to Crimea, was occupied by Russian forces from the beginning of March for almost nine months.
Kherson was prosperous, beautiful. There was a lot of green space and happy people, not like you see it today. My husband died young from illness, and my children lived poor in a basement with no light. My dream was to build a house with windows from the ceiling to the floor and a garden, and I did it. Now it has no windows and no flowers. Everywhere in Kherson is the same.
Our city was not prepared for war. There was a bridge across the Dnipro from Kakhovka. It was very easy for Russians to come. Their tanks just swept through the city and kept going to Mykolaiv, but they couldn’t get in, so they came back here and occupied us. We had nothing, no weapons, just Molotov cocktails.
I was an organizer at the volunteer center where we made the Molotov cocktails. I hid most of the time, but on May 3 a man put a bag over my head, handcuffed me, and took me to the police station. Russians tortured me for eight days in a row with electric shocks. I was naked, and they beat me. They gave me a bag as a toilet.
They brought Russian TV and made a report about the “neo-Nazis” they had found in Kherson. The day before the invasion, a photographer had visited the city to take pictures of soldiers, volunteers, and schools. I know now he was a scout. He was there and about 200 of his pictures were on the table. Soldiers said, “Tell us who these people are and where they are.” I refused, and they took me back to the prison unconscious.
The troops used to threaten me that they would cut off my breast and replace it with the face of [Stepan] Bandera [a controversial Ukrainian figure reviled by Russia but revered by some Ukrainian nationalists], but by June 26, I was in such a bad way they thought I was dead and threw me into the park.
When Ukrainians liberated us on Nov. 11, I was still in pain from my broken ribs. People flooded into the main square holding flags and hugging soldiers. A man I rescued in 2014—I found him lying injured in a field of sunflowers—was one of the first to free the city. He just recently got seriously wounded again. When he called from the hospital, I told him that, after we win, we’ll throw the biggest party, wear the prettiest dresses, and celebrate with all our hearts.
It’s painful to see Kherson now. It’s more destroyed than it was under occupation because of the increased shelling. My home was hit in January, and I am staying with one of the volunteers. It has only given me more power to fight. This war has united people, and there is one goal: victory.
Viktorii Voytsekhovskyy, 29, is an animation designer from Moscow. She met her husband, Andriy, when she worked at Russia 1, a state-owned TV channel known for its pro-Kremlin stance. He opened her eyes to the reality in Ukraine, and she left her job and moved to Mariupol with him in 2015. They have a 5-year-old son. Viktorii and her son got visas to the Netherlands after fleeing Mariupol but soon came back to be with Andriy in western Ukraine. Mariupol, which is majority Russian-speaking, is the site of the greatest atrocity of the war to date. It is now occupied by Russia.
On the first day of the war, my husband was walking the dog near our home in the city’s east when a Grad [a Russian rocket] crashed past him into the window of a ground-floor apartment about 15 yards away. The next day, we got on a train out of the city.
Many friends and family members were sheltering in our church, which happened to be underground. They decided to leave after the city’s drama theater was hit on March 16. The next day, a bomb was dropped on the church.
My husband’s parents, with his grandmother, sister, and nephew, didn’t make it out of the city, because they got a flat tire from shrapnel that was lying on the road. Russians took them forcefully on buses to filtration camps. There was no phone connection, but the sister managed to send us a message somehow.
Because I’m from Russia, I knew people who live near the border, so I asked them to help. They went and basically kidnapped our family from a huge line of people waiting to register. The Salvation Army got them to Moscow, and from there we got them to Latvia, where friends of friends got them to the airport in Riga. I met them off a flight in Amsterdam. The friends in Russia who helped us, they have had to leave the country now. First to Georgia, then Armenia, and now they’re somewhere in Africa.
Not everyone we know in Mariupol got out. The other day, I spoke with a young designer who’s there. He said everything is terrible. People are freezing in winter without heating. At his school, they tell students that Ukraine is not a real country.
Neighbors told us our building was hit and our stuff stolen, including my computer and vacuum. I would prefer everything had burned than that someone is using my things. I’m most sorry about our pictures.
My son started to ask me why we speak Russian at home instead of Ukrainian. It’s quite hard for me to respond so we decided to speak Ukrainian instead. Now he refuses to speak Russian, and if we do, he says, “Oh, you’re saying it wrong.” I speak Ukrainian well and people don’t always believe I am from Mariupol. Little do they know.
We miss our city so much. For us, it was the best place on earth. I want to go back to these memories, to our old life, but it can never be like that again. I feel so much shame for what Russia has done.
We try to plan for the future, but tomorrow maybe they will drop a nuclear bomb. Then nothing would matter. I keep a box of iodine and a stack of water bottles just in case. I used to wonder why my grandmother would collect things like tinned food and salt. Now I’m doing the same.