In 2011 I met Nikolai for the first time. I was in Ukraine to photograph Chernobyl and Nikolai worked as a guide. Over the years I have visited the evacuated zone many times and during all these trips I have worked together with Nikolai.
At the outbreak of the pandemic at the end of 2019, Gamma Travel was Ukraine's third largest tour operator to Chernobyl - a company Nikolai and his wife created through hard and persistent work. In the spring of 2020, a time that is normally high season, guide operations stopped completely. No one booked further trips to the zone and those who had booked cancelled. As the vaccination gained momentum, the visitors returned - for a short while.
All while Putin's arms racket increased in the fall of 2021, the contacts between me and Nikolai became increasingly close. Before Christmas, Nikolai told me about how they packed the suitcases at the door in advance, that the car always had a full tank and about the food supply. New Year came and I asked when he was going to leave Kyiv. When the Russians cross the border, he replied. At this point we were in contact several times a week and I asked the question if it wasn't as good to pull now, what if the Russian comes, there will be a war and he will be drafted and sent to the front. At that point we were in contact only hours apart. On February 23rd, he drove his wife and children away, out into the countryside to their family home, and then drove back to Kyiv.
On the evening of the 24th, when the bombs rained down on Kharkiv all day and the Russians tried to take Hostomel, he wrote that now is the time to move. At the same time, the news came that martial law had been introduced with general mobilization and that all men of fighting age were forbidden to leave the country. Now it was more than a day before I heard from him again, unharmed and reunited with his family out in the countryside a couple of hours from Kyiv.
At the beginning of March, we had a mass meeting via Zoom. Nikolai, his wife and 150 other people around Europe with the common denominator that all of them had previously been in the Zone together with Nikolai. The Zoom meeting was the starting point for aid shipments from all over Europe. All over the continent, frantic work began now to get hold of the right things, pack them into trucks and get them driven across the border to Ukraine.