The Ukrainian artilleryman was all set to slide the explosive shell into a launcher and send it on its way toward Russian positions — but first he had to take care of one last thing on his checklist.
“For Uman,” he scrawled on the side of the projectile with a felt-tip marker.
Then he ducked away as it roared off on a fiery trajectory to the front line.
Uman is the Ukrainian city where more than two dozen civilians were killed last month in a Russian rocket attack. But it is hardly the only city Russia has attacked, and the message on the shell was also only one of many.
After more than a year of war, Ukrainians have a lot to say to Russia, and many have chosen to say it on the sides of rockets, mortar shells and even exploding drones. Thousands of messages have been sent, ranging from the sardonic to the bitter, among them one from Valentyna Vikhorieva, whose 33-year-old son died in the war.
“For Yura, from Mom,” Ms. Vikhorieva asked an artillery unit to write on a shell. “Burn in hell for our children.”
Ms. Vikhorieva said her son, a Ukrainian soldier, was killed last spring by a Russian artillery shell.
“I will never forget,” she said in an interview. “And he will always be my boy.”
It is more than just venting.
Charity groups and even the military have seized on the desire of Ukrainians to voice their anger as a mechanism to raise funds — never mind that however well-crafted the messages, the Russians are unlikely ever to read them. The shell cases, of course, generally explode into smithereens. And if they hit their target, their intended recipients may be in no condition to appreciate them.
But for some Ukrainians, it still feels like justice, if only symbolically, said Victoria Semko, a psychologist, who works with people who endured the brutal Russian occupation of Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv.
“People are in pain because of the loss, personal and national,” Ms. Semko said. “It is normal when aggression is directed at the guilty parties.”
The cost of the messages vary. They are essentially a mechanism for encouraging donations, and people are asked to give what they can. Revenge For, one of the groups behind the campaign, says it once got a donation of $10,000. But sometimes there is no charge at all.
It is not just Ukrainians who have paid for messages. The groups behind the campaign say people from Eastern Europe still angry over the long years of Soviet rule have also written in. Oleksandr Arahat, a co-founder of one group raising money for the military through the messages, Militarny, offered some examples.
There was the writer from Israel who wanted to avenge the torture death of a grandfather by Soviet Internal Affairs. There was the Czech who wanted to commemorate the Prague Spring of 1968, when the Soviet Army put down protests. “Russians Go Home” wrote a Hungarian denouncing the Soviet invasion of his country in 1956.
But most of the message requests have come from within Ukraine, Mr. Arahat said.
One retiree, Yuriy Medynsky, 84, said he had drawn on his meager benefits to send a message not once but repeatedly to honor his grandson, who was 33 when he was killed fighting in the Kharkiv region in the spring of 2022.
“To Katsap hermits for Maksym Medynsky. Grandpa,” he wrote, using an epithet for the Russians.
“I put in my message all the hate I feel for Muscovites,” Mr. Medynsky said. He paid about $13 for each message.
His daughter-in-law, Tetyana Medynska, Maksym’s widow, has also sent repeated messages.
“Personally for me it’s a tiny bit of revenge,” she said. “I do not imagine killing someone particular, as they are all guilty, all Russians who came to Ukraine. They have no faces for me. When I send money for the message on the bombs, I feel some kind of psychological relief.”
Some have struck a tone of irony.
“When my friend got married, she asked to write her maiden name on the mortar, to say farewell to it,” said Private Vladyslav, a soldier at a mortar position outside the town of Toretsk, in eastern Ukraine.
He himself once sent a message: “I congratulated my mom on her birthday this way,” Private Vladyslav said.
At that moment, he was preparing an 82-mm mortar with a message from a comrade, Private Borys Khodorkovsky, who was celebrating his 50th birthday at the front.
“I want those devils to know that I am here, and want them to feel bad,” Private Khodorkovsky said. “Psychologically, I know that this mortar will hit something and fewer of my brothers in arms will die, and fewer Russians will shoot at us.”
But most messages seethe with unvarnished fury.
“For the destroyed childhood,” wrote Dmytro Yakovenko, 38, a pharmacist. He has two daughters, 11 and 14. The family lived through a harrowing bombardment and then evacuation of their hometown, Lozova, in the Kharkiv region.
“My daughters’ childhood is destroyed,” he said. “I want Russians to know why this mortar is flying their way.”
The unit that fired the mortar with a message for Ms. Vikhorieva, whose son was killed fighting, is a small one. Its members say that they have used the money raised by selling messages to repair vehicles, and that they have fired more than 200 personalized mortar shells to date.
“I feel uneasy when a person orders a message for the loss of a loved one, and I know that nothing will change,” said Ihor Slaiko, the commander. “But I still sign them.”
His men dutifully inscribe the words onto the shell — and then send them toward Russian lines with a boom.