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In Kyiv, Residents Head Underground As Fears Of A Russian Attack On Ukraine’s Capital Mount

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People gather at a subway station in Kyiv on February 24 as they seek shelter from expected Russian air strikes.

KYIV -- Above ground, Kyiv’s notoriously clogged, busy streets were eerily empty of cars and people. Shops were closed. At ATMs, residents lined up to get cash. Gas stations, facing long lines of cars, ran empty.

Underground, meanwhile, down in the city’s famously deep subway system, residents took shelter -- bringing clothes, blankets, medicine, food, and their pets as they heeded warnings that a Russian assault on the Ukrainian capital could be imminent.

“We don’t know how long we’ll be down here. Maybe overnight. Maybe…longer? Who knows?” said Yekaterina, 42, who sat with her mother, Viktoriya, 64, on a thin sleeping pad on the hard floor of the Ploshchad Lva Tolstoho station -- Leo Tolstoy Square. They had their toothless 12-year-old chihuahua, Lukas, with them.

“We woke up to the explosions at five o'clock this morning. We haven’t really slept since then,” she said, glued to her smart phone like nearly everyone else in the subway station.

Yekaterina (right), 42, her 64-year-old mother Viktoriya, and their chihuahua, Lucas, were among thousands of Kyiv residents who fled underground.
Yekaterina (right), 42, her 64-year-old mother Viktoriya, and their chihuahua, Lucas, were among thousands of Kyiv residents who fled underground.

Ukraine has been at war for nearly eight years, with government forces battling Russia-backed separatists who hold parts of the eastern region known as the Donbas. It’s a conflict that has killed more than 13,200 people and displaced more than 1.5 million. But it’s also a conflict that has been distant from Kyiv, and for many here had faded to background noise.

Now Ukraine is at war with Russia, full stop, after the country’s massive eastern neighbor launched a large-scale invasion on February 24. Predawn explosions jolted the city awake and sent many rushing to gas stations to fill up their cars -- and then headed west, or south, only to be stuck in kilometers-long traffic jams.

And in the afternoon, warnings from authorities lit up Kyiv residents’ phones and sent many scrambling underground, taking what they could and hoping they would not have to stay long.

“No one expected, in the modern world, that we would be down here in the subways, camped out, hiding out, like what we read and saw in photographs from World War II,” said Emilia, a 36-year-old freelance IT-programmer who was seated on a bench with her 8-year-old daughter, Ira, in the Maidan Nezalezhnosti station – beneath the square where protests led to the ouster of a Moscow-friendly president in 2014. Russia responded to that development by seizing Crimea and fomenting separatism in the Donbas, where it has given crucial support to the anti-Kyiv forces throughout the conflict..

Emilia, a 36-year-old freelance IT-programmer, and her 8-year-old daughter Ira.
Emilia, a 36-year-old freelance IT-programmer, and her 8-year-old daughter Ira.

“What is the point of this nonsense?” Emilia said.

Still, she said, it could be worse: “it’s warm, there’s light, it’s safe.”

While the bomb shelters scattered around the city have been shown to be in decrepit or even laughable, condition, Kyiv’s metro was a relatively welcome destination for many.

Russian forces attacked across multiple fronts in Ukraine, launching an assault that met the worst expectations of Western intelligence analysts of what President Vladimir Putin planned to do. The explosions that were heard in Kyiv early in the morning appeared to be the first wave of an attack on a Kyiv region military installation.

Ukrainian government reports said airborne units were pushing to the outskirts of Kyiv by dusk. It was unclear whether Russian troops would launch an assault aimed at seizing the Ukrainian capital itself. Russian officials, however, including Putin himself, have signaled the possibility of an attack on Kyiv that would aim to remove the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

“What do you think? Of course, I’m scared. Russian tanks in the streets?” said Mansur, an Uzbek-born shawarma seller who said he was benefiting from the fact that nearly all the restaurants and cafes in the neighborhood were closed. “Business is good. Can’t complain.”

Up above, the Maidan was mostly empty except for TV crews, some pedestrians, several Territorial Defense guards, and David, a 63-year-old mechanical engineer originally from Georgia.

Live Briefing: Ukraine Under Attack

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the major developments on Russia's invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, the plight of civilians, and Western reaction. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

After posing for selfies and touristy shots in front of Maidan’s monuments and decorations with his Ukrainian companion, who refused to give her name, saying only that she was from the northern city of Poltava, David laughed at a question about whether they were frightened to be out in the city amid warnings of a possible attack.

“I lived through it before. I saw it with my own eyes,” he said. “I’m from Gori. In 2008, they attacked there too” -- referring to the five-day Russia-Georgia war in which Russian forces bombed and briefly occupied the city of Gori, among other locations n the South Caucasus country.

“What they’re doing” -- the Russians -- “is illogical,” said David, who studied engineering in Tbilisi and Moscow but moved to Kyiv after the 2008 war.. “There is no logic in it. What’s the point? There are Russians who live here, in Ukraine. There are Ukrainians who live there, in Russia.”

“What’s painful for me is to think of all the young people who could die, suffer: the Russians, the Ukrainians,” he said. “And what’s the point? It’s totally illogical.”

Liliya Dikun, 53, was on an overnight train from the Donbas town of Bakhmut to Kyiv, when she was awoken just before dawn by the incessant buzz of her cell phone. She woke up to answer the call from her older son in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which is north of the Donbas and close to the Russian border.

Shortly after, the entire train car was chirping and buzzing with cell phones sending the same message: Russia’s attack on Ukraine has begun.

Workers from the Kyiv city subway system install a temporary water fountain for people to drink while seeking shelter from a possible Russian attack.
Workers from the Kyiv city subway system install a temporary water fountain for people to drink while seeking shelter from a possible Russian attack.

Dikun, who works for a land surveying company and was traveling to Kyiv for meetings that appeared to be now completely canceled, said she remembers when the war in the Donbas first began, in 2014.

“It wasn’t a real war, it was like children fighting over a toy in the sandbox, the playground,” she said. “Now, I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know why it’s happening.”

She said her son, who is 32, was rushing to leave Kharkiv with his wife and 6-year-old daughter after reports that Russian troops had crossed the border.

“It’s just offensive, to be fighting against our own brothers and sisters. We were one country, during the Soviet Union. And now we’re two countries, and that’s good. But we don’t need to be fighting each other,” she said.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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