News of Russia’s unprovoked barbaric war on Ukraine found me here, in the heart of a beloved South African metropole, serving my country as a Ukrainian ambassador. Even though we’ve all seen intelligence reports that were pointing to the imminent attack, the early morning bombings across the entire country, while Ukrainians were sound asleep, came as a complete shock. A horrific déjà vu for our capital: Kyiv was bombed by Nazi Germany at 4 o’clock in the morning in 1941.
For the past 80 days, I’ve watched millions of my fellow Ukrainians flee their homes as Russia kept launching air strikes, destroying hospitals and schools, hitting maternity wards, blowing up packed train stations, mass killing civilians, and demolishing entire cities. Every Ukrainian has a hole in their heart the size of Mariupol.
As a career diplomat, I was sure I could handle anything, but countless war crimes committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine left me in disbelief and absolutely heartbroken. The terror endured by the Ukrainians has now been put in a new harrowing light – absolutely nothing could have prepared us for the Bucha massacre, the bombed theatre with thousands of children inside, or parents writing their mobile numbers on the backs of their toddlers in case they get separated during evacuation or killed.
All of it, every bit of news from home was overwhelmingly crippling, especially for me, a mother of two boys.
After the initial shock of our lives being in total upheaval, we grieved. Sadness and helplessness strongly entered our world, we followed the news 24/7, we cried, checked the missile attack notification bot every two minutes, and constantly messaged our loved ones to make sure they were alive… And then… then we did what we Ukrainians do best: we mobilised and started working together to protect our country.
Thus, as the violence continued and the war fever rose, we’ve seen story after story after story of hundreds of true Ukrainian heroes coming into the light. Ukrainians’ stirring resistance to the Russian invasion comes at a horrendous cost in lives, jobs, infrastructure, art, heritage, property, etc. And that is precisely why I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity to share stories about everyday Ukrainian heroes.
Let’s start with two of my courageous fellow citizens who sacrificed their lives to save others.
The hero marine combat engineer
Vitaliy Skakun is a true Ukrainian legend who gave his own young life while trying to delay the Russian offensive from occupied Crimea. On the very first day of the war after Putin’s announcement of the “special military operation” Russia began bombing large cities with cruise and ballistic missiles, their military entered Ukraine through Belarus and a video captured Russian troops coming into Ukraine from the annexed Crimea. Crimea’s entry point quickly became one of the hottest war zones, facing no less than all of the military force occupiers accumulated in the annexed peninsula over the past eight years.
As the offensive rapidly progressed, the Ukrainian military decided to blow up the Henichesky road bridge to delay the Russian invasion. Vitaliy volunteered to carry out the operation; he successfully mined the bridge even when he understood that there wasn’t time to leave the area before detonation. He contacted his brothers-in-arms and said he was done. The explosion followed immediately. Vitaliy, the 25-year-old Ukrainian hero, was killed on the spot, but his heroism will stay with us forever.
Two days later Vitaliy was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. On 28 February, four days after his heroic deed, a Czech representative proposed renaming a bridge close to the Russian Federation embassy in Prague, the Vitaliy Skakun Bridge. The district accepted the proposal and sent it to Prague City Council for final approval. Vitaliy was also awarded the title of “Honorary Citizen of Berezhany”, the city where he lived a happy life with his loving family.
The hero grandmother spy
This story of a heroic 70-year-old Ukrainian grandmother is as unforgettable as it is sad: her unimaginable heroism cost the pensioner her life. The brave woman lived in Motyzhyn village in the Kyiv region and her house was the one closest to the main road with a front-row view of the enemy’s equipment and their movement. She could easily count the number of enemy vehicles and explain what those vehicles were.
Every day for two weeks she relayed hands-on crucial information to the Ukrainian soldiers. When the Russians took shelter in and around Motyzhin, she went around and meticulously collected all of the information.
In two weeks, the pensioner helped the Ukrainian Armed Forces destroy several dozen units of Russian equipment. Among those were two of the medium-range surface-to-air “BUK” missile systems. Moreover, she found a very important radio location station that was jamming communications and making it impossible for the Ukrainian Army to use any drones or, more importantly, transmit any information. After she located that station it was promptly destroyed by our artillery.
I’m sad to say that eventually, the occupiers realised that she was the informant and bombed her house.
Next time I would love to tell you about my own personal heroes: as the owner of a beautiful German Shorthaired Pointer dog named Pretoria, these Ukrainians hold a very special place in my heart – a young woman from Irpin who risked her life to save 10 of her handicapped dogs from the occupied city on the outskirts of Kyiv; a Ukrainian actor who drove every day into the ruins of Bucha and Borodyanka to rescue trapped pets; and, of course, our national treasure – the hero Jack Russell, Patron, who has cleared hundreds of mines in Ukraine. DM