‘Are they trying to kill us?’: Ordinary Ukrainians face reality of war as Russia attacks



The noise of the explosion was loud enough to be heard halfway down to the basement, starting families already deeply shaken by the early morning missile strikes, and making parents hurry their children along the last few steps.

“Are they trying to kill us? What have we done to them?” Valentina Kostenko wanted to know. “That was very close, we are lucky to be here,” she said as she drew her little daughter closer. Her husband de ella, Anton, carrying their son, thought that the attack was “probably aimed at a government building … They are trying to destroy the official places, destroy our structures.”

The target on this occasion appeared to have been the GUR, Ukraine’s defense intelligence headquarters, near the city centre. Details of casualties are not clear, but there was extensive damage to the building. The strikes were among a series targeting infrastructure, including the city’s civil and military airports.

A little later, a dozen MI-28 Russian helicopter-gunships raided Hostomel airfield on the outskirts of the capital, firing rounds of Ataka missiles, destroying a number of aircraft and setting hangars on fire.

While attacks continued from the air, Russian troops and armored vehicles, along with those of Belarus, were heading for Kiev on the ground after breaking through the border around 80 miles north of the city. The two countries had been conducting joint military exercises, which were supposed to end on 20 February. They were extended, however, and it was these troops that were now heading for the Ukrainian capital.

The air strikes had started with a flurry after Vladimir Putin announced the start of his invasion of Ukraine in the early hours of Thursday morning.

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He said a “special military operation” was needed “to defend people who have been victims of abuse and genocide from the Kiev regime”. The Russian president added that he did not want to occupy Ukraine, but that he intended to “denazify” the country. The Ukrainian armed forces needed to lay down their arms, otherwise they would be responsible for “possible bloodshed”.

Most of those who had gathered at the makeshift shelter in Yaroslaviv Val Street did not know about the simmering anger of the Russian president, which had erupted with such violent fury.

They did not know that the prospect of the country joining Nato would be viewed as an existential threat by the Kremlin. Or that Ukraine, in Mr Putin’s view, was turning “steadily into an antipode of Russia, an anti-Russia”.

An injured man stands by an emergency vehicle to receive medical assistance after bombings in the eastern Ukraine town of Chuguiv

(AFP via Getty)

Anton Kostenko, huddling in the basement with his young family, said he had an interest in politics and foreign affairs, and had followed the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine, but he had had no idea it would explode in such a lethal way.

“We have been hearing about this war for weeks now, from the Americans, the British, everyone,” said the 29-year-old architect. “But nothing happened, and we thought that international leaders would make sure that there was no fighting. But now this: how did this happen?

Sitting on the floor alongside Mr Kostenko, 44-year-old Ihor Nazarenko had no doubt how this had come about: “It is about one man; an angry bitter man who wants to punish us because we will not accept what he wants. Putin is prepared to sacrifice lives – yes, including those of his soldiers – because of his arrogance.

“All the [international] leaders have been trying to reason with him. But you cannot reason with a man like this; you need to stand up to him. The leaders failed to do that and now we have this here, in Kiev, in our capital.”

Fighting had been taking place across the country – in Kharkiv, Mariupol, Kramatorsk, Odessa. As well as being attempts to gain territory, the operations, combined with the Russian advance from the north, would have the effect of isolating Kiev.

Women use their phones as they wait with bags and suitcases near Kiev-Pasazhyrskyi railway station

(AFP via Getty)

One possible plan of Moscow, according to a number of international diplomatic and defense sources, is that having cut off the capital, Mr Putin will demand the regime change he has wanted – the resignation of the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, and his replacement with someone more acceptable to Moscow.

Mr Zelensky, in an address to the nation on Thursday morning, said the history of Ukraine had now changed forever and that Russia had “embarked on a path of evil”. The government imposed martial law, with the president asking people to remain calm and stay at home.

Offices and shops in the capital remained empty, but the roads were soon thronged with families in cars heading out of the city.


It is about one man; an angry bitter man who wants to punish us because we will not accept what he wants

Kyiv resident Ihor Nazarenko

Oleg Honcharuk was leaving with his wife and three children for the west of the country. He had recently brought them back from his parents’ home to the city after deciding that warnings of impending strife were exaggerated.

“We have been hearing for weeks and weeks that there will be a big attack. That didn’t happen and so we decided, as a family, to live back in Kiev,” said Mr Honcharuk, a 37-year-old engineer. “But after what just happened here there is no way that we are going to stay here. It’s going to get even more dangerous.”

But there are also those who have stayed. Standing in Kiev’s Maidan Square, where the protests that overthrew the pro-Moscow government of Viktor Yanukovych began, starting the process that led to the current incendiary situation, Anna Serduyk was wondering whether the sacrifices of the struggle had been in vain.

As of early this week, rebels held only parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions (highlighted)

(The Independent)

She took part in the protests as a 20-year-old student and had her arm broken by the Berkut, the special police unit, which became known for its brutality. “We really believed what we were fighting for; we were very idealistic. We had this big dream of a new country,” she reminisced.

“Maybe not everything we hoped for has happened; there have been disappointments on the way, but we have achieved a lot as well. But if the Russians win, are we going to become like Donetsk and Luhansk? That would not be a country worth staying in; most of us would want to leave.”

Ms Serduyk’s friend, Viktor Shevts, a human rights activist, had additional reasons to leave.

There have been long reports that Moscow has prepared a list of those it wants to arrest. On Wednesday, a military prosecutor, in uniform, appeared on Russian TV with a list of names of those who could face trial.

Fire is seen coming out of a military installation near the airport in Mariupol

(Reuters)

“I don’t know how many lists there are, but I’ve been told that my name is on one of them. I have spoken about abuses in DNR and LNR [the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics] and there are people there who I will not be very popular with. I cannot stay here if the Russians take over,” said Mr Shevts.

As they spoke, news came through of clashes in which Ukrainian forces had driven back the Russians.

But also of reverses, of the Russians coming towards Kiev, taking Chernihiv, Chernobyl, Hostomel airfield… and with those losses comes the possibility that the Kremlin’s troops will be arriving soon in this city, with all that will mean for those they see as the enemy.


www.independent.co.uk

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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