Wartime Majdan

Paweł Pieniążek – 2/28/2022. Originally published in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Ukrainians are fighting in the face of the Russian invasion, blocking tanks, supporting soldiers, organizing and keeping order to thwart the Kremlin’s plans.

Driving down Prospect Peremohy, Victory Avenue, black smoke could be seen rising on the horizon. It was the third day of the full-scale Russian invasion. The night was difficult. Fierce clashes took place in and around western Kyiv. They started at night and ended in the morning.

“I was awakened by explosions, I also heard bursts of rifle fire. I went to the window, saw a flash and it became clear that Kyiv was a target again,” says the 50-year-old Svitlana.

Fighting took place several hundred meters from her home. It rumbled. Svitlana claims that up to now she didn’t know how to swear, but she learned that night.

This area soon became a battlefield. Ukrainian soldiers completely destroyed some Russian military trucks. They were probably supposed to deliver a group of saboteurs to Kyiv that was to attack from the depths of the city. In the morning the fire department was still putting out the burning vehicles. Scattered around was glass, rubble, shells, shrapnel, even from hand grenades, as well as human remains.

When it died down many residents with suitcases and bags headed towards the city center and the train station.

Svitlana not only did not hide in the shelter that was next to her house, but also does not think about leaving. “This is my city. I was born here. No shelters. Whatever will be, will be” she says, and her voice breaks. “We’re collecting ourselves. I no longer feel fear, just pride and anger.”

When she finishes this sentence, she tears up. She hadn’t cried all this time and only after the initial shock had passed did she feel her emotions.

Ukrainian soldiers appeared near Svitlana’s house in the morning. They set up a checkpoint. The woman breathed a sigh of relief when she saw them. She did not want to remain indifferent so she went out to help them. “I and other residents immediately started bringing them tea and coffee, bags of food. They say what they need and we bring it,” she says, her eyes still tearful. “My impact is tiny, but I do what I can.”

It’s true: Svitlana—as was said during the protests in Kyiv’s Maidan in 2013-2014—is just a drop in the ocean. The thing is that there are many such drops today.

Helping build barricades

Thursday, February 24, 2022 will appear in history textbooks.

At five in the morning Ukrainian time (four in Polish time), Russia attacked Ukraine. Russia initially claimed that the target was only the Donbas but from the first minutes there were strikes on targets, mainly strategic, across the country. The missiles even fell in the Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk oblasts in western Ukraine.

However the most severe clashes are taking place in the Southeast, where the Russian offensive is most successful and closes in on Mariupol, as well as the border towns of Kharkiv, Sumy and Chernihiv. According to the Ministry of Health of Ukraine at least 352 civilians, including fourteen children, died in four days of military operations.

The capital, which has a population of 3 million, has become one of the main objectives of the attack. From the very beginning, Russian troops have been trying to get as close to the city as possible and most likely to surround it as well. Kyiv is being infiltrated by groups of saboteurs who want to inflict as much damage as possible and weaken the ranks of the defenders. They are usually people dressed in civilian clothes or in Ukrainian uniforms. That is why in the city, sometimes even in the vicinity of the city center, you can come across damaged vehicles, including military trucks. How the Russians are breaking into the city remains a mystery.

Near Svitlana’s house, soldiers order drivers to reroute because the street is barricaded with cars. In the middle of our conversation the woman notices that some are carrying sacks. She immediately turns and calls out to the soldier closest to her:

“Boys, do you need sandbags?”

“We want to make barricades,” the soldier replies.

“Okay, we’ll get some right away.”

And she left. A man in the meantime was already carrying plastic bags filled with sand. Soon soldiers were not just standing on the street but behind a decently fortified post.

Atari and Macintosh await visitors

The shelter is located on the premises of one of the research institutes. An employee, Oleksandr, around 50, volunteered to manage the shelter and help the people staying there. “I live nearby, but this damn thing makes me spend all my time here now,” he says, referring to the war.

Before he takes me there, however, he really wants to show me a small computer museum to which two rooms have been dedicated. It houses old computers, like the first Macintosh, Atari and Commodore. “We want people to know what it was like. Children sometimes don’t know that a computer once looked like this,” says Oleksandr.

He says it with so much excitement, enthusiasm and gesticulation that it’s possible to forget that a war continues around us. The nonchalantly wrapped scarf around his neck and slightly disheveled hair contrast with the knife that he strapped to his belt after the invasion began. He took it just in case. Only asking if he wouldn’t like to transport all of this to a safe place knocks him off his rhythm.

“Where to? And where to get the funds for that?” He asks rhetorically. “Now the most important thing for me is that people have enough to eat and drink.”

I cannot take photos of the shelter due to precautionary measures. A man standing by the entrance asks for documents. In recent days it has become a frequent phenomenon in Kyiv for everyone to ask strangers who they are, what they are doing here and for some proof, especially when—as in my case—they hear someone speaking with an accent. Authorities are constantly warning about groups of saboteurs, asking residents to be vigilant, to inform and counteract on their own accord.

And people actually do counteract: they look for subversive groups and report them to the authorities. Signs on houses and roads that the saboteurs leave to facilitate navigation for the Russians are covered over, buried with sand or erased.

I’d like to look at fish too

The stairs lead deep underground. On the way, I pass two women who do not come to the surface, only to where cell phone coverage starts. A pair of heavy metal doors open the way to well-built corridors and rooms. “The Soviet Union still reigns here and the condition of this bunker is so-so,” says Oleksandr.

Even then it is much better prepared than most structures of this type. It has electricity, large canisters for drinking water, ventilation and even its own toilets, although these do not have access to running water, so an unpleasant odor prevails there.

People bring what they can down here. Food, water, mattresses, things to sit on. Oleksandr himself claims that he brought 40 stools. The rules are simple: until the curfew, which means usually until 10 p.m., anyone in need can come down here. Then the door closes and is opened only in the morning, when it is possible to go out into the street again.

There were no more than 50 people in the shelter when I was inside. Mostly older people, especially women. During the day, however, it is relatively empty. Most, like Nina Serhijiwna—an elderly woman—go home to rest. Nina has difficulty walking so a middle-aged man holds her by the arm.

“We had tea and some bread to munch on. You have to survive somehow,” she says. “We are not to blame for all of this…” she adds.

Suddenly she remembers that she buried her son—an officer. She bursts into tears and says that she has to go.

Many more people gather in the shelter at night. Residents take with them terrified animals that they do not want to leave at home with them. “There have been chinchillas, dogs and cats. I’ve said that if someone has fish, bring them too. I will gladly look at them,” says Oleksandr.

Despite the thick layers of concrete and earth, the sound of fighting reaches the ears of those who have found themselves deep underground.

Soviet experience

The 52-year-old Volodymyr stands with a man and two women who are walking small dogs dressed in colorful jackets. He displays a piece of iron in the palm of his hand. Shrapnel—probably from a rocket—that he found on the street.

That night he too was in the shelter managed by Oleksandr. In the middle of the night, someone suddenly started banging on the door. It turned out that it was soldiers from the territorial defense. Oleksandr thought at first that they were saboteurs. Apart from a bulletproof vest and weapons, the one he was talking to had civilian clothes, short socks, and sneakers. He said that the Russians shelled them with Grad rockets and that’s why they were seeking shelter. He also had to present his documents.

Volodymyr doesn’t plan to go anywhere. “I also have a house in the country but I stayed here where my family is. They can find us everywhere, so there is no point in running away,” he says.

He adds that if the situation really threatens Kyiv, he will use the experience he acquired in the Soviet army and also stand up to defend the city.

With a bottle for tanks

When I finish my conversation with Volodymyr, a young boy comes up to me and asks if I know where the nearest military recruitment point is. He is going to sign up.

The invasion caused a massive influx of volunteers for the ranks of the army and territorial defense, as well as those who simply asked to be handed weapons. In many cities, including Kyiv, queues of candidates were lining up to become soldiers. The conscription commissions have a hard time enrolling the many who are willing.

Ukrainians across the country endeavor to attack advancing enemy forces. They are organizing themselves. At the request of the authorities, they are preparing Molotov cocktails.

Grassroots factories producing these incendiary mixtures have appeared in Kyiv. In the Kharkiv oblast they aided in torching a Russian armored personnel carrier. In Kharkiv, Russian soldiers saved themselves by fleeing because they were being fired upon from surrounding apartment buildings. They had no idea where the adversary was.

Videos shot in various parts of the country show how even unarmed town and village residents are trying to block tanks. Sometimes they do it alone and other times in groups. This is what happened in, among other places, the Zaporizhzhia region in the east of the country where several dozen people, together with the mayor of Dniprorudne, lined up under an overpass. They shouted “Glory to Ukraine” and “Putin’s a dick.” The tank they were impeding turned back.

Maybe an IT specialist will be of use

Finally, I get to the apartment building hit by a Russian rocket. It tore a hole in four floors of the couple-dozen-story building. Most of its inhabitants had left or gone downstairs to the shelter so only two people were injured. Glass and pieces of concrete litter the street, which has been closed by the police. Inhabitants of the capital come to take photos because the destroyed high-rise has quickly become a symbol of the war for the city.

Eighty-year-old Oleksandr walks quickly down the rubble-strewn street. He is an IT specialist and knows computer programming. He too asks me where the territorial defense is. Yesterday they refused to accept him because they said he was too old.

Oleksandr does not understand why his age is a problem, since he feels good (he actually looks much younger than what his birth certificate indicates). Therefore, he is looking for another military recruitment point. Maybe they’ll take him there.

He hopes that if they don’t give him a gun, then maybe they need an IT specialist. He wants to be of service somehow.

Text completed on the morning of February 28.