Sergei Nikolaievich Bokov: - A Russian soldier lying on the ground, raises his hand to show that he’s alive and that he needs help. They see this from their tanks and….and one tank just drives straight towards him and runs him over. Backwards, forwards, backwards and forwards. So that there’s nothing left of him. They drive over their own. So that they don’t have to take care of their wounded.

Magdalena Rigamonti: Which language do you think in?

Sergei Nikolaievich Bokov: Mainly in Russian. But often I think and speak a sort of mongrel mix of Ukrainian and Russian. I live not far from the Russian border, about 20-30 kilometres. The Russian language isn’t to blame. It’s the people for whom Russian is their native language that are to blame. Language doesn’t kill civilians, it doesn’t open fire on them, it doesn’t crush them with tanks. It’s the Russians who came onto our soil and who kill, murder, rob and rape. What’s happening here are war-crimes.


Yes. Crimes against humanity, war-crimes, genocide. I have a point of reference as the memory of the fascist war, the Second World War lives on in my family. My grandfather fought in the war. My wife’s grandfather also fought. They talked a lot about the war. And from what I can see, even the Nazi Germans didn’t behave the way that Russians are behaving right now in Ukraine.

They were given the order and they fight?

No, they were given their orders and they murder. They murder civilians, women and children. They are killing us. No no, I don’t mean us, soldiers, but ordinary people living in villages and towns. I say this from personal experience, from the battle we fought in.

In which you lost a leg?

Yes. But I don’t want to talk about myself just yet. They drove their tanks over their own wounded. Do you understand? A Russian soldier lying on the ground, raises his hand to show that he’s alive and that he needs help. They see this from their tanks and….and one tank just drives straight towards him and runs him over. Backwards, forwards, backwards and forwards. So that there’s nothing left of him. They drive over their own. So that they don’t have to take care of their wounded.

Did you see this yourself or did you hear it from someone?

I saw it at close quarters. Maybe 30 metres away.

Are you sure the soldier was conscious?

Yes. 100%. The soldier had raised his arms in the air to be rescued and they ran over him with a tank. In war, people shoot at each other. Soldiers shoot at soldiers. Some are killed, some are wounded. The Russians are not bothered either way. You’re wounded…well, that’s it; the end of you. It’s better that you don’t survive, better that a tank finishes you off, crushes you like an insect. The Russians don’t care about human beings, any human being. They have no mercy, no empathy for anyone. The wounded are of no use to them. The tanks will do…they’re not interested in the wounded, they prefer them dead, prefer to drive over them.

When you close your eyes do you see these scenes?

This isn’t a film.

I know.

I don’t have to close my eyes, to see. Our drones flew above us and recorded the entire battle. I watched the footage many times, no, tens of times. I put it on and keep seeing it afresh.

Like a film.

Like a film in which I took part. I’m watching it but of course, I actually saw it all with my own eyes.

Why do you watch it?

I don’t have an answer to that. I don’t know why, except that I have a need to return to what happened.

You watch it and….

And nothing.

Hatred, anger?

Helplessness. I’m a calm sort of guy by nature. Even the part where they shoot at me, I watch it calmly.

How is that possible?

It is possible. When I decided to go to the war, I assessed the risk and price that I might have to pay with a clear head. When the shell hit my leg, I realised that the blood was gushing out so quickly, that I probably had only two or three minutes left before I bled to death. I realised that I was actually paying with my own life for Ukraine. I managed to call my wife Ania…and say I was sorry. I told her that I had lost a leg, that any moment I would lose consciousness and I asked her to forgive me.

Was she crying?

No. She started to pray to Bogurodzica. And she prayed me back to life. Well, that’s what it looks like. In that moment, I had no tourniquet but one of my buddies found himself close by and gave me his. He threw it to me. The tourniquet snapped. I asked another friend to give me his but he couldn’t hear me as he’d gone deaf after the explosion. Thankfully, only for a moment. Then he heard me. I tightened the tourniquet and started to shoot again.

Did you see the shell which was heading towards you?

It came from the left side, I was shooting towards the right. I didn’t notice anything. I was watching the tank as it was firing at this soldier which was of course, me.

Did you feel the pain or did the adrenalin mask it?

No, terrible pain, just awful. The Russians had fired at a tree which fell over. I lay behind the tree for about 20 minutes. It was giving me cover. I heard them saying to kill the wounded. Kill all the wounded. But no, I wasn’t scared as a moment earlier, I had said goodbye to life. I didn’t feel any fear, anxiety or stress. What will be, will be, I thought to myself. I was ready to die. And yet I’m alive.

Where is your wife now?

She’s 300 km from here, with our young son, who’s 2 and a half years old. They’re at home.

Why didn’t she flee to Poland?

There’s no way to. Bridges are blown up, roads and towns bombed. Today, only two Russian rockets fell on our town. We have an explosives factory in our town and of course the Russians want to destroy it. We call each other and my wife tells me to come home, that she will look after me, take good care of me. I’m in a hospital in Kiev. I know that I’m on the ground floor, on the surgery ward.

How many other wounded Ukrainian soldiers are there?

I don’t know. I can’t get up to look around and check. I’m missing a leg. And I don’t ask. When the tank fired at me, there was practically nothing left from my knee down. Only a part of my trouser-leg was left and a piece of skin, my flesh dangling. I saw my foot some distance from me.

I hear that you like a cigarette.

They allow me to smoke here. in the normal run of things I would get out of hospital. But my leg is gone and I can’t.

You fought near Kiev?

Yes, we drove quite a way to defend the approach to Kiev. 27 hours in all, with only one stop. We didn’t know where we were going and which road we were on. We circled around so as not to meet any Russian tanks. We came out at Kozielec, 70 km from Kiev. 700, 800 soldiers in all. There they started to assign us to different spots. But first, on the 24th of February, in the early morning, just after 5 am, I was at home when the news came that Russia had invaded Ukraine, our territory; that Russia was bombing our airports, army barracks and destroying strategic sites. A rocket struck not far from our home, killing 70 soldiers, in one go. I live not far from my unit. At 5.20 the phone rang. At 5.40 I was already at my unit, collecting my weapon. All of a sudden there were about 1000 soldiers all in one place. I was scared that we’d be hit by a rocket and that we would all be killed in a single moment, all of us.

You are a professional soldier?

Yes. For the last 15 years.

You know about war, you talk about it and you train for it.

Yes, but no one knows what it’s like in reality. I wasn’t convinced that Putin would actually invade Ukraine. I was so shocked. I never wanted any war. But we had to defend our fatherland. And if I still had both my legs, I would get up and go immediately to fight for my country. That’s the mood. Everyone wants to fight and no one intends to give up.

What do you want to tell Russians?

I’ve already said it. My colleagues have said it. They’re saying it all the time, to the Russian prisoners of war, to the soldiers. Why did you come here? This is an independent state. This is our land. We didn’t ask you to come here. What are you doing here? Take yourselves home. Go. We don’t want you here. But, I see that these words have no effect. I see that these people hear, but they don’t listen. I know that many of them are scared to go home. They threaten them that if they don’t defeat Ukraine, that if they don’t win, they’ll end up with 10 to 15 years in a labour camp. But this fear doesn’t justify what they are doing on our soil. And I’ve seen with my own eyes what they’re doing. For example, in Zalesie, a village we were fighting in, 20 km from Kiev, around the 8th and 9th of March. First, we received a phone call from a soldier in territorial defense. He said that two of his people had been captured by the Russians. We were told that the Russians drove into the village and were shooting at everyone. Shooting at people. Then we hear the voice of a Russian, ‘F….who are you calling’. Then shots and silence, a long silence.

They killed this soldier?

Yes, they killed him. Then we started receiving SMS’s this soldier’s mobile phone and from another one: ‘come and collect us, save us, we’re in the village, help’. But the messages were a trap. They didn’t call once, just kept sending the SMS’s in Russian. We understood immediately what was going on. Then a huge column of 85 tanks and other vehicles, 100 total in total, entered the village.

And how many of you?

We were 15.

15 young men to 85 tanks.

That’s how many of us there were in the village. The rest were in the forest further away. Then we decided to join the ones in the forest. Not far from there was the Chernihiv-Kiev road. All of them from my group went there. I stayed put at the entrance to the village.

Why did you stay?

We weren’t moving as a group. Everyone was trying to get to the forest off his own back. I decided to stay behind as it seemed reasonably safe. I waited to see what would happen….They started to fire from the tanks immediately. But not yet at me. I watched them firing at huts and houses. Directly, from the tanks. Can you imagine? Firing at ordinary people in their homes. The places where they live, sleep, eat. The Russians knew for absolute certainty that none of our soldiers were still in the village. But they found civilians who had stayed behind. And simply killed them. Thankfully, many of the inhabitants of this village had managed to flee earlier. The Russians were operating as if they didn’t want to leave a single person alive. They searched out anyone still in the village and shot them. Person by person. And there was also looting. They took out the most valuable things they could find in the houses. It looked as though they were walking off with the spoils of war.

From what sort of distance were you able to observe all this?

Different distances. On average, from around 150 m. And you’re watching it all and can’t do a thing. You have this terrible, paralysing feeling of helplessness. You understand that you cannot do a thing to help. Nothing. That you could try to shout and save people but that you already know that they will shoot you, kill you. I sat there for about 4 hours from 10 in the morning. And honestly, I really didn’t know what to do with myself. I had no way of knowing if my boys had been caught or if they had been ambushed in some trap. I was looking at my phone, watching what the Russians were doing, watching their constant tank and rifle bombardment. They were hammering the village continuously.

What was the noise like?

I was sitting next to some fir-trees and missiles were falling 50 metres aways from me, but the bangs and the sound was so loud and thundering that the needles were coming off the fir-trees and I was covered in them. I was completely covered in pine-needles and the dust and earth that was raining down on me.

Do you believe in God?

I do.

Why do you think God sent you these scenes?

I think that what’s happening is payment for our sins. I can’t think of any other explanation. It’s very difficult. After four hours, my phone rang. It was a colleague from my department. Of course, I was scared that it was a Russian and that my boys had been caught. I answered and it was him. He gave me his coordinates, told me where they were and which way I was to go through the forest. And I went.

Did you run, crawl?

I walked. I slipped into the forest and felt safe. I knew that the Russians had not entered the forest and that they had stayed in the village. I mean I saw how they had spread out over all the streets, broken into people’s homes and how they’d been shooting. After I’d met up with my colleagues, one of the lads from territorial defense, who was from this village, said he already knew exactly what the Russians had been doing. He knew that they had driven into the petrol-station where there were two employees, a girl and a boy. Young, only just beginning their adult lives. One of the Russians demanded a kind of fuel that they didn’t have. When he heard this, the Russian shot them both. Two completely defenseless people. With their whole lives ahead of them. And he just shot them. As if he were swatting mosquitoes. The soldier also talked about the people who, when they saw the tanks, managed to get to their cars and tried to flee….but didn’t make it. They killed them, these ordinary civilians. People who simply wanted to live. I got to my group in the forest where there was the last checkpoint in the area. We lay down to catch a bit of sleep. After that we started to get ready for battle and started making traps. Together with the territorial defense guys we were 40 men.

40 men against 85 tanks.


What weapons did you have against these tanks?

Javelin anti-tank missiles. You select your target, keep still for three seconds and then it fires automatically.

How many of these javelins did you have?


For 85 tanks?

I know, it’s not much. But our intention was never to destroy the entire convoy. We just wanted to stop them, so that they wouldn’t advance on Kiev. They also had no idea how many of us there were. Our strategy was to attack the first two tanks. The Russians would then start to panic, turn back and try to flee at which point we would start to attack with our artillery. .

Which tank fired at you?

The fourth one. I was at the front in the line of fire. Russians started to jump out from their infantry fighting-vehicles. We shot at them and they fell to the ground. I was about 25-30 metres from the first tank.

You were trained to shoot?

Yes, but now it was for real.

What’s it like to shoot at people, at your enemy?

Very bad. Terrible. We killed 30 Russians there.

What happened to their bodies?

I don’t know. What should happen is that a group comes along to gather up bodies after a skirmish or battle. They’re cannon fodder really. But we’re hearing more often that the Russians are not interested in collecting the bodies of their dead.

Would you testify at an International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague? Would you talk about these war-crimes?

I’m scared to.

You’d be scared?

Yes, I’d be scared but I would testify if they wanted to hear me. Although generally, witnesses like me are killed. Even after the war is over, in supposedly peaceful times, the Russians know how to find you and kill you. I’d be afraid of this. Really. I know what the Russians are capable of. I’ve known this since my youth. I know about the the great famine, about the purges, murders and evil. My grandfather survived the war and in my childhood he would tell me what he’d been through. These stories didn’t really make sense at the time. Now I understand what he told me and the price that Ukrainians have paid for decades.

Do you believe in victory?

I do.

Why do you think that Ukraine will win this war?

If we look at history, we see that no leader who ever wanted to bring the world to its knees has come to a good end. That’s why I believe in our victory. And that Putin won’t be an exception. Many Russians have no real idea of what’s going on, what their army is doing in my country. My mother’s brother lives in Russia. She calls him, telling him that the Russians have invaded Ukraine, that they’re killing civilians and firing missiles into people’s homes. He says that he watches the Russian news every day, that nothing of the sort is happening and what is she talking about. He prefers to believe in Putin’s propaganda rather his own sister.

Does your mother know that you lost a leg?

She keeps saying…thank God you’re still alive, thank God.

In cooperation with Żenia Klimakin

Translation: Dominika Pasterska