By Joti Heir
The cement floor of the kyiv metro is designed to move your feet, not for tired backs, but Iryna Pastoschchuk has been sleeping on it for more than three weeks now.
Pastoschchuk was a copywriter living in a comfortable apartment near the cafe-lined boulevards of Ukraine’s capital, kyiv. On February 24, she awoke to the sound of air raid sirens and rushed to the nearest air raid shelter as Russian attacks pounded the country from the north, south and east.
“I didn’t know, I don’t know how [it] feel[s]she says, curling up on her fleece blanket next to the underground train tracks.
When the explosions are close, they sound like a thunderclap. The vibrations seem to shake your heart first, then the windows.
Some three million people have already arrived in neighboring countries; another seven million are internally displaced. This represents almost a quarter of the population of Canada.
The millions of people who remained as Pastoschchuk now live perpetual night in the hallways of subway stations, bomb shelters and basements across the country.
“Our army will protect us and kill Russian soldiers,” says Pastoschchuk.
She shares her corner of the subway station with Julia and Timothy, Julia’s hedgehog. Three weeks ago, Julia and Pastoschchuk didn’t know each other existed. Now they will sleep together, wake up together, and disbelieve together.
While the metro operates part of the day, the main function of the kyiv metro is now to shelter bombs 24 hours a day. At its deepest, it sits 346 feet below the surface – roughly the same height as stadiums like BC Place.
“I don’t worry about myself, I worry about my family. They live in the south,” says Julia.
The south was beaten, mutilated and smothered. Russia is deeply invested in taking control of the region and its waterways. Russian and Ukrainian exports such as cereals and fertilizers pass through the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. Ukraine exports nearly 27 million metric tons of corn and 20 million metric tons of wheat annually. Now farmers who should fertilize winter wheat and start spring sowing use tractors to transport captured Russian tanks.
The port city of Mariupol in the Sea of Azov was ravaged. It is bombarded daily, families lay their dead in shallow graves and hurry back inside. Mariupol residents attempting to evacuate are forced onto buses by Russian forces and driven across the Russian border.
Julia says her family is still alive. Opposite Pastoschchuk and Julia is Hlab. The video game programmer shares his space with his mother, father, little sister and a stranger he met in hiding.
For a bit of privacy, they hung blue garbage bags like plastic strips from a car wash in front of their end of the subway platform. Behind the bands are five sets of thin blankets, sheets and a few cushions. In front of the plastic, they installed a table and two chairs. On the table place canned food, crackers, cookies, water, juice, soft drinks and an electric kettle.
“On the first day, we weren’t sure if we could get food, so we bought a lot of food. Lots of canned food, bread, vegetables, sweets,” says Hlab.
Just before the invasion, Hlab was thrilled to be promoted to a higher position at video game developer Ubisoft. Now he doesn’t know what the future holds. He tries to fill his days.
“At night we are here, during the day we ride and volunteer. Like, for example, two days ago I did humanitarian work for the Territorial Defence,” says Hlab.
Climbing is becoming more and more dangerous in kyiv. The Russian forces are a 20-minute drive from the city center. The shelling now takes place almost every night and although the Russians say they are not targeting civilians, the buildings hit are almost always residential.
While Western countries have imposed sanctions on Russian companies, organizations and oligarchs, Russia continues its attacks across the country, most recently near the Ukraine-Poland border.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky frequently posts online video messages aimed at boosting morale in the country. It seems to work.
“It’s my home, my city and I don’t think the Russians will be able to take it,” Hlab said.
The capital is now a fortress with checkpoints and blockades on every access road to the city center. Civilians armed with rifles patrol the streets alongside the Ukrainian armed forces.
If kyiv falls, the country falls.
“I think one way or another we’re going to win this war,” Hlab says.
Joti Heir reports from Kyiv, Ukraine
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