KYIV. When young eco-activist Igor Sumlenny arrived at the site of the recent rocket attack, the wreckage barely stopped smoking.
The police guarded the street. The people who lived in the destroyed apartment building stared at him in disbelief, some crossed themselves next to him. He started poking around.
And then, bam! His eyes lit up. Right in front of him, on the sidewalk, lay exactly what he was looking for: a mutilated piece of shrapnel, a fragment of a real Russian cruise missile that had crashed into a building.
He picked it up, pricking himself on the jagged steel edges, put it in his backpack and walked briskly home for an hour – “I didn’t want the police to stop me and think I was a terrorist.”
This ugly piece of steel has now become the star of his “spoils of war” collection, which includes everything from ammo cans and a used grenade launcher to a pair of black Russian boots he found in the ruined city of Bucha.
“They have a very bad energy,” he said.
It may seem eccentric, even creepy, to collect military debris like this. But Mr. Confused is not the only one. Across Ukraine, many civilians and soldiers are looking for shrapnel, mortar fins, spent shells and bomb fragments.
Ukrainian artists weave them into their work. Auction houses move abandoned weapons and other finds from battlefields, raising thousands of dollars for Ukrainian soldiers. One woman even makes sculptures from the uniforms of dead Russians.
This clearly means something more. So many Ukrainians want to be on the front lines or feel like they belong in some way, even if they are far from fighting or don’t consider themselves ready to fight. When patriotism reaches its peak and the very existence of their country is at stake, they look for something tangible that they can hold in their hands, which represents this huge, mind-boggling moment. They crave their little piece of history.
“Every thing has a story,” said Sergey Petrov, famous artist works in Lviv. Now he inserts used shell casings into the masks he makes.
Taking one of the hands, he thought: “Maybe this was someone’s last bullet.”
At a charity auction in Lvov on Sunday, programmer Valentin Lapotkov paid more than $500 for an empty missile silo that auctioneers say was used to blow up a Russian armored personnel carrier. He said that when he touched it, he felt “close to our heroes.”
Commemorating the war, even if it is probably far from over, is a way to show solidarity with the soldiers and those who suffered. One of the largest museums in Kyiv recently organized an exhibition of military artifacts collected after the Russian invasion in February. The rooms are full of gas masks, rocket barrels and charred debris. The message is clear: look, this is what real war actually looks like.
On a personal level, Mr. Confused does something similar. At 31, he is an auditor by training but a climate justice activist at heart. From Kyiv, he works with Greta Thunberg. Fridays for the Future movement by organizing social media campaigns against fossil fuels, and during the hundreds of video calls he makes, he displays his spoils of war. He also sends some from the country with female activists to “go on tour” (he himself cannot travel due to Ukraine’s ban on military-age men leaving the country).
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“It’s very interesting,” explained Mr. Confused, tall and thin, who lives in a tiny apartment with his mother. “You don’t feel the war through TV or the news. But if you show people these works, they will feel it.”
That is exactly what one young Polish woman said after Mr. Confused leaned out of the frame during a video call and returned with his trophies.
“It was overwhelming,” said the woman, Dominika Lasota, a climate justice activist from Warsaw. “I automatically started laughing at this, in shock, but then I realized how dystopian this moment was.”
“Igor seemed to be perfectly calm about this,” she added of Mr. Sumlenny. “In fact, he was proudly displaying this piece of the bomb – he was smiling.”
It’s a coping mechanism, he explained. “Without black humor, we cannot live in war,” he said. “It’s a defensive reaction of the body.”
Nevertheless, he and his friends handle war items with care, almost as solemnly as soldiers lay down a flag in memory of a fallen comrade.
“When I touch this,” he said of the rocket part he found in April, “I feel a very bad energy in my fingers.”
He said he spoke to weapons experts and determined that the five-pound piece was part of the tail section of a Russian Kalibr cruise missile.
In Lviv, Tatiana Okhten helps manage UAID Foundation, a volunteer network that, among other things, has sold more than 15 pieces of military junk, including several rockets and rocket launchers used by the Ukrainian military, which have been very successful. In total, the military debris generated more than $4,000, which the foundation spends on protective vests, medicines and other supplies for Ukrainian troops.
“We are taking things that have killed people so that we can now save lives,” she said.
She said that one young Ukrainian soldier fighting in the Donbas was very helpful in finding things from the front line. He jumped out of the trenches, even when Russian shells were exploding around him, and fellow soldiers shouted at him to hide. But, she said, he is next to a group of volunteers and yells back: “I have to go. My friends need it!”
In the frontline areas, some shell-shocked residents were surprised to learn that the remnants of the war are becoming collectibles.
“This is crazy,” said Vova Gurzhiy, who lives in a city in the Donbas that the Russians continue to attack. “This thing is coming here to kill you.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Sumlennyy continues to hunt. A few weeks ago, he and some environmentalist friends traveled to Bucha, a Kyiv suburb where Russian troops have killed hundreds of civilians, to take photos for a social media campaign about the link between fossil fuels and the Russian military machine.
Quite by chance, they stumbled into the backyard, where they found a Russian military jacket and a pair of black boots (size 10). They remain among his prized possessions.
“We didn’t go to Bucha for this,” he said. “We were just lucky.”
Diego Ibarra Sanchez was published from Lev and Alexander Mikolysin from Kyiv.