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‘Silence is killing me:’ A firefighter on Ukraine’s frontlines yearns to be back at work

By Kostyantin Gak, Nick Paton Walsh and Brice Laine, CNN

Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine (CNN) — For Dima, the silence away from the horrors can be harder to bear.

A fireman in what is perhaps currently the worst-bombed town on earth – Orikhiv, right in the throes of Ukraine’s counteroffensive – Dima’s daily job involves pulling the living from the burning rubble of Russian airstrikes, but also collecting the fragments of those who did not survive.

“Sometimes it feels like we were born in this war,” he told CNN in his apartment in nearby Zaporizhzhia. “After the shelling sometimes, there are only the arms and legs left of a person.”

He described one period recently in which there were 200 incoming Russian rounds in two hours. “We were in the basement saying goodbye to life. Because we did not know where it would hit.”

CNN met Dima in April in Orikhiv, when his 48-hour shifts were twice weekly. Now the damage to the town and the risk of his work is such that he says he works one shift a week. Like so many Ukrainians now, whose lives have been torn apart by the war, he struggles with the calm of rest days, and yearns to be back at work.

“I am going crazy,” he said, in his apartment where he lives alone. “Silence is killing me. I feel better at my job than here. Sometimes I sleep one hour in the day here. And when I go to work, at least I feel at home and I can get some sleep, despite the shelling. You get tired, it is hard, but I can sleep there.”

The reasons for his insomnia reflect the agonizing ruptures felt in so many Ukrainian homes. His wife left, days after the invasion, taking their son to safety in Europe.

“I did not see my family nearly for a year. It is a painful subject. I can barely sleep,” Dima said.

But sleep is often no comfort. “When I fall asleep, I have a dream about my family who are very far away from me. In my dream, I am coming back from my shift and get out from my lift and my family is there, waiting for me. She came back. We are together. And I am happy to see them after such a long time.”

Yet the absence of his wife and son were not his first losses of the war. A few days before they left, and just a matter of hours into Russia’s full-scale war, Dima’s father died. He says the shock of shellfire gave his father a heart attack.

“There was shelling and his heart just stopped from fear,” he said. “When it fired, everything shakes inside you. So he died in my mother’s arms.”

Dima’s mother is now all he has left. “I have my own war with my mother. Because she does not want to move here to a safe place. She built that home, she put her soul into it, gave birth to me there, spent her whole life there and said: ‘If I die, I will die in my house.’”

He jokes about having to tie her up and move her forcibly, but is left passing on air alerts to her, hoping she heeds them. “I call her, saying ‘Mum, hide. Mum, hide’. She says, ‘yes I am hiding.’ But I don’t know if it is true. She is a tough one.”

With millions of Ukrainian families ripped apart, with fathers on the frontline and children safely in Europe, Dima’s home is just one in a countless toll of suffering, with no end in sight.

“I want the Russians all to live in a place like this after what they did to my town,” he said of Orikhiv. “Make them live in these conditions to the end of their lives. I don’t want them to exist at all as a nation. I agree there are normal adequate people anywhere, on each side. But I will hate them until the end of my life.”

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