As we left Mariupol for Zaporizhzhia, there were few people on the streets, no queues at ATMs and the last petrol station on the way out, wasn’t just running on fumes — it was out of gas completely.
We had used a hotel in Zaporizhzhia as a base for two weeks. So we stocked up there — put a hot meal in us — for our seven-hour drive to Kyiv.
The hotel staff where we had been staying were happy and chatty. They were people of sunny dispositions, doing honest jobs — even when the sky was lead grey.
But it was clear something had changed. One of the managers approached me and said, “Are you CNN?”
“Yes, is everything OK?” I replied.
“Yes, of course, we wanted to make sure you had a good stay. But also to tell you, did you hear about Chernobyl?” He went on to tell me that the Zaporizhzhia municipality has told him their water is already showing higher traces of radioactivity following the fighting and capture by Russian forces.
I said, we had heard, and I hoped the hotel has some water tanks in reserve — they do.
But at the front desk, a woman I had seen everyday didn’t greet me like she had done before. She was just looking at her computer with tears in her eyes.
But the most heart-wrenching moment came as our fixer, Olga Konovalova, said goodbye to her parents in the hotel lobby. They were hugging each other — her parents clearly loving and worried as she bravely covers what will undoubtedly be the defining moment in her life.
I felt bad for hovering and saying we need to leave. But I turned to her mother and said, "Everything will be OK."
I uttered the heroic Ukrainian phrase, “Slava Ukraini” [Glory to Ukraine]. Usually, you reply raucously, “Geroyam Slava” [glory to the heroes], which she did … but that rousing phrase had a different feeling when a top lip quivers and a tear hits a cheek.
It summarizes to me how much had changed — not just in Zaporizhzhia but the entire country in 48 hours.