‘Exodus had begun’
For a month before the invasion began, I travelled from one end of Ukraine to the other. Everywhere I went, I asked people if they were worried. “Worried about what?” they asked. “That Russia might invade.” No, that was “ridiculous”, they said. Of course it wouldn’t. Then Russian troops crossed the border just before dawn on February 24th.
At first, Kyiv was stunned into silence. It was not a question of hearing the proverbial pin drop in the street but rather the crows cawing and the sound of rotating advert boards that you would usually never notice above the normal din of city life. A few hours later, there was a new sound: trundling suitcase wheels. The exodus had begun.
In June 1940, as the Nazis bore down on Paris, my grandparents scooped up my 12-year-old aunt, stuffed what they could into the car and headed south. Now the wheel of history had turned and here I was, 82 years later, witnessing mass flight from another great European capital. In my notebook I scrawled: “Streams of people going to station.”
Two days later the scene was extraordinary. Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi, the capital’s central station, was almost a solid mass. But there was no panic. People were standing, staring at the electronic information boards. Arrivals and destinations increasingly turned from green to red as the Russians advanced. Anything going west would do.
Timetables went out of the window – and so did tickets. Extra trains were laid on and people crowded on to them. Mostly it was women and children, as men aged 18-60 are not allowed to leave the country.
“Dear passengers…” boomed the calm female voice over the station loudspeaker as she announced the next departure. In the wake of every train pulling out packed with people there was debris, abandoned suitcases spilling open with clothes, empty pushchairs left on the platforms.
In the course of one year, 2015, one million refugees from Syria and elsewhere fled to the European Union. The numbers here defy imagination. In one month alone, 3.5 million have crossed into the EU and more are coming. Another 6.5 million are believed to have fled their homes but remained in Ukraine.
‘I needed to be with them’
Ohmatdyt children’s hospital
It was the sixth day of the war. The Ohmatdyt Children’s Hospital seemed eerily quiet. In the lobby of a brand-new, state-of-the-art building, volunteers had unloaded hundreds of bottles of water. At the back of another building, they brought food. Canteen staff criss-crossed between buildings pushing their trolleys. But the patients were nowhere to be seen. They had gone underground.
Wards had relocated, scattered in different basements. A volunteer with a Covid mask and clown-like bright orange braids waved her arms in welcome. War or no war, the kids still had to be entertained.
At first glance, the scenes of mothers and children on mattresses in an underground storage facility or lined up in corridors looked chaotic. They were not. Whole sections had moved together: patients, nurses, doctors, mothers and machines. “They feel safe here,” said Pavlo Plavskyi, Ohmatdyt’s head of neurosurgery.
Mothers jiggled babies or kept a worried eye over their sick children. Nurse Maryna pointed to her mattress on the floor. Normally there would be one nurse for each baby but now she was looking after 10 babies and nine mothers. Her colleagues had either fled or could not get to work. “When I realised it was war, I understood that the mothers could not stay with no nurses,” she said. “I needed to be with them. They can’t insert a cannula, can they?”
Plavskyi said he had noticed something about his colleagues. Apart from those who could not get to the hospital because of the war, there were two types: the ones who had fled on the first day and the ones who had never left the hospital since.
At that time there were no shortages of medicine. What worried the doctors was something else. Plavskyi and his team normally do 10-15 operations a week. In the past week they had done four. “We have patients with tumours, with brain tumours and some with congenital malformations that should be treated in hospital.” If they do not get their operations, their chemotherapy and their treatment, he said, some of them would die. These children would be some of the unnoticed casualties of war.
‘A rocket gouged several flats out of side of a high rise’
A metro station, Kyiv
At first it was a kind of adventure, especially for the kids. The sirens kept wailing and so, encouraged by the authorities, thousands of families headed down into the depths of the metro. In Kyiv, many of the stations are particularly deep and, built during the cold war, the planners envisaged them as shelters in case of nuclear war.
In the early days, people thought the war would be over within days and just stuffed a few clothes into plastic bags, grabbed a bit of food and tea or coffee in Thermos flasks. Some brought yoga mats to lie on. Then they sat there scrolling on their phones to see what was happening up above. Kids made new friends. Trains were shunted in and, while some people moved into them, it was parents who felt the most relief, knowing their children would not fall off the platforms as they ran around out of sight.
On February 25th, a first residential building was hit in Kyiv, possibly by debris from an intercepted missile. The next day a rocket gouged several flats out of the side of a high rise. It looked like a giant had taken a bite out of it. But after that, while the sirens continued to sound and Russians and Ukrainians battled in suburban towns, Kyiv was pretty quiet for the next two weeks.
Some of the metro dwellers went home and some left the city. But plenty stayed put. At first, families began to stake out their territory with blankets. Next they brought chairs and blow-up beds.
Taria Blazhevych, a software engineer, was a pioneer. She erected a tent for herself and her two young boys and laid a rug outside to sit on. When I met Blazhevych, she was carrying Fluffy Steve, the family’s white rabbit, in her knapsack along with her laptop. But metro life did not agree with him. He stopped eating and had to be farmed out to friends.
One month into the war, there were fewer people underground, but more tents. Many families had left for the EU or the comparative safety of the west of Ukraine. Many went home during the day but returned to the safety of the metro at night. And some stations were no longer rolling out the welcome mat. They were locked and guarded. Someone else had moved in.
‘Dead in the streets’
“Oh my God! Oh my God!” gasped the woman leading a group from Bucha, just to the northwest of Kyiv, as they arrived in nearby Irpin. They had been cowering in basements and shelters for days after the Russians had taken control of their town. The day before they had heard that there was to be a “green corridor” allowing civilians to flee. No one wanted to venture out alone, so groups of neighbours set off together. Some cried with relief having made it through no man’s land, 700m of road between Irpin and Bucha, to the first Ukrainian checkpoint.
Irpin remains in Ukrainian hands. If it falls, the Russians will be at the very gates of the capital.
Two weeks earlier, everyone here was leading a humdrum suburban life in these two recently booming towns. New blocks of flats and offices were being built. Now there are dead in the streets. As the refugees picked their way past the rubble of blasted buildings along the road, some of the dead had been covered to shield them from the eyes of the children coming across in the groups from Bucha.
But not all. Just off the pavement was a reminder of Ukraine’s unfolding horror. Two Alsatians trotted up to the charred remains of a Russian soldier, sniffed him, turned their snouts up and trotted off again. The stump and bone of his left leg gave the game away. They had already had their fill.
Past the first checkpoint, the evacuees stopped briefly before being collected by a steady stream of volunteers who ferried them across deserted Irpin to a bridge blown up by Ukrainian soldiers to prevent the Russians from using it. There, for almost two weeks, thousands carefully made their way across its remains.
All the while, the stream of evacuees continued. Tanya Vysotska was remarkably calm for someone whose flat had been shelled. She had fled Bucha with her husband, two young daughters and all they could carry piled into a shopping trolley. In her pre-war life, she had been a teacher and translator of Japanese and Chinese.
Eleven days later, she wrote to me. They were on their way to Budapest and planned to go to Ireland: “Just want to find a place to start over and forget the tragedy we went through.” People are dying today, but with every young family that leaves and may never come back, Ukraine is losing a part of its future too.
‘The Russians had looted shops for food’
It was freezing. A siren was blaring and the refugees from Velyka Dymerka had just arrived in a convoy of small buses. Brovary is 24km northeast of the centre of Kyiv. On March 10th a convoy of Russian tanks was ambushed in Skybyn, nearly 10km away. The drone footage is dramatic. You can see the flash of Ukrainian anti-tank missiles, exploding tanks and Russian soldiers running for their lives.
The Russians may have been stopped but they did not go away. On March 13th, they remained a bit further up the highway. Hundreds of people were being evacuated from the nearby small town of Velyka Dymerka and the villages around it.
Tetiana Blinnikova said she had gone there to stay with her parents-in-law at the beginning of the war because the family assumed “it would be safer than Kyiv”. Now she laughed at her mistake. A medical-translation specialist, she had made it to Brovary with her two daughters, aged 19 and 10. The youngest wore a Calvin Klein woolly hat and clutched a fluffy pink rabbit. They thought they might go to France, then maybe Ireland. But her husband had stayed in Velyka Dymerka with his ill and elderly parents who refused to budge.
As the evacuees emerged from their transports, an official registered them while men from the security services examined and photographed the documents of all the men. They wanted to be sure that no Russians were slipping in behind Ukrainian lines. Then the evacuees boarded buses that would take them to Kyiv. Old people clutched plastic bags of hastily gathered possessions. A cat, zipped into its owner’s coat, looked out, watching the proceedings curiously.
A few days later, Ukrainian forces claimed they had pushed the Russians back beyond Velyka Dymerka. But evacuees from zones being fought over or occupied by the Russians continued to arrive. “Thank God we did not see [the Russians],” said Blinnikova. But later, those who fled had seen them. The Russians had looted shops for food and demanded people hand over their phones. Ukrainians were using them, if they had a mobile signal, to inform their army where the enemy was.
In an arc around Kyiv, the situation was increasingly desperate for those trapped behind Russian lines. Supplies were running out, the electricity was off and, without gas, people were forced to make fires in their yards or block courtyards to cook whatever food they had left.
‘Stories so fantastical you could not make them up’
At times, it has seemed that Kyiv is the calm eye of the storm. Mariupol is being ground to dust, Kharkiv is being shelled indiscriminately and every day there is fighting in suburban towns around the capital. Early on in the conflict, the Russian ministry of defence threatened it would strike some strategic targets in the centre, but these attacks did not come.
On March 14th, this changed. A missile hit a building in the north of the city. Then came another. And every day since, one or two or four more. Then something curious happened. People got used to it. And Ukraine’s institutions, far from collapsing as Vladimir Putin must have assumed they would, did what they were supposed to do: they persisted. And people did their jobs.
Within about an hour of an attack or the blast of a missile that had been shot down, clean-up crews were out with brooms. Locals moved in to help, sealing windows with plastic sheeting handed out by officials or even gathering children’s test papers sent flying out of a school’s windows. Officials took statements from those whose flats had been damaged and gathered evidence for possible eventual war-crimes prosecutions.
Most of the attacks take place in the city’s northwest, close to territory occupied by the Russians. Some seem random. Officials say they do not believe they are even targeting civilians – unlike in some other places – but rather, that of every four missiles fired, one hits its military target, two fall short and hit a residential area by mistake and the fourth is debris from an intercepted launch.
The attack on a gym next to a gleaming new shopping mall on March 20th was different, though. The Russian ministry of defence published a video on social media of a missile blasting it to smithereens. Ukrainian forces had been hiding multiple rocket launchers in the parking area they said, and the Ukrainians did not deny it.
Unlike in Mariupol and Kharkiv, the numbers dying in these attacks in Kyiv have been mercifully low. But there are casualties. We see them, bodies either bagged up ready to go when we arrive or covered up before the morgue crew arrives. When they do, they draw their vehicle up, lay out a plastic sheet, tug on their latex gloves, lift the remains on to the sheet, fold and go.
The reality is grim. But sometimes there are stories so fantastical that you could not make them up. Here is one example: while trying to retrieve possessions from a blasted apartment block, several residents left their pets in a heated tent provided by the Red Cross. There were eight dogs, a budgerigar and a hamster, which was cowering in the bottom section of its cage. The upper part, like its owner’s flat, was strewn with broken glass from the explosion.
Inside the tent, Red Cross volunteer Elena Vergel held a tortoise while a colleague gingerly treated its scratched foot. Later in the day, a woman came to claim it. Her flat was on the ground floor and the tortoise had been by the window sill. When the missile hit, the force of the explosion was so great that the tortoise, instead of flying into the flat, had been flung violently in the other direction. It had sailed through the window and over the fence surrounding the sports field opposite the block. That is where it had been found. The owner told the Red Cross workers that the tortoise was called Torpedo.
I am sure there is a metaphor for Ukraine here. Putin thought that if he whacked Ukraine hard enough, it would be crushed. Unbelievably, so far at least, it has shot through the window of history and is still going.
‘It was like a horror film’
A Shabbat dinner like no other. Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman sang the prayers with the timbre of an opera singer while synagogue guards with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders wandered in and out.
We were in a basement room underneath the synagogue. The rabbi patted its thick stone walls approvingly and pointed out how strong they were. Before being reclaimed by the community in the 1990s, the synagogue, completed in 1898, had been a Soviet workers’ club and then a puppet theatre. Bedding for those now sheltering here lay behind a wall with a bookcase for prayer books. On the other side of the room, the community seemed to have laid in enough food for, well, a siege.
Tonight, the synagogue was expecting more than 300 evacuees, Jews and non-Jews, to arrive from embattled Chernihiv, 145km northeast of Kyiv. At 9.10pm a column of vans and cars whose passengers were crushed under all the possessions they could carry began to arrive. They looked dazed and in shock. “It was like a horror film,” said Larisa Poplavksa, a retired teacher, describing the Russian attack on her city. “I could not sleep because I was afraid I would be killed! I could not imagine such a thing was possible. They killed children. I don’t know what to call these people. They are not humans who began this war. They are crazy creatures.”
One of the guards mounted the tebah, the elevated part in the middle of the synagogue from where the Torah is read. He began to give instructions on where the evacuees would sleep and how those that wanted to continue their journey could do so. People mistook me for an aid worker. “Can my mother come with me to Israel?” I was asked.
The next morning, the refugees began to disperse and Rabbi Azman addressed his flock in the basement. Prayers done, he clenched his fists, looked heavenward and thundered. “From this place we will launch kabbalistic rockets to defeat their ballistic rockets!”
– Tim Judah is in Ukraine on assignment for the Financial Times. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022