The Ukrainian capital has so far held out against Russian invasion but, as the fight moves closer to Kyiv, civilians have been forced to flee their homes. FRANCE 24 spoke to one resident, Sofia, about the prospect of war coming to her city.
It’s difficult for Sofia*, 29, to find time to talk. She lives in central Kyiv, and on the morning of Friday March 4, the city has been under hours of heavy attack from Russian forces. As soon as the sirens stop wailing, she has to go to the supermarket “while there’s no bombs”.
By the evening Sofia is tired and deflated. It has been more than a week since Russia first invaded Ukraine, launching a “special operation” by air, land and sea. The strength of Ukraine’s resistance has surprised the world, and for now Kyiv is still unoccupied.
On Friday, the sirens were wailing all day. Every night since the invasion began, they have gone off at least twice, meaning she and her 52-year-old father have to get down to the basement as quickly as possible. “It’s been eight or nine days already, but it feels like one long day,” she says.
Neither she nor her father want to leave Kyiv. “We both understand it’s becoming unsafe.” She pauses for a long time. “My biggest fear is that if I leave, I will never be back.”
“People in Russia don’t believe it’s a war” Before the war started Sofia worked as a travel agent. Two weeks ago, she was travelling in Peru. Now leaving Kyiv is fraught with unknowns. “It’s almost impossible to understand where to go. Almost all properties in western Ukraine are rented out.”
An image of Sofia taken while she was visiting Peru in February, 2022. © Sofia
Meanwhile, Russian forces are ratcheting up the pressure in cities in east and south Ukraine. Kherson has fallen under Russian control, and rocket strikes have targeted civilians in Kharkiv. Mariupol is surrounded, and there has been fighting near Kyiv at the Hostomel Airfield.
At least 351 civilians have been killed and 707 wounded since Russian troops invaded, although the true numbers are probably “considerably higher”, a UN monitoring mission said on Saturday, March 5.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the invasion on the basis of a perceived threat from Ukraine and members of the western alliance, NATO, and is now threatening the right of Ukraine to exist as a state independent of Russia.
“The biggest problem is the people in Russia don’t believe it’s a war, but Ukrainians want to choose their president for themselves.” she says. “As soon as millions of people in Russia get it, they will swap Putin.”
“I’m not afraid to die” Sofia has lived in Kyiv since 2009, but her family are originally from the city of Luhansk in the east. The region was the target of a Russian separatist takeover in 2014, meaning this new war feels all too familiar to her father. She says, “I’m sorry to say he is used to it.”
Most people have already fled the neighbourhood in Kyiv where she and her father live, but those who remain work together. Everyday some buy food, some go to the pharmacy, then they share supplies between themselves. Usually they wait until the sirens stop to go outside, but sometimes they go anyway. They are getting used to the sound. “I’m not afraid to die,” she says.
Before the war, Sofia loved living in Kyiv. One of her favourite things to do was to go for an early morning run through a nearby park. On February 23, she took a photo from the top of the hill showing the pale morning sunlight on quiet streets, and the Dnieper River in the distance. A Ukrainian flag rippling in the breeze.
A view over Kyiv taken by Sofia during a morning run on Wednesday, February 23, 2022. © Sofia
Now, the capital city is full of the sights and sounds of war. Historical buildings are the back drop to tank traps and piles of sandbags. “It’s my biggest dream to be able to go jogging in the morning in Kyiv now,” Sofia says.
“I want to believe it will be over soon.”
“I need to believe I’ll come back” On Saturday, March 5, it’s hard for Sofia to talk again, this time because she is driving. In the evening she makes contact. “We had to evacuate today… It’s hard to speak about. It feels like your roots are being torn out forever.”
News reports have shown images of deadly Russian attacks on civilian targets in other cities. Apartment buildings with the sides blown out, and homes reduced to rubble. There is growing fear that a new battle ground will soon emerge in the centre of Kyiv. Everyone she knew was scared that the city was about to be sieged. She felt like she had to leave. “We were all afraid to be left without water, food and light. And bomb attacks may get worse.”
On the journey out, Sofia recalls there was so much traffic exiting the city that it took six hours to drive 100km. She went south, and is now staying with a family friend. Tomorrow they will start to drive towards the border, and Sofia hopes to reach friends in the EU.
A difficult day has left her wrought with emotion. Proud of the heroism of the Ukrainian soldiers and civilians and angry at the Russian justifications for starting a war, Sofia says the decision to leave her city has “destroyed her inside”.
When she left Kyiv, she did not just leave her home behind; her father did not join her on the journey. “He stayed at home. I can’t even speak about it.” She pauses. “I don’t know if we will see each other again.”
“I need to believe I’ll come back.”
*Sofia’s surname has been withheld at her request.
© Studio graphique France Médias Monde