Kiwi of Ukrainian descent on a cyber mission in Kyiv

The faces of shattered refugee mothers and stories of small lives lost haunt Yuriy Ackermann, a Ukrainian-born New Zealander on a cybersecurity mission in war-torn Kyiv.

By John Edwards of rnz.co.nz

Over the past three weeks, Ackermann has documented trips to Bucha and Irpin — two regional towns where atrocities were uncovered after Russian forces withdrew — and war-torn Borodyanka.

An empty playground and a lone sunflower in the shadow of bombed-out buildings, piles of burnt-out cars and a blown-up bridge bear witness to the madness of it all, but human misery consumes Ackermann the most.

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“What destroys me are the individual stories, you read the stories and it’s awful,” he said.

He can’t shake the story of Liza, a four-year-old girl with Down syndrome who was killed in a Russian missile strike on her way to a meeting with her mother in Vinnytsia last week.

“The photo of that dead girl, her mother’s foot ripped off, it’s just heartbreaking. It destroys your soul,” he said.

Ackermann is from Chernivtsi, near Ukraine’s border with Romania and Moldova, but moved to Tauranga when he was 14.

He traveled to Kyiv at the invitation of the Ukrainian government to help defend the country against sustained Russian cyberattacks.

Along the way, he met many stricken refugees in Sweden, Belgium and Germany – all women and children as most men were banned from leaving the country.

“Some of them ran away from Donetsk in 2014 to Mariupol, now they have to flee Mariupol. It’s heartbreaking to meet these people, you see on their faces, they are just destroyed,” he said.

An empty playground in the shadow of bombed out buildings in Irpen, Ukraine.

“It’s not about the war, it’s not about the military, it’s about ordinary people who have done absolutely nothing wrong.”

Air raid sirens sound two to three times a day in Kyiv, but Ackermann prefers rationalism to fear.

“It’s hard to think that in the next moment it could be you. Nowhere in Ukraine is safe,” he said.

“You could hide in a bunker, but if one of those 500-kilogram bombs or one of those Russian cruise missiles hit you, there would be nothing but ashes.”

Even so, months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, signs of normalcy have emerged in Kyiv.

Cafes are open, supermarket shelves are full and Ackermann can even buy a bottle of New Zealand wine.

His parents in Tauranga, desperately worried, have begged him to come home, but he is committed to the cause.

Burnt cars piled up on the side of the road highlight the human misery of war.

As the military war rages on, Ackermann is on the front lines of cyber warfare, helping the Ukrainian government fend off Russian forces online.

He said Russian hackers were trying to destroy Ukraine’s critical infrastructure and steal sensitive data.

An infrastructure company that recorded 21,000 security incidents in 2021 was bombed by 768,000 in the first month of the war alone, Ackermann noted.

“It’s a very, very serious threat to Ukraine,” he said.

New Zealand has provided more than $33 million in diplomatic, humanitarian, legal and military assistance to Ukraine, as well as trade and economic sanctions aimed at limiting Russia’s ability to fund and equip the war.

Ackermann urged New Zealanders not to forget Ukraine by giving their all.

“For the price of two cups of coffee, you can feed someone for a week,” he said.

“We can’t just sit on the bench and ignore this war. If you want your gas prices to go down, you should care. It has a direct impact on our economy and our lives.

“We have to be on the right side of history. We have to make sure that when the war is over, we will be on the list of countries that have done our part.”

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