'I'm ready to die for Ukraine' says 73-year-old army volunteer
02:16 - Source: CNN
Kyiv, Ukraine CNN  — 

Rostislav was manning the defensive post outside Kyiv’s TV tower when a Russian missile struck nearby on Tuesday afternoon. The impact pushed him to the floor. He heard glass shattering, then another explosion. And right after that, another one. And then one more, he told CNN.

He was scared, he said – everybody there was scared.

“One thing is having soldiers coming at you, but when there are rockets flying from the sky and you have no control over that, that is another thing,” he said.

Rostislav, or Rostia for short, is not a military man. Just a week ago, in his pre-invasion life – a life that seems completely alien right now – he worked as a hot air balloon pilot.

Roman (L) and Rostislav man the guard post outside the TV tower on March 2.

Rostia and his colleague Roman were back at their guard post on Wednesday, standing in front of the TV tower site for hours at a time. CNN is not using their full names, for security reasons.

The pair are members of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, a branch of the country’s armed forces made up largely of volunteers like them.

They joined up on Thursday, just hours after the Russian invasion started. Automatic rifles, handed to them by Ukrainian authorities last week, swing from their shoulders.

They are volunteers, and they look like it: Neither is wearing a helmet or, as they freely admit, any kind of thermal underwear to keep them warm.

Roman is dressed in tracksuit bottoms, sturdy sneakers and a camouflage vest over a jacket that does not look thick enough for the freezing weather in Kyiv in recent days.

Rostia, wearing dark utility trousers and a thinly-padded casual jacket, has pulled his black hood over his head to shield himself from the sleet that has started to fall.

They admit they are cold, but say they are ok. Sleep is the main problem. The shifts are long and proper rest is hard to come by in a city under attack. It never seems to get quiet for long enough. There are always sirens, loud booms and more sirens.

A blast is seen in the TV tower, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine March 1, 2022.

The signs of destruction were all around Rostia and Roman on Wednesday. The road was covered in crushed concrete, a huge piece of metal, grotesquely twisted, lay nearby.

Across the road was a gym – its walls scorched and all of its windows shattered in the wake of the strike. The treadmills, stationary bikes and elliptical machines inside were all covered with a thick layer of dust, and smoke was still rising from the building.

Five people were killed in the attack on Tuesday, according to Ukrainian authorities. Their blood was still clearly visible on the street on Wednesday.

They died near the site of another massacre. The TV tower stands in Kyiv’s Babyn Yar neighborhood. Between 1941 and 1943, the Nazis shot tens of thousands of people here, including almost the entire Jewish population of Kyiv, according to the memorial’s official website. The whole area is now considered sacred ground, according to the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial.

Debris is shown around Kyiv's TV tower which was hit by Russian strikes on March 2, the day after the strike.

When asked if they ever thought they’d be in this situation, Rostia and Roman both smile a little and shake their heads.

“But any guy that can handle a gun should be here now,” Rostia said.

Like many men in Kyiv, Roman and Rostia sent their families away from the Ukrainian capital when the invasion started.

“I have three beautiful sons. They are 11, six, and three-and-a-half years old and they’re very energetic,” said Roman. “The oldest one understands what is going on. The younger two don’t,” he said, adding that his boys, like he and his wife, love fishing.

His wife, he said, is like all the other wives in Ukraine right now: “She’s scared but she understands I have to be here.”

Rostia and his wife decided that she and their 10-year old daughter would try to seek safety in Poland, but he said that when they got to the border, the line of cars waiting to cross was over 30 kilometers (around 18.6 miles) long. So they changed their plans – on Wednesday, they were trying to flee to Slovakia instead.

“I told my daughter that I will stay behind and protect the land,” Rostia said.

Almost 40,000 volunteers joined the Territorial Defense Forces in the first two days after the invasion began, according to the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces. In fact, so many people have tried to join up that some had to be turned away – a joke has been going around Kyiv that only those with connections are now able to enlist.

Tens of thousands of others are supporting volunteers like Roman and Rostia. Locals have been bringing them food and hot drinks, making Molotov cocktails for the guards. At one point, a man driving a car filled to the brink with cigarettes pulls in, offering them as many cartons as they’d like.

CNN’s Sebastian Shukla, Alex Marquardt and Denis Otroshchenko contributed reporting.