This is a mixed media image of a photograph overlayed by a hand-drawn illustration of a window and a computer next to a cup of water.
An illustrated photograph of watching Ukrainian air defences intercept Russian missiles outside my window while following air raid movements on my computer.

A Ukraine diary: Reflecting on two years of war

‘It brought me closure to be able to turn the piece of machinery that only a few weeks before was being used to kill us into something other than an instrument of death.’

Two years after Russia launched its attempted full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I finally feel safe enough to publish my experiences using my real name. During the first month of the Russian invasion, which began on 24 February 2022, the small village I live in with my family west of the capital Kyiv, was directly in the line of attack.

I kept a diary of writing and artwork during that time, which The New Humanitarian published shortly after Ukrainian resistance forced the Russian military to withdraw from the area at the end of March.

Now, when I stop to think about that first month of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I see the image of a sword cleaving through the air in front of my eyes, coming almost close enough to make contact.

The Russian military devastated the villages outside of Kyiv surrounding my own, but, by some act of fate, my village was spared. People all around us were killed by bombardment and gunfire. Several of my relatives in a nearby village were summarily executed; others had to run away from Russian soldiers who were holding them hostage in their homes. When the Russian soldiers withdrew, they left a wake of sexual violence and torture.

Somehow, all of this came as close as a few hundred metres from my house without any of my immediate family members or the neighbours in our village being killed: the tip of the sword, centimetres from my face.

Two years later, I reflect back on how unlucky and lucky we were at the same time. Everything hung on so little. Holding back the Russian army was truly a titanic feat. That resistance saved so many. But at the same time, so many people suffered pain, destruction, and death.

I remember going outside of our village for the first time after the Russians withdrew from our area at the end of March. I was scared. It was still dangerous. There were mines and unexploded munitions everywhere. The streets were total chaos, torn up by heavy combat. Every house was heavily damaged or destroyed.

But in some places, life was already coming back. People were cleaning up. To my surprise, some of the fields on the sides of the roads had been cleared of munitions, and local farmers were planting their crops.

As I walked, I picked up a few pieces of a destroyed Russian infantry vehicle and later assembled them into an art piece: a grotesque angel of death that came to visit us and left a long shadow in its wake. It brought me closure to be able to turn the piece of machinery that only a few weeks before was being used to kill us into something other than an instrument of death.

The war, however, did not end after the Russians were pushed back from the areas around Kyiv and other important Ukrainian cities, such as Kharkiv, Kherson. Russia’s appetite for imperial conquest has not stopped.

Watching the sky

Two years later, many Ukrainians feel like the world has gotten tired of the war happening in our country and have moved onto something new. Watching the devastation unfolding in Gaza, it’s understandable.

I have a childhood friend from growing up in the Middle East who lives there. He has two young children. The idea of them living under such massive bombardment is terrifying. Having lived under siege and bombardment myself, I know how utterly frightening it is.

When there’s a long pause in the Russian airstrikes, the anticipation builds up. I know they will come again, and when they do, the anxiety from the previous weeks or months of quiet unravels in a cacophony of pain and destruction.

At the same time, the danger we are facing here also hasn’t ended. Many people try to pretend that life has returned to what it was before. It is easier to avoid thinking about the carnage still taking place on the front lines in the east and south of the country, where communities have been devastated, people are still displaced, and the fighting has ground into an uncertain and still deadly stalemate.

I, personally, can’t let go of what is happening. I am no longer living on the front line, but the war still looms large in my life. In addition to the fighting in the east and south, Russian airstrikes throughout Ukraine have not stopped. Even when they become less frequent or intense, we know that the relative quiet is only temporary.

When there’s a long pause in the Russian airstrikes, the anticipation builds up. I know they will come again, and when they do, the anxiety from the previous weeks or months of quiet unravels in a cacophony of pain and destruction. High-rise apartment buildings where people are sleeping, a maternity hospital, school yards, and other civilian targets have all been hit.

Sometimes I can’t sleep when the air raids begin. I’ve become used to them, in a sense. They’ve almost become routine. But when they start, I still feel a rush of adrenaline. I follow numerous public pages on the internet that track the trajectory of the missiles, predicting where they are going to hit. These pages help save lives by informing people when they need to shelter.

A group of metal objects from pieces of a destroyed Russian infantry vehicle collected together.
Nizar Al Rifai/TNH
The ‘angel of death’ I made from pieces of a destroyed Russian infantry vehicle I found near my village after Russian forces withdrew at the end of March 2022.

During the night, I think the missiles will be flying close to where my family or relatives live. I call them to tell them to take shelter. Often, you can hear the roar of the low-flying missiles, and they are frequently shot down, causing a terrifying explosion.

It’s sobering to think that the war so far has always been a razor-thin balance between who has the upper hand. At any point, the scales could have tipped in Russia’s favour. The past two years could have been entirely different. Everyone fears that aid from Western democracies will dry up and that we will be left to fend off the Russian empire on our own. If that happens, another battle for Kyiv, and the death and destruction it would bring, are not out of the question.

Generational trauma

When I wrote my war diary about living under siege during the first month of Russia’s invasion, I was terribly frightened about food scarcity and insecurity, not just for Ukrainians, but for the whole world. At the time, Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea was threatening the entire global food system.

It has taken a tremendous effort, but Ukrainians are now able to keep themselves fed and export grain and other crops. Shops in small villages – besides those on the front lines – now stock the vast majority of products they had before the full-scale invasion. Everything has become more expensive. But even Russian or international products that are no longer available have been replaced by alternatives.

I don’t know anyone in my area who relies on humanitarian aid. Some people may be hiding it out of pride, but people are more or less trying to get back on their feet with their own strength and means. However, the fear that the food security we currently enjoy could one day vanish just as quickly as it did before is very much present.

Planting and tending to home food gardens is a Ukrainian tradition. We rotate the crops we plant from year to year, but cucumbers for pickling are a constant. We pick the fresh cucumbers, dig horseradish roots from the ground, and combine them with salt. The most common salt brand in Ukraine comes in iconic blue-and-white packages and is produced in the city of Bakhmut – or I should say, was produced in the city of Bakhmut.

This is a collage of three images. On on top and two at the bottom showing the process of pickle-making.
Nizar Al Rifai/TNH
Pickles made with my grandmother’s recipe, using the last packet of salt we had from Bakhmut.

Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine, was besieged and completely destroyed by Russian forces. When we made pickles last year, it struck me that it was probably the last batch we would make using that salt.

The pickle recipe was passed down from my grandmother. I remember how she would talk about her family surviving the Holodomor – the man-made famine that the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin used to kill millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s.

The trauma that the Holodomor instilled in her was still there even many years later when she was well-off and living in an independent Ukraine. She would get irrationally upset if there was no bread in the house after dark, almost as if dreading some unknown tragedy that might happen and not allow her to get bread in the morning.

A lot of my friends in Ukraine have similar stories about grandparents who would try to overfeed their grandchildren and who always kept jars of pickles and extra food stocked at home. What we’ve gone through in the past two years has reinforced that generational trauma.

In my first diary, I wrote about my young cousin who lived with us during the early days of the invasion before his family escaped to western Ukraine. They are now back living in our area. Now five years old, my cousin has made up a game where he asks an adult to play the sound of an air raid siren on their phone and then tells everyone to take cover. 

This is a mixed media image. A pressed flower is placed on black paper and with a white pencil and aircraft is drawn under as if the pressed flower were its rotor blades.
Nizar Al Rifai/TNH
Hope is to fly again: Before the full-scale invasion, I would travel around the area where I live in a small electric car picking flowers from fields and watching small aircraft that took off from a nearby airfield cruise in the sky.


I believe that hope is the only thing truly holding Ukrainians together right now. When the full-scale invasion started, there was a sort of unity and defiance in the air. Strangers you saw in the streets, friends who didn’t care about politics before, almost everyone was determined to fight and hold back the Russian invasion.

Today, the intensity of that unity has dulled a bit, but it is still there and it is still strong. People who aren’t fighting on the front lines are still involved in the war effort. They fundraise to help buy drones, helmets, night vision goggles, tourniquets, and other items to send to friends who are fighting on the front. This war has pushed so many people to become civically engaged in one way or another. Everyone wants to win and push every last Russian soldier out of Ukraine.

The day the Russians were forced to retreat from our area two years ago, a small miracle happened. A swarm of wild bees came out of nowhere and repopulated a hive that had been left empty when its population had perished the previous winter.

Last summer was our first harvest of honey from those bees, and it was one of the most delicious batches of honey I have ever tasted.

In my heart, that wild swarm of bees was a sign of sorts that things will be okay. We just have to power through this calamity that has befallen us, and life will return. Two years later, I am still waiting for that moment for the whole of Ukraine.

Edited by Eric Reidy.

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