Saturday, March 2

I escaped Kyiv, but nowhere in Ukraine is truly safe until Putin is stopped | Tetiana Pechonchyk

ORn Monday I left my hometown of Kyiv in a car driven by volunteers from the territorial defense force. The roads were empty except where there were queues at makeshift checkpoints, and blockades built up to defend the city. Buildings around the city are damaged and destroyed, and you can see military planes in the sky.

We believed this could happen, but never thought it would. We knew Putin was mad after his occupation of the Crimea and Donbas. We understood that this – an invasion – would be a disaster for Europe and for the entire globe, so we hoped some sense of logic still remained in his head. But still it happened.

We are shocked and angry. We will never forgive it. Putin always said that Russians and Ukrainians and Belarusians were brothers. But listening to him now you can see how deeply he hates the state, and the people, of Ukraine. He hates us because we resisted him and tried to reform our country. We still do. You see people without weapons in the streets trying to stop tanks. We protest. And we pay a very high price. Many of our best people will be killed doing this.

The most incredible thing is the support among the people. I was scared when I woke up in my high-rise apartment to explosions last Thursday. In the next few days, as the situation worsened in the city, I slept in the bathroom – the safest room, they say – and in the car park below my building, and one night in the metro station. In the stations people share food, and they set up games and theaters using projectors with sheets for the children. Kids are kids: they need a semblance of normality.

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Kyiv residents sheltering from the Russian bombardment in metro stations Photograph: Tetiana Pechonchyk/The Guardian

There are volunteers doing everything. The meters still run sometimes. People build barriers against tanks. They try to keep the city functioning by delivering food and other goods that people need. One of my colleagues used to be a medical nurse so she joined a volunteer medical group. Today she went out to care for people with cancer who can’t get regular hospital care.

Putin’s strategy depended on beating us in a few days. I have failed. The nation is united. We have found a way to function, and survive. But this means the Russians are even more desperate to spread fear. They are shelling areas where people live, including schools and hospitals. They’re violating all rules of war. All laws. They have killed civilians. The latest report was 352, including 14 children. And the real number will be much higher. They want people to lose faith. But we will fight.

I chose to leave Kyiv, and the volunteers help with that too. The territorial defense force volunteers can pick you up in a car and take you out of the city if you are lucky. I left this way, and my sister and some others came along. But many choose to stay. And I know friends and colleagues in other cities close to the Russian border that are surrounded by Russian forces, such as Chernihiv and Sumy. It is extremely difficult to get out. The Ukrainians are still in control of the city, but no one can evacuate.

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Right now I’m in the Rivne region, in the north-west of the country. But still I don’t feel safe. I worked at a human rights organization in Crimea. Before the war the Russians had a list of activists and journalists that they would kill or send to camps when they occupied Ukraine. After all those years of working in that field, I don’t feel safe. And besides, I am now near the Belarusian border, so if it joins the intervention I won’t be safe either.

The world has now seen on its screens what is happening. We demand a stop to this bloodshed and the crimes that you are seeing happening right now in Europe. I sometimes feel like it is a bad dream, but I assure you it isn’t. It isn’t even far away.

We are fighting. But we need support. We call on every western government to take the steps needed to stop Putin. We need shelter from the sky. We want a no-fly zone. We cannot defend ourselves as we are being bombed. We want all Russian banks blocked from the Swift system – not only the seven that were already shut out – and Belarusian banks, too. The financial system behind Putin must collapse. Western business should stop trading in Russia and Belarus, and all companies should close their offices there. Russia should also be excluded from the UN security council.

If the UN is not the League of Nations – which failed to stop the second world war – it cannot allow an aggressor to block its actions.

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All I could think of while driving in the car away from Kyiv is that we must believe this will lead to the end of Russia in its current state. We need to fight back where Putin has destroyed the media and eroded civil society. Where he acts with impunity. Where he invades countries like the new Hitler. Where other western states say they are “deeply concerned”, but do nothing about it. We are defending democracy in the face of all of this. And we are paying the highest price.

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