The corcuses are finally coming to Kyiv. Its residents, too, followed a 35-hour lockdown imposed by the city’s mayor in what has been described as another ‘dangerous time’ for the besieged metropolis.
It was bright and bitterly cold when we made our way to the Obolon neighborhood in the northern suburbs. The roads are quiet, but the journey is necessarily the starting point. Kyiv is now a city of checkpoints, battle positions and tank barricades.
On the highway next to the Dnieper, we had to make our way through a crowd of road construction vehicles, a street cleaner and half a dozen yellow buses. All had flat tires: anything that could get in the way of a Russian armored column.
Near Minska metro station, there are people on the street; Parents go for walks with their children, and line up outside pharmacies and food stalls. The Georgia Bakery is giving away fresh bread. It looks normal.
Then you notice sandbag trenches dug in the center of a roundabout and dozens of anti-tank mines firing along a ditch, ready to be laid on the highway. Green and brown, they sparkle in the sunlight: harmless, deadly.
We are in Obolon at the invitation of Anatolii and Nadia Kostiuchenko. Both are retired engineers and, until the war broke out, they had barely been apart a day in their 53 years together.
Kostiuchenkos is a memorable example of how the elders here have always stood their ground, despite the threat of the flood, while millions from younger generations have become refugees . In the photo: Anatolii and Nadia Kostiuchenko
Kostiuchenkos is a memorable example of how the elders here have always stood their ground, despite the threat of the flood, while millions from younger generations have become refugees . We were welcomed into their small apartment on the tenth floor of a dilapidated Soviet-era building.
This is where they raised their two sons – Yevhen and Oleksandr. Yevhen immigrated to America and was killed while serving as a police chief in California. Oleksandr is currently the translator of the Letter here.
The apartment is filled with the accumulated mess of a lifetime: pictures of their boys, religious icons, landscape paintings and an impressive collection of radios and cassette players. These are the treasures of former radio and television engineer Anatolii – now a money-loving hobbyist collecting and restoring Soviet-era radio sets.
There are also all kinds of representatives of cats.
They have four – Martha, Zaia, Shere Khan and Enei – and that’s one of the reasons why they won’t leave. And cats explain the first separation of the Kostiuchenkos in their married life.
We were welcomed into their small apartment on the tenth floor of a dilapidated Soviet-era building (pictured)
The Oleksandr family house is located on the eighth floor of another block, 100 yards away. His wife and two daughters are currently in western Ukraine and he is busy supporting us. So his mother, Nadia, is sitting still to take care of her son’s three cats and Alina’s niece’s hamster Bantik, the rat that stubbornly bit her last week.
“I grew up in a village and he probably sensed what I’ve always felt about rodents,” she grimaced. Speaking of his wife, Anatolii said: ‘We see each other every day. Sometimes I go to her, sometimes she comes here. It’s strange to have to live like this. ‘ It was difficult for them to see each other for two reasons. The first is that they are afraid to go out. Second, the elevators in both buildings were shut down for the duration of the war.
This is to prevent residents from being trapped in it if their property is hit or the power supply fails. That means retirees, who have both health problems, and have to use the stairs. Anatolii, 72, said: ‘It’s very difficult at my age, especially if I have to shop.
‘I had to stop every two floors to rest and the bomb shelter was in the basement. That’s why I only used it once.
‘Now when the sirens go off, which they do as many as seven times a day, I sit in the bathroom or toilet because they have concrete walls and no windows. “But what if a missile hits his tenth-floor apartment building and he’s trapped by a fire?
A person mourns next to a wrapped body near a residential building hit by debris from a downed rocket in Kyiv today
“Nadia thought of that!” He soaked up and made a coil from the balcony. “I’ll tie it to this one,” he said, pointing to a radiator. ‘And climb down.’
As his father spoke, Oleksandr clearly became annoyed. He wants them to leave. But his parents were busy making other preparations to fend off the attack.
Many paintings and all the crockery were removed from the walls and packed away. Anatolii also removed an interior door and fixed it to the window in the second bedroom.
And on a West-facing balcony facing the front lines, he hung two rugs from a laundry line – what he calls ‘dual protection’ against explosions.
All but 5 of the 40 families in the block were ‘fleeing the war’. So why did he and his wife choose to stay?
Anatolii explains: “My opinion is that if we leave this apartment and the Russians move to Kyiv, in a month it will be looted or destroyed. ‘And if we weren’t here and the building was hit by a missile, the search and rescue services would probably open all the apartments and leave them open, let things go again.
‘When we moved here in 1978, all we had was a very simple couch, a bed and two chairs. What you see is what we’ve earned for 45 years: radios, TVs, refrigerators and other luxuries. We could lose everything. ‘
But he recognizes the risks. ‘You see our way of life has changed. One hit by a missile and it disappears completely. ‘
Refusing to leave: Damage to an apartment complex near Kostiuchenkos, in Kyiv’s Obolonskyi District, where they vowed to stay until the war ended
Nadia, 69, made us deruny – the traditional potato pie – which she serves with pickled cucumbers, grilled chicken slices, sour cream and a hot sauce called adjika. “It was made with potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, pepper, salt and sugar, and I put it on the stove for three hours,” she told us. It was also delicious – Ukrainian soul food.
Then, after we had taken our leave and were back on the street, we were confronted by an elderly woman.
‘Hey, why are you here?’ she requested. ‘Who are you? What are you doing? I’m calling the police! ‘ She took out her phone and tears ran down her cheeks. She, like so many Kyivans, fears strangers because of the very real threat of Russian secret intruders.
I learned that they were recruited among Russian nationalists in the occupied Donbas, because they spoke Ukrainian.
We had to show her our ID cards and passports before she was brought down. Then we drove deeper into Obolon.
Half a mile from the Kostiuchenko residence is Bohatyrska 20. There is a poster on the door to the apartment complex. It shows a photo of a yellow and green shark in a cage, a phone number and the message: ‘We have your bird.’
Kyiv has emerged from its latest curfew. But the nightmare for this city is far from over. In the photo: Ukrainian firefighters extinguish a fire at a warehouse following a bomb attack on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine today
One can find such an announcement in the spirit of publicity in any city in the world. Then you look up and look at what’s left of Bohatyrska 20: nine floors of a burning apartment and two giant holes where Russian rockets hit while the residents were sleeping.
At least one of them died and three were injured. The doll was one of the survivors.
Debris was scattered among the neighboring football field. The window frame hangs from the upper branch of a silver birch tree. There is a background of anti-aircraft or artillery fire.
We call the number on the poster. A woman answered. “We also found a turtle and a guinea pig in a cage,” she told us. ‘They were all blown up in the street and somehow survived.’
No, no one has yet confirmed the bird, she added.
On our way back to the center, we passed nearly two miles of static traffic. It was waiting to pass a checkpoint by one of the bridges over the Dnieper.
Next to the Artem military equipment factory that was hit by rockets, a street florist was selling tulips one by one. Behind her, a worker is fixing plywood panels to the window frames of the dilapidated Kvadrat shopping mall.
The owner of the womenswear boutique Wear Me is also eye-catching. His base is made almost entirely of glass. Now it looks like a giant stuck his nose into the kiosk and sneezed.
Kyiv has emerged from its latest curfew. But the nightmare for this city is far from over.