Kyiv: Life under the constant threat of attack

Residents in the Ukrainian capital are trying to carry on with their lives as best as possible without forgetting that their city remains one of Russia’s targets

Anton says goodbye to his daughter Camila, who is going to Poland with her mother.
Anton says goodbye to his daughter Camila, who is going to Poland with her mother.Luis de Vega

Camila hugs her father. She rewards him with kisses, hugs and smiles. Anton holds her in his arms then lifts her up in the air, trying to keep her amused while the mother, Elisabeth, stands in line to buy a train ticket at Kyiv’s railway station. The 30-year-old Anton, who has a rifle slung over his shoulder, is about to say goodbye to his wife and child. They are going to Poland, while he is going to stay behind to fight on the Irpin front, one of the key areas outside the capital where defenders have prevented Russian troops from taking the city.

Now that several weeks have passed since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine, Kyiv is trying to adapt to the new reality. Russian tanks have so far failed to roll into the city center and overthrow the government of Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Life is not at a standstill the way it was in the days following February 24. But the city’s remaining residents – around half the population has already left – cannot simply ignore the war, either. And so everyone goes about their daily lives under the constant threat of an attack.

Citizens on the street say they distrust Moscow’s intentions at the negotiations that are currently underway between both governments in Turkey. The Kremlin’s announcement that it would scale down its attacks on Kyiv and the badly battered northern city of Chernihiv has not been received with optimism here.

But life must go on. One of the most recent decisions made by the mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, is that students should resume classes through remote learning. Many are doing so from a location far away from their school, their city and even their country in some cases. Addressing her 80 students through a screen, Julia Pidipryhora, who holds a degree in Spanish studies, explains the Spanish-American war of 1898. At least three of her students are connecting from Spain. Others are currently in Poland and Italy. Most are no longer in Kyiv.

A market in the Galagany neighborhood of Kyiv continues to receive some customers despite the war.
A market in the Galagany neighborhood of Kyiv continues to receive some customers despite the war.Luis de Vega

“I don’t believe anything that the Russians say. We can’t trust them,” says Pidipryhora, adding that she herself has no plans to leave Ukraine. “I will not leave due to the whim of a madman who wants to take over my country.”

In Kyiv, all the main supermarkets are still open and there is no significant shortage of food. There are no hour-long waits at gas stations, the way it was when everyone thought they should fill up the tank in case they had to leave in a hurry if the Russians showed up. Electricity, water and heating are still being supplied to homes. But to this day there are still long lines in front of pharmacies, banks and courier companies, providing a stark contrast with the otherwise half-deserted streets. In the neighborhood of Galagany, the weekly street market on Tuesday was made up of just a dozen stalls that attracted few clients. A butcher named Victor carved pieces of lamb and pork and said he was trying to keep his prices stable, but that there were many days when it was impossible to go to work.

The railway station is no longer filled with tens of thousands of people fighting for a spot on a train out of the capital. Anton, who is still holding Camila in his arms, explains that he used to work as a truck driver for a Polish company. The start of the war caught him by surprise while he was on the road in France. He hadn’t seen his family for six months. He turned the truck around and drove right back to take up arms and defend his country. For this family, the war has meant a change in roles: now it is Anton who is in Ukraine, while Elisabeth and Camila will be living abroad.

Dozens of volunteers sandbag a monument to Princess Olga in the center of Kyiv to protect it from a possible attack.
Dozens of volunteers sandbag a monument to Princess Olga in the center of Kyiv to protect it from a possible attack. Luis de Vega

Boris is a lawyer who is now volunteering for the city government. He opposes the idea of Ukraine negotiating anything with Russia, at least not before Russian troops end their occupation. On Monday morning, Boris was helping other volunteers protect a local monument – a statue of 10th-century ruler Princess Olga – with sandbags. Several dozen men and women were busy filling bags bearing the logo of a Brazilian company that are normally used to pack food.

And in between this coming and going is Paul, a 42-year-old forest ranger from Austria who lost his job during the Covid-19 pandemic. This newfound role has pulled him out of his depression, he explains. Paul has been living at a local resident’s home for the last two weeks and he is volunteering to do anything short of fighting on the front. He will fill sandbags. He will wash dishes. “I am trying to prove that we can change our society. My own country already went through fucking hell 80 years ago, excuse my language,” he says. “I don’t want to lay a finger on a weapon.”

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