Life in Ukraine one month on: 'It’s hard to imagine how this will continue and how this will end'

Ukrainians crowd under destroyed bridge as they try to flee the Irpin river in the outskirts of Kyiv on March 5. Credit: AP

Foreign Affairs producer Natalie Wright tells of what she's seen on the ground in Ukraine and the people she's met along the way, and just how much the country has changed over the last month.

One month ago the phone rang in the early hours, piercing through the silence of our Soviet style hotel in central Mariupol.“Sounds like it’s on. Putin’s made an address, there are already explosions being heard in other cities” a colleague quickly briefed me.

The team's Soviet style hotel in central Mariupol. Credit: Natalie Wright

In the bleary eyed minutes of incredulity that followed, cameraman Sean set up a wide shot out of the window while we worked out our next moves. There seemed to be an urgency but for what, we didn’t quite know.

Would we hear the sound of jets and bombing immediately? Surely this wasn’t really happening?

The first days were relatively quiet in Mariupol and I use the term ‘relatively’ because this war has warped all sense of normality.

The fact that any level of artillery being used in residential areas could be thought of as quiet is a measure of where this conflict has gone. 

Sadly we’ve all watched what has happened in Mariupol since those early days.

Even in the three weeks we spent there we had a whole cast of local characters in our daily routine.  Superficial, fleeting relationships before the war but I think of them all the time.

I wonder where and how they are now and what horrors they’ve witnessed over the last 28 days. 

Ice skating the week before war in Mariupol. Credit: Natalie Wright

The babushka who ran the corner shop and laughed loudly wishing she had ordered lots more beers to stock the fridges if only she’d known there were British and Irish journalists staying next door. 

The kind faced, dungaree wearing engineer in the hotel. We had zero words of mutual language, and yet managed something resembling communication every day through silly hand gestures and over the top charades.

The dignified Lieutenant Colonel based just outside the city who welcomed us for lunch one day and who told us with pride about his two young boys left at home. With his giant dog at his side he’d been confident that they were ready for whatever lay ahead.

Last we heard from him they were running low on ammunition and were surrounded by Russian troops.

In the four weeks since the war started we have traveled to several Southern cities. The roads between each of them chock-a-block with hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians on the move at any given time heading for borders or for safer locations out West.

Thousands of cars on the road heading West. Credit: Natalie Wright

The great exodus of a proud nation seen through thousands of individual car windows. 

On the outskirts of Odesa last week we came across one such family in a dreadful state. Presumably fleeing from the nearby city of Mykolaiv which was, at the time, experiencing heavy fighting and indiscriminate shelling.

Demonstrators march along the street in Odesa in anticipation of a Russian invasion in February. Credit: AP

The roads here are full of defences to slow down an approaching enemy. Not only the metal hedgehog barriers and sandbagged checkpoints that we’ve seen a lot of but also randomly placed lumps of concrete to flummox even the most observant of drivers.

The Ukrainian Army drives towards the front line in Yasnogorodk, a town where the army stopped the advance of the Russian army, March 2022 Credit: AP

Unfortunately for this family, the last of the winter’s snowstorms blew in just as they were on this stretch of road and they had hit one of the concrete blocks. A middle aged woman was crying on the side of the road cradling her elderly mother who was lying on the snowy roadside covered in a blanket. Not visibly injured but pale with shock and fright. The equally elderly, equally shocked father was stuck inside the car which was packed full of family belongings and the essentials for the journey.

Long life milk and a few days supply of food strewn across the tarmac from where the boot had swung open in the crash. 

What an impossibly futile situation. A journey that should never have been necessary to take.

It’s hard to imagine how this will continue and how this will end. Anybody claiming to have the answer is either lying or disillusioned. 

In the meantime people hope that by this time next month there will be better news to celebrate and that people in Mariupol, in Mykolaiv and in every other city and village will be able to go back to worrying about the frivolous, the inane, like the amount of beer stocked in the corner shop fridge.