Kyiv residents hold their breath, as Russian troops strike fear and loathing
Russian forces reached the outskirts of Kyiv several days ago, and violent fighting rages daily in its northern suburbs. For those who have not fled the Ukrainian capital, life has ground to a halt, and existence is punctuated by the rhythm of sirens and the rumblings of fighting. FRANCE 24 meets some residents of the Ukrainian capital.
Yuri Podorozhnii leads us to his terrace as soon as we arrive at his 13th floor apartment in southern Kyiv. Staring out at the skyline of residential buildings, the portly 48-year-old manages a wan smile. “It’s my therapy,” Podorozhnii confides. “Every morning, I come to see if the huge flag flying over the National Bank of Ukraine and the Motherland Monument, the city’s iconic landmark, are still there,” he explains.
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24, this academic turned political communications consultant now lives alone in his apartment: his wife and daughter have fled into exile. After passing through Ukraine’s western city of Lviv and then Berlin, they are currently in Sweden, where a local has provided them an apartment.
Cheerful by nature, Yuri rattles off his story at breakneck speed. But this morning, tears start to roll down his cheeks. In just two weeks, his life has been shattered: His 12-year-old daughter has been separated from him and is now living thousands of kilometres away from Kyiv. As absurd as it is unreal, there are only four families left in his 20-storey apartment bloc.
Joining his family was not on the agenda. Under martial law, which was imposed the day after Russia launched a multi-pronged assault on Ukraine, men aged between 18 and 60 can no longer leave the country. At 48, Yuri can still be mobilised by the army, or called upon by the Territorial Defence Forces of armed volunteers
In his kitchen, he pulls himself together to answer some questions from a Ukrainian TV channel via Skype, with a strong, confident voice. A political insider, Yuri notes that the war was inevitable for those who knew how to decipher the true intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “The war will be long because Putin hates Ukrainians. Killing Ukrainians is what he calls denazification. He lies, manipulates and what he really wants is to establish a pro-Russian regime,” he explained via his computer.
While preparing a meal for the building caretaker, who can no longer go home and now sleeps here, he adds: “We know how to resist the Russians. I come from western Ukraine and I remember the stories of my grandparents, who fought the Red Army long after the end of World War II, until 1953.”
On a beautiful cold morning, Yuri explains that he has to go to the Territorial Defence local headquarters, which asked him to do some “administrative work”. We offer him a lift in our car, and before leaving us in the middle of a huge but completely empty avenue in the Ukrainian capital, he assures us: “As long as we are here, Kyiv will resist”.
“Love and rage give me the strength to still be alive and to live”
In another district of southern Kyiv, we meet Natalia a few hundred metres from her house. The young woman walks towards us with an aiki-jo, a wooden stick used in aikido in her hands: “It can’t protect me from missiles but I feel calmer when I have it with me,” she immediately explains. “I feel safer because nobody knows what will happen tomorrow, or even the next second or minute. It’s a very difficult situation.”
We follow her through this neighbourhood made of individual houses surrounded by vegetable gardens. Along the way, she explains that her partner, who has been a soldier for three years, is now fighting in the southern city of Mariupol that is besieged and being pummelled by the Russian army. “I send him a message on Telegram every day, but for the last nine days I see that he hasn’t logged on. I have no news and I am very worried.”
Natalia, who used to work for a company in the agricultural sector, takes us to her “women’s house” as she calls it. She lives here with her mother, a neighbour who cannot bear to be alone, a cousin who lost her husband in the bombing of Kyiv’s airport on the first day of the war, and Natalia’s little son, Oleksander.
The four women help each other cope with a daily life getting increasingly harder with the war. “We have food, a basement, running water, heating, internet, telephone. We also have water supplies. Most of the shops are closed, but here in the neighbourhood there is a supermarket that opens from time to time. I buy what I can find. Milk, fresh cheese, meat, pasta, it depends on the day. You never know when it will open, nor what you will find. I buy much more than we need because nobody knows what will happen next.”
Every night, they go down to the cellar they have set up to sleep in comfort, and prepare for a long ordeal: None of them have any plans to leave Kyiv for the time being. The city of nearly 3.5 million has been emptied of half its inhabitants, according to its mayor, former boxer Vitali Klitschko.
Natalia speaks calmly and decisively about her daily routine of cooking canned fruit and vegetables from the garden, but also about the unbearable wait. “I feel two things … they’re like two wings attached to me: Love for my country, for my man who defends us. And also rage: I don’t understand that Russian soldiers and ordinary Russian citizens allow this to happen, it’s inhuman. These two feelings give me the strength to still be alive and to live.”
At 36, Natalia looks strong and determined. In addition to her aiki-jo, she shows us an axe and a baseball bat that she has laid out at the entrance to the house. There’s also a hunting knife that she wears on her belt. But she also says she feels a heavy sense of anxiety and isolation when loud explosions erupt.
“We don’t know how much longer we will be safe in Kyiv. That’s why every day I clean everything in the house. Because I know that tomorrow there might not be any water or electricity. We hear explosions every day. I am here and not at the battlefront because I have an eight-year-old son and a mother who can hardly move: I have no choice. Otherwise I would be defending our homeland with the other men and women.”
On the main avenues, blocked by checkpoints and concrete blocks, cars do not linger and the few passersby line up in front of the few pharmacies and supermarkets that are still open. Over the past two days, Russian strikes have hit residential buildings in the city, killing at least four civilians. With muffled detonations heard in the distance every day, Kyiv is holding its breath.
This story has been adapted from the original in French.