Body bags, burning buildings and buzz cuts for soldiers: How Kyiv survives

At first it seemed like snow. Tiny, writhing, drifting flakes begin to fall. But the sky was blue.

Lubov Burra, 73, clutched her purse and looked up at her 11th floor apartment. “It’s the thing with the balcony. It burns,” she said calmly as her belongings and those of her friends and neighbors were reduced to ashes and now fell gently around them.

In western Kyiv’s Sviatoshynskyi district, Burra’s block was hit by a Russian missile before dawn on Tuesday. It was one of four civilian targets that morning. She said “everything” she owned was gone. All she had left was in her purse: her documents, her cell phone, and her diabetes medication.

“I was there from the start,” said Burra. She moved into the new building in 1975. Her children and grandchild had played in front of it. Neighbors gathered Saturday to clean up around the property’s buildings. They drank morning coffee together and had also planted trees here together.

On Tuesday, the entire block, in which up to 300 people had lived, was destroyed.

As it burned, sunlight from a jet of water from fire hoses hit the fog, creating a bright, powerful rainbow over piles of smoldering debris.

Firefighters fight a fire in a block of flats in Sviatoshynskyi
Firefighters tackle a blaze at a block of flats in Sviatoshynskyi on Tuesday © Chris McGrath/Getty

Since the Russian invasion began on February 24, Ukraine’s capital has largely escaped the attacks that have ravaged parts of the suburbs around Kyiv and elsewhere. But the latest attacks seem to suggest that the capital’s comparative respite may be coming to an end.

As of Tuesday evening, residents of Kyiv were ordered to stay indoors for a 35-hour curfew. Kira Rudyk, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, said intelligence reports had suggested the capital was facing a major attack.

As of Thursday morning, it still hadn’t come, but one person died when an intercepted missile fell on the roof of a building amid the Pozniaky district’s vast high-rise housing estates.

It was unclear if Russia’s aim is to sow panic or if its missiles missed their intended military targets. If the idea was to terrorize Kiev’s people and urge its government to surrender, it didn’t work.

No one knows how many are left of Kyiv’s roughly 3 million pre-war residents, but residents of the affected apartment blocks said they thought only half the usual population was still at home. Especially women and children have left the city.

An elderly woman is carried out of a building by a rescuer
A woman is rescued from a building in Sviatoshynskyi on Tuesday © Chris McGrath/Getty

Electricity, gas, water and internet continue to work. None of them are still working in nearby suburbs like Irpin and Bucha where fighting is going on. Bucha is occupied by Russians, but if they break through and capture Irpin, they will finally have reached the city limits of Kyiv.

Exactly three weeks after the beginning of the war, however, not. Morale on the Ukrainian side remains high. There is no willingness to compromise, said Rudyk. Even if the Russians did break through, they wouldn’t have enough troops to occupy the city, she added.

Plumes of smoke from surface-to-air missiles suggest the city’s air defense system is working. Several of the recent blasts in Kyiv have been attributed to Ukrainian interception of Russian missiles. That may explain why Kyiv has not yet come under the rocket fire that has leveled parts of Mariupol and Kharkiv.

Meanwhile, the residents of the capital are adapting. Many supermarkets remain open when exhausted. Pharmacies have run out of certain medicines. Some trains still run to the west of the country, to Odessa, and the main road south out of the city remains open. The advance of the Russian pincer movement from the north-west and north-east has stalled.

Customers in a bakery in Kyiv

A bakery continues to operate in Kyiv © Anastasia Vlasova/Getty

This week’s attacks on residential areas, whether intentional or not, could herald the start of a final Russian push to seize Kiev, but while they wait to find out, some residents of the capital have other worries: they’re running out of money.

When she heard English, a woman with perfect English stopped and said that since she has no more money for groceries, would it be possible to give her some?

Many companies have ceased normal operations and will not be able to pay their employees without income. However, some businesses have begun to reopen, adapting to wartime demands.

A rocket exploded opposite Kurenivskyi Park in the north of the city on Monday. CCTV footage showed a person walking down the sidewalk at the moment of impact. An hour later, the body was still awaiting pickup, but a squad from the electric company was already repairing severed wires that hung across the street.

Across the park, Yaroslav Barsuk, the deputy director of the Kyiv noodle factory, fixed sheets of plywood to cover the areas where the glass of the company’s entrance was broken.

Barsuk, 33, said the company used to produce 3,000 tons of noodles a month but stopped when the war started. Production was due to resume that day – but much of the workforce had either fled or could not get to work due to fighting or a lack of public transport. The company now calculated that it would only be able to produce 500 tons per month.

A hair salon in Kyiv
Hair salon still open in Kyiv © Anastasia Vlasova/Getty

Across town, Sprut Salon, a hipster hairstylist whose name means octopus, has reopened. More cuts have now been made than before the war, according to Yaroslav Rudakov, the 27-year-old owner, although lack of money from customers meant that its prices had to be reduced. Some of his barbers had left to fight, but others, whose salons had closed, had come to work for him.

Sprut Salons contribution to the war effort is free haircuts for those who carry guns, Rudakov said. Soldiers “don’t want to worry about their hair right now, so they’re demanding short haircuts,” he noted matter-of-factly.

Buzz cuts might remain a must for the foreseeable future. Despite optimistic talks about a possible agreement to end the war, Deputy Rudyk was skeptical.

Ukrainians are determined to fight, she said. When they are told that the price of peace is making uncomfortable concessions, “I don’t think it’s going to work”.

Back in the Sviatoshynskyi district, Ludmila Kyzeytsova sat on a bench right behind a corpse that was in a black bag. The 70-year-old had just been rescued from her apartment by the fire department with a huge ladder. She managed to save a plastic bag with clothes.

Kyzeytsova may once have sympathized with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who believes highly in his belief that Ukrainians and Russians are truly one people.

But what happened to their city was incomprehensible. After all, she said, “together we are one great Slavic nation”.

Now she said: “Putin must answer for his crimes” and added: “[US president Joe] Biden must help Ukraine and destroy him, thank you very much!” Body bags, burning buildings and buzz cuts for soldiers: How Kyiv survives

Adam Bradshaw

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