Oleg Rubak wept for the love of his wife Katia, crushed in the rubble of his family home, and for hatred of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he blames for the missile strike that killed her.
The 32-year-old engineer was playing with his baby daughter in the living room of the couple’s brick and timber house in Zhytomyr, 150 kilometres (93 miles) west of Kyiv.
On Tuesday night at about 10pm in the Ukrainian crossroads town, home to a military garrison, a first missile struck near the family home. A second crashed down behind the building, gouging a five-metre-deep (16-foot) crater, now full of dirty water and the smashed remnants of Rubak’s house.
“Her name was Katia. She was 29 years old. One minute I saw her going into the bedroom, a minute later there was nothing,” Rubak told AFP news agency, standing by the ruins in jogging bottoms and a fleece.
“I hope she’s in heaven and all is perfect for her.”
He sobbed, apologised, and continued: “I want the whole world to hear my story.”
He points out a pile of rubble among the others.
“That’s where I was with our one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. But you can see, it’s no longer a house, it’s not even a room, it’s … maybe it’s hell,” he said.
When the second blast struck, Rubak was thrown under debris as a terrifying sound followed by the icy winter night ripped into his home.
Reaching out with his fingertips he found his mobile phone, turned on the torch, and found his daughter.
“She wasn’t moving, and my whole world fell in, but I took her hand and she started to cry. It was the most beautiful sound I’d heard in my life,” he said.
Katia, however, was still under bricks and ceiling beams. Rubak desperately dug her out with his bare hands, he said, showing the red welts and scars.
He found her corpse, as he had feared. The first explosion had left her with no chance. “Katia was a housewife. She loved two things, me and our daughter.”
Rubak’s father, battling his own grief, tries to comfort him, urging him to wrap up against the bitter cold, but the angry son stood straight once again, trying to focus.
“I have to stay strong. I’m not cold. I just want the whole world to know what happened,” he said, turning his fury on Putin.
Russia describes its week-old invasion of Ukraine as a “special operation” that only targets military infrastructure and not civilians. But the bombardment has been marked by missile strikes that ended up hitting civilian homes and infrastructure – and ending civilian lives. The United Nations says it has confirmed the deaths of at least 227 civilians and 525 injuries as of midnight on March 1, but warns the real toll was likely much higher.
“I want him dead,” Rubak said of Putin. “Let him roast in hell for all eternity.”
According to Zhytomyr officials, Tuesday night’s bombings killed at least three people and wounded 20 more, including several young children.
In the city centre on Wednesday, dozens of residents were cleaning up the remains of a wrecked market, just opposite the city’s large military academy.
Among them, 28-year-old Katarina Chternova does not hide her fear, but local solidarity reassures her.
“We are all together, we help each other,” she told AFP. “Because this is our land, and we want to save it … we don’t give up”.
Rubak, on the other hand, is more pessimistic in the face of the Russian advance. In Zhytomyr, he says, “many people would like to leave, but today, no one knows where to go”.