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‘Keep an alarm suitcase ready’: Scenes from a Kyiv facing Russian invasion

KYIV — There’s no single response to war. 

In downtown Kyiv on Thursday — as Russian forces attacked Ukraine from the north, east and south — the city was practically empty. Almost no pedestrians were walking, only a few cars were driving.

Explosions were heard near the city’s airport early in the morning, followed by relative quiet. Four hours later, explosions once again rang through the city center. Shortly before 5 p.m., Kyiv officials issued an all-caps warning of airstrikes, urging people to take shelter. Sirens sounded in some parts of the city.

That, of course, didn’t mean life had halted. 

Piles of cars sat standstill on roads leading to emptier pastures — and in massive lines at suburban gas stations. Simultaneously, scores of people were heading the opposite way, taking the subway from the city’s outskirts into the center, mostly for work. Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko announced the subway was now free of charge.

Later in the day, Kyiv authorities designated four subway stations — Zhytomyrska, Svyatoshin, Nyvky, Beresteiska — as shelter points. Trains weren’t stopping there.

Ukrainian officials urged residents to stay in Kyiv, at least for the moment. 

“I wouldn’t recommend you go right now,” wrote an adviser to Interior Minister Anton Gerashchenko. “You will simply spend many hours standing in traffic jams and being nervous.”

At nearly every ATM, queues were forming of 10, 20 people, all hoping to withdraw as much cash as possible before the machines ran out. To space out the cash, Ukrainian banks restricted each withdrawal to 3,000 hryvnia — roughly €90. Others rushed to gas stations, apparently with the aim of leaving the city.

Klitschko stressed that people should prepare an evacuation plan.

“Keep an ‘alarm suitcase’ ready — documents, a minimum of things required — to quickly, if necessary, get to a shelter,” Klitschko said. “City authorities [remain] in the capital. We continue to ensure the functioning of the city.”

Despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy declaring martial law early Thursday, police were practically invisible on the streets and no military patrols were spotted walking downtown. At the same time, the police officers guarding the various embassies were wearing bulletproof vests, and they carried helmets. 

As the day wore on, the symbols of war crept further into the city.

Dozens of people massed around ticket offices at the main railway and bus stations, vying for safe passage. Many wanted to head west. At the train station, enhanced security measures were clearly visible — numerous police and national guard patrolled, armed with assault rifles.

In one city district, local residents found rocket fragments, according to social media. A Reuters photo showed officials inspecting the incident. 

While some global hotel brands in downtown Kyiv kept operating as usual, others were bolstering their defenses. 

A security guard at the Hilton hotel, who gave his name as Dmitry, said the hotel is helping guests contact their embassies or leave the city. 

“We’ve tightened security around the hotel and do not let anyone in except guests,” he said.

But for many, life continued with surreal normality. Dog walkers let pets outside. A group of workmen fixed traffic bollards.

In one queue outside a pharmacy, a young couple checked their phones for the latest news. They played a video of a plane being shot down in eastern Ukraine. Others crowded around to watch.

“Where am I supposed to go?” said one woman in her fifties. She is from Chernihiv Oblast, she said, north of Kyiv toward the Belarusian border, where Russian forces had crossed into Ukraine. “So it would mean just going towards the Russians.”

Later in the afternoon, the air raid sirens sent some people scrambling for shelter.

Outside one apartment block in central Kyiv, a group of neighbors waited for the building next door to open its underground parking space — a makeshift bomb shelter.

Although a map of Kyiv shelters has been available online for weeks, the group, like many here, left it until very late to suss out their options.

One member, Tatiana Velinska only checked out the nearest supposed shelter at 9 a.m. this morning, after the first explosions were heard. She discovered it was a shop that was locked up. Eventually, she called the police, who advised her to try the underground parking. 

Velinska said she had stocked extra food and water a week ago for herself and her two children, 10 and 8.

“Our relatives suggested that we leave Kyiv, but we trusted our president that everything would be alright,” she said. “It’s a defensive mechanism, you don’t want to believe it ’till the last minute.” 

Lily Hyde contributed reporting.

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