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I am a journalist in Kyiv and I don’t recognize my city: people are digging trenches, queues for conscription and underground bomb shelters

Date: October 2, 2022 Time: 19:23:29

As soon as the curfew was lifted in Kyiv, I went out by car to find out what happened in our capital during the night. For two days, we residents were not allowed to go outside even during the day. Russian “sabotage groups” were discovered, street clashes took place everywhere.

I didn’t recognize my city: roadblocks in the old city, people digging trenches, fortress bridges, a subway turned into a bomb shelter. In one of the microdistricts, a crowd of up to 500 people gathered to sign up as volunteers in the territorial defense detachment. “Do you record everyone who comes?” we asked the young manager. “Almost everyone, but I don’t accept anyone under 18,” he replied. “And there are many of them, I would not be able to look their mothers in the eye, I fought in the Donbass in 2014 and 2015, so I know what war is.”

The group was predominantly male, but there were also three women. The youngest was a lawyer. “What Russia has already done to the civilian population made us react,” he said. His family lives in a small town on the Ukrainian-Russian border, which is partially destroyed. She did not tell them that she had decided to fight.

Another woman in her 60s said she was a nurse. Her husband had signed up for the self-defense units, and she felt she had to be with him. The latter was a retired officer. He entered the military because his son had already served in the Ukrainian army. “When our grandparents, who remember World War II, wanted peace, we didn’t understand why,” he said. “Now I know”.

endless fight

The numbers say one thing; experience is different. The official balance is 331 civilian deaths, according to the UN on Friday, but after more than a week of fighting, there is not a single Ukrainian who does not know someone who has been touched by the tragedy.

“This is my classmate,” a colleague wrote after seeing a photograph on the cover of The Guardian newspaper of Yelena Kurilova, wounded by shrapnel during the first shelling in Chuguev, on the eastern border. Kurilova is unwell, she cannot see with her left eye, it is getting worse. Her daughter has gone from using Instagram as a beauty blog to live streaming her bandaged mother to prove to Russian internet commentators that the injuries are real, that her mother isn’t lying.

Guardian front page, Friday 25 February 2022: Putin invades pic.twitter.com/byor4AqWCU

— The Guardian (@guardian) February 24, 2022

One of the destroyed apartments belongs to a colleague from Kyiv. A rocket hit her building and she circulated the images. He laments how hateful it was to see the same images of his apartment in the Russian media, which use them to falsely claim that Ukraine is bombing its own people.

“Those of you who came to ‘rescue’ us, leave,” a woman with a child in her arms shouted at the central station in Kyiv. “Before you came, we were fine. Just go. I only have a backpack and some money.” Like thousands of people at the station, his goal was to go somewhere else, anywhere. Ukrainian trains allow everyone, including foreign citizens, to travel without a ticket with new trains to the west.

Counting the hours: 7, 20, 70, 100, 144. This is the time the Ukrainian army spent fighting alone, the time its citizens spent resisting one of the most powerful armies in the world, now reinforced by Belarusian support. The count is just a symbol. For those who are bombed, every hour is like a year.

The main goal of the Russians is the capital Kyiv, and their army is fighting for it. But the struggle is also being waged in many small towns whose names have never made the headlines. Irpin, Gostomel, Bucha were also attacked. But they didn’t take them.

In Vasilkov, on the banks of the Stugna River, there is a school where computer scientists, builders, cooks and hairdressers study and prepare. Fortunately, 18 people living in the university residence were evacuated. The principal of the school, Lyudmila Postolenko, walked through the ruins, showing the damaged building, which had been repaired shortly before. “Thank God everyone is alive,” he said. “But our hearts are broken, our children are crying … But, you know, among our students there are builders, welders … so we will restore; and support them.”

Photos for memory

Two weeks before the invasion, when everything was quiet, I went to a city in the Donbass and met a friend: a humanitarian worker from Kyiv, who moved there with the outbreak of hostilities in the Donbass. He took the day to walk around the city and “say goodbye to the last days of peace”. Like many, he was also convinced that the Ukrainian army, which managed to defend and take the cities in the area eight years ago, was in better shape. However, as he walked through the cold but quiet industrial city, he took photographs as a keepsake. With each photo, I felt more angry. He did not want to put up with the idea that he would have to say goodbye to the world.

Driving through Kiev, I recorded queues in front of pharmacies and shops. Surreal scenes take place in heavily bombed areas: the window of the post office has been smashed for four days, but no one has plundered the place. Computers and packages in their places.

I shot billboards on the highway. They were written in Russian. “Russian soldier, stop! How can you look your children in the eyes? Stay human,” they said. “Russian soldier, stop! Do not ruin your soul for Putin’s oligarchs, leave without blood on your hands.” There were also details of the Ukrainian Defense Minister’s offer to all Russian recruits: five million rubles (40,000 euros) for those who wish to lay down their arms.

I photographed random buildings: the Kyiv zoo, the opera house, my old office. Perhaps in a day they will cease to exist.

Resist

Months before Putin’s planes attacked Ukraine, foreigners asked me how we Ukrainians could not panic. I replied that we were not afraid and that the source of our confidence was the belief that we could prove to Russia that we were ultimately invincible.

In the early days of the invasion, when nearly all civilians were killed in airstrikes that failed to reach their targets, it seemed clear that the Kremlin’s blitzkrieg was not working. But the cruise missiles that killed civilians on Kharkiv’s Freedom Square in the northeast; in the hospitals of Zhytomyr, in the west; and in the sleeping areas of Mariupol, in the south; showed that the strategy has changed. Now the plan was to terrorize the Ukrainians until they surrendered. And this is just the beginning.

Seeing the courage, unity, support and heroism of our troops, 90% of Ukrainians believe that Ukraine will win. The question is the price.

A week was enough to get used to the sirens and bomb shelters; a new reality in which I did not go outside without a bulletproof vest. In a few days we will have to get used to life without electricity and running water.

We, Ukrainians, are ready for this. But the loss of life is something else. These are losses that could and should have been avoided. This is something that we and the outside world should not get used to.

* Natalia Gumenyuk is a Ukrainian journalist specializing in conflicts and international affairs, author of The Lost Island: Stories from Occupied Crimea.

Translated by Francisco de Zarate.

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