‘I’ve seen the corpses, but I haven’t left Kyiv’ The first few days of Russia’s war against Ukraine — through the eyes of the capital’s residents
It’s now been four days since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Yesterday, Russian troops advanced into Kyiv and continued shelling the city. As fighting took place on the streets of the Ukrainian capital, Meduza reached out to different Kyiv residents for eyewitness accounts of this past week’s events. Some of the people we spoke to were hiding in shelters, others had decided to join territorial defense groups, and some were evacuating the city altogether. Here are their stories.
Please note. This article was originally published in Russian on February 26, 2022.
We knew and understood that a war would begin: we were monitoring the news, I had my go-bag packed about a week before [the start of the war]. But we still had hopes that it wouldn’t happen, that things would work out. Not everyone was fully prepared; some people hadn’t had time to withdraw cash, some people hadn’t packed their essentials.
At five in the morning on February 24, I woke up to the sound of explosions. I live in Lukyanivka, a neighborhood close to Kyiv’s center. You could hear the faint sound of explosions from here, and since I’d been having nightmares about war for an entire two months before it began, I thought this was a dream, too — so I went back to sleep.
At seven in the morning, I woke up and saw messages from my loved ones from Kyiv, the suburbs, and other countries: “Where are you?” “What are you doing?” “They’re dropping bombs.” It was a shitty feeling. I spent all morning calling everyone, explaining where I was and what I was doing. I was terrified, in a panic, I couldn’t hear anything. I looked out the window and thought about what to do.
I live on the second floor of a high-rise apartment building. It’s not safe there. I read about the bomb shelters and realized I needed to get underground. I worked until lunch [on February 24], spoke with my coworkers, and then I saw my neighbors heading to the shelter, so I headed down with them. We went down into the basement with our things, with our pets. We tried to make sense of what was happening — constantly writing to everyone, calling everyone, getting to know each other.
We’ve been in the shelter for three days now. It’s the basement of an old building, there are a lot of different rooms. Where I am, there are about 10 people in different corners. We sleep on pallets from the store that we’ve made up with our blankets. We have all of the essentials with us. There’s a bathroom and electricity here, but we don’t know how long those things will be working.
The only thing we’re missing right now is a way to wash ourselves, clean underwear. The shelter does have a shower, but it’s in a concrete room with a dirty film. Some of the others showered, but I didn’t risk it. I want to go out and walk around and get some fresh air, see my family, because I’m alone here and all of my people are in different places. There are people here, and we’ve all banded together, but at the end of the day, we’re still strangers.
We don’t have a ton of food, but there’s a store nearby. Since they’re bombing Kyiv, the only time we’ve been leaving the shelter is to smoke.
I haven’t slept in two nights. Last night, the sirens were awful, Kyiv was getting bombed from all sides. Bombed from missile launchers, from planes. But our armed forces have been shooting everything down and holding them off.
You can feel the danger in the city — the air smells like ash, you can hear the shelling. In our district, there are constant battles, tanks rolling in, APCs. The flashes from missiles being shot down in other districts are constant. A lot of our guys are on duty all over Kyiv, a lot of people have been signing for the armed forces.
Kyiv is my home. I’m not going to leave it, we’re not going to give up Kyiv. We have faith in our army, the Ukrainian armed forces, and the volunteers. I plan to stay in Kyiv until the Russian troops completely surrender and the Putin regime comes to an end. I’m not going anywhere. Our territorial defense guys and our soldiers are armed. We [Ukrainians] are ready to fight.
The Russian occupiers are bombing apartment buildings, people are being killed, and, in the Kyiv region, a child was killed. The notion that they’re only attacking military targets is a lie — they’re attacking both military targets and residential buildings.
We’re trying to hold on. It helps that we’ve been texting and calling everybody. We have, thank God, phone and Internet connection, and I hope we’ll continue to. They’ve destroyed a lot of our apartments, bridges, and buildings, but our people are persistent. We’re on our own land and we didn’t set out to kill anyone — it’s the Russian invaders who came to kill us.
I hope it won’t be long before we win the war and liberate our country. I can’t imagine us backing down. I believe in our president, in our army, and that we’ll soon come out of the shelter and go home.
I decided to join the territorial defense brigades — they started (active) enrollment on February 24. You can’t imagine the number of people who want to sign up — it’s thousands, just thousands. Yesterday, we were standing in line for four hours and then some, and in that time, they only managed to sign up a quarter of the people who wanted to join, at the most. We decided to go back today, but today the line was even longer — so we’ll keep trying.
The purpose of these brigades is to help the civilians who are just sitting at home and shaking in fear. In the apartment buildings that are constantly being shot at. They’re hiding in bomb shelters, in hideouts. So territorial defense units aren’t just to neutralize saboteurs — though we seem to have a lot of them. We have a number of rules for distinguishing our people from theirs — you’re supposed to ask them questions in rapid succession and watch how they behave, how they move around the area.
There are a lot of videos showing the Russian soldiers looking confused — they don’t even understand where they’ve been sent. Or, you know, they lie and say they were told they were just being sent to do some combat exercises. Apparently Russian soldiers are so weak that they’ll go to a foreign country because they’re too scared to disobey orders. But our country, we’re going to protect it to the end — even though Kyiv is being shot at and everyone is sitting in their homes or in shelters, the city is well-defended.
What’s happening is unforgivable. I understand that you have reasonable people [in Russia], but there seem to be very few of them. It’s too bad. I wish you the strength to finally get up off your knees!
Early in the morning on [February] 24, they began bombing Kyiv: rockets appeared, and you could hear explosions. Everyone was prepared for it, the whole country had been preparing. After all, Russia started a war against Ukraine in 2014, and it hasn’t stopped since then.
We’ve spent all of these days defending ourselves. I won’t say whether I joined the territorial defense brigade. It’s not something you can talk about, of course. There are a lot of saboteurs at work here. There are a lot of people working here who don’t wish us well. There are [Russian soldiers] in disguise working here — so we’re forced to trust only those we know. That’s been confirmed over and over again in practice.
We’re standing up to the aggressor as best we can. The way we organize our work and our community is all for the purpose of resisting and doing all we can to make it impossible for our enemy to continue on. The enemy is Russia — it’s Russians who started the war, it’s Russians who brought weapons onto our territory.
In the city and in the suburbs, there’s an all-out war: explosions, people waiting in lines, and people carrying weapons. A lot of people have died — people in camouflage and complete civilians alike. I’ve already seen the corpses, but I haven’t left Kyiv.
The way I found out the war had started was pretty odd. The day before was my friend’s birthday, so we celebrated loudly, and I came back home at three in the morning and went straight to sleep. I was ina really deep sleep. At nine in the morning, I was woken up by a call from my friend: “What, are you sleeping? The war has begun, how can you sleep?” I didn’t believe it, I thought it was a joke, but then I saw all my notifications and realized something really was wrong. There was news coming out of the whole country, there were talking about strikes on Hostomel [an airport outside Kyiv]. I could hear fighter jets flying.
I immediately called my grandmother because she lives in Luhansk. I learned what was happening there. There had been constant shelling there for the last few weeks — and it just got worse after Russia recognized the “LNR” and the “DNR.” My grandmother said there was shooting and that the entire city was “frozen.” She was supposed to have surgery, but it was canceled. They’re all just sitting at home and listening to what’s happening.
Then I called mom my mom — she lives abroad. She and I decided not to panic; we learned from bitter experience in 2014 and 2015, and we basically know how to handle these things. But the day was so hectic. Immediately after that conversation, I packed the bare minimum, grabbed by documents and a set of clothes and toiletries, and immediately rushed to my friend’s house, the one who had told me about the war. I stayed at his place all day, tried to get some work done, but it was hard not to get distracted by the news because things were happening so fast.
For those two days, we could hear the aircraft and the anti-aircraft fire thundering back and forth, loud bangs. I live in the very center of Kyiv, and I can’t hear everything as well as the people who live further out, where the active fighting is happening. I’ve limited my movement and started spending almost all my time at home. But it’s mostly only men who are still in the city. I sometimes go out on the balcony to see who’s walking around: it’s men and the territorial defense brigades, both guys and girls. One of my coworkers told me she went to sign up and the lines were crazy, there were so many people. Personally, I don’t really want to go — I’m just not the most aggressive person, and I’m in a lot of pain right now because I’m reliving the events of eight years ago. It’s really unpleasant. And while I’m not panicking, my mood isn’t the best. I feel anxious about what might happen next.
I’ve already packed my suitcase. I’m planning to catch the evening train to Lviv, and from there I’ll go to Poland, where my parents will pick me up at the border. If that plan doesn’t work out, I’ll return home and wait there. I have water and food, although I gave some to the older people who live in my building. But I have some canned goods, I have some groats, so I’ll stay put as long as I can.
Most of my friends have managed to leave in the last few days. The ones who work for international companies left back before the sixteenth [the day a number of Western media outlets predicted Putin would launch an invasion]. But a lot of my friends stayed in Kyiv, in shelters. And if it comes down to it, I have some options to make sure I’m not alone.
People knew the attack was coming a few hours before it happened. They attacked at four in the morning on the twenty-fourth But because my background is in journalism and I have all kinds of contacts, I learned about the attack from unofficial sources the previous evening.
But nobody fully believed that there would really be an attack. We collected our things, our go-bags, stocked up on groceries, I filled up the car with gas, and then I went to sleep. At six in the morning, I was awoken by my uncle, who has connections to the security forces, and he told me the war had begun. At first, I panicked: what should we do? Do we need to leave right now? At 6:30 in the morning, a traffic jam instantly formed on the road out of Kyiv. We decided not to evacuate quite yet since we’d just be creating more traffic.
That first day, there weren’t any missile strikes, the fighter jets just flew over the city. But then the clashes at the airfield began — it mostly affected the people who were close to the military facilities: Hostomel, Vasylkiv. My girlfriend lives in Irpin, a city close to Hostomel, and it’s very tense there because they’re constantly launching strikes against the military facility. There’s artillery fire literally every hour — it’s never calm for more than an hour a day. People are hiding in their basements, or even just in their bathtubs.
Some are even afraid to leave their apartment because of the looting. But they organized the territorial defense [brigade] in Kyiv very early on — it’s fully equipped. If they see a case of looting, they react quite severely and beat the looter.
I spent all day yesterday on the road. The same people who warned me that Russia was going to attack warned me that there would be missile strikes last night, and it turned out to be true. So my friends and I headed to western Ukraine on the Odesa highway. We packed our stuff in the trunk and left. I drove for an entire day, intentionally staying on backroads in order to avoid active military sites.
People have become more suspicious towards everyone — including one another. Yesterday, we were traveling in two cars, stopping once in a while to decide which way to go because they kept announcing airstrikes that interfered with our route. At one point, a car stopped near us. The people inside thought we were saboteurs. We tried to have a dialogue with them, let them feel us out. It was actually pretty funny — you could feel everyone listening to the semitones in each other’s voices. They’re talking to you in Ukrainian and even a single wrong word can be taken the wrong way — and can spark a conflict.
But overall, everybody here is mobilized and confident in the armed forces’ ability to protect us. They also set up the territorial defense brigade and streamlined the process for distributing weapons. The number of people who are joining these groups and are prepared to fight is pretty high. The ones who aren’t fighting are trying to help however they can: actively donating blood, providing food and necessities to evacuees from hot spots. That’s how our society is: everybody’s ready to protect the motherland.
Translation by Sam Breazeale