Before the first missile struck, I was speaking to our construction-site engineer, a small smile beginning to creep across my face. We’d toiled for months in bureaucratic processes, and I’d been on the verge of giving up hope on numerous occasions, but after all the struggle, I could finally see the fruits of our labors with my own two eyes. There in front of me was one of the projects we’d spent so much time thinking about: a multimillion-dollar mobile healthcare facility that would replace a destroyed polyclinic in Kharkiv.
When the sound wave from the distant explosion hit my ear, I stopped mid-sentence and looked in the direction of the noise, thinking back to the details of the security briefing I’d received earlier that day, “the attacks tend to come in volleys of three.”
I felt my attention ratchet up but returned to my conversation. We were talking about the last step in the construction—a ten-foot tall wall filled with sandbags that would protect the building from shrapnel in the event of a nearby explosion.
As I extended my arm to give our lead engineer a celebratory pat on the shoulder, a second explosion ripped through the foggy air, this time much closer. In a millisecond, the collective adrenaline of our group went from zero to one hundred, and we ran to take the only cover we could find.
We huddled close together and positioned ourselves so there was a building between us and the direction of the explosions. We tried to stay calm as we waited for the inevitable third missile to fall.
Where would it strike? When would it hit? The anticipation was unbearable as I wondered if each second would be my last. My mind began to twirl out of control with all of the possibilities.
Maybe it would be a direct hit, in which case, it would be over so quickly that there’d be no pain and no suffering. Or maybe it would be my worst nightmare: a nearby strike that sprays thousands of pieces of shrapnel—razor-sharp chunks of flaming hot metal—at speeds fast enough to penetrate walls and pass through vehicles as if they were made of paper.
What could I do in this situation? If one of us were hit by shrapnel in an arm or a leg, the military-grade tourniquet in my backpack could save a life. We’d follow our training and tighten the tourniquet as much as possible to stop the bleeding. But if someone were hit in the torso, head or neck, we’d be helpless.
As my mind went round and round about the possibilities, my boss finally broke the silence, “we’ve had closer strikes before.”
“Wait till the next one,” I blurted out without thinking.
Another colleague wheeled around in a furry, yelling, “don’t say that!”
I looked into her eyes and saw that she was fully intoxicated by adrenaline. So was I.
I apologized, shut my mouth, and tried to breathe slowly, but there was no hope of taking control of what was going on in my body. This was fight or flight in a way I’ve never felt before.
We stood in silence until all of our phones buzzed at the same time. ALL CLEAR.
Just like that, it was over.
A few minutes later, we piled into a car, laughing and smiling, unaware of the multiple people who’d been killed in the strikes. We stopped by a grocery store that was packed to the brim, everyone acting like this was an ordinary Monday. The threat had passed for now, and everything was back to normal.
But as I lie in bed six hours later, remembering the explosions over and over, it’s clear that things are not back to normal, at least not for me.
Since I’ve been to Ukraine, I’ve been near a handful of explosions and close calls, but this time it feels different. A few months ago, missiles flew directly over my hotel, but I slept through it. Another time, in Bucha, I’d been close enough to an explosion to feel the shock wave, but I was put at ease when I found out it was an intentional detonation of mines and other munitions. Then there was the incident just a few weeks ago when a kid got ahold of a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and pulled the trigger. The explosions sent me and many others running through the streets with car alarms going off all around us. It was terrifying, but there was relief when I found out it was an accident.
What happened today was different; this was no accident, and there was no doubt as to the intent of these missiles. They were meant to kill, destroy and intimidate. And they’d achieved all of those objectives.
But worse than the memories of today is the knowledge of what’s to come in the next few hours. Everyone in Ukraine knows that Kharkiv—a frontline Eastern Ukrainian city—gets bombed every single night. Perhaps the intention behind the bombings is to ensure that no one sleeps, and if so, it’s working.
After a few hours, I finally dose off, but immediately my phone begins screaming—an air raid alert. Here we go. I breathe slowly, trying to go back to sleep, telling myself that it won’t matter if I’m awake or asleep when the artillery hits. I lay there for hours in that terrible purgatory of half-sleep.
The next day, I crawl out of bed to find that there’s no electricity or cell service. The power grid was targeted two nights before, and the service has been in and out since.
We drink coffee and eat breakfast at the hotel restaurant before going from one dire meeting to the next. The first stop is a hospital, where we enter a secret meeting room through what looks like a full-length cabinet. The windows are covered to protect against explosions, and the generator that powers the facility shuts down five minutes into the meeting. We continue our discussion in darkness, with only the lights from our phones used to read documents.
We go to the basement to see their operations, with patients, doctors and nurses all packed underground. They moved everything into the cellar in the first days of the war after shelling killed a handful of patients who were waiting to be seen. Since then, more than six months ago, fifty staff have been living and working underground every day. We’re planning to renovate the basement and build a functioning heating and ventilation system so they can live and work in safety.
At one point, the hospital director gestures for me to look at her phone and shows me a pile of ashes that used to be her home. I try to offer my condolences, but she shushes me with a motion of her hand before smiling and saying, “It’s nothing at all,” through my translator.
From there, we pass to a hospital for newborn babies that took a direct rocket hit. The top floor is completely destroyed, but they still use the remaining four floors. If we don’t seal up the fifth floor, the building will become unusable in the winter months, and these babies will have nowhere to go to get the care they need.
Next, we scurry across town to another meeting, driving by countless destroyed and damaged buildings on our way. We park the car, step into a building, walk down four flights of stairs and into a soviet-age nuclear bunker. It’s being used as a shelter for people who lost their homes, but there’s no running water, toilets or a permanent electrical system—they rely on an exceptionally long extension chord running down the stairs. But today, even the extension chord can’t help since the city has no power. People are lying in pitch black in the middle of the day in a damp basement. My colleagues and I are assessing the feasibility of renovating this bunker, and many other similar ones, so that the people living here can have heat, water, and electricity.
As I walk back up the stairs and into the sunlight, I’m struck anew by the suffering all around us. After only a few days in the city, I can see that with all I’ve experienced over the last four months, I’ve only had a small taste of war, but these 800,000 people living in Kharkiv have had a full serving, and somehow they’re still standing.
I can’t help but be in awe of how they survive in these circumstances. How do you smile when you’ve lost everything? How do you go to work every day under a barrage of missiles and artillery? How do you adjust to living in a pitch-black basement? I don’t know, but I’m witnessing it before my eyes.
As challenging as it is, I’m thankful to be here. Being in Kharkiv gives me a newfound sense of energy and urgency for the work we do every day. I’m still discouraged with the pace of our progress, but I feel something switch inside of me. The exhaustion, frustration and cynicism are still there, but the feeling of gratitude is slowly replacing them. I’m grateful for all the people I’ve met here and the work they’re doing, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to do my tiny part to support them. Things certainly aren’t easy right now, but they’re meaningful.