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Escaping Kyiv

One woman’s weekend in a bomb shelter and her solo journey out of the embattled capital city.

People walking between trains at a depot.
A woman carries a child along a platform at the Kyiv train station on March 1. As of Wednesday morning, March 2, more than 874,000 people have fled Ukraine, according to UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency.
Diego Herrera/Europa Press via Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

For 22-year-old Olena, the switch from sunny blue skies over her home city of Kyiv to the constant blaring of airstrike alarms happened unbelievably quickly.

“It felt like spring on February 23, but a day later I already got used to the sound of war,” Olena, a recent graduate in human rights advocacy and a member of the NGO European Youth of Ukraine, told me. (Olena’s last name is being withheld to protect her safety.)

February 23 was the day before Russia invaded Ukraine. The next morning, Olena’s cousin called her at 5 am to tell her the war had begun. From the moment the invasion started, Russian President Vladimir Putin had his sights set on Kyiv — Ukraine’s capital city of about 3 million — where he hoped to depose Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government.

Russian troops tried to enter the city on the morning of Saturday, February 26, launching street fights as local officials urged residents to take shelter and the defense ministry recommended that they make Molotov cocktails. Russian air attacks damaged buildings, including a children’s hospital; armored artillery vehicles rolled into the outskirts of the city.

The sounds of explosions, gunfire, and air raid sirens have been enough to radically change life in Kyiv. For Olena, having internet access while hiding out in a bomb shelter or hearing gunfire while trying to grocery shop has created a disconnect — the war feels modern but is not any less scary.

Some people began to flee on Thursday, February 24. But Olena, who lived alone in the city, didn’t escape until Monday, making a nine-hour journey across Ukraine by train. Here’s what she saw in Kyiv, in her own words.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

4 am: Waking up to the sound of sirens

Beginning on Thursday, I started going to bed dressed, sleeping in my socks and tracksuit. I had set my alarm for 4 am because, according to the news, there was going to be a massive attack on Kyiv at around that time. I woke up before the alarm went off, though, because a very loud sound woke me up.

In those moments I have to decide: Is this an imminent threat? If I decide that it is, I throw my coat and boots on and run to the bomb shelter, which is a metro station six minutes from my apartment.

If I determine the sound was not an imminent threat, I stay home, but in the hallway where the walls can protect me. But there are problems with both options. If a missile hits my building, the chances are I won’t survive. But it’s the same thing if I’m running to a bomb shelter and get hit. But there is always that choice.

“I brought these blankets and pillow into the bomb shelter. This is where I sat and slept.”
Courtesy of Olena

Since the sound I heard wasn’t that close to my apartment, I decided to stay in the hallway. About 40 minutes later, we received a message that it was the end of the alarm. This meant that I could move around and do some things.

4:40 am: Getting ready to hide

I brushed my teeth and washed my face since I had some time to do it. I gathered all my food that I had at home — some fruits, canned food, water, and chocolates — to have them ready just in case.

I went and lay down all dressed up. I couldn’t go back to sleep again. They told us that it was going to be a hard day. So I was just lying there. And reading the news and replying to people online.

6 am: Heading to the bomb shelter

There was another very loud alarm. At this moment, I decided that since I already had my food and everything packed, I should just go to the bomb shelter. Where I live in Kyiv is a historical area and not very far from government buildings. Since Putin made it clear he wants to kill President Zelensky and Ukraine’s political elite, they were basically aiming to get to this area where our parliament and office of the president are. And since my apartment is in an old house, I figured I better spend the day in the bomb shelter.

I went out with my backpack and package of food and made my way to the metro station. I saw that there are a lot of people inside, with pillows and blankets everywhere. Some people had spent the first few nights there, particularly the parents with children. People were drinking tea. There were cats and dogs there, of course, because people regard them as family members. My first reaction was, wow, I never thought that it was possible to see this with my own eyes. People really made it look like a collective flat. People tried to make it comfy. They were ready to spend days there.

“I used Instagram to update my family, friends, and the rest of the world about what I experienced in Kyiv.”
Courtesy of Olena

This amused me because Ukrainians did not want to give up. They are ready to spend days and weeks in the bomb shelter. There are restrooms in our metro stations that were made free and public for people to use. Many people left Kyiv, but many people stayed as well. It’s the capital, our country’s biggest city. This is where people live; this is where their offices are. This is where their families and pets are. Many people have no choice but to stay here because they have nowhere else to go.

I was also surprised by the unity. These people were all strangers to me but were offering tea and snacks to each other. They were talking, listening to music, and children were watching cartoons on smartphones. My mind was blown. You know it’s war and it’s not funny because you have missiles over your head. But at the same time, you feel like it’s a part of your normal life because people are watching cartoons and the news. People are discussing war and trying to cheer everyone up at the same time. We didn’t feel there was a lack of water or supplies because volunteers brought a lot of that into the shelter. People relied on power banks to charge their phones.

I spent most of the day in the bomb shelter, eating chocolates and snacks. I had gone grocery shopping Thursday morning and stocked up on enough food for the week. I made sandwiches and put them in the fridge ahead of time. I wasn’t eating a lot, though. On the days I spent in the bomb shelter, I had, like, one apple and one chocolate. I needed to have some chocolate because it makes me happier. But I didn’t really have an appetite because I was checking the news. I was sincerely worried about my friends. I didn’t know what was going on with my work or with my life. I didn’t know if I needed to flee the city or the country.

“This was what the grocery store looked like on Monday, February 28, after the curfew. It was difficult to find a supermarket with no crowds and with sufficient supplies. This one was in a new shopping mall, so that’s why there’s enough of everything. Supermarkets in the city center had almost empty shelves.”
Courtesy of Olena

3 pm: Some “quiet” time

Things were relatively calm for, like, two hours. I went back home and got another blanket and some socks since it was pretty cold in the bomb shelter. But I didn’t spend much time at home because I knew that it would be a tough night.

9 pm: At night in the bomb shelter

I spent the night in the bomb shelter. We occasionally went out of the bomb shelter, right at the doors of the metro station, to breathe some fresh air. Many people came up to smoke.

We heard a lot of explosions that night, compared to Thursday and Friday night. We could really feel that the city was being bombed and attacked. It wasn’t that comfortable to sleep, but people were so stressed and so tired that it doesn’t matter anymore. You can sleep anywhere and in any position.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

6 am: Waking up in the bomb shelter

I woke up in the bomb shelter and spent most of my time inside there on Sunday. I had my laptop, so I was able to work for a lot of the day — my normal day job, but I was also in contact with a number of volunteer organizations. I was having very confusing feelings about what the war was doing to us, because this is a modern war, a war of the 21st century.

It’s super strange that we are in a bomb shelter and still have internet access. It’s not enough to make some video calls, but you still can follow the news. And this access to the internet makes us aware of everything that is going on but also makes it feel like some of our normal life is happening. But war is not normal.

I decided to stay in this metro station and not go to the other bomb shelter where I stayed on Friday, since the metro station is closer to home. There are three different kinds of bomb shelters that I’m aware of in Kyiv: basements, metro stations, and real bomb shelters located underneath universities or school buildings across the city, which the country built decades and decades ago. We’ve been told that the basements aren’t safe because the walls can crack, fall down, and then you’re trapped. A lot of people go to the metro stations because of how deep underground they are. Once the war started, our local government in Kyiv sent out a map of all the shelters in the city. People went and cleaned up the old bomb shelters to make sure they were ready for use.

2 pm: The day before the invasion

I kept thinking about how different things became in just some days. Before the invasion, the weather was super nice. It felt like spring already. The sky was very clear, and I could smell spring and nature. But after the invasion, you could see that the streets are not the same as they used to be. It was weird to look online and see the historical parts of the city being heavily protected; these are places where I have many memories.

“My friend took this photo of a flag in Kyiv on the day before the invasion.”
Courtesy of Olena

It was even strange on Thursday morning when I went grocery shopping. The sun was shining, and I felt like kids should have been outside playing on the playground. But then all of a sudden you hear this alarm and know that it’s a signal that there are missiles somewhere and you have to hide.

4 pm: My friends in Kharkiv

I was in contact with friends and colleagues in Kharkiv, where none of them could really leave the bomb shelters. What happened there was unprecedented, with civilian buildings being bombarded. In the group chats, my friends described how it felt like someone had gotten very angry and furious that day and just completely targeted three districts.

Because Kharkiv is in eastern Ukraine and a lot of people speak Russian there, Putin probably thought it would be easy for him to take control. He thought people would be proud of this Russian power and meet him with flowers and open hands. But that didn’t happen.

Kharkiv also had curfew, but it was not as long as Kyiv’s. When the curfew was lifted later that afternoon, people went out of shelters to buy water and shooting started, my friends said. People were walking with their water and groceries, and that’s when people saw those awful images of bloody bodies in the streets. They thought they had a calm period after the curfew, but there was gunfire all of a sudden.

Monday, February 28, 2022

7 am: Missing my family

I woke up and knew that curfew would be lifted soon, and I had made the decision to leave Kyiv to be with my family. My parents live six hours away in northwestern Ukraine near the Polish and Belarus border.

I didn’t want to leave Kyiv. It is my city, and I knew that some of my friends were staying, even though I didn’t live close to them at all since Kyiv is such a large city. But when I realized that many of my friends were leaving and that there were massive attacks on the city, I thought it over. I’m an only child, and my parents were really worried. I don’t have anyone closer than them. The worst thing in this situation, I guess, is to stay alone. I thought that if the city was encircled by Russia, it would be best to reunite with my family. My intuition was telling me, “You have to get out now,” because it could be too late if I waited any longer.

I gathered my belongings and got ready to make my way to the railway station.

8 am: No more curfew

Kyiv’s local government lifted the curfew. The metro started working again for transport. I took the train to the railway station and got there pretty quickly.

“This is the entrance to the railway station where I caught the train that took me to my parents’ town in northwestern Ukraine near the borders of Poland and Belarus.”
Courtesy of Olena

9:20 am: Saying goodbye to Kyiv

I had a train out of Kyiv at this time. But because of massive delays the train was late. I just stayed on my phone contacting friends and family and following the news. I saw that the average time I spent on my phone had increased by 141 percent! I have been spending like 15 hours on my phone daily because you really have to check your media, like a lot.

The railway was quite crowded, but not as crowded as my friends told me it was on Friday. There were no seats at first but then when people transferred to a different train headed to Lviv, seats became available. I managed to get some sleep, especially since I was on a sleeper train and could actually lie there.

7 pm: After the long journey home

When I arrived after nine hours, my dad met me at the railway station. When I got home, I finally took a shower. And I was like, “Oh, my god, it feels different to shower here.” It’s way calmer. We also had an alarm that evening, so we went to a bomb shelter 10 minutes away from us and stayed there for some time.

I have some hope right now because from day one, we had two options. Either we gave in to the Russian troops and lived under their tricolor flag or we fight to defend our independence. We chose the second option.

My parents are already reminding me that it’s the simple things that matter. When war enters your country, people are dying and you live under bombings and missiles, you start valuing the simple things. You start checking up on your friends and family more. You’re checking to see if they’re alive and if they spent the night at the bomb shelter or in their bed. It doesn’t matter how many clothes or gadgets you have, and if they’re up to date. What matters the most is that you’re not alone and you have someone you’re worried for and to rely on.