As we put our backpacks in the trunk of the minivan that came to pick us up to continue our journey to Lviv, Lena and her mother were watching us from the sidewalk. We had met by chance a few hours earlier at the guesthouse. They had just arrived from Mykolaiv, where they’d left everything behind.
We don’t know their story, we only know that while we were saying goodbye, her mother started to cry. We approached her and she hugged us. She couldn’t believe we were going back to the places that had traumatized her. “Please be careful,” she said through tears, with a voice full of both affection and apprehension. It’s not easy to understand and relate to the way in which war somehow manages to bring out a disarming humanity in those who experience it. But that’s how it is.
With this image, we set out on a journey through western Ukraine. During the night, the bombing was more intense than usual, especially in the eastern part of the country and in the south. Kharkiv, Okhtyrka, Sumy, Chernihiv, Poltava, Zhaporizhzhia and Kherson were just some of the cities where the sirens sounded non-stop.
In the capital, at 4 a.m., attacks lit up the night sky in a bright red, but then the situation remained stable. The feared carpet bombing of the center didn’t come last night either. After all, for the Russians, bombing Kyiv would be like hitting one of their own cities. Like destroying a symbol of Russian history, called by Putin himself “the cradle of our nation.”
In Kharkiv and in the whole north-east, however, the Russians have definitely raised the level of the clash, unleashing much more violent and impressive military actions. According to Ukrainian army sources, three schools and the Cathedral of the Assumption have been hit hard, as well as the area of the city hall that has seen further damage after Thursday’s intense bombardment.
Here, a member of the special mission of the OSCE, Maryna Fenina, was surprised by a sudden strike and died while delivering food supplies to her family. A flag of mourning was raised in front of the OSCE headquarters in Vienna, and in a statement the organization denounced the Russian military actions against Ukraine and strongly condemned the bombing of civilian areas. In Okhtyrka, not far away, dozens of residential buildings were destroyed by heavy artillery fire.
According to the United Nations Humanitarian Monitoring Mission, at least 752 civilians have been killed in Ukraine since the conflict began at midnight on March 1. The number of refugees has reportedly reached one million individuals.
Passing roadblock after roadblock — by the end of the day we counted at least twenty — we passed through villages and towns blanketed by a light but incessant snowfall. The landscape of the Ukrainian countryside was once again tinged with white, as it was two weeks ago, when we were in Kharkiv to report on the situation along the eastern border.
“In the west, they know,” Bogdan had told us then. “But even during 2014, many of them continued to live their lives normally, as if nothing was happening. You will see that if things go wrong, they will all take refuge there, and you know what they will find? A lot of people who will ask them with a surprised look, ‘how come you’re all here?’.”
Today, we can refute that prophecy. The villages are deserted just like the cities, while closer to the border with Moldova the men guarding the provincial road don’t even have uniforms and many of them carry hunter’s rifles on their shoulders. As you go farther, the situation changes: more military, more organization, forts built with concrete blocks, firing positions, trenches. Many are also checking documents, despite the fact that the traffic here is more local than anything else.
Ukrainian TV channels began the eighth day with a war news report. Without dwelling on the various briefings, the most striking figure was that of 9,000 Russian soldiers killed in combat. The day before, the bulletin reported 5,840. We have no possibility to verify these figures and we have no information from the other side. We do know for sure that shortly after 10:30 a.m., Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses shot down a Sukhoi Su-30 fighter near Kyiv.
While the driver of the minivan was trying to explain to a policeman near Ternopil why a journalist from the Moldovan border, who had been in Kyiv earlier, was in the back seat — at least it seemed that way from the few words that we could make out — news came that Kherson, just above Crimea, had fallen. Russian troops had occupied the government building of the oblast (a territory comparable in some ways to Italian regions) and the local governor, Hennadiy Lahuta, had given the news.
About an hour before, the town hall had also been taken, and the mayor had negotiated the conditions of surrender, among which the following point stands out: “Citizens may walk outdoors alone or in groups of no more than two. They must stop when ordered to do so by Russian soldiers. They must not approach Russian troops in any way.”
Later in the day, north of Ivano-Frankivs’k, which was bombed last night, incoming traffic funneled through yet another block, causing a queue of at least two hours, and agencies were reporting that Odessa was also on the verge of an attack.
Russian warships had been sighted in front of the port of the historical city of the famed battleship Potemkin, and it was still not clear if they were preparing an invasion with amphibious means or a bombing from the sea. On Thursday, an Estonian commercial ship exploded close to the port, probably after encountering a mine. Many cited this incident as evidence that Russian explosive specialists had mined the waters of the bay.
At the end of the day, the attack didn’t happen, and no one knows if the Russian Navy was waiting for the end of negotiations to act or if it was just there to instill fear in the citizenry. The fact is that in the last two days, the military operations of the invading army had been concentrating on all the major peripheral centers of the large Ukrainian territory but continued to spare Kyiv.
Maybe the time of the decisive attack has not come yet, or maybe they are waiting for something in Moscow. In the meantime, Ukrainian civilians are just waiting for this madness to end and for the time to come when they can return to their homes and their lives.
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