Life in War: Man Becomes Inventive

The southern Ukrainian city of Mykolayiv is constantly under fire. Residents save what can still be saved. Image: www.imago-images.de / imago images

On site in Ukraine

How are you supposed to go about your everyday life when the country is ruled by war? Working and helping where bombs are falling – three people talk about their lives in a state of emergency.

Joana Rettig

A few hours after a bomb hit the city, Alex stands in front of a café and grins.

It’s May – and the sun is burning, while the man with a bald head and a full beard looks across the street. Black sunglasses sit on his nose, and a green floral pattern stretches across his dark blue T-shirt. A large, dark brown leather bag hangs over his shoulder.

Alex lives in Mykolayiv. The city in the south of the Ukraine has been under attack since the beginning of the Russian war of aggression. And Alex sits on the terrace of the café and sips his coffee. He makes calls and writes messages on the messengers Signal and Telegram.

In the sunshine in the café of the embattled city of Mykolaiv: the helpers Patrick Münz (from left), Alex Vasilyev, Okan Baskonyali and watson editor Joana Rettig.

In the sunshine in the café of the embattled city of Mykolaiv: the helpers Patrick Münz (from left), Alex Vasilyev, Okan Baskonyali and watson editor Joana Rettig.Image: watson / Joana Rettig

The man is 32 years old. Since the war came to Mykolaiv, he has been unable to work. Alex worked in the grain industry. His wife and son fled after him Spain. But it has to go from there Germany go, he says. “Spain is just too expensive.” For Refugees there is apparently less support in Spain than in Germany. Alex himself has to stay. Must not leave the country.

No work, none family. Just friends and the hope that maybe someday the country will live in peace again.

But Alex needs something to do, he says. He wants to make himself useful. So now he is making sure that relief supplies are delivered. He acts as a fixer, so to speak: he helps people who help. Make contacts yourself everywhere. Within the city, but also to the outside. He stands by helpers from abroad, shows them the city, explains where you can buy what and for how long. He knows exactly when and where you can get petrol or diesel, which is so scarce in Ukraine. He takes care of accommodation.

The street in front of the café looks peaceful. the people stroll in the sunshine, laugh. A girl and a boy run past the café terrace, laughing and screaming.

When Alex drives the German helpers from the organizations “STELP” and “Leave no one Behind” to a warehouse, he tells them about his son. He shows a picture of his wife beaming at the camera in a white summer dress. The picture is from 2021.

In the city, at almost every street crossing, there are large billboards depicting an orc wearing military gear, a hard hat. A white Z is painted on his chest. Months ago, Ukrainians began referring to the Russian military as “orcs.”

"Russian soldier" says the poster with the orc on it in Mykolayiv.  And under: "Marauders, rapists and murderers."

“Russian soldier” is written on the poster with the orc on it in Mykolayiv. And underneath: “Marauders, rapists and murderers.” Image: watson / Joana Rettig

“I don’t even know how to continue,” says Alex, while driving his black SUV through the partially destroyed streets. “My savings are running out – I’ve even tried mine automobile for sale. But the people here don’t have any money anymore.”

“Bahnhofsmanagement” – a new beginning

No more job, no more money.

Dimitri from Dnipro is also left with nothing because of the war. At the main station of the 970,000-resident city in eastern Ukraine, he addresses strangers. He smiles a lot and speaks fragmentary English. Here on the square, which is particularly busy on this sunny day, where people queue at kebab shops while military personnel with duffel bags wait for their train to depart – this is where Dimitri has looked for a new job. He needed a fresh start, he says. What he is doing now he calls “station management”.

That means: He stands in the square in front of the entrance to the station hall and waits for people to arrive. For lost arrivals. He will help you with almost everything you need: Taxi rides, ATMs, changing money at the counter, answering questions, showing directions.

Dimitri wears a sage green shirt. Tight jeans, sunglasses. Fine wrinkles on his temple show that he is in his life already laughed a lot. He is 43 years old, the hair on his head is thinning, it is already gray.

So station management. “It’s my job now,” he says. As with Alex from Mykolayiv, the company where Dimitri worked closed. And now, he says, he’s helping people “find their way around.” That’s how he earns his money.

But you don’t HAVE to pay, he explains. “But if you want, you can give me something.” 200 hryvnia is a lot of money for Dimitri. That’s the equivalent of around 6 euros.

Man becomes inventive and frugal when war plunges the country into an economic crisis.

networks for the military

Sascha also became inventive.

She and her two children stayed in Mykolaiv. Even when the bombardments became more and more violent. In the beginning, the actual teacher and her family went to a school gym – it was used as accommodation for residents when Russian artillery surprised the city at the end of February.

Sascha’s mother was there too. “So we sat in the gym and heard the bombs,” says Sascha. “All of a sudden my mother started knitting.” She had to laugh first, says the woman with the long dark brown hair. Of course she asked why her mother was doing this. “She said she couldn’t just sit and do nothing, so she knitted.”

And Sascha joined in.

“But I thought maybe we should make something useful out of it.” And so Sascha and her mother began to collect old clothes and use them to make camouflage nets for the military. “Most Women and children in the hall then helped.”

Many even went home in the meantime and looked for more clothes that they could donate to the networks.

Sascha also stands in the sun while she talks. That weather means well with the people in the Ukraine in May. But the young woman is not standing in front of a café or a busy train station. Here the environment is deserted. The parking lot she’s in is full of potholes. It is located right in front of the yard of an organization that, in cooperation with the military, evacuates people from contested and even occupied areas.

A destroyed hotel in downtown Mykolaiv.  When the rocket hit, guests were still sleeping in the house.

A destroyed hotel in downtown Mykolaiv. When the rocket hit, guests were still sleeping in the house.Image: watson / Joana Rettig

The exact location of the base of this group may not be published. But one thing is clear: In this area of ​​Mykolayiv it is not entirely safe.

Sascha’s husband fights at the front. And when she starts talking about him, her eyes fill with tears. She stops again and again. It looks like she’s out of breath. “He was in Donbass in 2014,” she says. “So I already know that feeling.”

That feeling of helplessness.

The daily fear of horrible news. “I can’t leave here. My mother stays here, my husband is fighting here. If something happens to him, I have to be with him.”

Sascha has decided to continue helping. She supports the military and other groups as a translator. Because she speaks fluent English. A rather rare skill in Ukraine.

As Sascha speaks, a siren wails – and Sascha’s gaze freezes.

“We should go fast,” she says, getting in her car and driving off.

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