It all started at 4 am: Ukrainians' testimonies on the start of the full-scale war

February 24, 2024
Ukrainians' recollections of the first day of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Photo credit: Evgeniy Maloletka

On February 24, Ukraine marks two years since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion. This day will remain forever etched in the collective memory of Ukrainians. Today, we recall how it all began.

Tension and anxiety had been in the air for quite some time. News anchors cautioned civilians and guided them on how to pack their evacuation bags.

Some Ukrainians were certain that war was inevitable, while others refused to believe it until Ukraine was shaken by a massive Russian attack on the morning of February 24.

People watched in horror from their windows, witnessing significant smoke rising in areas where explosions occurred. Numerous civilian casualties were reported.

Empty threats from Russia to capture the capital within a few days proved unsuccessful, as the war united Ukraine. Those who took up arms for the first time defended their homes.

In the first weeks of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, nearly 100,000 volunteers joined the ranks of the Armed Forces' Territorial Defense.

Volunteer centers formed rapidly. So many were willing to assist the military and refugees that there was no space to stand or take a deep breath.

The beginning of a full-scale war that changed everything forever: it taught us to be resilient, fearless, and determined.

In this piece, we have gathered Ukrainians' recollections of the first day of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Anna Domodiedova from Lysychansk:

Anna didn't expect the war at all. According to her, everything in the city was quiet and peaceful, everyone was living their own life. Anna had an apartment. She was making repairs, and she recently had a baby.

On the first day of the full-scale war, Anna heard a strange sound. Then, somewhere around 7 a.m., the whistling started. She saw something like red streaks in the sky.

In the neighbourhood next to Anna's, the Russians struck a nine-story building. They hit it right in the middle. There were more explosions in the evening. There were no military facilities or bases there. Absolutely nothing. But every day and, every morning, planes flew overhead.

Nina Biletska from Chernihiv:

The war began at 4 o'clock in the morning. This insidious, murderous war. Russia went to war against a peaceful Ukraine. First, they bombed all the military facilities, and then residential buildings, schools, and kindergartens.

And when our military began to fight back, the Russians began killing civilians. We are sitting in the basement: 2 children, 3 old ladies, and 2 adults who are helping us survive in this terrible time.

March 7. Our military repelled enemy attacks all morning. Then there was a break. There is no electricity, no gas, and no Internet. There is no connection with the outside world. It is the 12th day of the actual war.

Half of the city is destroyed, Novoselivka is destroyed. The city center is destroyed. People who have the opportunity to leave do so. The Russians are standing in Rivnopillia between the houses and hitting our districts.

Lord, when will this all end?

Anya Zlenko from Kyiv:

I woke up at 5 am to the words of my husband, "that's it, the war has begun." Complete confusion about what to do next. We didn't have a car, so we took tickets to Kyiv. Outside the window, there was already a kilometer-long queue for fuel.

Sirens in the city do not work yet, telegram channels have not been created. The only source of information is the news, which is played non-stop on all TV channels. They only talk about Sumy. Enemy vehicles are already moving in a column through the center of the city.

Mark is very quiet, almost does not speak, does not want to eat. During the first sleepless night the whole building was shaking. Explosions and the rumble of equipment were heard.

Maryna Balyaba from Bucha:

At 6 am, Marina's husband's father called her and said that the war had begun and that they should stay at home instead of taking her son to kindergarten. She thought, "What is he saying? This cannot be real!"

How naive I was. I got up and opened the window. The coolness immediately hit me in the face. But there were other sounds that had never been here before. I had heard something similar when I went to my husband for a rotation in Mariupol in 2015. The shelling?

But stop, I'm not in Mariupol, I'm in BUCHA! This is 2022! Suburbs of Kyiv! What shelling? It was a shock. I didn't believe it. I called my husband and cried. He said to pack up and remain with our son at all times. For the first time in my life, I felt a wild, animalistic fear," Maryna said.

Margaryta Savytska from Sumy:

Since Sumy Oblast is right on the border with Russia, on February 24, enemy troops immediately marched through our Oblast towards Kyiv. At first, I didn't believe that they would touch the civilian population and that it would take a long time.

For the first 2 days of the war, I tried to work remotely. And then scary events started. First, our guys from the territorial defense knocked the enemy out of the city of Sumy, practically without weapons. I lived in a house, and I heard all the sounds of fighting clearly.

Then the Russians demolished houses on a street with a missile strike, and people died. And then I realized that the civilian population was also in the crosshairs. A cold cellar became my second home.

Anzhelika from Kharkiv:

On Feb. 24, I sat down at the computer and did not go to sleep for a long time. At 5 in the morning, I heard loud explosions, the water went out, so did the wifi, the TV, and unfortunately, I forgot to top up my mobile phone. Awareness of the tragedy did not come immediately. None of the friends who left on the very first day called.

I will never forget this fear. It is impossible to eat, drink, or sleep. Near us, there is only a subway where you could hide. And it is also difficult, because when you go there and stay for several days, you are already psychologically afraid to go home.

We found a driver to drive us to a safe place, but there was very heavy shelling and cases of Russians shelling civilian cars, so we were refused.

We couldn't get to the train station for a week. Taxi drivers, whose telephone numbers were shared in the telegram, did not pick up the phone. I understood, there were many people panicking, everyone was calling. Still, we managed to catch a car near the store and get to the station.

Viktoria Kirilova from Kherson:

On February 23, 2022, late in the evening, Viktoria spoke to her friends about how war was impossible. She simply didn't believe such cruelty and military aggression were possible in our time. But at 5 am on February 24, Viktoria received a call that a full-scale war had begun.

Outside the window, explosions and sounds of helicopters and fighter jets could be heard. Viktoria asked her mother what they should do now, but she didn't know.

"At 6 am, we were already standing in line for a gas station, and then an air raid signal sounded. It was the first air alarm in my life, and along with it, I was completely confused about what to do. People started running to the gas station building, but it clearly wouldn't have saved them if it was hit," Viktoria recalls.

Natalie Al Baz from Tsyrkuny:

On February 24, at 5 a.m., Natalie woke up to the cold, the sound of fighter jets, and the sound of explosions that were getting closer. Her body began to shrink in fear, and she felt compelled to pray.

Their house had already lost electricity, their gas heater and water pump were not working, and there was no heating. Their Internet and mobile connection had disappeared. "It was as if we were in a cold vacuum, without a clear understanding of what was happening. The house was gradually getting colder, and we didn't buy groceries in the evening, nor did we buy gasoline, hoping to do so in the morning," Natalie recalls.

A little later, Natalie managed to find a place in the yard with mobile service and called her relatives.

This is when it became clear that this was a real, terrible war.

Such stories are countless. Each name, each unidentified body, and the silence of those unable to speak due to fear, pain, and grief endured encapsulates the true Ukrainian history that Russia is trying to sever by all means. Ukraine will endure, and afterwards, it will retell the memories of our heroes, the victories, and the day we won the war.

Nika Krychovska, Olha Tatokhina
Journalist at UkraineWorld