I am writing from a freezing train that is traveling with the lights off. The passengers are crowded together, with bulky luggage, bags full of food and the tired eyes of people who have not slept for many nights. The toilets are unreachable because of the crowd.
To do your business, you have to make do with the small opening delimited by two iron doors that allows the passage from one train car to another.
The destination is Chmel’nyc’kyj — a place where most of these people never thought they would have to go, but which has the advantage of being close enough to Lviv on the road to the West.
This is the odyssey of Ukrainian refugees fleeing Kyiv. In the large station of the capital, the trains are literally being stormed. Everyone is jumping on the best trains — those for Lviv or the direct ones to the Polish border. People are shouting and pushing each other, and many are left on the ground. Chmel’nyc’kyj is a sort of compromise: we’ll get there for now, then we’ll see.
The Kyiv we left behind is now a ghost town. The stores are all closed, the streets empty, the traffic lights flashing. We’ve spent a week there, enough to become familiar with the mournful wail of the air raid siren. Every night it sounds at least four or five times, in the motionless silence of the deserted streets.
Maidan, the square where the revolution broke out in 2013, is now largely occupied by an immense checkpoint. The only visible people are those from the military in war gear.
Near the Cathedral of St. Sophia, weapons are being distributed to civilians. The Kalashnikovs are visibly ancient, but no one seems to mind. Together with the AK, a yellow armband is also issued to wear on one’s arm: it is the emblem of the “Territorial Defense,” the new militia set up by Zelensky.
Igor, who must be over 60, was one of yesterday’s new recruits: “This is my city, I won’t leave it even if they raze it to the ground,” he told us, smiling. “Many have left, but not me. When the Russians come, I’ll be here waiting for them.”
In general, the fighting spirit is very high. Old billboards have been replaced with large signs urging Russian soldiers to leave and abandon their weapons. “Putin, fuck you!” reads one wall.
Pronouncing the word “Kiev,” as they do in Moscow, instead of “Kyiv” according to Ukrainian pronunciation, is a gaffe that can cost you more than a few icy stares. The nervousness, very justified, is there and can be breathed constantly in the air.
Sergio, who has worked for years with companies in Italy and speaks excellent Italian, is one of the few who has decided to stay without taking up arms.
Now he lives in the basement of a building in the city center, with two bottles of water, some bags of food and a couple of mattresses thrown on the floor: “My whole life is here in Kyiv,” he smiles. “What am I supposed to do?”
The greatest fear is obviously the bombs. Everyone has been shocked by the images of the bombings of Kharkiv. One wonders: will Putin do the same in Kyiv?
For now, the streets of the center have been spared. Some bombs fell between Podil and Lavra, but they were isolated episodes: the Russians, they say, wanted to hit the ministry buildings. Maybe they got their targeting wrong. The places where there is serious fighting are in the north, along the urban belt, near the airport.
The village of Bucha is the most contested: to reach it from the south, you have to cross the remains of a destroyed bridge, going with the slow tide of displaced people who crowd the path non-stop.
The roars of battle are so loud that they can be heard up to 20 kilometers away. In Obolon, just north of central Kyiv, the Russians came in a few days ago and were pushed back. Today, citizens in the neighborhood are digging trenches and making Molotov cocktails.
The Ohmadet children’s hospital was also hit by bombs. Here, at a short distance from the station, about 300 children are hospitalized, almost all of them suffering from serious diseases or returning from the operating room. It was not possible to evacuate them: they had to be transferred to the basement.
Today, they live there, lying on the beaten earth floor. Doctors tell us that they will not be able to make it for long in such conditions: “The hygiene and health situation is disastrous,” they tell us. “We need Europe’s help, we need peace. If there is no peace, many of these children will die.”
Peace, however, is a great mirage. Nobody believes that Putin can turn back around. There is talk of humanitarian corridors, but the fear is that the last civilians will be displaced in order to have a free hand for carpet bombing.
Andrea Sceresini is co-author, with Lorenzo Giroffi, of Ucraina. La guerra che non c’era (“Ukraine. The war that was not there”), Baldini Castoldi, 2022