This is the first in a series of articles by The Conejo Guardian from the war zone in Ukraine
Sounds of explosions wake me at 3:13 a.m. on my second morning in Kremenchuk, Ukraine, a city roughly the size of Thousand Oaks and downriver 160 miles from Kyiv. The remote-but-bustling urban center is surrounded by endless acres of black, loamy farmland. Yet, like all other cities in this troubled nation, it has not been spared the vagaries of war — including this morning’s missile attack on an energy facility that also damaged a nearby village.
Dmytro Lunin, a regional military administrator, confirmed that two missiles “targeted a critical infrastructure facility in Kremenchuk. Preliminary reports indicate that there have been no deaths or injuries.” Smoke from the attack hung high on the horizon after the sun rose, and air-raid sirens sounded throughout the day — though by this time, people hardly flinch, and the streets and shops remain crowded.
“Troublesome night,” said military administrator Andrii Raikovych, by Telegram post. “We survived another missile attack by the enemy.” Russia fired 36 air- and sea-launched cruise missiles overnight, he said. Ukrainian air defense shot down 16.
It isn’t the first time this city has been hit. Last summer, a shopping mall six miles from my present lodging was unexpectedly — perhaps unintentionally — targeted and destroyed by Russian missiles, killing dozens. The wreckage has since been removed, and the vacant lot sits silently as city life hums around it — a potent picture of people trying to create a normal existence but deeply disquieted by what has erupted into their once-predictable routines.
“A month before the war started, there were rumors of wars, but the people around us didn’t take it seriously,” says Mariia “Masha” Krakuts, 22, who fled the city of Herzun, near Crimea, and now resides in the city of Ventura. She spoke with me by phone days before my journey to Ukraine. “Nobody expected it to really happen all of a sudden, out of nowhere.”
Krakuts, who worked at a daycare center, remembers the day her mother woke her up to tell her war had begun. She and her older brother fled immediately, living in their car for two days before arriving at the border with Poland. Ukraine was not allowing men to leave the country, so her brother walked her to the border and said goodbye. She carried one bag and one backpack. Christian volunteers took her and others to a house in Poland, where they stayed for three days before her future plans emerged — which would bring her to Ventura County.
Nearly all Ukrainian cities have been radically affected by the ongoing war. Locals in Kremenchuk estimate that 50,000 refugees flooded the area, many of them packed into small apartments. But while patriotic slogans and songs still pervade daily life, things are different now than when Russia’s invasion first began. Air-raid sirens prompt no change in activity. And yet, as one Ukrainian man tells me, he and his family live in a constant state of mental stress, though outwardly, life seems to go on as usual.
It is not easy to reach Kyiv these days. Air travel in Ukraine has been shut down since the outbreak of hostilities, and the only way in is by train or bus from the border of a neighboring country. These journeys are long. Traveling from Warsaw to Kyiv by train took me longer than flying from LAX to Warsaw, even including a layover in London.
Kyiv is far larger than can be conveyed by news reports, sprawling over a series of rivers and waterways and marked by the grand architecture and drab, endless blocks of nondescript apartment buildings characteristic of the former Soviet era. The city seems caught between two cultures — one devotedly Slavic and still recovering from the economic and psychological ravages of communism, the other European with its shiny malls, popular western brands and glorification of wealth.
Strangely and more than a little incongruously, late-model Range Rovers mingle with Peugeots and Volkswagons in the city’s traffic. On the outskirts of Kyiv is an actual Bentley dealership looking as if it has been plucked from Thousand Oaks Boulevard and placed here.
On the outskirts of Kyiv is a Bentley dealership looking as if it has been plucked from Thousand Oaks Boulevard and placed here.
Who is buying Bentleys in Ukraine?
That’s a question to ponder as my bus to Kremenchuk wends its way through vast, harvested fields awaiting their next planting of wheat. On this bus — and seemingly everywhere on public transit — off-duty Ukrainian soldiers are heading home for their first leave since joining the fight or returning to duty on the front lines with grim expressions and unsullied fatigues.
One 48-year-old soldier — drunk and correspondingly philosophical — recalls his time in battle, where he saw young men killed. Other soldiers, when they ascertain that I am an American, smile widely, strike up a conversation and express love for the U.S. and its people. One soldier, while the bus is moving, walks up the aisle and presents me with his army-green balaclava.
One soldier, while the bus is moving, presents me with his army-green balaclava.
“This is for you,” he says. “It is new and has never been used.”
It is his gift to a country he believes, rightly or wrongly, stands with him in the cause for which he has offered his life.
Others find it harder to summon a smile or a good word.
Earlier, in a huge refugee center in Warsaw where at least 1,000 Ukrainian refugees live in a vast warehouse of roofless, plywood cubicles, a woman whose husband is presently fighting in Bakhmut recalls her own better days. Scrolling rapidly through photos on her phone, she shows me her garden, her grandson, her daughter, her mother and family on vacation. The colors of these memories are vibrant; the places could be any backyard or beach in Southern California. But it will never be like it was, she says.
“The Russian army destroyed my house,” she tells me. “I can’t go back.”
Her eyes moisten when she speaks of her husband, a career military officer whose assignment in Bakhmut clearly concerns her. She is one of many here clinging to the promise of victory — or at least the prospect of peace.
Back in Ventura, Krukots told the Guardian that while living as a refugee in Poland, she felt she needed to go to America. A friend suggested a specific Bible college in Ventura, California. At that moment, “Everything started making sense,” she says. Her plan was to get an education in the U.S. and return to Ukraine to serve the people. She sojourned to the U.S. via Italy and Mexico and said that along the way, “God released a lot of good people who helped us.”
Today, she is taking classes in the seaside County capital — and getting used to American culture.
“I was kind of shocked because everything was not like in the movies,” she says via an interpreter, both laughing. “In the movies, they always film cute little towns and huge luxury houses. They need to show the homeless.”
Her father, a carpenter, is still in Ukraine and “is in danger from the bombing,” she says. Her mother, a hairstylist, and sister live in Warsaw, where her mother works four jobs to support them. Her brother resides in western Ukraine and works as a graphic designer for American companies. He may be taken to the battle zone at any time because he is of fighting age.
Back in Kyiv, checkpoints are fewer today than one year ago. Some high-rise buildings are missing windows due to missile blasts, and some nearby forests seem torn to pieces by artillery. Large metal spurs for tank deterrence sit heavily along the roads, and highway signs remain painted over so that Russian soldiers, should they arrive, cannot tell the distances to various cities. Why make it easy for them?
Nearby forests seem torn to pieces by artillery.
When an air-raid siren sounds midday in Kyiv, a Ukrainian military officer comes by the curb at the train station and tells a few people they must either go back into the building or leave the area altogether. One young couple simply catches a taxi and zips away, disappearing into the streets of a city whose future awaits the decision of history.
Excellent write up. This is the first article I completely on this situation. Thank you!