24 Hours in Kyiv: The Day That Changed Ukraine Forever
by Tetiana Bezruk
More than 130 Ukrainians are reported to have been killed and more than 300 have been injured on the first day of Russian and Belarusian troops’ invasion of Ukraine.
Several cities far outside the eastern region of Donbas were subjected to shelling, including the capital Kyiv, Gostomel, Sumy and Odesa.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyi, has banned Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country and ordered 90 days of full military mobilisation.
This is a big war that no one wanted to believe in until the very last moment. But Russian soldiers, who so often spoke about Ukrainians as “brothers”, decided today to shoot at them. Thousands of people across Ukraine packed their bags and left their homes.
Here is my account of the first day of Russia’s full-scale intervention in Ukraine.
6.13 am. Kyiv is covered in fog. It’s a cold spring.
I wake up to a call from my father. He is several hundred kilometres from Kyiv.
“What’s happening there?” he asks.
“It’s quiet here… I can’t believe it. It’s like a dream,” I answer.
I open Twitter. I see a video of Kharkiv, a city in eastern Ukraine, being shelled. Then I fill some empty bottles with water. I don’t even know why, but I’ve read a Facebook post about it. Then I choose three sweaters – two warm ones and one not so warm.
I put everything in a backpack. I go out onto the balcony periodically, trying to hear explosions or artillery. It’s still quiet. I can only hear my neighbours escorting their children to school on the landing. “Call me later,” they say.
I exchange messages with a colleague and we agree that I will visit her in the afternoon. It’s not so scary if we’re together. I take my backpack and go outside. There are a lot of people with handbags, backpacks and bags. In front of me, a family is walking to a bus stop: a husband, a wife, a four-year-old girl, her grandparents. They have very few things in their hands.
On the way to the bus, I read a message from my friend from Henichesk, a city in the south of Ukraine that borders Crimea. “They’re shelling houses here. We’ve left. It’s horrible.” I try to calm her down, quickly writing: “Charge your phone, collect food and candles, take warm blankets, go to the basement.”
I do all this mechanically, somehow technically. Even after I speak to my father, I find myself thinking that this is a dream.
But this is reality. And in this reality, I meet a young woman on the main road who is holding her little son in one arm, and is dragging a suitcase with another. I don’t know where she was going. She didn’t seem to be ready for this morning, either.
I get on a bus and go to the centre of Kyiv. Near the subway, there’s a line outside the ATM. I’m trying to find another one on Google Maps, but there is a huge queue. I go to the store and buy water, chocolate and matches. I return to the second ATM, but the queue is not moving.
I look for a third ATM, getting into a line that, like the snake in a game on my phone, is getting bigger and bigger. And when my turn to withdraw money comes, the screen says the machine has run out. I stay in the city with only a debit card – which, in a pharmacy where I go for medicines, does not work.
“Call or text me every hour,” I say to my mum on the phone. I’m very worried. She is reserved and calm.
“There are Russian tanks here. They were not stopped – they went deep into Ukraine,” she says.
I try to verify the information she told me, but it is confirmed only in the evening.
I find a map online that shows where Ukrainian cities and villages have been occupied by the Russian military. And I see my home, where I grew up and still visit for holidays, daubed with pale pink on the map, signifying the presence of tanks. My home that I love and where I am always a child. My home, which, unlike many of my friends from Crimea and Donbas, I still have.
Meanwhile, Russian forces attack Gostomel airport, just north of Kyiv. And before that, there are reports of shelling in western Ukraine, 1,000 kilometres from the Russian border. First, an airport in Lutsk, a city near the border with Belarus, and then Ivano-Frankivsk.
At the same time, it is calm in the centre of Kyiv, and my colleague and I decide to go and look for a bomb shelter near her house. There are two possibilities: the first is a beauty salon, but it is closed; the second is a very damp basement, with a bunch of rubbish lying outside it on the street. Eventually, our friends find a shelter that is light and even warm. But we go there only after the warning siren starts.
In the shelter, we meet a young woman who says she recently returned from a humanitarian mission to Afghanistan. Later, a family with small children comes to the basement. Everyone is met by a watchman. He introduces himself only as Petrovich. Petrovich is good-natured; he drinks coffee and smokes cigarettes. When the sirens subside, we go outside and read the news, try to work and even bake croissants.
At this time, Russian troops have seized the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station and the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, two hours drive north of Kyiv near the Belarusian border. Near Chernihiv, a reconnaissance platoon of Russian troops surrenders to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. On Zmiinyi Island, a tiny island in the Black Sea near the border with Romania, Russian forces kill 13 Ukrainian soldiers who refuse to betray their military oath and surrender.
In total, in one day, Russian troops launch 30 missile and bomb attacks on various targets in Ukraine, shelling 17 regions and killing, according to Zelenskyi, 137 Ukrainian military personnel. Fifty seven Ukrainian civilians died on 24 February, according to official reports.
Late at night, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyi addresses the nation. He says Russian sabotage groups have entered Ukraine and are planning to kill him. “The enemy has identified me as the number one target. My family is goal number two. They want to destroy Ukraine politically by destroying the head of state,” he tells viewers.
Just before 3am, Ukrainian news website Zerkalo Tyzhnya publishes a news article stating that the Ukrainian intelligence services have learnt of Putin’s plan to destabilise the situation in Ukraine. Sources in the security services claim 10,000 paratroopers with light armoured vehicles and standard weapons will fly to Kyiv. Parallel to this, saboteurs in Ukraine will cut most of the city’s electricity to sow panic among residents. Russian forces will then seize power in Kyiv and install a Kremlin puppet in the country’s leadership. And Ukraine, as a result, will be split into two, following the example of East and West Germany after the Second World War. The report does not say what will happen to either of the two territories if this happens.
On 25 February, Russian tanks are believed to be preparing for an assault on Kyiv – even though, hours earlier, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has said Moscow is “ready to negotiate” with Ukraine over the country’s neutral status. This morning, Russian forces enter the city, and begin shelling suburban areas of the Ukrainian capital.
The first day of this war has been difficult. At points, it has felt more like a whole week than a single 24-hour period. And although people have rallied – in grief, hatred and the desire to win – many are waiting for a diplomatic end to the war and the help of Ukraine’s international partners.
“Now is the time,” my colleagues write on social networks when they turn to the United States or Europe with a call to impose sanctions against the Russian leadership.
But that time was yesterday, a week ago, a month ago, when Vladimir Putin had already gathered 150,000 Russian troops along the Ukrainian border with the help of his Belarusian protege, the faithful Alexander Lukashenka.
About the Author
Tetiana Bezruk is a Ukrainian journalist.
First published in Open Democracy. Republished here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.