On the Ground in Ukraine

Humanitarian relief activist Amed Khan gives a firsthand account of his time in Ukraine.

A man walks among debris in a damaged warehouse after a strike in Odesa, on June 14, 2023.
A man walks among debris in a damaged warehouse after a strike in Odesa, Ukraine, on June 14, 2023. Photo: Oleksandr Gimanov AFP via Getty Images

This week, Russia accused Ukraine of striking a bridge that connects mainland Ukraine with the Crimean Peninsula. This is amid the emerging counteroffensive by Ukraine attempting to push back Russian troops. This week on Deconstructed, Ryan Grim is joined by Amed Khan, who has 20 years of experience funding and implementing humanitarian relief. Khan is currently based in Ukraine, where he has been seeing the war’s destruction firsthand. Grim and Khan discuss the recent developments in the war and Khan’s experiences working in Ukraine.

[Deconstructed intro theme music.]

Ryan Grim: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Ryan Grim.

The war in Ukraine recently entered the much anticipated phase of the second counteroffensive by Kyiv. The last one was a startling success, gobbling up territory that had been seized during the Russian invasion, and giving the West hope that, against all odds, the Ukrainians might be able to drive Russian forces back.

The second counteroffensive has gone nowhere near as well, with The Kyiv Independent, a news outlet highly loyal to the Ukrainian government, reporting a pause and a reassessment of strategy. With Putin’s mobilization of hundreds of thousands of draftees and his overwhelming supply of artillery, Ukraine can’t handle a war of attrition.

Meanwhile, Putin recently unveiled what he said was a tentative peace agreement reached back in March, 2022, in which Russia agreed to retreat to the territory it held before February 23 of that year, which would give it control of significant parts of the Donbass, and also Crimea. In exchange, Ukraine would agree not to join NATO and to downsize its military, but would enter into security agreements with the U.S. and other E.U. countries.

Around that same time, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was sounding hopeful about a peace deal. Here’s a report from March 16, 2022, on Democracy Now, which also references an exchange I had at the time with then-White House Press Secretary, Jen Psaki.

Amy Goodman: So, I wanted to ask you about the state of negotiations to end this war. The Ukrainian President Zelenskyy suggested earlier today that Russian demands are becoming more realistic.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy [through interpreter]: Everyone should work, including our representatives, our delegation, for negotiations with the Russian Federation. It is difficult but important, as any war ends with an agreement. The meetings continue, and I am informed the positions during the negotiations already sound more realistic, but time is still needed for the decisions to be in the interests of Ukraine.

AG: Zelenskyy’s remarks came a day after he acknowledged he doesn’t expect Ukraine to join NATO anytime soon, which is very significant. And, during a news conference yesterday The Intercept’s Ryan Grim asked White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki what the U.S. is doing to advance peace negotiations, and whether the U.S. would lift its sanctions on Russia if it reached a peace deal with Ukraine. This is just a small part of what she said.

RG: Aside from the request for weapons, President Zelenskyy has also requested that the U.S. be more involved in negotiations toward a peaceful resolution to the war. What is the U.S. doing to push those negotiations forward?

Jen Psaki: Well, one of the steps we’ve taken, a significant one, is to be the largest provider of military, and humanitarian, and economic assistance in the world, to put them in a greater position of strength as they go into these negotiations. We also engage and talk with the Ukrainians on a daily basis, and the President and this national security team has rallied the world in being unified in their opposition to the actions of President Putin. So, those are the steps we’re taking.

We also engage, oftentimes before and after, any conversations that any of these global leaders are having with both Russians and Ukrainians, and encourage them to make sure they’re engaging with Ukrainians directly.

RG: Would Zelenskyy be empowered by the United States to reach an agreement with Russia, and have U.S. sanctions released as a result?

JP: Well, he’s the leader of Ukraine, so he is empowered to have a negotiation with Russia, and we’re here to support those efforts.

RG: That’s a yes?

JP: Again, I’m not going to get ahead of a negotiation, but we are here to support those efforts. We discuss and have conversations with his team on a daily basis.

RG: According to former U.S. diplomat Fiona Hill, writing in Foreign Affairs, a deal similar to the one Putin recently outlined was scuttled by the West, which insisted Ukraine fight on instead. Around this time, the horrific war crimes by Russian forces in Bucha were uncovered, changing the shape and tenor of the war, which I’ll talk about with my next guest, Amed Khan.

Now, today’s episode is not about the politics or the geopolitics of the war in Ukraine, and it’s not a dissection of military strategy or tactics, either. Instead, I wanted to talk to Amed about what life has been like on the ground there since the invasion, and since the failed peace talks.

Amed Khan is an unusual figure on the international scene. He was briefly in the diplomatic service during the Clinton Administration, but was frustrated there, and joined the world of humanitarian relief instead, spending several years in Rwanda, but he got frustrated by that bureaucracy, too.

Independently wealthy, he’s become something of a lone-wolf humanitarian relief organizer, visiting different global hotspots over the decades since the war broke out in Ukraine. He spent most of his time there.

As he talks about in our interview, his work has also gone beyond just food, water, and medical supplies, as he also supplied Ukrainian troops with the now-famous drone that a Russian soldier recently surrendered to on video. If you haven’t seen that story yet, check out The Wall Street Journal’s video report on it from earlier this month.

We recorded this conversation last week while he was on the ground there in Ukraine, about a thousand yards from the Russian frontline, amid the floodwaters from the recent destruction of the dam.

[Deconstructed intro theme music.]

Amed Khan, thank you so much for joining me on Deconstructed.

Amed Khan: My pleasure. Great to be here with you, Ryan.

RG: And so, without giving too much away, can you talk a little bit about where you are and what you’re doing right now? Like, what time is it where you are, and what’s going on in the area where you are?

AK: It’s 9:00 p.m. on June 15. Is it Thursday? And I am a little bit downstream from the Nova Kakhovka Dam, which was partially destroyed last week, I suppose in the first week of June, right. And I’ve been actually working in this area for about eight or nine months since liberation of these villages. They’re on the west bank of the Dnieper River; the east bank of the river is still controlled by the Russians.

I’ve been supplying food, clothing, medicine, generators, because when the Russians withdrew, they cut the mobile network, they cut the power, and they cut the water. So, power, water, and communication are the three most urgent needs. Since the flood, obviously, the needs have multiplied. But, again, it’s the same big three: water, power, and communication. And then so much more — you know, so many houses are completely destroyed, so people are trying to clean out their houses. So, [we] are providing water pumps, power washers, wheelbarrows. You know, really, really basic stuff.

RG: And in one of the videos, or a couple of the videos that you sent me, you’re sloshing around, you’re seeing mud inside of houses.

AK [in video]: We’ve been working in this area for many months. And now you can see. [Sounds of walking through water.] This is the living room, this is what’s left. The chair, this is her life. Everything that was in this. The ground is mud.

RG: What’s the broader landscape look like there, in the wake of the dam destruction?

AK: It’s complete devastation. Let’s say, one of the villages’ pre-war population was, let’s say, about 2000, and today it’s about 200. Well, before the dam destruction it was about 200. And, since the dam destruction, it’s about 400. I met some people who were with their children in Germany and Poland, and they actually came back, because these are the houses that they were born in, that are actually nearly destroyed. So, the interiors, everything inside is destroyed, covered with mud. Many of them have water to the knees still.

And, you know, the houses continue to collapse, because they’re older structures. So, as the water sort of gets into the foundation or, in many cases, the water was above the roof, so houses continue to collapse.

So, people are just trying to figure out: Where do they go? And much of the population is on the older side, so these are the sort of people that do not, will not be evacuated. I mean, they just refuse, you know. Plenty of people have been evacuated, but many people just don’t, can’t leave their homes, that many of them were born in.

RG: And there’s a lot of speculation out there that Russia did this to the dam. If they did, what would be the advantage? As you’re seeing the carnage, what is the effect on the positions of both the Ukrainians and the Russians there? And what’s the effect on the population, and why would it benefit the Russians to do this?

AK: Well, I’ve given up. I’ve been here in Ukraine for most of the last 16 months since the invasion, so I’ve sort of given up on trying to figure out why they do certain things. They bombed the McDonald’s in Odessa two nights ago, June 13. I’ve personally visited hundreds of apartment buildings, hospitals, senior centers, nursery schools, shopping malls, you name it. Car dealers, gas stations, that have been objects of Russian missile attacks, rocket attacks. So, I’ve sort of given up trying to figure out why they do stuff.

In fact, we were in a boat in a flooded area on a street going between demolished houses. And I think I sent you this video, we came under a shelling.

AK: This was a road, now completely flooded. And you hear the shelling in the background. [Shelling sounds.]

AK: And I’m trying to figure out what exactly they’re shelling. It’s a completely destroyed village with a few old people living there, and no military or police or anyone else in sight. And so, I suppose, from a military perspective — and I’m not some expert on that stuff — but I suppose they could have done it to slow the counteroffensive, but many people speculate that they try to do it to defeat the Ukrainian spirit. But, you know, it’s been going on for 16 months and that hasn’t really worked, so you’d think they’d come up with an alternate plan.

But I, quite honestly, I have no idea when the devastation is just unbelievable. But it’s nothing that’s any different with what I’ve seen over the last 16 months. Some of this land will, I don’t know when it will recover. I’m in touch with some local scientists and they say it could be decades.

RG: To step back a little bit: How did you get involved in this kind of humanitarian work? What was your first foray into this?

AK: Well, I was a political appointee in the Clinton Administration working for the director of the United States Peace Corps in my early twenties, and Rwandan genocide was happening in this. And I just sort of didn’t really like Washington; no offense to anyone from Washington, but I wanted to get out there in the world.

And so, I got a job with the International Rescue Committee, and became an administrator in a series of refugee camps that were along the Rwandan/Burundi/Tanzania border, and lived there for almost two years. That was my first, and I suppose I’ve spent the majority of the last 25 years overseas doing this sort of stuff, one way or another.

RG: How would you compare the scenes that you’d encountered when you first got to Ukraine 16 months ago to what you’re seeing now? When it comes to both physical devastation, but also morale?

AK: The morale remains high, because the Ukrainian spirit is strong, and they just persevere through everything, and they’ll never give up and never be defeated, because this is something that’s been going on for three to 400 years, pretty continuously. It’s part of their DNA.

The physical destruction is something that I’ve never seen anywhere. I mean, I’ve worked in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Rwanda, like I said. And there is significant infrastructure in Ukraine, at a different level, and it’s been demolished, and continues to be demolished. And I suppose the initial destruction that happened around the cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv, which were the first places that I saw when I first arrived, shortly after the invasion.

Well, the Russians had almost encircled Kyiv, so if you drive to Kyiv now, if you approach from the West, you’ll see destroyed gas stations, supermarkets, schools. The Russians were very close, so the physical destruction — and, you know, thousands and thousands of houses and apartment buildings, but it pretty much continued. They will launch long-range rockets and missiles nightly, at cities far away from the front.

RG: What’s the reconstruction like? Is there any going on in the midst of the conflict, or is it on hold for some type of a ceasefire?

AK: Well, Bucha and Irpin, the suburbs of Kyiv that were the site of mass graves and significant war crimes, have managed to really clean up. People started fixing their houses and the apartments are in reconstruction, but, you know, some other places, the devastation is just so immense, and the shelling and rockets and missiles continue, so it kind of doesn’t really make sense.

So, if you take a city like Kharkiv where many schools are destroyed, [and] say, the gymnasium, the center, the main sports center, with the pool and the basketball court and all that, that’s all destroyed. So, I don’t know how they would start building that again, because the rocket attacks continue.

RG: So, are kids going to school? And what’s the economy like? Are people going to work amid the war? Obviously, it’s got to be different on the front lines, but how far back from the front lines do you feel like you’re really in the thick of a war? And how far do you have to go until you’re someplace where you know that there’s a war going on, but life is a little bit more normal?

AK: On the schools, it’s really difficult. Some schools in the western part of Ukraine operate, some schools in Kyiv operate. Many schools operate online. Many schools don’t open because they don’t have a bomb shelter, right, an underground bomb shelter. And you’d sort of think, it’s 2023, why would my school need an underground bomb shelter?

So it’s a really sad thing. I rebuilt a number of orphanages, and I’m always asking, is the school open yet? And they say, no, we can’t open, because we don’t have an underground bomb shelter. And it’s a relatively new school, right? And so, they wouldn’t have thought about building an underground bomb shelter. So, actually, the older schools are the ones that operate, because they have underground bomb shelters.

In terms of feeling the war, you sort of feel it everywhere, because the sirens are going off all day, everywhere. So, I suppose the area where you’d feel it least is the southwest, along the Hungarian and Romanian border, the Zakarpattia area, the mountainous area. In terms of city, probably Lviv is the one you would feel it least, but they have sirens three or four times a day, and a rocket or missile attack pretty regularly.

RG: Those are air raid sirens.

AK: Yeah, those are air raid sirens.

RG: Like, missile sirens?

AK: Correct.

RG: And so, how much time do you have? How does that work? You hear the siren, you have, you know, X minutes to get into a bomb shelter?

AK: Well, essentially that’s how it’s supposed to work. And, of course, we’re 16 months in, so some people don’t go running for the bomb shelter. But, essentially, you usually have, depending on what is being fired — and some crazy stuff is being fired, like Kalibr missiles and other sort of SEAD missiles — so you might have three or four minutes before. So, a typical thing, let’s say the McDonald’s that was hit two nights ago, the sirens were going off four minutes before the first missile hit. That’s a concrete example that happened on June 13.

RG: Did the workers and the people in the restaurant, did they heed those sirens?

AK: That one was at 2:30 in the morning, luckily, so it was[n’t] open, but three people did die, unfortunately. The apartment building on June 11,  in Kryvyi Rih, where 13 people died, that was, again, in the middle of the night, so they were asleep, right?

So, you hear the sirens, you sort of are sleeping, and then you kind of wake up and then you go back to sleep. I mean, I’ve personally had this experience, I don’t know, hundreds of times, where you’re like, let’s hope for the best. Roll back over. You know?

And other people have told incredible stories, where I’ve visited apartment buildings that have been hit in the middle of the night where, let’s say, the child made it to the shelter but the parents didn’t, because by the time they got the child awake and out, it was too late for them.

So, the answer to that question is limitless. How many minutes do you have, and how do you actually get out, and get downstairs, and get underground. I’ve seen every kind of scenario.

RG: And what about the farming economy? I mean, the area you’re in is pretty heavily agricultural. Was there any planting this season?

AK: Yeah. Yeah. The farmers continue, right. And Ukraine plays this massive role in the world, with wheat and soybeans and some other staples, right? It’s the watermelon, actually, the Kherson region is famous for watermelon, and they were planted. And there’s these little — they were still a couple months off from the harvest season — but the small watermelons were all destroyed. I think the number is: 95 percent of the watermelon harvest was destroyed for the year.

Much of the farmland in the east has been mined so, you know, the areas that were liberated, the farmers still can’t go out there. So, actually, farmers are kind of operating these demining machines alongside the professionals, to try and get their land to be arable again.

But in the west, they continue to continue to operate. You know, the land is planted, so the wheat is planted, the corn is planted, and they’ll harvest it and move it and, hopefully, that continues.

But the answer to your question about work: Yes, people go to work every morning, and they continue. And, yeah, obviously, the economy has been devastated, but people continue to wake up, go to the office in the west, let’s say and in the center, maybe Kyiv, Odessa, as much as they can. But, along the front line, life is totally at a standstill. And the front line is massive.

[Deconstructed mid-show theme music.]

RG: There’s been talk in the press about the U.S. potentially sending depleted uranium shells to work with the Abrams tanks that we’ve sent. Are people over there nervous at all about depleted uranium being in the breadbasket of the world? That, to me, seems like a tough combination. Or are they just so existentially focused on the war that they’ll think about resolving the depleted uranium problem later?

AK: Yeah. I think everybody just wants this war to end, right? And so, whatever it takes and whoever — the thing about Ukrainians is, there’s a national project here to get the Russians out and stop the war. No one wants the war to end tomorrow, they want it to end today. And people are deferential. Like, you know, if the experts feel that this is a solution to stop this war and get the Russians out, then I’m for it. That’s the sort of thing, because I think Bucha and Irpin really changed Ukrainian public opinion, and probably forever, you know? When it came out with the mass graves, and the murders of civilians, and old people, and children. And I was there, I was in Bucha on day two of liberation, so I saw the open mass graves and burned bodies on the streets. And I think that’s the sort of seminal experience for everybody.

Obviously, the war has continued, and the brutality has continued, but that understanding that Ukrainians, really, we can’t go on like this. And, I think that’s the immediate [understanding].

RG: That’s my understanding, too, that Bucha in particular really changed the course of the war. And you’ve had a lot of people who have, in a kind of conspiracy-type way, cast a lot of skepticism about what happened there. I’m sure you’ve seen some of that stuff circulating.

So, having been there on day two, can you describe — I don’t want you to get gruesome or anything — but can you describe a little bit of what you witnessed as you walked into the town?

AK: Yeah. It was actually overwhelming. I’ve been to mass graves. I was working in Bosnia, digging up old mass graves. And, again, Rwanda, also, Syria, also, Iraq, also. But this was something just on a different level, and not — I didn’t expect to see what I saw.

At the time, as you imagine, there were Russian snipers still in the woods, because they hadn’t completely withdrawn. They had sort of exited quickly, Bucha, so the security situation was very tense — multiple roadblocks. But, as we came closer and closer to entering Bucha, you would start to see charred dead bodies on the road.

And as we got to the church, where some of the mass graves were, in the back of the church, we started to meet locals who lived under the occupation for a month. And I went from house to house, to people’s houses, asking them what they experienced, and it was very clear what had happened.

And they told stories of this neighbor and that neighbor, and this 75-year-old man being murdered, and this eight-year-old girl being raped and murdered.

RG: Was there any pattern, was there any pattern about who became a victim and who didn’t?

AK: It looked like the sort of most innocent people were sort of victims. It was truly bizarre. Because when we went into house to house, I would ask, you know, who lived here? And they would tell him it was a 75-year-old grandmother and grandfather. They killed the grandfather. Why? And they said, I don’t know. Because, you know, this, again, was just day two, and it was really raw. And you’ve probably seen the images of all the burned tanks and cars, and the road was full of that. It was just pure brutality. When you went into houses, there were gunshots inside all the houses. And I said, what is that? And they said they would just get drunk.

And you’d see broken bottles of vodka and whatever anybody had in their house. And the barbecue was running in the backyard. And I said, so, basically they spent the day at war, and at night they’d come to the house and have a war with the house. Just start shooting around.

So, it was just some kind of, like, Hollywood movie about terrorists or crazy people. You know, just some post-apocalyptic-type thing. I just, I look at back at all the old pictures, I’m like, this is nuts.

RG: And, since then, is there any theory that’s developed about why that happened?

AK: Well, they’ve been doing the same stuff continuously, right? Like, not at that level, but they — I’ve heard the same stories from these villages where I am now. When they were occupied, they were occupied for nine months. November 8 was the day of liberation. There [was] story after story of, my friend was walking with a jug of water down along the river, and the sniper just shot. You never find out why this sniper fired at him and shot him, and he’s dead, you know?

So that’s, it’s, they’re — I don’t know. I think they’re just reckless. I mean, you know, we don’t want to be cliche about it, but when you study Russian Army tactics for the last 600 years, and there’s definitely a pattern of sexual violence, and other things that, I suppose, are not the norm for war.

RG: What is the thinking among people you meet about how this war is going to end? Because you hear from Zelenskyy, and you hear from other politicians in Ukraine that they want every Russian boot off of Ukrainian soil, including Crimea. And we hear that over in the United States, we’re like, how is that going to be possible? That can’t possibly be the way that this ends. There’s got to be some other way to end.

But where are the people that you talk to closer to? Are they in lockstep with that Zelenskyy position?

AK: Yeah. Yeah, that’s where they are. I guess it’s like, 85 percent. And, again, that number comes from Bucha and Irpin, and everything that’s happened since then. It’s just like, how are we ever going to live with them again? Because, if there is a truce, and there’s a ceasefire, and they’re just going to repower up and do it again.

In the West it’s very, very deep, because you can go to any small village and find a memorial to a kind of mini-genocide of Ukrainian villagers by the Russians in 1864 or 1823. And the older people can tell you stories about mini-pogroms all over the place.

And so, that’s been reinforced, and I think the constant attacks on civilian infrastructure has reinforced that. That they just, they want it to end, but they want it to end forever. They don’t want it to end and, ten years later, their children or grandchildren are having to go to war. They just don’t want that.

And that’s kind of looking into the future. They just come to work every day and try and figure out how they can help to be a part of this greater society on this mission to end this thing.

RG: At the same time, if you listen to American military officials here, they will say in unison, but that’s basically not possible. Like, the taking of Crimea, the taking back of every inch. So how do you square that? Like, how does this, how does that tension resolve itself, in your guess?

AK: I have no idea. I suppose that’s the job of the diplomats. I mean, I’m just a guy trying to help out. That’s why I quit the United States government and got out of that stuff, because I’m not made for that stuff, because I couldn’t sit in the same room with most of these kind of people. I don’t think I could even walk into the United Nations without, like, wanting to hang myself or something.

So, yeah. I really don’t know. I mean, obviously, the most important thing for them is to end the war, and to feel like justice has been served. And I don’t think that means vengeance.

I don’t know if you saw this story, but I was pretty involved with it. The Ukrainians retained their humanity. There was a Russian soldier that surrendered to a drone, and the Ukrainians pleaded with him to just surrender peacefully, and they wouldn’t fire on him. And it happened. And, every day, I’m just struck by how gentle and kind these people remain in the face of this sort of brutality.

So, I don’t know how the United States and the government, and the Ukrainian government will reconcile, as we go on. But I’m sympathetic to where they’re coming from.

RG: Yeah. And that, there’s a video of that that people can watch over at The Wall Street Journal. It’s pretty incredible to see him surrendering himself to this drone, and then walking across this minefield, basically. A no man’s land. And Russians start shelling him.

AK: Yeah. And he actually said, he signals that, if I try to surrender, they will shell me. And the Ukrainian military sent back that, look, please, please just do it, and you’ll be safe, and you’ll be in good hands, and everything will be okay. And he thought about it, and then came over.

And The Journal actually got access to him. I actually tipped off The Journal on that story.

RG: Yeah, that was quite a story. Send me the next one. How’d you hear about it?

AK: Well, actually, I supplied the surveillance drones to that brigade.

RG: Oh, well there you go.

AK: It was the 92nd brigade. So, I was on, live, actually, while it was happening.

RG: What was that like to watch that happening? Because, for people who haven’t seen it yet — and maybe people should pause it and go watch this — but like, he creates a language. The Russian soldier proposes hand signals to the drone. You know, if I do this twice, that’s a no, if I do this, that’s yes. And if the drone moves left to right, that’s a no, if it moves up or down, that’s a yes.

What was that like to watch in real time? Were you keeping up with him? Were you able to communicate with the people on the ground? Did they make those decisions independently, or were there people who were like — 

AK: Yeah, I was on with the people. I was on the ground in a different town, so I was being updated shortly after they were making the decisions, because I’m not, obviously, a part of the decision-making process. But it happened very quickly.

So, there’s a drone operator and there’s his colleague. And the colleague says to the drone operator, do not fire on this guy, I think he’s trying to tell us something. And then they figure out what he’s trying to say.

I think this is probably, this is another thing that’s amazing about the Ukrainians. They’re just like, sort of like what I wish Americans, we used to be, maybe? I don’t know, entrepreneurial and stuff. So they immediately get to their commander, right? I think there’s no bureaucracy. Like, it’s just, literally, the commander has to make this decision, the brigade commander. And he immediately says, please try and let him live. Like, we are not barbarians, right? We’re not going to go to the level of our opponent here. We need to help this guy live.

And it all happened in minutes. I was just, as always, struck about the retention of humanity. And, as it were, The Journal reporter happened to be in the area, and I said, my friends have a great story, and you might want to hear about it. And then they went on.

RG: Yeah. And the soldier turned out to be, basically, just a liquor store owner, it seemed like, who was drafted into the war.

AK: Yeah, I know. There are so many nutty stories, and I’ve sort of been in the right place — or I don’t know if you’d call it the right place or the wrong place at the wrong time — but I’ve been around some of these prisoner war stories. And the people are — you know, one guy, he was late on his alimony payments or his child support payments, and the Russians said to him, you can either go to Ukraine or we’re going to put you in jail.

I mean, I’m not sure if he was Wagner or if he was the actual army, but I just was struck by listening to this. I’m like, this guy, he led this irresponsible life, he couldn’t take care of himself, and so he comes over here to kill Ukrainian children. It’s crazy.

I mean, this is a war. War is just a terrible thing, it has to be avoided at all costs, there’s just nothing good about it.

RG: What does that do to the dynamic, where you have, on the one side, people who are defending their own territory. And then, they’re defending against people who are shooting at them and trying to kill them, and so it obviously is a very real live war. But, oftentimes, the people on the other side very much don’t want to be there, themselves. Like, it wasn’t their first choice, they were kind of mobilized and forced into it. How does that change the dynamic?

AK: Well, it’s very bizarre, it truly is. But, again, the issue is that they’re outnumbered and outgunned, right, from the Ukrainian side. And that’s what’s enabled the Ukrainians to go on, I think, because they’re there for better reasons, and they’re doing this for the right reasons of defending their homeland, right?

And so, I think that’s why, while the results — everybody wishes it happened faster. I mean, the Ukrainians are doing a little bit better. And the reality is that they’re outgunned by, I don’t know what kind of multiple, and outnumbered by what kind of multiple. In every battle they take significantly less casualties. I mean, every casualty is, really, a tragedy.

For example, in Bakhmut, I was just outside of Bachman the day before there was a semi-Ukrainian withdrawal, and I talked to one of the soldiers who had just come out, and he said it was beyond belief. There were literally hundreds of Russian soldiers just dead, and they’d been there for days. And they don’t take them with them, you know? They control that area. But they don’t actually just remove them, they just leave them on the ground. Just, wow, that’s really just not good.

RG: What about the nuclear power plant that’s near there? How nervous are you about that?

AK: I literally know nothing about this, about nuclear.  I don’t think it sounds good, though. But I suppose the U.N. chief is here today, the nuclear commission chief. So, hopefully, they can come up with something, because it’s obviously a ticking nuclear plant there. It’s very scary. It’s not in Ukrainian hands, and it’s just there.

RG: Last question. What do you think that you’ve been able to glean about the war in Ukraine that people in the U.S. are just missing?

AK: I don’t know. It’s hard to know, because most of the time I’ve been here, so I don’t really know what gets across and what doesn’t get across. But the sheer brutality, the human impact is mind-boggling, it’s overwhelming. And, like I said, I went as a humanitarian to most U.S. wars, mainly because I felt guilty as an American about what the U.S. was doing in all these countries. And I’ve seen a lot of terrible stuff. But I don’t know that the human aspect of any of this is, I don’t know if it’s even covered, because I think most of the coverage is probably about the war; like, the strategy, and who’s winning what, who moved, like, one kilometer ahead.

I mean, I try not to read too much, obviously I don’t see any video stuff, but, you know, there’s 40 million people who are traumatized, right? The trauma, the devastation. The children, children who’ve lost their parents, parents who’ve lost children, like, on the street, just walking in the park.

You know, I go to these destroyed apartment buildings. Today — Not today, when was I?  Yeah, it was June 11, [I] was Kryvyi Rih, an apartment building in Kryvyi Rih. So, I was there on the 12, and there’s grandmother outside, and she lost everything, and probably a relative. And with the stuff, and she’s hitting the pillow to get the smoke out of it, and I’m just thinking, wow.

I mean, this whole country, what they’re going through on a daily basis. And the sirens, and rocket attacks, missiles, explosions, you hear them, so no matter where you are, you’ll hear an explosion. Every major city has been hit by an explosion, let’s say, in the last ten days.

And that’s a continuing thing, right? It never ends. And so, I don’t know, you’d have to be very empathetic, I suppose, to just read that in the paper or watch it on TV and then fully understand what that means.

I’m involved with a number of orphanages and children, trying to help with prosthetics for children who [have] lost limbs. And I just think, like, the mother, what does she go through? She’s got to take the kid to the clinic every year to get a new prosthetic. The kid’s life is totally different. And just think of the story, over and over, and multiply it out.

I don’t know. I don’t even know how to even phrase any of this stuff. Like, it’s overwhelming tragedy and devastation. The physical stuff, it’s there and it’s terrible, but the human impact, it’s terrible.

RG: Yeah. I don’t think it could come across, I don’t think there is the language or the channel that’s open between that world and the one that I’m sitting in, here in the United States. It feels almost unbridgeable. The chasm is so great.

AK: Yeah. I think you’re right. Because when I’m home, I’m just looking around and people are sort of living their lives. Like, 48 hours ago, I was in this bombed out apartment building. I don’t know, I suppose you —

But, you know, where’s the responsibility? Where’s the accountability? As human beings, shouldn’t we all be concerned about this? Or should we all be concerned about the plight of our fellow human beings? But I guess not. I don’t know what’s the — I mean this goes to human nature, long philosophical conversations, I suppose. But it’s just, to me, sometimes it’s kind of an embarrassing time to be alive.

I’m just like, I don’t know how people aren’t just completely outraged. It’s nuts. It’s just, totally — like, this is in-our-lifetime stuff, you know? For anyone who was interested in history, read about it as a kid, or watched movies, and we’re like, oh my god, that’s disgusting. How people allow that to happen. And here we are.

And now, at this time, we have access to this stuff. So, sometimes people say, oh, you don’t really hear about it. And I’m like, well, you could if you wanted to, you could hear more than you hear, right? But it’s truly overwhelming.

RG: Well, thank you for taking some of your dwindling Starlink time to do what you can, to bridge it.

AK: Thanks. No, I appreciate your time, Ryan. I’m a big fan of your work, so keep up the good work.

[Deconstructed ending theme music.]

RG: Well, thanks so much. And be safe over there.

AK: Thanks. Appreciate it. Take care.

RG: That was Amed Khan, and that’s our show.

Deconstructed is a production of The Intercept. Our producer is José Olivares. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. The show is mixed by William Stanton. This episode was transcribed by Leonardo Faierman. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Roger Hodge is The Intercept’s editor-in-chief, and I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. Bureau Chief of the Intercept.

If you’d like to support our work, go to the intercept.com/give. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. And please go and leave us a rating or a review, it helps people find the show. Go ahead and rate any episode that you want, even if you rated one already.

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