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Ukrainian journalist Illia Ponomarenko on his memoir about the war


Illia Ponomarenko turned 30 years old in 2022, just as Russian forces attacked Ukraine. He was a reporter for the New Kyiv Independent, had much to cover, but he also drove his mother from the Donbas to the home of the parents of his new girlfriend, Natalia, to ask two people he had never met, can you take care of my mom? I don't know for how long. He then returned to Kyiv to report on the war and stories of survival among people struggling not just to stay alive, but to fight back before the eyes of the world, even as the world started to look away. Illia Ponomarenko has written a memoir of the war so far, "I Will Show You How It Was: The Story Of Wartime Kyiv." It covers much blood, suffering, and loss, but also courage, ingenuity and heroism. He joins us now from Bucha, Ukraine. Thanks so much for being with us.

ILLIA PONOMARENKO: Hello. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And I guess we should explain, first off, Natalia's parents didn't need to be convinced much, did they?

PONOMARENKO: They absolutely did not, even though I'm not even sure they even knew her daughter had, actually, boyfriends. So that was a moment of unification in a terrible hour of wartime, at the same time of warmth and welcoming embraces by people who never knew you before.

SIMON: You suggest in this memoir that a lot of Ukrainians, including many in the government, didn't take the threat of war very seriously. How so?

PONOMARENKO: It's true. Partially it's because of very natural human characters (ph) that we do not want something ugly to happen to us. The hope dies last. But also, the more we knew about what Kremlin is and how much they put on intimidation and extortion, on fear mongering, too, it seemed to be so absurd, so doubtful and so unreasonable that you actually ask a question, are they stupid enough to do it?

SIMON: Of course, a lot of people considered experts were predicting Kyiv would fall within a few days. What happened?

PONOMARENKO: They ended up being absolutely wrong about the Ukrainian ability to fight, the Ukrainian willingness to stay independent and fight for their country and to keep their military as an organized force. The Ukrainian military managed to counter the first strike. So the initial plan failed within 24 hours, essentially.

SIMON: You know, much of your memoir gives us glimpses of the acts of everyday heroes. Could you tell us about some of those people?

PONOMARENKO: Yeah. This is a story about so many people who were doing incredible things and discovering a lot of incredible things about themselves, too. When it comes to what do you do in the middle of the largest military attack that Europe has seen since World War II, essentially, what do you do when it's about your life, your nation, your own destiny, your own future, your own kids?

So many people of very ordinary walks of life, they were helping the military, cooking meals, and many people were becoming sort of civilian volunteers to provide medicine or essentials to war-affected zones in outskirts of Kyiv. Music stars - we had hip-hop musicians holding up their arms and singing songs in the middle of Kyiv as they were patrolling the city with the police force. So was so much unity, so much hope in the situation when so many people were living next to the feeling that this is the finest hour, and we're probably not going to make it out of this.

SIMON: Yeah. You mentioned the number of weddings. Why so many weddings?

PONOMARENKO: Many people were thinking like, hell, why not? Why not today? If tomorrow never comes for us, let's get married. Many people also decided to change their lives completely, like, turn into soldiers, essentially abandoning their civilian profession, like being a radio host.

SIMON: (Laughter).

PONOMARENKO: Yeah, popular radio hosts. They decided, to hell with this. We go to the recruitment center, and we enlist.

SIMON: Mr. Ponomarenko, you are in Bucha now. And, of course, a ghastly massacre took place there in April of 2022. Four hundred fifty-eight bodies, I guess, have been recovered now. Many seem to have been executed with their hands bound during Russian occupation. What's life like in Bucha now?

PONOMARENKO: You know, when we were getting back to Bucha following Russian withdrawal, we saw all those things that you could see on pictures - bodies, signs of atrocities, graves. It was this touch of evil, something evil, really evil, happened in there. You could feel it in the air. And I remember many of our colleagues, particularly from Western media outlets, saying that this place was cursed forever. But, you know, it never happened.

Shortly after decree of military gave permission for civilian - for everybody to get back, tens of thousands of cars rushed back with insane traffic jams to Bucha. And the springtime came, the sunshine. Moms got back to parks with the babies. Life got back immediately. And I can definitely tell you that it's the best place to live, in entire Kyiv metropolitan area. In many ways, to me, Bucha, as I walk in the streets, right now, it's the sign of resurrection from war and the victory of life over death, which is essentially what this war is about.

SIMON: Can Ukraine afford to go on fighting?

PONOMARENKO: It cannot by itself, of course. There are not many nations in this world who could afford to fight such a large war against such a powerful enemy, which is so abundant in its resources and, moreover, so merciless towards their own people in terms of the spending of manpower. It's something that needs support from other democracies, from other free nations.

SIMON: Do you ever think about leaving?

PONOMARENKO: When things go to the survival of the entire nation, your love grows stronger when you are about to lose it. After everything that has happened, after everything that has been sacrificed for this country - and I'm far from being alone in this - we do not want another country. We do not want another homeland. We do not have another homeland. We are here in Ukraine. It's the only country that we want to live in. I love every corner of it, and my love grows stronger because of this war and due to this war. So I absolutely do not want to leave.

SIMON: Illia Ponomarenko's memoir, "I Will Show You How It Was: The Story Of Wartime Kyiv." Thanks so much for being with us.


(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.