From Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine
Olexander Semyonuk was hit in the back by a cluster bomb while he was cooking supper at home in Zaporizhzhia, south-eastern Ukraine. When a Russian warplane dropped the bomb last month, it released hundreds of submunitions the size of a Coca-Cola can, each of which contained three hundred steel fragments as well as an incendiary material called zirconium which bursts into flames in the air. Flying through a kitchen window, some of this shrapnel ripped into Olexander’s side and back. Yet he was still alive when I visited him several days later at Zaporizhzhia military hospital, which treats civilians as well as soldiers.
He remembers a thick cloud of glass, stone and dust engulfing his apartment block following the missile attack; miraculously, nobody was killed and only eight people were wounded. He also remembers that at first his cries for help went unheard amid the widespread panic and shrieking of neighbours. “You could say I was lucky to survive,” the 44-year-old railway engineer told me. “But only if you forgot how unlucky I was to be targeted in the first place. Mind you, I’m not the only lucky or unlucky one, Putin isn’t fighting his war against an army. He wants to terrorise the whole population of Ukraine.”
I’d come to Zaporizhzhia, the last city in south-east Ukraine under Ukrainian control, to see for myself the grisly reality of what Putin is laughably calling the “second phase” of his war plan. Since the beginning of April, Russia’s army has retreated from northern cities such as Kyiv and Chernihiv, and is now redirecting its murderous attention to the Donbas and Zaporizhzhia province, an industrial region immediately to the west of Donbas and to the north of Crimea. It is also targeting the port city of Odesa on the Black Sea coast, which has already been struck by cruise missile strikes launched from Transnistria, Russia’s unrecognised breakaway state in Moldova.
Since the fall of Mariupol last month, Zaporizhzhia has become a destination for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Russian occupation. Now the city itself, with a population of 750,000, is coming under attack. With three quarters of the wider Zaporizhzhia region now under Russian military control, the local people I met feared that that Moscow’s forces would soon attempt to take it.
The day before I arrived, there’d been a double rocket strike by Russian forces. One of the missiles destroyed a residential building that overlooked a small park with a Soviet tank in its centre, commemorating the liberation of the city from Germany in 1943. The attack, which tore a wall off the building, left the apartments inside exposed like a doll’s house. As with the sieges of Kharkiv or Mariupol, it revealed a strange paradox in the way Putin’s generals now fight his wars – at least since the earlier conflicts in Syria and Chechnya – in urban areas rather than on battlefields that are remote from the civilian population. On 12 April, the village of Novoiakovlivka was shelled with phosphorus bombs, I was told by Ivan Aryefyev, a spokesman for Zaporizhzhia’s regional military administration. (The use of phosphorus bombs is prohibited by the Geneva Convention’s protocol of 1977 and by the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.) The nuclear threats that Putin is now deploying, while partly intended to terrorise, cannot be discounted given his unbalanced state of mind.
“Putin’s aim is to destroy Ukraine as a Nation”
The sun was shining as I walked to the park, where the cherry and apricot trees were in full bloom. One of the residents, Valentina Andryuchenko, was sitting on a bench looking up at the damage. “My grandfather died defending Russia,” she said, “and now we have to defend ourselves from that same country.”
The heaviest fighting was taking place about ten miles away, where Russian tanks and armour were trying – and failing, at least so far – to break through and penetrate the centre of the city. In the distance muted explosions could be heard as incoming shells landed on the outskirts. “Who knows what’ll happen next?” said Valentina. “But we’re fatalists. What will be will be. Until then let’s just carry on as normal.”
Such normality was evident at Karo’s cafe shack. The eponymous owner was still making the best coffee in town, and the old men still gathered once the curfew was over to discuss the latest progress of the war. Yura, a retired university lecturer, waxed lyrical on the subject of Gerodot (aka Herodotus), the father of history. “Putin talks about redrawing the post-Cold War settlement, but that’s just a false flag. His immediate strategic aim is to destroy Ukraine as a nation, as if we have no right to exist. But we’ve been around a lot longer than these pesky Russians!”
Yura’s son was out digging trenches by the railway station but Yura hopes that last line of defence will never be required, believing Ukrainian soldiers at the front will withstand the Russian attacks.
I drove out to Vasylivka, a town on the front line, and met Dmytro Pavlenko at a Ukrainian military checkpoint. He’d just risked a 100-mile journey with his wife and two daughters, plus mother-in-law and a couple of aunts, fleeing the wreckage of his home in Mariupol via an unofficial humanitarian corridor. He said his cousin Roman was still trapped inside the Azovstal iron and steel works, where hundreds of civilians have sheltered for weeks alongside Ukrainian fighters, as Russian forces expand their control of the port city.
“Mariupol has become a ghost town,” Dmytro said. “It doesn’t exist anymore. It’s just a total hell. No water, no food, no gas or electricity – and if you step outside, you’re walking past burned-out houses, stepping over bodies, with telegraph wires hanging on the road – and everything is destroyed.”