Letter from Kyiv: ‘I am writing this from an underground shelter’

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In the summer of 2021, I was finally happy.

My parents were moving to the Kyiv region to live near me. They left our hometown, Donetsk, which was one of the biggest cities in Ukraine and one of the most developed.

Today, it is a depressing place with few job opportunities, media censorship, and one of the worst cases of human-rights violations in Europe. All because the “Russian World” came upon it eight years ago when pro-Russian separatists declared it a “republic.” I was very happy that my parents could start living a normal life again.

And now? They are forced to seek shelter whenever they hear a siren that warns about possible airstrikes. They are experiencing the nightmare of shelling and heavy fights again. All because of the greedy dictator who could not imagine his fantasy empire without my country.

‘On Feb. 24, at around 5 am I woke up to a call from my boyfriend’s mother. She told me that Kyiv was under attack. ‘

On Feb. 24, around 5 am I woke up to a call from my boyfriend’s mother. She told me that Kyiv was under attack, and asked us to go to a safe place. Like a lot of Ukrainians, we could not say that we were caught by surprise.

For months we were reading news about Russian troops near the Ukrainian border and possible Russian invasion. Many Ukrainians did not want to believe in this. At the same time, we were preparing: reading instructions on how to behave during wartime, going to first-aid training, getting our backpacks ready in case we had to leave our home urgently. A lot of people signed up for territorial defense, to get trained so they would be ready to help the military in case of invasion.

So after that call, my boyfriend and I checked the news, took our backpacks, and left our flat. We did not plan to evacuate, we just went to a safer place in Kyiv where we could continue working and be near a bomb shelter.

Looking back at that moment of getting ready to leave the house, I was not panicking. Rather, I was angry, angry because I did not know if I would ever come back home, angry that he did it – Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the order to launch a full-scale invasion and this means there will be a lot of civilian casualties. Because he does not care for ordinary people.

‘I have something to say to the Russian people: You should fight against your own dictators. The freedom is not given, it’s taken. ‘

c / o Olya Gvozdyova

Life under the shelling

I am writing this from an underground shelter where I and 20 other people are staying for the night. Since the start of the invasion, the nights have been especially dangerous and if people have an opportunity, they sleep in underground shelters. Some sleep in metro stations as they too serve as bomb shelters.

Those who stay at home can choose to sleep in the bathrooms or corridors – the main guidance we have been given is not to be near windows, because you can be injured by the glass in case of an explosive wave.

There have been attacks on residential areas in different cities around Ukraine. In Kyiv, several apartment buildings were damaged. In Chernihiv and Sumy oblasts – in the north of the country – kindergartens were attacked.

Kharkiv in the east was so heavily shelled over the past few days that it is now difficult to count the casualties. That is despite the claim from the Russian authorities that they “came here to protect the people.” We spend time hiding in bomb shelters to avoid this “protection”.

Some shops and supermarkets closed down after the invasion. But at the same time, most of the big chains are organized so that they will have some shops open with a constant supply of needed products. You can not say that there is a shortage of food, at least not in the cities. At least, not for now. Public transport in Kyiv is working and working for free so that citizens can enter the metro as a shelter or use other transport.

‘I am just sad that it took so much time for people around the world to see the true nature of Putin’s regime.’

The banking system is working and some supermarkets in Kyiv even have an option of cash withdrawal from a cashier. Each day now we have a curfew. This means that you can not go to the streets and should stay at home or shelter during certain hours (usually from 8 pm to 8 am). But on Sunday we had the whole day as a curfew in order to trace Russian soldiers in civilian clothing who had infiltrated the city.

In the event of a possible attack, we can hear a siren. We also have official media channels, social media, radio, and even some mobile apps that alert us when we need to hide in the shelter.

I am now getting a lot of support messages from my friends around the world. It is great to see a lot of people gathering in peace rallies in their cities to support Ukraine. They do not believe Putin’s lies anymore. I am just sad that it took so much time for people around the world to see the true nature of Putin’s regime. And it took so many innocent lives.

A wounded woman stands outside a hospital after the bombing of the eastern Ukraine town of Chuguiv on Feb. 24, 2022.

aris messinis / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

Ukrainians are different

Open the map of Russia, and compare the size of Ukraine. Compare the size of the military budgets of the two countries and the number of military forces. You will probably be amazed how Ukraine is still standing and fighting for so long against one of the biggest military forces in the world.

Putin himself was probably hoping for a quick victory here. Yes, we received a lot of military-defense support from the world over the last few months, but it is not about that. It’s about something more meaningful, something that Putin did not take into account, something that makes us significantly different from Russian invaders.

The overthrow of the government happened after then-President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign a political association and free-trade agreement with the European Union. More Russian pressure, of course. But this was not even the main reason for the Revolution of Dignity.

In 2014, we understood: If we do not act now, sooner or later we will have a dictatorship just like our eastern and northern neighbors.

The main reason occurred when demonstrators – mostly students who were preparing to stay overnight on the square – were surrounded and attacked by riot police on the orders of Yanukovych’s government.

At that time, in 2014, we understood: If we do not act now, sooner or later we will have a dictatorship just like our eastern and northern neighbors. You can watch the movie “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” on Netflix to understand these times better.

Just imagine this – a city within the city. In this inner “city” of protesters surrounded by barricades for defense, there was a place for a kitchen, a place to sleep in tents, a place for artists, a place for an “open university” for lectures and open-air discussions. This “city” was well supplied by food and medicine, which were donated by ordinary citizens and by business.

The system of defense was well organized with a changing of the guard. Ukrainians were united and were determined to fight for their rights, to fight the dictatorial regime that could oppress its citizens, censor the media, and prosecute those who were on peaceful demonstrations. And this dictator was afraid of us.

‘Some of my friends are fighting, some help with evacuations, some work on logistics to supply much-needed products.’

There is a meme circulating right now in Ukraine: In a photo our ex-president Yanukovych is talking to Putin. And he tells Putin: “I know them. You are fucked ”. Yanukovych fled to Russia because of our Revolution of Dignity. We won. It was not easy and we lost over 100 people. But we won our right to live in a democratic and free state where citizens matter.

Right now, I can see the same – or even stronger – level of unity and organization. Some of my friends are fighting, some help with evacuations, some work on logistics to supply much-needed products, some translate Ukrainian news and share it with the world. Ukrainians are very good at uniting against a common enemy.

This is what Putin does not get: We are not Russians. We can stand for ourselves. And we have our own history. Over the last 30 years of this history, there have been six different presidents all democratically elected in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Putin has been ruling in Russia for 20 years.

We have a track record of successful campaigns for our rights. We have a strong civil society that is pushing reforms – from healthcare to anti-corruption. Of course, it’s not a bed of roses: We still have weak government institutions, a corrupt judicial system, and so on. But we are evolving. And our civil society is strong.

‘I feel like we are now fighting not only for ourselves, but for Russians and Belarusians, who could not overthrow their dictators.’

And now members of this strong community are fighting for their lives. I do not know what will be next. But I am sure that we will not give up fighting for our country, for its independence and freedom.

And I have something to say to the Russian people: You should fight against your own dictators. Freedom is not given, it’s taken.

I feel like we are now fighting not only for ourselves, but for Russians and Belarussians, who could not overthrow their dictators. We are fighting for Europe and US leaders who were naive or so interested in doing business with Russia that they did not punish Putin enough for the annexation of Crimea, and moving his military into Donbas in 2014.

That’s a lot of pressure to handle. And we could not handle all of these alone. That’s why we need support. We need unity from leaders around the world and we need ordinary citizens to push for this support.

This is an unprecedented time. And it demands unprecedented actions. Like closing the airspace above Ukraine so that no Russian bombs could attack civilian buildings anymore. Like imposing devastating sanctions and isolating Russia. Like giving Ukraine military support from NATO, providing financial and humanitarian support to Ukraine, and accepting Ukraine to the European Union.

The international community should do everything to stop civilians from dying right now in the middle of Europe. Or be ashamed for the rest of their lives.

Olga Gvozdyova is a former activist of NGO Donbas SOS, helping internally displaced people from Donbas since 2014.

Damage to the upper floors of a building in Kyiv on Feb. 26, 2022, after it was reportedly struck by a Russian rocket. Russian forces are closing in on the capital.

daniel leal / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images



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