Andriy Kononenko gave up his job running a language centre in Kyiv to volunteer in the Ukrainian army. He describes his first full week in action
My biggest fear when I decided to volunteer as a soldier was that I might have to kill someone. Less than 48 hours after signing up, my nightmare nearly came true.
On Saturday night, having received my gun and uniform, I was posted with other volunteers to a checkpoint outside Brovary, on the north-eastern outskirts of Kyiv. The Russian army is attempting to advance down this road from Chernihiv, a city 120km to the north that has come under heavy bombardment.
Our immediate threat, apart from the risk of attack from the air, is undercover Russian operatives who have been air-dropped into the woods near here to carry out sabotage, assassinations and reconnaissance.
On our first night at the checkpoint we received word that there were seven such saboteurs close to us. We did not encounter them, however.
Things changed in the early hours of this morning. One of our duties was to stop all cars coming along this road and verify the occupants. Ukrainians know that you must stop at a checkpoint, turn off your headlights, place your hands on the steering wheel and await instructions.
The van that came roaring through at 2am did none of these things. The occupants, a woman driver and a man, had their hazard lights blinking and they yelled that they were Ukrainian army with a wounded soldier in the back.
But we had received no word to expect any such car and, besides, Ukrainian soldiers of any rank would still stop.
I was on a break, so thankfully did not get involved in what happened next.
Our guys fired into the air and one of them saw the passenger pick up a gun. Our unit then opened fire and killed both of them.
They were in Ukrainian army uniforms and I have been terrified ever since that this was a friendly-fire incident. It is hours later, however, and despite long investigations by the police they have been unable to identify the people we shot. There was also no wounded soldier in the back, so the reason they gave for not stopping was a lie.
I’m back home now, having been sent to get some sleep for a few hours.
A little after I got back, at about 6pm, we came under missile attack at our checkpoint. The base outside where we are stationed was hit last week, killing eight soldiers. But we thought we would be safer out in the open.
I don’t know why they attacked us. Perhaps it was in revenge for what happened to the two suspected saboteurs.
I was driving back from the house, a little late as I had forgotten my fleece, and was 200 yards from the checkpoint when there was a huge flash in front of me followed by another a few seconds later. I could feel the heat wave and immediately the smell of explosives filled the air.
Our unit was based on one side of the road, and another unit was on the other side. They were the ones who took the hit. I’m told they were fired at by an SU-25 fighter jet. I don’t know as I didn’t see the plane.
The car in front of me was badly damaged, but mine was OK. Six men in the other group were wounded, one guy critically. I’ve since heard that he died. Despite the chaos, it took less than a minute to get all the wounded into cars and race them to hospital.
We then had other volunteers race to join us, convinced that we were about to come under small arms fire. But nothing else happened.
We’ve been sent home to recuperate. We are all in shock.. All our clothes smell of explosives residue from the blast. We are not giving up but I need a few hours to get over what has happened.
Our unit has temporarily been taken out of action. The commanders want to reconfigure the way we do things.
I then got a call from an American acquaintance helping charities to take Ukrainian women and children across the border. He told me there were families stranded close to the Russian front line beyond Brovary and asked if I knew of any volunteers who would be willing to drive in and evacuate them.
I volunteered myself. I think it is better to get over the shock by being on the road rather than sitting at home. So we will be doing this for the next few days.
I drove past my old checkpoint and then headed down country lanes through the villages. It was an extraordinary sight.
Many people are not fleeing. Instead they are arming themselves with hunting rifles, kalashnikovs, weapons that they have had stashed away since World War II. They’ve felled trees to block the roads and placed fortifications in every village.
These people might be outgunned, but they are going to make life very difficult for the Russians.
I was asked to rescue a lady called Yulia, her nine-year-old twin daughters, Polina and Milana, and their grandmother Svetlana. They were getting pretty spooked as the Russians were getting ever closer to Rozhny, the village where they live.
I’ve picked them up now and we are heading to the Slovak border. Fuel is likely to be our biggest challenge.
After plenty of delays at checkpoints and searching for fuel, we completed the 830km journey to Uzhhorod on the Slovak border. It is pretty chaotic here.
There are long queues of people trying to get across, all women and children, of course, as Ukrainian men aged between 18 and 65 are not allowed to leave.
People have to stand in line for a long time. Food is being given out by volunteers and it is pretty good – warm soup, apples, bread.
Temperatures are about freezing, but it is not too cold. One of the main problems is that there is no easy way of using the lavatory. Lose your place in the queue and people are not always willing to let you back in it.
The other problem is that the queues are being managed by volunteers who don’t know how to handle stressed and traumatised people sensitively.
Non-Ukrainians have to queue separately, presumably because of different document checks. Visa status should hardly count if you are a refugee, however. Because women and children often are allowed to go first, the queues for non-Ukrainians move more slowly, which causes anger.
Yulia and her family manage to get through in about four hours.
We’ve just completed another 24-hour drive back to Kyiv. The street outside my house is covered with sandbags and fortifications. Our unit is still to receive our orders, so I’ve decided to do another run to the border. I had wondered if there was anyone in my closest circle of friends who I could help and I immediately thought of one of my dearest, most dynamic colleagues at the language school which I own.
She has a five-year-old child. She also has cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She is 33. She had 12 months of chemotherapy but it didn’t work. We have been fundraising for her.
The second round of chemotherapy seems to be working and she was due to have a bone marrow transplant today.
But the war started and she was asked to leave the hospital, so the process is not happening.
Through a freelance journalist friend, we have found a place that will treat her in Lithuania, however.
So, the plan is now to get her to Lviv, where a bus with green corridor access will ferry her to the Polish border and she can then continue to Lithuania for the treatment that will save her life. Once we’ve done that, we will see what happens next and what small role I can play to defend my country. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022)
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