Oleksandr Zinchenko can barely hold his own as he holds court in a private location at London Bridge.
The Arsenal defender has returned to England after a harrowing trip to Ukraine, his first since the conflict broke out last year.
The destruction of a dam in the town of Nova Kakhovka devastated lives and homes. The images of bombarded schools, even of zoos, marked Zinchenko.
Unsurprisingly, he struggles to hold back his tears. Still, he fights back, believing he has no other option.
“Living for a week with all of them, in these conditions, in the current situation in Ukraine, was scary,” he recalls.
Oleksandr Zinchenko recently visited Ukraine for the first time since invading Russia last year
Together with fellow Ukrainian Andriy Shevchenko (right), Zinchenko saw the ‘scary’ conditions people have been living in since the war began
Zinchenko explained how the war became a “nightmare” after the Russian strikes
“It’s a war, a real war. But I understood one thing: that Ukrainians get used to this routine and go on with their lives, it’s incredible.
“What the Russian army is doing right now is sending a lot of bombs and rockets during the night. From 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. – maybe they think people go to sleep and try to keep our people in fear.
“Imagine trying to sleep through the night with your babies and suddenly there’s a siren.
‘You have to wake up, go underground to the bunker and hide. Otherwise, you take a huge risk of losing your life or your home. You never know where the bomb or rocket might land.
“A few days ago, Russia destroyed a dam. The stories I’ve heard, I can’t even explain. Some people are unable to leave their homes because the water is already too high.
“A scary story I heard was about a woman holding two little babies, born just a few months ago. She was on the roof with two of them, clinging to the last stone and trying to survive.
“Unfortunately, she – and the children – did not.”
“Listening to these stories – real stories, not on the internet – you just think, ‘to achieve what?’
Since the February 2022 invasion, Zinchenko has used his platform to help ease the pain of his distressed compatriot.
Or – to look at it from another perspective – to shine a light on the harrowing atrocities endured in his homeland.
It’s a responsibility he takes seriously. Along with Ukrainian legend Andriy Shevchenko, Zinchenko is at the forefront of plans to play a charity game at Stamford Bridge to raise money to rebuild a school in Chernihiv.
Together with Shevchenko, Zinchenko helped plan a GAME4UKRAINE at Stamford Bridge in August
Zinchenko and Shevchenko also received public support from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (center)
Zinchenko wants to raise funds at charity match to rebuild school in Chernihiv
“I saw the damage to the school. I spoke to children studying at school and some of them had seen the Russian army in their homes,” he said.
“Some of them were stealing, some were doing other things that I don’t want to talk about. These are real true stories of children.
‘I was shocked. Children can’t lie, they just tell the real truth.
The recent visit to Ukraine provided Zinchenko with exposure to the horrific damage wrought by the ongoing conflict.
Football – under the guise of Arsenal’s ultimately failed title challenge – provided Zinchenko with a momentary escape.
“Football is my life and when I’m on the pitch I start to forget everything.
“Since the invasion, I’ve lost my mind, but my family and I have to keep going. I can help my country and people much more from here than if I were here right now.
“But, I promise, I really want to be there – even now – because last week when I got there – I just walked in and just wanted to be there.
“And of course, after football, I’m going to live in Ukraine.”
Zinchenko’s patriotism is inspiring. He is loyal to his country, all the more so during this terrible period of deprivation.
But he insists loyalty would only extend to the extent that Zinchenko discusses what he sees as an overwhelming silence from the Russian sports community to speak out against the atrocities.
“I can’t speak to every one of them – but at least you have to do something to stop this nightmare,” he explained.
The Ukrainian full-back called on Russian footballers to speak out against the war
“If we talk about footballers, Russian footballers, I haven’t heard anything from them since the invasion.
“I promise you that if this happened with my country and my country invaded someone else, I would be one of the first to shout about it.
“I would never go back to my country, ever.
‘Imagine if everyone sprayed this information, which said, ‘Guys, stop it’.
“Believe me, the situation will change a bit for sure. They don’t understand one thing – the next generation; they are children, their grandchildren, they are going to pay. Pay how?
‘It’s not just money. They will pay with reputation. All over the world, if you show your Russian passport, everyone will look at you differently. They don’t understand that. Instead of stopping it now, they continue to believe.
“I’ve played in Russia before. [Manchester] City.
“I had a circle of friends there, very small, but I had it anyway. Now that circle has become zero.
GAME4UKRAINE will take place at Stamford Bridge on August 5th. Kick off at 6 p.m. Tickets on sale now at game4ukraine.com. Game4Ukraine will be broadcast live in the UK on Sky. There will be a free streaming option for those based in Ukraine.