There’s no mistaking the rumble and blinding flash of an airstrike when it explodes in the still, early morning hours. I learned that the hard way on Thursday, when a series of three or four Russian cruise missiles attacked a military airfield just 2,000 feet from where I was struggling to sleep in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk.
With more than 150,000 of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops surrounding Ukraine and threatening to invade at any moment, it seemed like 40 million Ukrainians, as well as the dozens of foreign journalists staying at my three-star hotel, were scared sleepless.
At 4:36 a.m. Kyiv time, I received a text from Alexander Vindman, the retired US Army lieutenant colonel who was the director for European Affairs for the National Security Council. He asked, “You OK?”
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“Glad that’s the case. As an infantryman, we sleep when we can,” Vindman said. “Get rest. I fear you’ll need it.”
But I couldn’t switch off. And perhaps it’s good that I didn’t, as the missiles came crashing down just 16 minutes later. The blasts shook the walls, illuminated my room even through thick curtains, and jolted me up. A moment later, I was in the hallway, where two journalists came stumbling out of their rooms in their underwear, asking me if we should all make a dash for the bomb shelter.
Underground I found Pete Kiehart, a photographer working with BuzzFeed News, and Isobel Koshiw, a fixer and reporter on our team. They had gathered their things and were already scanning news reports and social media to see what was unfolding. It was jarring to see them there, having spent the previous evening celebrating a good reporting week with cocktails and steaks. Before turning in and because I had used up all my reporter’s notebooks, I visited a stationery shop, where a young girl pleaded with her mother to buy her a pen with a teddy bear on it.
It was the last normal thing I remember experiencing before the bombs went off.
In a video carried by Russian state-run television and shared widely across social media, Putin announced that a military operation was underway to force the Ukrainian government to surrender control to him. Very quickly we realized that missile strikes were being launched on strategic military installations across the country — from eastern Kharkiv to western Ivano-Frankivsk to central Uman — and the scale of Putin’s invasion became terrifyingly clear.
By midday, the casualties were piling up. Among the first to be killed was a young boy. A woman just riding a bicycle down the street was also killed. And there were many more Ukrainian civilians and troops killed. Thursday night, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said at least 137 Ukrainians had been killed so far in the Russian invasion, including both civilian and military casualties.
Ukrainians I’d interviewed and friends I’ve made over more than a decade of living and working here frantically called and sent texts asking for information and advice. Where was it safe to be? What was going to happen? When would it be over? Unable to provide them with sufficient answers, I felt completely useless.
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On the country’s industrial eastern steppe, where a shooting war has simmered for eight years, in the capital, Kyiv, with its golden-domed monasteries and cobblestone streets, and in the pastoral west near the border of Poland and the European Union, black plumes of smoke filled the sky, each a mark of Putin’s hatred toward Ukraine.
The country was on fire.
A defiant Zelensky declared martial law and ordered the country’s armories open to “all patriots” willing to defend freedom and democracy against tyranny and terrorism.
By nightfall, it was unclear how things would turn out. An unknown number of Ukrainians sought safety in bomb shelters created after World War II that nobody ever thought they would need to use. And the fighting raged on.
In a sign that perhaps the tide could turn in Ukraine’s favor, the military managed to retake control of the Hostomel Airport, where earlier in the day 34 attack helicopters swooped in from across the border and dropped off Russian forces just 15 minutes from Kyiv.
Somewhere near the capital, though, the thuds of artillery could still be heard, suggesting another long, sleepless night.