“The Russians have invaded.” That’s how I was woken up this morning shortly after 5 a.m. by a phone call.
During the night, from my lodging near Maidan Square, I did not hear the tremendous roars of the bombing that many have reported. The confused news of this dawn of war is not easy to verify from Kyiv, but what is certain is that the city is empty, the stores are closed, there are queues in front of the ATMs, sometimes even tens of meters long, and most of the machines no longer give out money. At first I thought they had blocked them, but then I managed to withdraw cash, so they are running out of banknotes. Even the grocery stores have lines, with most people buying giant bottles of water, bread, cookies and chocolate.
Some merchants have already stopped accepting credit cards, and the hardware store a few steps from my front door is literally getting dismantled. At 9, the owner has already filled a van with machinery and tools, seemingly ready to go; while the blank keys that he dropped are scattered on the counter and on the sidewalk. He’s not the only one: the few people walking down the street (with the exception of the military and the police force) have suitcases, backpacks and duffel bags, they’re heading en masse to the nearby subway station (here as well, there’s a fairly long line at the ATM) and some are loading up the trunks of cars.
Military personnel have bulging backpacks, helmets attached and rifles on their shoulders. In front of the town hall, there is a large group intent on listening to the orders of the squad leader. Not far away, a bench with the red and black flag of the volunteers is collecting signups (there are about twenty people there) and distributing equipment and backpacks.
To complicate everything, the weather is terrible, with the sky a clear and oppressive gray, where one cannot guess where the sun is. At times, a persistent thin drizzle falls that gets in your eyes.
A little while ago, Oleksii, an acquaintance who lives on the other side of the river and works as a photographer, sent me a message to ask if I was okay and to inform me that he and some friends saw “war planes, troop movements and missile trails” last night. They live halfway to the airports in Chernihiv and Boryspil.
At the moment, the only confirmed rumor in town is that the Kyiv airport has been hit hard and the airspace over Ukraine is closed.
Unofficial but reliable sources report attacks on military sites near Kharkiv and Mariupol, as well as in the north. But, at the moment, it seems that a land invasion is not yet underway, not even from Belarus. Too much conflicting news is coming from Odessa; we will send updates as soon as they are verified.
In front of the town hall, there is a booth with the insignia of Pravyi Sektor (“right sector,” n.ed.), gathering volunteers under the watch of dozens of waiting soldiers. A few are young, but the majority are middle-aged men. About ten girls are also ready with their backpacks, from which the sleeping bag mats are protruding. They refuse to give statements, perhaps mindful of the fact that journalists across half of Europe have criticized them for their neo-Nazi ideas.
Recent news speaks of Russian paratrooper commandos in the Kyiv area that are targeting government buildings, while other sources cite Russian ground assets in the region of the Ukrainian capital. But neither of these reports have been confirmed as of yet.
What we do know is that there have been more than 30 air raids by Moscow’s air force, that one Ukrainian plane was shot down (causing the death of the 5 crew members) and that in both Odessa and Mariupol the dead numbered at least 40. In Kyiv, apart from the sirens, silence still reigns: a terrible silence. But outside the city, it seems that the military airport of Hostomel has also been damaged.
In mid-morning, news arrives from Mariupol of destroyed houses and wounded people, while nevertheless the Russian government (at 11:09 am) reiterates that it will not attack civilian targets. “But you still read the news coming from Russia,” says Max, in front of one of the very few kiosks still open, “don’t you understand that Putin is crazy?” Max is a Belarusian journalist, a political refugee in Ukraine who, after insulting the Kremlin for a while, tells me “if the Russians come here, they will go back home with Cargo 200.” What does that mean, I ask him, and he writes on his cell phone because he can’t explain it well: the answer is “in coffins.” At the moment, however, it doesn’t look like his predictions will come true.
After the morning’s scenes, the rush to the stores for supplies and to ATMs has stopped. Many of those that were still open a couple of hours ago have now lowered their shutters and it’s hard to find anything to buy. Anything at all. There is speculation that they will soon cut the power and telephone lines, and in the meantime Wi-Fi is not available in hotels.
Kreshatyk Avenue is empty. I’ve never seen it like this: the few cars that pass by are government vehicles or are speeding away, perhaps towards the west.
Under the column in Maidan Square, two old men with flags are alone and waving incessantly. “This is our protest against the Russians, these are the insignia of our national heroes.” They’re staying there despite the rain, and an hour later I find them in the same spot.
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