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“He wasn’t just my father, he was my best friend”, 15-year-old Polina Popudribko says as she cradles a portrait of her late father Andriy in the meadows of St Nicholas’s Church in Zapporizhzhia.
The 40-year-old prominent local businessman had been killed fighting Russian forces on the frontline near the town of Huliapole last April, leaving behind two daughters. The wail of ambulances echoing down the grand Soviet-era boulevards is the only immediate sign that we are in a city at war. The markings on their cargo are ‘300’ for wounded and ‘200’ for dead.
The frontline here was quiet for almost a year, but now, with a Ukrainian counteroffensive meeting stiff Russian resistance just south of the city, these sounds are far more regular. “The counteroffensive sound for me is an ambulance siren,” Tatiana Drobotia, a 33-year-old resident of Zapporizhzhia tol Byline Times: “At this moment I understand the price of the headline “Defence Forces Advance in the South”.
The Popudribko family, understand this price better than anyone. “The brothers went to the recruitment office as soon as the war began”, his mother Olena explained as we sat in the Church with her daughter. “I had hoped they would help as builders or something, behind the line. But they were straight away sent to the battlefield.” Andriy, a prominent local businessman before the war, quickly rose up the ranks to become a lieutenant in the 110th TK Brigade of the Ukrainian Army. His call sign was ‘wind’, as his presence was said to be able to ‘blow away’ enemy soldiers.
Andriy had been a deeply religious man and found peace and sanctuary at this church. One week before he was killed, he had visited his family, and given his mother a gift, an icon of St Nicholas that she pulled from around her neck. She still wears it every day. “The last time we saw each other was on easter last year,” Polina told Byline Times, “and he hugged me so tightly, I asked him, ‘why so tight, is this the last time?’ And unfortunately, it was the last time.”
The family’s worries are still not over, as Andriy’s younger brother Serhei, 33, is still fighting in the same unit. “Serhei rejoined the war, even as his commander told him he could stay behind in Zapporizhzhia. There is a law that if one sibling is killed, the others are exempt from service. But he wants to fight and protect his home, and he says there is nothing to discuss in that regard. He asked me: “How can I stay at home if my brother died?”
On the surface, Zapporizhzhia seems to have survived the worst of the war and remained a thriving city. From the outside seating area of Aristocrate, a fine-dining restaurant decorated with large Grecian columns that had been owned by Andriy, you can observe throngs of locals walking down the well-preserved streets.
Hotels, restaurants and cafes are all still open, and there are few signs of widespread destruction common to so many other Ukrainian cities that have faced large bombardments. However, regular aid raid sirens remind us of the ever-present danger- one night we were woken at 2 am by several huge explosions that shook our windows both from Russian missiles and air defence working to knock them out of the sky.
The city’s population has remained almost static since the full-scale invasion, as those residents who have left have been replaced by refugees. They are made up of those who fled the bloody battles taking place in the Donbas region to the east, and others who have left the large Russian-occupied part of the oblast that Ukrainian forces are now slowly recapturing. Volunteers from Zapporizhzhia have set up a refugee hub, ‘IMariupol’, to help the displaced. When Byline Times visited, a young English teacher was giving a group of lessons to a group of children, and medical specialists in a doctor’s clinic and dentist’s office were examining patients.
Ludmila Shevchenko works at this clinic. She was a doctor who fled Mariupol last March, but not before witnessing some of the war’s worst horrors. The three-month-long siege of the city and the relentless Russian bombardment likely took as many as 20,000 civilian lives. For four devastating weeks, Shevchenko worked in one of the city’s hospitals, treating a never-ending stream of civilian and military patients.
These refugees all carry a great deal of trauma. “I noticed how children seemed to suffer much more,” Shevchenko told Byline Times. “I remember seeing a group of kids playing a game, where they would role-play as amputees, saying ‘let’s cut off the hand’ or ‘let’s cut off the head’.” She says “We have a specialist mental health clinic that can prescribe anti-depressants or therapy” but admits it is difficult to heal those who have suffered such deep psychological wounds. “Some of the symptoms don’t show at first,” she says, “it will only be after the victory when the symptoms of post-traumatic stress in the country will bloom everywhere like flowers.”
Shevchenko had two elderly colleagues, who managed to leave Mariupol for Kyiv, only to die of heart attacks caused by their stress in the following months.
Shevchenko keeps in contact with relatives and friends still living in the now destroyed and occupied city who describe a horrific humanitarian situation that the Russian authorities are totally unequipped to handle. “There are so many amputees in the city, people without arms or legs. Now that it is summer, and people wear lighter clothing, this is far more visible. There is no power in most of the city, so elevators don’t work, and some disabled people are trapped on the upper floors of their buildings.
It is not just the shooting war that keeps residents of Zapporizhzhia up at night. They are also just a few dozen kilometres away from the Enerhodar Power Plant, which has been occupied by Russian forces since March. Ukrainian military intelligence has said that Russians have mined the cooling facilities of the plant, which could trigger a nuclear meltdown if they choose to blow it. After the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam, the possibility of an even greater catastrophe is more realistic.
“I feel tired hearing about nuclear threat,” Alina, a 34-year-old lawyer told Byline Times. “I have gotten prepared and I bought potassium iodide. I’m tired and scared because I know that Russians can do it. We expect the worst from them. We warned about the Kakhovka dam last summer and the whole year. Now we are warning about Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, but nobody hears us. We’re tired of saying: “Please, do something with this terrorist country!”. What else should we expect to finally stop them?” The power plant has been the scene of worrying rounds of shelling, and the Russians have turned it into a military base, full of vehicles and ammunition.
Serhei, a 35-year-old engineer concurred, saying the Russians were getting more ruthless and desperate as the war progressed. “In 2022 Russia’s propaganda said something stupid about denazification and demilitarisation. Now they are honest in their plan: Ukraine shouldn’t exist. Good news for us: we know how to fight.”
Most of all, people in Zapporizhzhia just want to be left to live a free life in their home country. Olena Popidruko says that she is telling us the story of her loss to give an example to other parents who have lost children, to let them know they are not alone. “My main dream is just to live in an independent country, live in our own land, not to be a refugee. All we want is to stay here, and to be happy here.” Is that, she remarks, too much to ask?
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