Dispatch from Ukraine: The day the war started, I watched the people disappear
Some took trains to the west. Some got onto the highways. Thousands moved into the Metros. Others are preparing to fight the Russians in the streets.
By: Joti Heir
Daria Serdtseva jerks her head up when I say, “Excuse me.” I apologize for startling her. She apologizes for being startled. Just for a moment, it feels almost like being back in Canada. But we’re not in Canada, we’re in the Kyiv Passenger Railway Station and Daria is crouched down on the cold floor with her young daughter.
She has just arrived here in tears after learning of the death of a friend in a Russian attack. I ask her where she plans to go.
“I don’t know, but somewhere we can be safe,” she says.
That’s like the plans of many of the thousands of people that have flooded through the station in recent days. Most try to board the first train they see going west in the hopes of reaching Lviv or the Polish border. The scenes on the train platforms are difficult to watch as anger, fear and frustration morph into chaotic yells and screams and pushes and pulls.
It’s the elderly, disabled and women with children that get to board first. There are no tickets, just workers guarding railway car doors. They allow a few people in at a time. Most men between the ages of 18 and 60 are banned from leaving the country under martial law. Those that do try to leave usually find themselves at the back of the line.
Daria keeps a tight grip on her daughter’s hand and clears her throat before telling me what she wants the world to know.
“I want to ask NATO, please close the sky above Ukraine, please. It’s very important because Russians’ rockets are killing our people. Today I know one of my friends was killed by Russians. It’s very hard, please don’t stop your support,” she says.
The call to close the skies is echoed by Ukrainians across the country. People are convinced that closing the skies over Ukraine is the only way to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from taking the country. The country that he believes is not a country.
The night before the invasion, I took a leisurely walk to a local market in Kyiv to buy some salmon. The sounds of people in cafes and restaurants clinking glasses, enjoying a meal, and planning tomorrow spilled happily onto the sidewalks. I cooked and ate dinner, watched a program about something insignificant, and like all Ukrainians, went to sleep and woke up in a war.
That day, February 24, is when the city’s people began to disappear from its surface. They disappeared by the thousands on highways to Ukraine’s west or bordering countries like Poland and Moldova. Those were the lucky ones, you could say.
The others disappeared underground into basements or cavernous subway stations turned bomb shelters. I saw a grandma in a wheelchair sitting in the corner of one of them. It’s the bewildered eyes that choke you.
Local officials now say close to 15,000 people are living in the underground Metro system some 300 feet below the surface.
The curfew in Kyiv starts at 8 p.m. and lasts until 7 a.m. By 10 a.m. the queues in front of some open pharmacies wind down the street. The grocery store lines are shorter as basic supplies run low. Bread is a hot commodity, water too.
Close to two million Ukrainians have fled the country since the invasion began, but another 40 million remain. An increasing number of that remaining civilian population are picking up arms. Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense says it has handed out close to 25,000 weapons to civilian volunteers. These civilian volunteers, along with volunteers who purchased their own firearms, now form a part of Ukraine’s Territorial Defence Forces.
I met civilian volunteer Stan Petrov on patrol in the centre of Kyiv.
“When the war was begin, I have two ways, go outside or stay here. I think better way is staying here because it’s my motherland. We have no chance to take the freedom from the Russia. It is last, maybe it’s last fight [for] Ukraine,” he said.
Most volunteers are like Petrov, with little-to-no training but a simple resolve to defend the country or die trying.
“This is not [the] time to be sitting on sofa, watching TV, you know,” said Petrov.
It’s almost as though Ukraine has been turned into the star of one of the underdog sports movies we watched as children. On the one side is one of the most powerful armies in the world, and on the other is the much smaller Ukrainian military propped up by inexperienced volunteers like Petrov.
While rallies around the world try to support the underdog, this story doesn’t have a neatly written plotline. The feel-good ending has already been nixed by the civilian death toll.
Russia has hit cities in the south and east of Ukraine the hardest. If the invasion continues as is, Russia will get the land bridge it’s been eying from the contested Donbas region to the annexed Crimean peninsula. And if Russia manages to capture Mariupol, then Odessa and towns further west, the northern Black Sea becomes Russian.
The Ukrainian economy depends heavily on shipping exports like wheat through the Black Sea. It also depends on imports coming in through that waterway. If Russia takes the Black Sea coast, Ukraine becomes land-locked and loses its historic link to the world.
Ukrainians have gone from disbelief to shock to sadness to anger to a form of resignation with the new reality. For some that reality means deciding to leave everything they know, like Daria. For others, it means staying to win or die, like Stan Petrov.
Kyiv has announced it will be setting up movie screens in the subway bomb shelters this week to keep spirits up. While this may distract for an hour or two, the sound of air raid sirens ringing makes it hard to forget the Russians are sitting just 50 kilometers away.
Joti Heir is a Canadian freelance journalist and writer currently based in Kyiv, Ukraine. You can reach her on her website here or find her on Twitter @jotiheir.
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Intellectually, I get (and agree with) all the reasons why NATO countries should avoid imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. But it's impossible not to be moved by the first-hand requests of the people on the ground who are suffering from this unprovoked invasion and believe that we should do more than we are doing... Sherman was right: War is cruelty, war is hell.
It was frightening to read the comments below Matt Gurney's NP column on "Missiles-but-not-MIGs" the other day. Postmedia comments are a swamp, of course, about 90% anti-vaxxer in a 90% vaxed nation....but, still, reading actual nuclear jingoism, "what's he going to do, call you a bad name", shook me. They really seemed to believe we could just shoot down his most-prized warplanes and not risk even a tactical nuke, that Putin would just not Go There.
That's the problem with the NFZ request, really: even Russia would want one last warning level before nuclear attack. They have a couple of thousand "backpack nukes" that are <1 kilotonne yield, and only 50kg to carry around. Dropping one of those ON UKRAINE, would be their way of giving a warning shot. Only Ukraine would pay a nuclear price.