Wednesday, August 17

‘I thought the bombings were over’: war returns to Kyiv | Ukraine

When the Kyiv opera house reopened in late May it was seen by many as the symbol of a return to normality after months of war, with the melodies of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville replacing the din of Russian artillery.

Around the same time local authorities relaxed the curfew hours, anti-tank roadblocks were moved aside and the main thoroughfare of Khreshchatyk Street was once buzzing again with busy cafes, businesses and bars. Oleksandr Litvin, a 23-year-old marketing manager, surveyed the weeks of calm and decided it was time to return to his apartment in the central Shevchenkivskyi district, returning this weekend after months away.

“I left Kyiv right after the invasion,” he told the Guardian. “I moved to a village in the Zakarpattia oblast – the westernmost region of Ukraine. My friends told me the capital was quite safe now and I thought maybe it was time for me to return after more than three months. I thought the bombings were over. But I was wrong.”

Four explosions in the space of a few seconds in the early hours of Sunday morning catapulted Oleksandr and the entire city back to a crude reality. Columns of smoke rose over buildings next to his apartment de él, home to a cluster of universities, restaurants and art galleries, as air-launched Russian missiles fired from the Caspian Sea served as a violent reminder that the Ukrainian capital is still in a conflict zone.

Smoke rises after a Russian missile strike in Shevchenkivskyi on Sunday. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

In spite of normal life slowly returning, Kyiv is still at war at a time in which the entire country, with its back to the wall in Donbas, is perhaps facing the most difficult moment since the beginning of the invasion, with up to 200 Ukrainians believed to be dying every day on the battlefield.

One man was killed as two apartment buildings were hit and six people, including a woman from Russia, were taken to hospital, while a seven-year-old girl was rescued from the rubble. Kyiv’s elder, Vitali Klitschko, called it an attempt to “intimidate Ukrainians” ahead of the Nato and G7 summits.

“I woke up and saw a large plume of smoke from my window,” said Oleksandr.

“I was out with some friends that night. We started to scream because there had been other blasts. We locked ourselves in the bathroom and waited 10 minutes. Then we went out to see what had happened. It was terrifying.”

Oleksandr said he was moving back to his parents’ house. “I no longer feel safe in that apartment. I will not go back until the war is over.”

Before the invasion, the greater Kyiv area had a population of 3.5 million, but after the first bombardments back in February the capital began to look like a ghost town, with one in two residents leaving the city.

Firefighters work to put out a fire as smoke rises from residential building
Firefighters work to put out a fire as smoke rises from residential building. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

After the announcement that the region of Kyiv had been liberated from the Russians in what was described as Ukraine’s biggest victory in the war, thousands of residents started to return. Many people had left the city with the sounds of Russian artillery explosions in the distance. Hopeful that the war here was just a bad memory, they started to ignore the daily air raid sirens and queues began to form outside nightclubs.

In a sometimes surreal atmosphere, residents would sip coffees and beer among occasional explosions in the distance.

“I got used to living under these new conditions,” said Sonia Lassud, 34, an interior designer. “What before I thought couldn’t happen is now the new reality.”

Lassud stayed in Kyiv after the Russian invasion and knows war and its destructive force. She is originally from Mariupol, the long-besieged city which fell under Russian control. Her mother and brother de ella, who was wounded in a Russian air strike, stayed there until just before the Russians arrived and later took refuge in a nearby village.

“They slept in the cold because their windows had been broken in the explosions,” says Lassud. “In the house, the temperature was six below zero.”

Musicians and singers during The Barber of Seville at the reopening of the opera house
Musicians and singers during The Barber of Seville at the reopening of the opera house. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

After the capture of Mariupol, perhaps the most strategic breakthrough for Vladimir Putin since the beginning of the invasion, Russia has continued to consolidate its gains in eastern Ukraine, as the war’s momentum slowly and incrementally has shifted in Moscow’s favour.

After having reduced the city of Sievierodonetsk to rubble, Russian forces in eastern Ukraine are now trying to cut off its twin city of Lysychansk. If Lysychansk falls, the entire region of Luhansk, which along with Donetsk makes up the Donbas region, could fall into Russian hands.

Ukrainian troops, who proved to be formidable at the beginning of the war, are now struggling on the battlefield.

However, despite suffering heavy losses at the front, a lack of weapons and relentless Russian bombardments, its citizens continue to fight and, despite the difficulties, are not willing to make any concessions to the enemy.

“Yes, it’s true, the Russians have more firepower”, says Lassud. “We may be running out of weapons, but our spirit… our spirit will never die.”

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