“I went to sleep in 2022, and woke up in 1941”, designer and former model Victoria Zavhorodnia, 30, tells me from a friend’s home in deserted Kyiv. It’s been four days since Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine and the capital city is almost entirely empty, aside from Ukrainian Army and volunteer militias who patrol the streets looking for Russian infiltrators.
“I felt so depressed, weak and miserable,” says Zavhorodnia. “We never could believe that Russia will invade us. It was absolute panic, I texted all my friends and family, and no one had any idea what to do. We were being bombed by our neighbour, where we all have friends, relatives, even children. It is killing me from the inside – it broke my heart.”
I first met Zavhorodnia, a vivacious, witty former model, at Kyiv Fashion Week when I was working as a a photographer and she was helping to coordinate the international media coverage. Less than a month later, we meet again, but this time in rather different surroundings: inside one of the city’s metro stations, which has been converted into a bomb shelter protected by an enormous steel blast door and half a dozen armed men and women standing guard behind it in case Russian troops attempt to enter. I’ve spent three nights down there so far, meeting civilians of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds sheltering underground.
As a conflict reporter from London writing for publications including the Times and openDemocracy, I’ve covered wars in Asia’s South Caucasus region and in Afghanistan over the last few years, but the situation in Ukraine is already on a scale my film and photography crew and I have never seen before. We’ve been in the country for just over a month and never believed the invasion would really happen, but in a matter of days, one of Europe’s largest, most vibrant capital cities has turned into the world’s worst war zone.
Kyiv’s thoroughfares are usually crammed with pedestrians and traffic. Now it is the center of a war that has killed hundreds of Ukrainian civilians and thousands of Russian troops. If the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence statistics are correct, the Russians have lost more than 5,000 men in four days. In the last Russian military disaster in Afghanistan, they lost 15,000 over ten years. The Ukrainians have destroyed hundreds of pieces of Russian heavy armour, making Putin pay a heavy price for every inch of Ukraine he occupies.
It has also spurned one of the largest refugee crises in European history, with hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing towards the borders of Poland. The lucky ones are driving or taking one of the few spots on trains out of Ukraine to other European countries. The more desperate – including the elderly and parents with toddlers – have been walking (often hobbling) up to 70km along motorway hard-shoulders from the western city of Lviv. Others are not able to move at all and are forced to stay and wait out the bombings.
For the thousands of civilians who have chosen or been forced to remain in the Ukrainian capital, evenings are now spent 70 metres below ground, in bunkers originally designed by the Soviets to survive nuclear missile blasts. Whole families have been living down here for days and conditions are cold and cramped and quickly turning squalid, with nothing in the way of supplies or essentials, only the possessions people thought to bring with them in those panicked minutes they had to leave their homes: mattresses, pillows, yoga mats, even pets like dogs and rabbits. One woman is reported to have given birth in the bunkers here over the weekend. The little girl has now been named Mia. God bless that child, let’s hope she grows up in a free Ukraine.
In the scariest moments, people have been handing out chocolate bars and water to boost spirits, and one couple, Platon and Barbara, even offered me a bottle of Jack Daniels over the weekend to take the edge off. He was Russian, she was Ukrainian and they were on the wrong side of Dnieper river when Russia invaded so they got trapped away from their parents’ houses. Like the star-crossed lovers in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, they regarded their elders conflict as destructive and pointless.
Each person down here has their own story to tell, but one thing unites us: being glued to our phones for updates on the war. Incredibly, mobile internet still works in the bunkers. People are checking Facebook and Twitter, sharing updates on their Instagram Stories and I’ve even been able to do live TV interviews.
On the streets above, heavy fighting can be heard daily between Russian and Ukrainian forces vying for control. Kreshatyk, the city’s main thoroughfare, is thronged with shopping centers including the most popular Western brands. On my last visit to the city, I bought myself a new wardrobe from Zara. This time, the shop was barricaded shut, while armoured personnel carriers whizzed past on their way to the frontlines and armed militias patrolled the streets searching for Russian infiltrators.
For most of the weekend, Kyiv’s residents were under a 24-hour curfew and not allowed to leave their houses or shelters for any reason. Anyone caught outside could be considered a Russian saboteur, the city’s mayor explained, which is reason to be shot on sigh. Some ventured out cautiously yesterday morning after the curfew lifted to restock on supplies, but the mood was still one of fear and anger.
Meanwhile hundreds of thousands have fled to the relative safety of western Ukraine, looking to cross the border to European countries such as Poland, Hungary or Slovakia. Fitness coach Hanna Rachina, 29, is one of those fleeing. After the bombs started falling, she threw a few changes of clothes, some essential supplies and a hair iron into an emergency bag and took one of the last evacuation trains to Lviv, 70km from the Polish border.
The day she left she said, “all I want to be doing today is to have a glass of rose wine, with my best friend, in my favourite bar in my home city. Is that really too much to ask?” as her eyes teared up. As the train pulled out of the station, she rolled up her sleeves to show me a tattoo she has just had inked onto her arm. It shows a series of numbers: the GPS coordinates for Kyiv. “I suppose I will always have a piece of Ukraine with me wherever I go now,” she says. “I never realised how much I loved my country until now.”
Like many Ukrainians, Rachina had close ties to Russia and had thought little of conflict before this. “I always felt Ukrainian, but I speak Russian as my first language, and my mother was born in Russia! Putin claims that Russian speakers are discriminated against, but everyone in Kyiv speaks it all the time. It is all such lies!” Her plan now is to go to Poland, then on to stay with her family in Estonia.
The evacuation train is full of refugees, mostly Ukrainians, but also large numbers of immigrants, particularly from India, Ghana and Nigeria. Groups of them huddle on the ground in the corridor, discussing the various European countries that might take them in. Poland’s border guard – already harshly criticized for its treatment of refugees attempting to cross from Belarus last year – has reportedly been refusing entry for anyone not from Ukraine or another western country. One group of Brazilians reported being turned back, then refused transport back to Lviv. They were forced to walk nearly 40 kilometers in the freezing cold. They slept on the side of the road, in temperatures as low as minus five.
Despite a determined Russian assault, the defences of Kyiv have held firm. Maximillian, a friend of mine from the district of Bucha on the outskirts of the city, was my tour guide on my first trip to Kyiv and showed me around its picturesque churches and hidden underground tunnels. His aim back then was to show me an edgy, unique side to a city with a great potential for tourism. They were trying to call it ‘The New Berlin’ because of its growing techno and rave seen.
Now, he is sending me videos of the intense battle that has been taking place for nearly four days. “Look at our forces just fucking crushing Putin’s pigs on the edge of my hometown!” he says. One showed a street full of burning buildings, while a group of Ukrainian fighters armed with machine guns and RPGs stood over the corpse of a Russian soldier. A voice on the recording can be heard saying, “they were Russian intelligence officers, four dead. Our buildings weren’t so lucky either!”
The war has been going much less well than the Kremlin may have anticipated. Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are extremely motivated, and many have combat experience having served tours in the war against Russian separatists in the eastern Donbass region that has been ongoing since 2014. They have repelled offensives on Kyiv and Kharkiv, and still control most of the old line of contact in the east.
But the worst for Ukraine could be yet to come. Last night, Putin unleashed carpet bombs across Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, killing dozens od civilians and injuring hundreds more. Now, he could decide to bring the full weight of his heavy artillery, tanks and airpower to take the cities street by street. If the Ukrainians defend block by block, he will have to level the cities to the ground. Putin has form for this – he has done it before in the cities of Grozny in Chechnya and Aleppo in Syria. But could he really do it to Kyiv, what he has called the ‘mother of Russian cities’?
If he does, he will face the fierce resistance of an overwhelmingly united population. Thousands of Ukrainians have chosen to stay and fight – including Ruchina, who reached the border last night but decided to turn back instead of crossing. “I’ve decided to stay in Ukraine,” she texts me, saying she’s going back to a friend’s apartment to make Molotov cocktails, or petrol bombs, to throw at any Russian vehicles that dare roll down the streets of Kyiv. They might be up against one of the world’s toughest oppositions, but she and her fellow Ukrainians will not be going down without a fight.
Tom Mutch (@Tomthescribe) studied at Oxford University and lived in London for five years, working as a parliamentary researcher. He is now a freelance conflict reporter writing for publications including the Times, Byline Times and openDemocracy