‘I was overwhelmed.’ Ukrainians recall the first hours of the full-scale Russian invasion


The main street of the town of Bucha, Kyiv region, after liberation by Ukrainian troops in April, 2022. Photo by Ukrainian Armed Forces (CC BY 3.0.).

In February 2023, Global Voices asked Ukrainians in a Facebook post, to tell us how they spent the first minutes and hours after they learned that Russia launched a full-scale war against Ukraine. Dozens replied, and this is their story. 

Many in Ukraine were not able to sleep the night of February 24, 2022. 

Some were anxiously watching TV or scrolling through news feeds. 

Others were calling relatives and friends urging them to prepare for the worst and to leave for the safer western parts of the country, or were themselves on night trains fleeing westward.  

Natalya Huzenko, a journalist, received a call from a friend in the Ukrainian military at 2:00 a.m. warning her that Russia was ready to invade. “I dragged my son and cats into a bed and was lying and reasoning with myself that nothing will happen,” she told the GV. 

Anatoly Tkachuk, a veteran of Ukrainian politics and reformer, was standing on his balcony when the first Russian rocket crossed the dark sky above him at about 4:15 a.m. 

‘I was logical’

The Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine in the early morning of February 24, 2022, did not catch everyone in the country by surprise. Moscow had gradually amassed its forces along the Ukrainian border starting in October 2021, and for months, Western allies publicly warned Ukrainians about the imminence of overt military aggression. 

Yulia Pimenova was a volunteer with Stantsia Kharkiv, an NGO which emerged in 2014 to help thousands of people who had been displaced from the war-torn neighboring regions and were arriving in Kharkiv, some of them still in nightclothes, entirely without documents. In late 2021, she published a Facebook post with recommendations on how to prepare to flee. 

“I told my 11-year-old daughter that there will be a war a week before the events. The relatives thought that I was strange. I was logical: if a criminal hasn't been punished for his crime, he would commit another and more terrible one,” she told GV, referencing Russia. 

By the time of the invasion, Russia had already been waging war against Ukraine for eight years, launching the attacks covertly and through its mercenaries and marionettes from the eastern part of the country it had occupied since 2014

By late 2021, the military attacks escalated, as well as hostile propaganda against Ukraine. On February 21, 2022, Putin proclaimed the recognition by Russia of the marionette self-proclaimed republics in the east of Ukraine. In the early morning of February 24, he gave a televised speech announcing the full-scale invasion of Ukraine as a commitment to the Russian duty to defend its allies from “Ukrainian aggression.” 

In Ukraine, however, many were used to Russian provocations and threats and either doubted the possibility of a full-scale war or refused to consider it.

“For the first half an hour [after getting the news about the full-scale invasion] I cried, I had something like a panic attack. I wasn't able to believe and accept that the war was already in my home, so soon,” wrote Nellie Verner, from Kyiv.

‘I broke down’

In the early morning of February 24, 2022, the country was woken up by explosions, but mostly by telephone calls. Relatives, friends, and colleagues called to share news and offer help. 

Anastasia Prokopenko, a civic activist who witnessed the 2014 invasion in her home city of Donetsk, was among those whose night sleep was ended abruptly by the sounds of Russian rockets landing in Kramatorsk, where she had lived back then. 

With her family, she immediately switched to a safer room in her house and tried to make it safer in the event of an attack. “We did everything very precisely and with a cool head. But when we started taping the windows, I broke down because it was so similar to Donetsk. Then I fully realized what was happening.”

Anton Senenko, a scholar turned volunteer delivering cars to units at the frontline, called his boss to inform him about not going to the office but evacuating his wife and a small son that morning. “For a long time, he did not answer, and when he did, I heard “Anton, what happened?” I tried to reply but for the first time in my life, my mouth was dry and my tongue grew dumb as if it didn't belong to me.”

Many rushed to check presumably safe routes and buy tickets to get their loved ones out from the hottest spots of the invasion near strategic facilities like military bases and airports, and from areas along the Ukrainian border with Russia and Belarus, a Russian ally

Amid the roads, jammed with cars of those trying to flee, there was also movement in the opposite direction: people were heading to military recruitment offices in the cities. Taras Bilous, a journalist and leftist activist who became a volunteer fighter, and his friends had an arrangement where to meet in case of invasion and if there would be no telephone and internet connection. “In the first hour, I was just staying, looking out of the window, and thinking. Then I packed my rucksack and went to Kyiv. There was already no public transport to Kyiv, so I had to walk there [about 14 kilometres] from Boyarka.”

Dmitry Durnev, a war reporter and father of four, recalled observing with astonishment an endless line at an ATM of one of the biggest Ukrainian banks, and a huge traffic jam. “We didn't even think about leaving: one shouldn't venture into a road in a city under attack. I walked to an ATM of a bank I did not know and withdrew 20,000 hryvnias. All the time I thought about how I would describe this in a story.” 

‘I smoked for the first time in my life’

Gas stations, ATMs, pharmacies, and supermarkets — many of them working in Ukraine 24/7 — were emptied within hours. “I went to a shop and somehow bought up a bunch of useless stuff like dumplings. All of them expired soon in the fridge without electricity,” wrote Natalya Malukha, a school teacher from Irpin, one of Kyiv's suburbs to become the epicentre of the first stage of the Russian 2022 invasion. 

Nataliya Nakonechna, a business specialist from the space industry, remembered being shocked by the silence in a crowded grocery store. “I ran to a supermarket for bottled water,” wrote Ihor Dvorkin, a university professor. “There was an enormous line. Someone said: ‘Boryspil is over,'” meaning the country's main airport near Kyiv was heavily bombed that morning. 

Yelyzaveta Taranukha, a Ukrainian language teacher, woke up when her mother called her at 5:00 a.m. to inform her about the invasion. “I put documents into my backpack, curtained off a window — and fell asleep for six more hours with the hope that this was a bad dream. I was woken up in the afternoon by a siren and understood that life would never be like before February 24. I went to the nearest supermarket and bought canned food, dried bread, a pack of cigarettes, and a lighter. I smoked for the first time in my life.” 

At home, people were hurrying to provide themselves with water, take showers, and cook while they still had water, electricity, and gas access. “I planned the entire day the same way: first of all, to do what I could be deprived of later,” Denys Ivanchenko, a journalist, explained. 

In different places, Yana Moiseienkova, a journalist, and Stanislav Kushnarov, a volunteer now serving in the military, were woken up by explosions early in the morning. “I looked out of the window and saw cars behind the auto barrier lining up to leave. I washed my hair and sat to watch my five years old twins sleeping yet carefree,” Yana wrote. Stanislav recalled: “I checked the news, collected water in a bathtub and bottles. But I did not want to wake up my son, he slept so blissfully.”  

In the southern port city of Odesa, Kirill Voronkov, a businessman and father of four, who several days before the invasion, had assisted the CNN reporters in their Ukraine coverage, woke up to a call from one of the reporters. 

“Then there were TV, internet, cigarettes one after another. My wife woke up later. ‘What will we do?’ Honestly speaking, for about two hours, I was overwhelmed. But how in the world could I say or show this. I answered by citing [a Ukrainian Soviet actor] Leonid Bykov: ‘We will live!'”

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