July 15, 2024

Zaporizhzhia is a large industrial city in the south-east of Ukraine. Before the full-scale invasion, it was home to nearly 1 million people. Now, it’s 50 km from the front line, and half-empty.

It’s the city I was born in and the city I grew up in. I get angry when anyone transliterates its name wrong, and now, every time I visit, I feel devastated.

The city may have seemed depressing and grey when I was young, but in the last few years before the full-scale war, it bloomed. A lot of third-wave coffee and craft beer places had opened. You could find a healthy breakfast in the morning and fancy cocktails in the evening. Music festivals started being held in Zaporizhzhia, and a bunch of other good stuff happened.

These days, if you see a party on the street with music and balloons, it’s most likely to be the opening of a new prosthetic centre. Several opened just this summer. Where there’s demand, there will be supply.

All the fun seems to have vanished from this city. Even if you see smiling people in restaurants or bars in the evening, you only need to hold your gaze for a few more seconds to see that their eyes are sad.

It’s really hard to find anyone in Ukraine who hasn’t lost someone in this war – a relative, friend, or classmate – but in Zaporizhzhia, the rate is even higher. My mum and I went out to buy some dog food, and a young woman, much younger than me – more girl than woman – stopped my mum. They started discussing the procedure for having someone declared missing. It turned out her husband is also missing in action, like my dad. In a peaceful life, these two women would have been unlikely to have anything in common or be talking on the street. But it isn’t just cities that war changes.

My mum’s old neighbour called and invited her to a memorial service for her youngest son. You’re more likely to be invited to a funeral than a birthday party here. She laughs when she gets off the phone, but hysterically. In the end, she didn’t go. “Your child has passed away, and I’m very sorry for your loss,” she says, “but my child is visiting me right now, and I want to spend time with her.”

It’s true that I haven’t visited Zaporizhzhia much lately. The most obvious reason is that I’m scared. The first explosions I heard were here. My friend and I had grabbed some coffee and were walking in the park when we heard an annoying whistle under our heads and, a few seconds later, a huge explosion. A missile had hit a plant less than a kilometre away from us. Then the air-raid alert started to sound. The city is too close to the front line, so the Russians use ballistic missiles, which are almost impossible to detect in the air. So you never know when something will explode near you.

There can be 10-15 air-raid alerts per day. They can go on for hours and hours. And it’s just another circumstance that people here have got used to living with. They know when the alert will probably be over so that they can get to the supermarket or the post office.

It’s painful for me to see Zaporizhzhia, even compared with Kyiv. But this time, I’ve come straight from a media conference in Hamburg. So the contrast is jarring in the extreme. It feels as if this city, where every bench in the park brings back memories for me, is aching. And I’m powerless to help.

So I’m sitting on one of those benches and sipping coffee with my friend. She has only one hour to meet because her boss is strict; she doesn’t want to lose her job during the war, and she only asks for days off when her father comes back from the front line.

We aren’t discussing the things we used to talk about before – TV series, clothes, boys. Unsurprisingly, we’ve spent the whole hour talking about the war.

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