23 Jul 2022

'It destroys your soul' - Ukrainian-born Kiwi on the human toll of war

3:02 pm on 23 July 2022

The faces of destroyed refugee mothers and stories of little lives lost haunt Yuriy Ackermann, a Ukrainian-born New Zealander on a cyber security mission in war-torn Kyiv.

War ravaged apartment building with a playground

An empty playground in the shadow of bombed-out buildings in Irpen, Ukraine. Photo: Yuriy Ackermann

Over the past three weeks Ackermann has documented trips to Bucha and Irpin - two regional towns where atrocities were uncovered after the withdrawal of Russian forces - and war-ravaged Borodyanka.

An empty playground and lone sunflower in the shadow of bombed-out buildings, piles of torched cars and a blown-up bridge point to the madness of it all, but the human misery consumes Ackermann the most.

"What destroys me is the individual stories, you read the stories and it's horrifying," he said.

He cannot shake the story of Liza, a four-year-old girl with Down syndrome who was killed in a Russian missile strike on her way to an appointment with her mother in Vinnytsia last week.

"The photo of this dead girl, her mother's foot blown off, it's just heartbreaking. It just destroys your soul," he said.

Piles of torched cars

Torched cars piled up on the side of the road highlight the human misery of the war. Photo: Yuriy Ackermann

Ackermann hails from Chernivsti, near Ukraine's border with Romania and Moldova, but moved to Tauranga at the age of 14.

He travelled to Kyiv at the invitation of the Ukrainian government to help defend the country from sustained Russian cyber attacks.

On the way he met many distressed refugees in Sweden, Belgium and Germany - all women and children because most men have been banned from leaving the country.

"Some of them have run away from Donetsk in 2014 to Mariupol, now they have to run from Mariupol. It's heartbreaking to meet those people, you see in their face, they're just destroyed," he said.

"It's not about the war, it's not about militaries, it's about common people who have done absolutely nothing wrong."

Air raid sirens sound two-to-three times a day in Kyiv, but Ackermann prefers rationalism over fear.

"It's hard to think, in the next moment, it could be you. Nowhere in Ukraine is safe," he said.

"You could be hiding in a bunker, but if one of those 500-kilogram bombs or one of those Russian cruise missiles hit you, the only thing that would be left is ashes."

Even so, months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine signs of normality have emerged in Kyiv.

Cafes are open, supermarket shelves stocked and Ackermann can even buy a bottle of New Zealand wine.

His desperately worried Tauranga-based parents have pleaded with him to come home, but he is committed to the cause.

A lone sunflower in the shadow of bombed-out buildings

After months of Russian invasion signs of normality are returning to Ukraine. Photo: Yuriy Ackermann

As military war rages on, Ackermann is on the front-line of the cyber war, helping the Ukrainian Government fend off Russian forces online.

He said Russian hackers were trying to take down Ukraine's critical infrastructure and steal sensitive data.

An infrastructure corporation that recorded 21,000 security incidents in 2021 was bombarded with 768,000 in the first month of the war alone, Ackermann noted.

"This is a very, very serious threat to Ukraine," he said.

New Zealand has provided more than $33 million in diplomatic, humanitarian, legal and military assistance Ukraine, along with trade and economic sanctions designed to limit Russia's ability to finance and equip the war.

Ackermann urged New Zealanders not to forget about Ukraine by donating anything they could.

"For the price of two cups of coffee you can feed someone for a week," he said.

"We cannot just be sitting aside on the bench and ignoring this war. If you would like your gas prices to go down, you should care about it. This has a direct impact on our economy and our lives.

"We need to be on the right side of history. We need to make sure that when the war is over we are on the list of countries that did our part."

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