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Day 5: The Soldiers of Zaporizhzhia



I added toothpaste to my toothbrush and sipped a bit of water. I brushed carefully then spit the slime in my mouth into an empty water bottle.


Oh, wow. That worked.


I did it again.


Who knew that you could brush your teeth from your bed?


I could have gone to the bathroom on the train to freshen up, but the bathroom was small. And smelly. And there was a long line first thing in the morning.


No thanks.


Rosie watched my invention from her top bunk and asked if she could use the bottle, too.


But, or course.


I passed it to her and she copied my example.


I changed my clothes under the sheet, used a wet wipe to wash any parts of my body that might be smelly, then packed my bag so I would be ready when we arrived at the station several hours from now.


Four people eating on a train
(A speedy instant soup breakfast on a slow train)

Luksaz said that breakfast was ready in their compartment, so we joined them. Our railroad worker brought cups of hot water; Luksaz added a (not for me gluten) noodle soup to each cup. After a few minutes, breakfast was ready.


I ate one of my beef sticks and wondered why I didn’t bring more food with me.


Two men look out the window.
(Andrew on the left and Greg on the right look over the fields of wheat .)

After breakfast we had ample time to stare out the windows, catch up on emails and tell secrets. What a gift to take a fourteen-hour train ride with such interesting people.







I went back into our compartment and asked the grouchy Ukrainian women if I could take their photo.



Two women on the train
(The Ukrainian women we shared the compartment with.)

They both agreed.


Really? Snap.


The woman with the long hair didn’t smile, but the other woman did. If we had one more day with them, maybe they would loosen up.




Just as the train was pulling in to our station, the two women jumped up and rushed out the door.


Rosie and I said our goodbyes. They did not reciprocate.


I will not be sending them a Christmas card this year.


As I was walking out the door, Rosie reminded me to pack my jacket and raincoat that I hung on a hook at the foot of her bed.


With moments to spare, I mashed them into my backpack and zipped it up. Good thing they dried overnight.


As we exited the train, I saw the long-haired woman spinning around and around in the arms of a soldier. She seemed like a different person, completely transformed: she was all smiles and giggles and exuding joy.


I imagined a newspaper headline: “Is Hugging a Soldier Better than Prozac?”


I let go of the idea that she didn’t want English speaking people with her on the train. She was nervous about reuniting with her man.


Sigh.


Our driver met us at the Zaporizhzhia train station and walked us to our next van. He was a soldier and a priest. He was dressed like a soldier.


He drove us to our hostel, Dream Hostel of Zaporizhzhia and gave a suggestion to Oksana: we should all dress in green, to show our support of the Ukrainian army and help us to not stand out.


None of us had green clothes with us.


We settled in to our shared rooms. Yes, there were showers available. Yes, we could do laundry. Either there were more toilets that I didn’t see, or all two hundred people in the hostel would be sharing five toilets.


That could get interesting.


Actually, it’s no worse than the train and these toilets appeared to be clean.


There’s that.


After a rest, we hopped into the van and went to the grocery store. It was uncannily bright and cheery and filled with fresh foods. The front lines of the war were only 50 kilometers away; I thought a food store this close to the front would be rundown.


Not at all.


Rosie pointed to the lettuce. "Look at how green it is."


Andrew wondered if it was grown hydroponically. "It's a perfect head of lettuce."


I pointed to the very red tomatoes next to the lettuce. "It's like a child colored them with a crayon. They're so colorful that they don't look read."


It's sad when vine-ripened food looks fake.


We packed two carts with fruits, vegetables, caffeinated drinks and anything else we could think of.


The driver drove us along the Dnipro River and showed how the levels were low—even here where we were 200 kilometers from the Kakhovka Dam that was blown up by the Russians last month.


The driver said something. Oksana translated it to Polish. Luksaz translated it to English: “Normally you can’t see the rocks here. The river is 2 – 3 meters lower here in Zaporizhzhia since the dam exploded.”


Humanitarian Aid Stop #3: Soldiers


We drove for a while and reached two soldiers who stood behind a closed gate. They were holding guns, and their fingers were on the triggers. They did not smile when our van approached the gate.


The driver spoke quickly in Ukrainian.


One soldier approached the van and talked to the driver. The soldier got on his phone and after a few minutes, the gate opened.


It was a camp site with trails between the enormous dark green tents.


As we introduced ourselves to the man in charge and the men shook hands, I watched.


They appeared to be glad that we were there. They were probably wondering what we brought. We had computers for them and other supplies, but the vans hadn’t arrived yet. I hoped they were happy with the food.


It smelled like there was a campfire nearby, even though it was over 70 degrees out. I wondered if they cooked over an open flame.


After we met some more people, we unloaded our many bags of food. The man in charge invited us to look around.


(The back wall in the underground bunker shows drawings children made for the soldiers and a television.)

I walked down some steps into an underground bunker with children’s pictures hung on one wall and a large television sat on a table. I wondered how they took turns watching TV. How many soldiers fit down here? How did they decide which soldiers got to hunker down in the bunker that fit three long tables and several chairs during an attack?


A soldier pointed to a wall where some children’s drawings were hung and said something that was translated twice. Luksaz said, “These are pictures that children made for the soldiers.”


If the children knew that these men really hung up their pictures to decorate their bunker, surely they would make more.


They served us lunch, which seemed confusing. I think it was because the priest was with us. Our meal consisted of soup, coleslaw with sausage, potatoes and chicken, extra bread and glasses of pear juice.


As we ate, one of the soldiers talked about how many musical instruments he could play. We listened politely as his words were translated twice. I asked if he might play something for us, right now. After going up the chain of translations, he agreed.


As we ate, he serenaded us and played the guitar.


It seemed surreal to be in Ukraine at a soldier’s encampment eating their food and listening to live music.


#amazed


I didn’t eat the soup or the fried chicken because they probably had gluten in them, but that mayonnaise coleslaw was calling my name. Normally coleslaw was made without gluten. I ate every bite of my portion then asked Rosie if I could have hers, too, since she was vegetarian.


We quietly traded our food so we wouldn’t appear to be ungrateful for the meal.


***


Our vans with the supplies were still hours away, so our driver returned us to the hostel, we hopped on a bus to the city center to have a look around. Where could we find green shirts?


There were people out walking around, but only a few. There were cars out driving, but there was a lack of ease in the people we passed by.


Luksaz asked every person we passed where we might buy green shirts until someone pointed us in the right direction.


We found our way to a small two-story mall that was eerily quiet. The only people in the stores on the first floor were the clerks. Upstairs we found a military store.


There were other customers in the store buying green shirts, camouflage pants, green hats, military-style boots and any number of military gadgets.


We each found a plain dark green t-shirt that suited us and made our way to the register.


Surprise: our credit cards would not work here. Each popped up with an announcement that due to government issues, they could not accept cards from this area.


No problem, we had all exchanged zlotys into hryvnias. One dollar is worth about 36 hryvnias.


The t-shirt cost around $17 and included a tag that said it was made in Ukraine.


Zaporizhzhia

While we waited for our vans to arrive, we walked around the city some more. There wasn’t a lot to photograph, the city looked rundown with less culture and more commerce.


Oksana befriended a soldier. He asked if we wanted to see the buildings that had been destroyed by Russian shellings.


Luksaz gave us a choice: we could go to dinner at a Ukrainian restaurant nearby, or we could go with the soldier. We had all agreed to stay as a group at all times. We were never to stray for any reason without first telling the group where we were going.


My stomach picked dinner; my curiosity chose the soldier.


We all agreed to ride with this random soldier.


We hopped in a taxi and he took us to a large building on the edge of the city. It had secretly been an officers residence and a warehouse to house ammunition. He called another soldier who joined us. This soldier told us that he had been in the building when it was hit on May 5th, 2023 at 8:00 PM.


The sound of the explosion was so loud, it ripped the roof off a gas station about 100 yards away.


He told us about the two soldiers who died in the explosion and the four who were seriously wounded and how it was reported that there were no deaths – so that the mayor of the city would not have to pay the soldiers in the area a higher wage for working in a dangerous zone.


There was a theory circling amongst the soldiers that the mayor tipped off the Russians about the barracks and warehouse. Several days after the mayor visited and posed for photos with the soldiers, the strike happened.


They don’t think it was a coincidence.



A stray dog circled our group. He howled for attention, barked whenever anyone reached into a bag and lay on his side demanding his stomach be scratched.


The soldier said that this dog was a pet of the building and had stayed around after the explosion.


Rosie crouched next to the dog and pet him. After a moment she said, “My partner said very clearly that I was not to bring a dog home.”


I asked her how many dogs she had.


“I used to have five, but now I only have two. Surely there is room for one more…”


None of us had any food to offer the dog. He rubbed up against us and insisted we pet him while we talked about the events of the attack. He was softer than expected.


Andrew said, “Someone’s feeding him. He looks healthy.”


The soldier said that the area around the building was covered with Ukrainian land mines, it was the only way to keep people away from the dangers of the building.


I watched a cat walk across a fence. It jumped to the ground. I tensed and waited for the explosion; none came. The cat walked to the building. I tensed. No explosion.


The soldier explained—through two translators—that modern land mines are made out of ceramics or are wooden, so metal detectors can’t locate them underground. He added that they were only activated if the weight on them was over 100 pounds.


The cat was safe.


Luksaz wanted to get closer to the building. “Ladies first.” He said. “Go ahead, Holly. We will follow your lead.”


We all laughed.


The first soldier told us that all soldiers had to buy their own uniforms including boots and bullet proof vests. Most soldiers had to fundraise to get the necessary items. He said that he paid about $130 US dollars for his uniform.


I asked how much he earned as a soldier, but Luksaz didn’t want to translate my question. He whispered to me, “That is wrong to ask.”


The soldier added that the bullet proof vest he was wearing cost about $3,000, US dollars.


My mouth fell open. How is that possible? Though things in Ukraine are cheaper than the US, the price of food has doubled in the last year, as one example of inflation. Some Ukrainians believe that the prices in Ukraine are more expensive than the prices in Poland.


Someone told me that the price of heating gas has gone up 7 times in the area.


7 times.


The soldier continued as the day slowly ended and the dog demanded ongoing attention which we readily gave.


He said he got paid about $500 US dollars a month. With that money he had to buy his uniform, lodging, food, water, and anything else he needed. Only special forces got provisions provided for them.


The other soldier said that in the area there was a portion of the population that sympathized with Russia and even stood with them. Some of these people had family members who were fighting with Russia against Ukraine. He added that 60% of the people in Zaporizhzhia were pro Russia.


What?


I got goosebumps. To think that civilians were making things worse for the people of this city was scary. I worried about who we should trust. What if someone who was pro Russia offered to help us? Could we stay safe if civilians were spies?


He said that some local people drive to Russia to buy cherries and other food where it’s cheaper. “They know how to get there and get back.”


What?


This is small reminder that war is a political game that does not affect all people equally.


Wait, do Russian cherries taste better than Ukrainian cherries?


One of the soldiers said that he was at the dam when it was attacked.


This caught my attention. “You were there?” When the Kakhovka Dam was blown up by the Russians, it received worldwide attention for the destruction it caused.


He nodded and said, again, that he was there.


He said he was patrolling the area and pulling Russian soldiers out of trees.


Why were they in the trees?


Nobody knew.


He added that when the Russians saw his large patrol moving towards the dam, they rushed their mission and blew it up.


I said, “Wait. How could they see you? The New York Times reported that the blast happened between 1:00 AM and 3:00 AM.”


He shook his head. “No. It happened at 1400 hours.”


He was there. The blast happened at 2:00 PM—in the afternoon.


Information during a war can become so muddled. I wish I had asked him more questions about the dam, but there is never time enough to ask about everything I want to know.


We wistfully said goodbye to the dog. He wandered off without looking back. I wanted to beg Rosie to take him home.


Or anyone.


Poor dog.


Poor dog.


Two taxis came to whisk the group to the next place that the soldiers wanted to show us.

They took us to a building on the other side of the city. It was bombed last week, a random attack meant to terrorize the people. Three children, all from one family, were killed. I think he said that they were all under ten-years-old. In my shock I forgot to write it down.


He led us inside.


Parts of the building had been destroyed right down to the concrete.


He walked us up the broken concrete steps to the apartment. We shined our cell phone flashlights to see the way. One wrong step and we would fall into the center of the wreckage.


We entered the apartment. The television was sitting on the broken couch. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dirt. I felt like an intruder in someone’s home.


We walked into the bedroom where the children had been sleeping. It looked like the building was being built—boards stood where walls once were. There was a hole through the floor. Random toys sat in random places as if waiting for someone to come home and play with them.


Dusty. Dirty. Broken.


So very sad.


How could killing children be accepted by the rest of the world? Are we all so busy in our own lives that we lose site of the painful realities that others must deal with?


I wiped tears from my eyes so I could navigate the stairs out of the building.


I hate war. I hate that one country can decide to hurt the people in another country and there is no way to stop them. Everyone tiptoes around these atrocities and states that we don’t want to start an international incident.


Too late. This war is clearly an international incident.


We returned to the hostel. A soldier staying there said he would make dinner for us to show his gratitude for the work we were doing in the area. At the grocery store nearby, we followed him up and down the aisles as he filled a cart.


He was cooking for us?


The doorbell at the hostel played the song, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The decorations in the kitchen were trees and stars.


While the soldier cooked, other people staying at the hostel joined us in the kitchen for food and conversation around a large, wooden table with benches on all sides.


A journalist staying at the hostel said that there was shelling over the city last night. And even though the Ukrainian army was able to shoot down whatever Russia sent over, he said the explosions rocked the building.


Our soldier made a fresh mayonnaise coleslaw—the Ukrainian way (yum) and eggs cooked with tomatoes and greens. There was so much more food that had gluten and was devoured by anyone who was hungry.


I ate a lot, partly out of stress and partly out of hunger.


There could be Russian sympathizers sitting around this kitchen table right now.


There could be shelling tonight.


We were going even closer to the front lines tomorrow.


Andrew paid for a private room without windows that was on the inside of the building. Greg also had a semi-private room. The rest of us were divided between two different rooms.


We all agreed that if there was any airstrikes tonight, we would rush to Andrew’s room so we would be together.





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