New York - On the morning of Thursday February 24th, Andrei woke up suddenly at 5:30 to a call from his father, a doctor in one of the main hospitals in Kyiv: "Wake up because they are bombing Kyiv. You have to leave the city now”. “I was pretty scared. First, I drove to my girlfriend's house, which is not far from my place in Kyiv. Then, when I realized that my father would not have left the city in order to treat civilian casualties, we left the city.”

Andrei is 25 years old. He earned a degree in computer science at Kyiv Polytechnic Institute and, like most of his peers, he works as a computer engineer for a Ukrainian company that sells IT services abroad, mainly to US and European companies.

Now he is one of the hundreds of Ukrainian and international hackers that is running an information war against Russia.

He tells his story through an exclusive telephone interview, asking for his real name and the city he is in right now to remain secret. His voice, despite being filtered by a software to make it unrecognizable, sounds bright and young, and he tells his story quickly, at times interrupted by sighs and long moments of silence.

“That morning was awful.

I took the car and we started driving to go as far as possible from Kyiv, we still didn't understand very well what was happening but the streets were already full of cars and people, people trying to get as much as possible from the counters of the banks, endless queues in front of petrol stations,” Andrei continues. At the moment, he is 400 kilometers west of Kyiv with his mother and his sister, while his girlfriend is already abroad in Lithuania: "As soon as possible I would like my mother and sister to leave the country too.”

Three weeks have passed since the start of the war in Ukraine, and according to figures provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Russian invasion has forced over three million Ukrainian citizens to leave the country.

Kyiv alone has lost more than half of its population - around 2 million citizens out of 2.8 million total - who have taken refuge in the west of the country, in small rural centers, or have queued for dozens of hours to cross the border and enter Europe as refugees.

The number of deaths among Ukrainian military and civilians also continues to rise, despite no reliable official data: the Ukrainian authorities speak of more than 20,000 deaths in the border city of Mariupol alone, which has subjected to a blockade by Putin’s forces and struck by more than 100 aerial bombs.

Several international observers claim that the death tolls of this war are much higher, especially among Ukrainian civilians and the Russian military, despite Putin's propaganda machine continuing to disseminate false or unverifiable data through dozens of state-controlled media outlets that describe the invasion as "a special military operation” to liberate Ukraine.

At the opposite end of the country - in the Southwest region of the Carpathian mountains - another 25-year-old from Kyiv is seeking refuge: Igor, a business development manager for a Ukrainian company. He has a girlfriend and has lived for years in Europe, mainly in Germany where he studied. “I am in a safe location, in a hotel that hosts tourists and skiers in times of peace and now gives accommodation to dozens of families who cannot or do not want to leave the country.”

For Igor, as for Andrei and thousands of other young Ukrainians, the war marked a gap between life as before - an intense life "between work, family and friends as in a normal European city" - and today's reality, defined by fear, the constant monitoring for news, and sleepless nights scrolling on mobile screens.

“I didn’t have time to react,” Andrei tells me on the phone. “It was the 23rd of February and I was thinking it was never gonna happen, I didn't believe in the possibility of a Russian attack. So I went to sleep with the idea that nothing is going to happen. At 5 in the morning next day I got a call from my mother, who heard several explosions, then I heard explosions myself and yes, it was the first day of invasion when the rockets hit the main infrastructures of Ukraine, a couple of airports: we heard explosions and Putin officially said that they’re gonna start invading Ukraine.”

Andrei and Igor are not the only ones who have fled Ukrainian cities to take refuge in the countryside, where the risk of bombing or attack is much lower.

Some might call them deserters or dodgers, even though there is no law in Ukraine that obliges its citizens to enlist. For now, the Ukrainian government has banned male citizens between 18 and 60 from leaving the country, but has not forced them to enlist to fight in the army.

Igor explains to Blasting News that he is not running away from his duties as a Ukrainian citizen: "I’ll be honest with you, I do not have any military experience. I am scared, I think that this is the main reason why I’m here. I’m still young and I do not know how I feel about going into a fight. I have never had a gun in my hands,” explains Igor who tells me that he thought of leaving the country in the first place but then preferred to avoid crossing the borders illegally: “I want to stand by my fellow citizens and help,” adding that continues to make donations to various associations and groups that have mobilized in recent weeks to help the populations affected by the war.

Like them, thousands of young Ukrainians are fighting a parallel war without weapons, far from the front lines. “There are many other friends of ours who have made the same choice,” says Andrei.

They fight from a distance, without being part of the army, from the Western part of Ukraine, for now the safest part of the country. "At first, when the war broke out, I thought about joining the military,” says Andrei. “But then I thought that I could be useful by doing what I do best: working as a computer scientist carrying out targeted attacks against Russian infrastructures.”

Andrei and his friend Marty, who joins our conversation in Ukrainian from time to time, tell me that they are part of the IT Army, a decentralized group of computer scientists and hackers organized by the Ukrainian government that in recent weeks has carried out several attacks against Russian government sites.

“We are a group of computer programmers and engineers from Ukraine and around the world and we are attacking Russian government websites. If we do not attack they will attack," Andrei says, adding: “We organize ourselves on Telegram and we are a fairly large community: I believe this is my task, I am not able to fight but I know that I can have many more results working in the information warfare.”

Despite work and activism taking up most of the day, Andrei remembers life in peacetime as something far away: "Yesterday I realized that I don't remember what my life was like 15 days ago. Because it was another life. We lived a very fast life: in the office all day, then at home and at the weekend with friends at the bar.

Now all this has disappeared ”.

Igor and Andrei have the same dream: to win this war and start rebuilding a country that is increasingly integrated with Europe. They repeat it several times during our phone call. "We are not running away, we are here because we love Ukraine,” Igor tells me. “These two weeks were like a roller coaster: one day you are thinking we're gonna lose, then the day after you are full of euphoria and you think that we are going to win. I am convinced that Russia has already lost this war. Sanctions are hitting hard. My dream is to return to my city, Kyiv, and help rebuild the country. This war is not the war against Russia, it is the war for our future. It is the war for our independence, to be recognized as a single, united country.”