KYIV — When Ihor Sumliennyi, a young environmental activist, arrived at the site of a recent missile strike, the rubble had barely quit.
Police were guarding the street. The people who had lived in the destroyed building looked at him in disbelief, some making the sign of the cross next to him. He started poking around.
And then, bam! His eyes lit up. Right in front of him, lying near the sidewalk, was exactly what he was looking for: a mutilated shrapnel, a piece of the real Russian cruise missile that had hit the building.
He picked it up, pricking himself in the process on the jagged steel edges, stuffed it into his backpack and quickly walked to the hour – “I didn’t want the police to arrest me and think I was a terrorist.”
This ugly piece of steel has now become the star of his “war trophies” collection, which covers everything from ammo boxes and a used rocket-propelled grenade shaft to a pair of black Russian boots he found. in the battered town of Bucha.
“Those have really bad energy,” he said.
It may seem eccentric, even macabre, to collect remnants of war like this. But Mr. Sumliennyi is not alone. Across Ukraine, many civilians and soldiers search for shrapnel, mortar fins, spent bullet casings and bomb fragments.
Ukrainian artists incorporate them into their work. Auction houses move parts of abandoned weapons and other battlefield finds, raising thousands of dollars for Ukrainian soldiers. One woman even makes sculptures from the uniforms of dead Russians.
It clearly speaks of something bigger. So many Ukrainians want to be on the front lines – or feel somehow connected to the cause even if they are away from the fighting or don’t consider themselves cut out for the fight. As patriotism reaches fever pitch and their country’s existence hangs in the balance, they search for something tangible they can hold in their hands that represents this huge, overwhelming moment. They crave their own little piece of history.
“Every piece has a story,” said Serhii Petrov, a well-known artist working in Lviv. He now incorporates used bullet cartridges into the masks he makes.
As he handled one, he thought, “Maybe that was someone’s last bullet.”
At a charity auction in Lviv on Sunday, Valentyn Lapotkov, a computer programmer, paid more than $500 for an empty missile tube that was used, according to auctioneers, to blow up an armored personnel carrier of Russian troops. He said that when he touched it, he felt “close to our heroes”.
Commemorating the war, even when it is probably far from over, is a way to show solidarity with the soldiers and those who suffered. One of Kyiv’s biggest museums recently held an exhibition of war artifacts collected since the Russian invasion in February. The chambers are full of gas masks, missile tubes and charred debris. The message is clear: See, this is what real war really looks like.
On a personal level, Mr. Sumliennyi does something similar. Thirty-one years old, he is an auditor by training but an activist for climate justice at heart. From Kyiv, he works with Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement, organizing social media campaigns against fossil fuels, and during the hundreds of video calls he makes, he shows off his war trophies. He also sends some out of the country with female activists to “go on tour” (he cannot travel himself, due to Ukraine’s ban on men of military age leaving the country ).
“It’s very interesting,” said Mr. Sumliennyi, who is tall and skinny and lives in a small apartment with his mother. “You don’t feel the war through TV or the news. But if you show these pieces to people, they feel it.
That’s exactly what a young Polish woman said after Mr Sumliennyi leaned out of frame during a video call and returned with his trophies.
“It was mind-blowing,” said the wife, Dominika Lasota, a climate justice activist from Warsaw. “I automatically started laughing about it, in shock, but then I realized how dystopian this moment was.”
“Ihor seemed to be all cold about it,” she added of Mr Sumliennyi. “He actually showed off that piece of bombshell with pride – he was smiling.”
It’s a coping mechanism, he explained. “Without black humor, we cannot experience war,” he said. “It’s a protective reaction for the body.”
Yet he and his friends handle the objects of war with care, almost as solemnly as soldiers fold a flag for a fallen comrade.
“When I touch this,” he said of the missile part he recovered in April, “I feel really bad energy in my fingers.”
He said he spoke to weapons experts and determined the five-pound piece was part of the tail of a Russian Kalibr cruise missile.
In Lviv, Tetiana Okhten helps manage the UAID foundation, a network of volunteers which, among its many activities, has sold more than 15 remnants of war, including several missile and rocket tubes used by the Ukrainian army which won a resounding success. In total, the war remnants brought in more than $4,000, which the foundation is spending on protective vests, medicine and other supplies for Ukrainian troops.
“We’re taking things used to kill people to now save lives,” she said.
She said a young Ukrainian soldier fighting in the Donbass region was a big help in finding things on the front lines. He jumped from the trenches even as Russian shells exploded around him and fellow soldiers shouted at him to take cover. But, she says, he is close to a group of volunteers and yells back, “I have to go. My friends need this stuff!
In frontline areas, some shocked residents were surprised to learn that remnants of war were becoming collectables.
“It’s crazy,” said Vova Hurzhyi, who lives in a town in Donbass that the Russians continue to attack. “These things are coming here to kill you.”
Yet Mr. Sumliennyi continues to hunt. A few weeks ago, he and some environmentalist friends traveled to Bucha, a Kyiv suburb where Russian troops massacred hundreds of civilians, to take photos for a social media campaign about the fossil fuel connection. and the Russian war machine.
By chance they stumbled into a backyard where they found a Russian military jacket and the pair of black boots (size 10). They remain among his valuables.
“We didn’t go to Bucha for this,” he said. “We just got lucky.”
Diego Ibarra Sanchez contributed reporting from Lviv and Oleksandra Mykolyshyn from Kyiv.