Tears, blood and courage: a journey to Ukraine

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By Valérie Gauriat
A volunteer of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces assists a woman to cross the street in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 16, 2022.
A volunteer of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces assists a woman to cross the street in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 16, 2022.   -   Copyright  Andrew Marienko/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved   -  

The first time I remember being on Independence Square in Kyiv goes back to 2004, it was crowded with demonstrators. Those were the days of the so-called Orange Revolution, a turning point in Ukraine’s history.

A sharp contrast to the deserted epicentre of the Ukrainian capital, the air heavy with fumes and silent sorrow, that I was standing on, on the 24th of February 2022. Kyiv, Mariupol, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Odessa: the country’s main cities had awoken to the sound of explosions, after President Putin had launched the invasion of Ukraine.

Blue and yellow flags wrapped around their shoulders, a handful of people had gathered on the square in a show of defiance. “If we need to, we will take up arms, to defend our country, our democracy. We want to show the world that we are not scared”, says 25-year-old Artsiom, gravely.

A spirit that I would encounter throughout the two weeks I spent in the war-torn country. A spirit overshadowed with tears and pain, as every day brought news of destruction and death. As with Estella, a young dancer, about to go down into the Kyiv subway where she sought refuge with her parents, each time the chilling shriek of air raid alert sirens tore the silence of the city centre.

“Every time we go outside, we’re very nervous, will there be a bomb or a rocket? We try not to panic. Me and my parents will stay here until the last possible moment. We will get through this,” she tells me.

Back at the historic Ukrayina hotel, a strange scene awaits me. The whole staff has disappeared, groups of journalists ridden with luggage, have been told to leave the establishment before dawn. News of an imminent strike on Kyiv is spreading. I send my last files to the newsroom, and just have time before the 10 pm curfew, to drag my luggage, with the help of a Turkish colleague, to another hotel, on the opposite side of Maidan square.

The night falls on the eerily deserted city, to be awoken again a few hours later by the cry of more sirens and explosions.

The sun has overtaken the sky, a strange reminder that we are nearing spring, in the darkness of this war. Tension is palpable. Sounds of gunshots echo then and now near the city centre.

All were adamant: Ukraine would rise from the ashes.

Police forces are under combat alarm. I’m attracted to a group of police cars surrounding two civilian cars near Maidan. They are searching the vehicles and their occupants for weapons. Unregistered automatic rifles lying on the floor have been found. One of the officers tells me it’s the third such find that day. They are on the lookout for so-called “saboteurs,” infiltrated pro-Russian groups known to have invested in the city. I’m asked to move away.

I go down the underground passage to cross the square, and decide to venture into the bowels of the Kyiv metro.

The sight takes my breath away, like live re-enactments of World War II archives.

Dozens of people, families, clad with luggage and plastic bags full of whatever they could take with them, are huddled in small groups, sitting on blankets and training mats, along the walls of the metro corridors. Many have taken their pets with them.

Distress and anger veils their weary faces. “I’m sixteen years old!” exclaims soft mannered Daryna, “and my brother here is only 10! We should be going to school, getting on with our lives! I can’t believe we have to sleep in the subway, to save our lives. What kind of mind has the man who created such a situation? I just don’t understand...”

As I make my way out of the subway, I’m stopped by nervous security personnel; they calm down once my documents are checked, and lead me out of the metro’s locked doors.

A total curfew has been announced in the city for the next two days. I spend time with Denis and Dima, 18 and 19, working relentlessly at the reception of my hotel. They tell me that most of the staff has left; they have to deal with everything, handling ingoing and outgoing guests, who are now exclusively journalists, with constant requests. Food is running out, as distribution circuits are cut.

We will win. We have to win,
Gala

In between check-ins and check-outs, and never-ending calls, the boys scurry to find biscuits provided by shutdown bakeries. Their faces are white with fatigue, dark circles under their eyes. They take turns to sleep no more than two or three hours a night. On the sofas of the hotel entrance hall.

“Someone has to keep things running”, says Denis, “and it keeps our minds off the war”, before rushing off to another errand.

“I used to be careless, and wasn’t doing anything; this war has taught me otherwise”, blushes Dima.

Both agree on one thing: “We don’t want to have to kill anyone. But if we have to, we will go and help our troops.”

I do not know what has become of Denis and Dima, whom I can no longer get hold of.

From Kyiv to the eastern city of Lviv, I was struck by the courage and determination expressed by all those I have met. Whether among the hundreds of volunteers relentlessly providing humanitarian help to those in need, those mobilised in the territorial defence force to support the Ukrainian army, or among the scores of refugees on their way to safety in neighbouring countries, all were adamant: Ukraine would rise from the ashes.

As in the words of Gala, about to board a bus to Poland, her voice trembling: “We are leaving with nothing. We will return to build a better, stronger country. We will win. We have to win.”

The words of Andrii, whom I met in a demonstration by Ukrainian refugees in the Polish city of Krakow, just before I headed to the airport, still echo in my mind: “NATO must close the sky! I ask all people of the world: don’t keep silent! We need your help! I say to Biden, Macron, Johnson and all the others: if you don’t stop Putin, the blood of Ukrainian people will be on your hands!”