Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine — We first met Private Andriy Rogalski in late March, just weeks after Russia invaded his country. He’d quit his job as a crane operator,, and signed up for military service as fast as he could.
After basic training, he was soon headed to the front line with a busload of other new Ukrainian Army recruits. We traveled part of the way with them, down country roads slick with spring rain.
At 30, Rogalski still had a boyish demeanor, but he grew serious when we asked him about his reasons for taking up arms against Vladimir Putin’s invading army.
“It’s pure evil what they did,” he told us. He described Putin as having the “mentality of mafia.”
We stayed in touch with Rogalski by text message. He sometimes sent videos about his experiences, which he also posted on social media. In one video he’s perched on the back of an armored vehicle. In another he and fellow soldiers enjoy some home-cooked food in the yard of a village house.
In May, he took a shrapnel wound in his leg and spent several weeks in rehab, but then rejoined his battalion. In a video he shot on the way to the hospital, he shows his bloodied and bandaged leg before giving a grin and a thumbs-up to the camera.
This week, we met up with Private Rogalski again, near the city of Kryvyi Rih in southern Ukraine. More than seven months in uniform, much of it on the front lines, has turned him into a hardened soldier. He earned a medal for being wounded in action, and he’s hoping for a promotion.
“I saw death, I saw combat, I saw sadness, and I saw joy,” he told us, “and I understand it was not for nothing.”
His experiences have done nothing to change his perspective on Russia’s president.
“He made a big mistake,” Rogalski told us. “We will not kneel before him.”
Rogalski wanted to show us the small town of Vysokopillia, in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region. Russian forces occupied it for nearly six months, leaving many of its homes splintered. Rogalski said he’d helped to liberate Vysokopillia, and he described how Ukrainian forces surrounded the town, grinding down the Russians until the remaining troops fled in September.
On Vysokopillia’s main street, we met 74-year-old Nadia Sabsai as she carried bottles of milk home on her bicycle. She invited us into the basement of her apartment building, where she said eight families had taken shelter during heavy fighting in the town.
Sabsai showed us how the children had quivered in fear, and how they padded the windows with cloth to block out the noise.
Outside sat her car, an Audi with doors pockmarked by bullets and shattered windows. Sabsai told us the Russian troops shot it up for fun. They stole other cars, and anything else they decided was worth looting.
“I want to bow to Ukrainian soldiers,” Nadia told us. “I’m proud to see them.”
Standing beside her, Private Rogalski told us her words made him “shine inside.”
“I came to war as a call of my heart… I want to help people, I want to free people,” he said. “It’s not right they came and took what doesn’t belong to them.”