KYIV — When Ihor Sumliennyi, a young environmentalist, arrived at the site of a recent rocket attack, the debris had barely stopped smoking.
Police officers guarded the street. People who had lived in the destroyed apartment building stared in disbelief, some making the sign of the cross next to him. He started nosing around.
And then, bam! His eyes lit up. Just in front of him, near the sidewalk, was exactly what he was looking for: a mangled fragment of shrapnel, a piece of the real Russian cruise missile that had smashed into the building.
He scooped it up, poked himself at the jagged steel edges, put it in his backpack, and quickly ran home for the hour – “I didn’t want the police to stop me and think I was a terrorist.”
That ugly piece of steel has now become the star of his “war trophies” collection, which includes everything from ammunition cans and a used grenade shaft with missiles to a pair of black Russian boots he found in the battered city of Bucha.
“They have really bad energy,” he said.
It may seem eccentric, even macabre, to collect war debris in this way. But Mr. Sumliennyi is not alone. Throughout Ukraine, many civilians and soldiers search for shrapnel, mortar fins, used bullet casings and bombs.
Ukrainian artists weave them into their work. Auction houses move discarded weapons and other finds onto the battlefield, raising thousands of dollars for Ukrainian soldiers. One woman even makes sculptures of the uniforms of dead Russians.
It clearly speaks to something greater. So many Ukrainians want to be on the front lines — or feel connected to the cause in some way, even if they are far from the fighting or don’t see themselves as fit for the fight. With patriotism at its pinnacle and the very survival of their country at stake, they look for something tangible to hold in their hands that represents this huge, overwhelming moment. They crave their own piece of history.
“Each piece has a story,” says Serhii Petrov, a well-known artist who works in Lviv. He now uses used bullet cartridges in the masks he makes.
Touching one, he mused, “Maybe it was someone’s last bullet.”
At a charity auction in Lviv on Sunday, Valentyn Lapotkov, a computer programmer, paid more than $500 for an empty rocket tube that had been used, the auctioneers said, to blow up a Russian armored personnel carrier. He said he felt “close to our heroes” when he touched it.
Commemorating the war, even if it is probably far from over, is a way of showing solidarity with the soldiers and those who suffered. One of Kiev’s largest museums recently hosted an exhibition of war artifacts collected since the Russians invaded in February. The rooms are full of gas masks, rocket tubes and charred debris. The message is clear: look, this is what a real war really looks like.
On a personal level, Mr. Sumliennyi does something similar. Thirty-one years old, he’s an auditor by training, but a climate justice activist at heart. From Kiev, he collaborates with Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement, organizes social media campaigns against fossil fuels, and shows off his war trophies during the hundreds of video calls he makes. He also sends some with female activists out of the country to “go on tour” (he can’t travel himself because of Ukraine’s ban on military-age men leaving the country).
“It’s very interesting,” explains Mr. Sumliennyi, who is tall and thin and lives in a small apartment with his mother. “You don’t feel the war through the television or the news. But when you show people these pieces, they feel it.”
That’s exactly what a young Polish woman said after Mr. Sumliennyi leaned out of the picture during a video call and returned with his trophies.
“It was stunning,” said the woman, Dominika Lasota, a climate justice activist from Warsaw. “I automatically started laughing at it, in shock, but then realized how dystopian this moment was.”
“Ihor seemed completely chilled by it,” she added of Mr. Sumliennyi. “He showed that piece of the bomb with pride – he smiled.”
It’s a coping mechanism, he explained. “We cannot live in war without black humor,” he said. “It’s a protective response for the organism.”
Yet he and his friends handle the war artifacts with care, almost as solemnly as soldiers would fold a flag for a fallen comrade.
“When I touch this,” he said of the piece of rocket he found back in April, “I feel really bad energy in my fingers.”
He said he had spoken to weapons experts and determined that the five-pound piece was part of the tail of a Russian Kalibr cruise missile.
In Lviv, Tetiana Okhten helps run the UAID Foundation, a volunteer network that, in addition to the many things it does, has sold more than 15 pieces of war waste, including several rockets and missile tubes used by the Ukrainian military that are big hits. All told, the war waste has yielded more than $4,000, which the foundation spends on protective vests, medicines and other supplies for Ukrainian troops.
“We’re taking things that were used to kill people to save lives now,” she said.
She said a young Ukrainian soldier fighting in the Donbas region has been of great help in finding things from the front lines. He jumped out of trenches as Russian shells exploded around him and fellow soldiers yelled at him for cover. But, she said, he stands close to a group of volunteers and yells back, “I have to go. My friends need this stuff!”
In frontline areas, some shocked residents were surprised to learn that pieces of war waste were becoming collectibles.
“That’s crazy,” said Vova Hurzhyi, who lives in a Donbas city that the Russians continue to attack. “This stuff comes here to kill you.”
Yet Mr. Sumliennyi continues to hunt. A few weeks ago, he and some environmental friends drove to Bucha, a suburb of Kiev where Russian troops massacred hundreds of civilians, to take photos for a social media campaign about the link between fossil fuels and the Russian war machine.
By chance, they stumbled upon a backyard where they found a Russian military jacket and the pair of black boots (size 10). They remain among his prized items.
“We didn’t go to Bucha to look for this,” he said. “We just got lucky.”
Diego Ibarra Sanchez contributed to reporting from Lviv and Oleksandra Mykolyshyn from Kiev.