Essays On War

The first weeks of war. Volodymyr Rafeenko

The First Weeks of War

My wife and I usually celebrate our wedding anniversary on February 24. This year, we planned a party for two in a forest cottage near Kyiv. The COVID pandemic was still going on, so we didn’t want to eat out in a restaurant or invite guests over. We sent my mother-in-law abroad to visit our daughter a few days before, so the holiday promised to be easy-going and quiet.

However, in the early morning of the 24th, my wife woke me up and told me the war had begun. I couldn’t believe it. I know that my Olesya is incapable of lying; it is simply not physiologically characteristic of her. But the meaning of her words was difficult for me to process. It took me breakfast and a few hours of reading news updates on the Internet for everything to sink in.

It quickly became apparent that fights were already raging in the area between Kyiv and us. Heavy Russian equipment was in transit on the Warsaw and Zhytomyr highways, which our forces fired at from time to time. Public transport, of course, was no longer running. And we did not have our own car. Therefore, we were stuck.

They fired simultaneously from the right, the left, behind us, and in front of us. Airplanes and helicopters buzzed overhead. Our cat howled and hid, afraid to venture outside. But the house was also so uncomfortable that he did not get off my lap. He was not calm because the windows were shaking and the doors were swinging from the explosions. We warmed the cat, and the cat warmed us. And I thought how good it was that my wife and I had bought a lot for our anniversary. Holiday supplies would undoubtedly last us for a while.


The first days were more worrying than scary. Fog, warmth, gray-blue sky, and explosions, with their echo rolling through the forest and hitting us in the chest. Then the anxiety receded, and an icy terror crept over us. We finally realized that we were caught in a dense ring of Russian troops in the forest on the lake bank between Bucha and Borodyanka.

Shops weren’t open, pharmacies were closed, and the lights went out, followed by the Internet and mobile service. We walked through the dark house, counted the candles, and thanked the Chinese for inventing them; this beautiful nation had made our three solar-charged flashlights, after all. Fragile, low-power, and small, I almost broke one of them while charging it on the street, but they gave us light in the evening and the ability to see each other in complete darkness.


            If I remember well, a proper winter returned during the transition period between February and March. The temperature dropped sharply. The fog disappeared, and a dazzling sun and wind took its place, along with snow, pine trees, and a bright blue sky. It was a beauty to behold if it were not for the smoke wafting everywhere.

             There was something poetic about how the pine trees approached the cottage, especially when they were drizzled with the amber of the evening sun. But from the first days of the occupation, I only thought about how these pine trees would look if the Russians were to set fire to the forest.

The lack of information bothered me no less than the constant explosions. The reverberations were so loud that it felt like the cottage house was swaying. We moved from the second floor to the first since it seemed to us that it was a little safer there, although there probably wasn’t much sense in this. At night, the frost dropped the temperature to fifteen degrees below zero, and, listening to the heating system and heavy artillery work, I tried to make some kind of plan in case the Russians bombed the local gas pipelines. We did not have a stove, and the walls were thin because we lived in a summer house, but thankfully, a heating system had been installed at some point. It was impossible to imagine how to spend at least three or four hours in it without heating, not to mention several days or weeks.


At first, we could buy food from other villagers because our cottage was surrounded by other hamlets and villages. But soon, local residents realized that war and occupation would likely drag on for some time, so they had to save food for themselves and their families. It was the beginning of March. We inspected our supplies and, knowing the more or less exact expenditure, roughly calculated when we would run out of food. This date shone brighter than the Chinese lanterns for us in the darkness of our lives. At least it made me incredibly alert, and I kept thinking about how we could get ourselves out of this trap.

Around that time, the usual summer residents who had their own means of transport began to leave through Russian checkpoints to unoccupied territories. Not everyone managed to get out alive, but people still moved because, in the forest, despair and hopelessness continued to tighten their grip on our throats. On the second Sunday of March, eighty percent of people left the cottages in our surrounding area.

It goes without saying that nobody picked up strangers, no matter how much they asked. Everyone was trying to save fuel. So many people were traveling with children, and nobody wanted to find themselves cold and stranded in a car in the dead of night. Of course, there were exceptions, but usually, they took either children or a maximum of one additional person in their car. And my wife and I did not allow ourselves to entertain the possibility of being separated in a situation where it would be impossible to stay in touch.


On March 19, volunteers took us out of the occupied territories. Seven months later, I, a bilingual person, write and speak almost exclusively in Ukrainian. It hurts me to communicate in Russian, sometimes unbearably so. I suppose it is for my own good. My wife is in the Czech Republic now, and I am in Ukraine. The war continues, and there is a constant struggle with trauma-induced tension. But, frankly speaking, the first weeks of the war broke apart and changed my worldview so profoundly that I still have yet to fully realize it.