Alina Kolpakova watches the war in Ukraine on social media and gets updates through phone calls and text messages. When a shopping mall was attacked on June 27, she felt time stop.
The airstrike on the mall happened in her hometown, Kremenchuk, killing at least 18 people and injuring at least 58 more, CNN reported.
“I can handle a lot, but I can’t handle my town being destroyed,” Kolpakova said in an interview with McClatchy News on June 28.
Now a wartime refugee living in Germany, she described how she had received text messages from the local government about the air sirens and airstrike that followed.
“For the next three hours, we were just trying to understand what was hit. Are people safe? What is happening? Like how many casualties there are? Is it spreading? Stuff like that,” she said.
Kolpakova’s father remains in Kremenchuk but was out of town when the mall was hit. It was hours before Kolpakova was able to reach him.
“It’s the vicious circle of calling my dad, not hearing an answer, refreshing Instagram to see if people from my hometown have posted anything, going to all of the Telegram chats to see if there’s any updates of ‘is the siren over? Is there another building hit?,’ then trying to call my dad again, and it goes in a circle of calling and checking and texting and calling again – and that has been happening for 30 something hours now.”
The strike in Kremenchuk — an industrial city in central Ukraine and far from the eastern center of recent fighting — came in the afternoon, when more than 1,000 people were inside the shopping center, NBC News reported. Shortly after the sirens blared, a rocket hit the mall, igniting the building, and causing smoke to billow out the top.
Emergency personnel rushed to the scene, reported CNN. Search and rescue efforts continued overnight to find survivors and recover bodies.
“This is the fifth time that my hometown is attacked, but it’s the first time that one of the more public areas was hit,” said Kolpakova.
‘It’s my mall’
Watching the war from afar is hard for Kolpakova, but Monday’s attack was especially difficult.
“It’s strange because obviously I’ve seen the reports of the bombings from the very first day of the invasion and for the last three, four months now. But it is very different when it’s my hometown.
“I have this very important and very fragile connection to my city,” she said. “To a lot of people, it’s just like, ‘oh my god, this is so devastating; it’s a mall with a bunch of people.’ And I’m like, ‘yes, it’s devastating, but it’s my mall.’
“It’s the people that I maybe went to school with. It’s the stores where I spent hours begging my mom to buy me earrings and the place where I would always buy food before going to the beach.”
The devastation she feels is real, and that is not lost on her.
“It feels like with the rocket and with the missile and with the fire, a lot of my memories were destroyed as well. It’s people’s lives that are never gonna come back,” Kolpakova shared.
‘The biggest thing’ is community
She also praised her hometown, which had a population of more than 217,700 when the war started.
“I want the world to know about my town as the town that has very innovative youth. We have one of the most developed volunteering networks – those are the things that I think my town should be famous for,” she said. “I want the world to know Kremenchuk as a community because that’s the biggest thing.”
She provided this example of service, within 30 minutes of the airstrike.
“A bunch of local restaurants put together all of the food that they had already brought it to the location, and started feeding the first responders and the people who survived.
“And then the hotel across the street, they made a station with the police where people could come and ask if they’ve uncovered a body of their loved one or try to find someone who’s missing.”
A private hospital quickly posted that they were available to treat anyone with injuries, for free, she said.
“That speaks to what my city is to me,” she said. “I just need people to understand that it’s not like the next point on the list of the Russian war crimes. Because it’s so much more than that. For a lot of people, it’s lost memories and a lot of damage to them emotionally. There’s so much more under each of these attacks.”
A painful reality
Following the missile strike in Kremenchuk, U.S. President Joe Biden used Twitter to condemn Russia while reaffirming “solidarity with the Ukrainian people.”
The war in Ukraine has escalated recently, reported CNN.
Russian attacks also hit cities in eastern Ukraine on June 27, making it “one of the bloodiest days for civilian casualties in weeks,” according to the outlet.
While Russia has consistently denied targeting civilians the U.N. has recorded more than 4,700 civilian deaths since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
The impact — the pain — of the attack in Kremenchuk will be long lasting, Kolpakova fears.
“My town, for me, is the safest place on earth,” Kolpakova said, “and now, that’s been taken away.”