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‘I had to find a way to support my country’: Community spirit boosts morale in Kyiv

‘I had to find a way to support my country’: Community spirit boosts morale in Kyiv

In the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, life is far from normal. But local businesses are finding their own ways to help civilians who have remained in the city, despite the threat of a Russian attack. FRANCE 24 meets some of the workers keeping the capital supplied with food and medicine. 

Residents in Kyiv have been waking to the sounds of shelling as early-morning Russian attacks have targeted residential zones. At dawn on Friday, March 18, a residential building was hit in Sviatoshyn killing four, according to local authorities. 

Four hours later, not far from the site of the attack, the chaos of the early hours has dissipated. Smoke, sirens and ambulances have been replaced with civilians, coming and going with shopping trolleys.  

At a high-end supermarket some shelves are empty but overall the store is well-stocked. There is meat, coffee and hummus, and even the trendy fermented health drink kombucha. 

At the back of the store a queue is forming near a bread counter that is selling fresh baguettes cooked on site. Manager Iryna Gorshkova says the supply problems experienced in the first few days of the war have mostly been resolved.   

This supermarket in Kyiv, Ukraine is part of the Silpo chain. It is still baking bread for customers on site. Photo taken on March 18, 2022. © David Gormezano

The supermarket chain is managing to supply its 240 branches throughout Ukraine more or less successfully. “We still have some problems, but we have been able to resume online orders and home deliveries. Those are really important for the elderly,” Gorshkova says.

“The supermarket is running today thanks to the employees,” she adds. “Some are coming to work on foot, because there is almost no public transport left.” Others have stopped coming to work altogether because they live too far away or have fled the city.    

Iryna Gorshkova, the supermarket manager, wants her store to stay open. Taken in Kyiv on March 18, 2022. © David Gormezano

Staff shortfalls have been met by volunteer workers, such as Iryna and Vitaly. 

“I’m old and I have health problems,” says Vitaly, a retired engineer. “I can’t pick up a gun to defend my country on the front lines, so I had to find something else to do to help. The government and the army have made sure that daily life can continue and things haven’t fallen apart.” 

Vitaly and Iryna volunteer at the supermarket to replace employees who can no longer come to work. Taken in Kyiv on March 18, 2022. © David Gormezano

Iryna, his partner, is an accountant who still works remotely for a pharmaceutical laboratory, but there is not much work to do at the moment. Instead, she spends a few hours each day stocking shelves so that “Ukraine can keep standing. We are going to rebuild our country,” she says, adding: “I’m thankful to all the countries around the world that support us.”  

Maintaining normality in a city at war In the fresh produce aisle, fruits and vegetables are being restocked and supermarket worker Galyna, a beloved member of the team, is helping one of her favourite customers select apples.

“Lots of the customers know her, she is very popular,” Gorshkova observes. 

Although Galyna is in her 60s, she walks to work every day. “I’m not afraid of walking through the city, even though we are in a war. I’m already used to it,” she says. 

She lives in the northwest of the city near Hostomel airfield and Irpin, where fighting has been intense. “It’s very dangerous,” she says. “Yesterday a warehouse next to where I live was bombed. At least at work I’m not afraid of being hit by a bomb. I live on the 14th floor, and I feel safer at work.” 

This is life in Kyiv now. “Everyone is doing their best to adapt to what is happening, but it’s very hard for us,” says Gorshkova. “I decided not to leave because I want to stay in Kyiv and do my job. Where else would I go? I’ve worked here for 10 years. Many of our customers thank us every day because we are open, because our employees are still working.” 

The supermarket has become more than just a place to buy essentials. It is a place for customers, workers and volunteers to be together and feel a sense of solidarity in terrifying circumstances. Russian forces are now 30 kilometres from the city centre and could launch missiles at any moment. 

Galyna keeps helping customer after customer. The way she sees it, the territorial defence army, made up of civilian volunteers, controls checkpoints in the city so that she can keep coming to work. “And I make sure they have food,” she says. “I want peace. Peace in Ukraine and everywhere in the world.” 

Working towards a new goal  In the west of the city, many businesses have ceased normal operations and are putting their resources towards the war effort. Oleksander Kozhan is the director of a company that makes interior surfaces used by designers. Now, he and his employees work as volunteers. 

A van parked outside the company building is filled with humanitarian aid packages sent from Italy. Kozhan, his wife and their workers will sort the products and take out any medicines. “We take them to people who need them, whether they are civilians or in the army,” Kozhan says. “Hospitals have asked us to bring medical kits.” 

Oleksander’s wife sorts medicines sent to Kyiv in a humanitarian aid package on March 18, 2022. © David Gormezano

Kozhan wants to be as useful as possible and is using the means his company has at its disposal to try and make a difference. “We found vehicles to transport people who have escaped from combat zones to west Ukraine,” he says. “We have transported groups of orphans and their guardians. On the way back to Kyiv we brought back humanitarian aid packages.” 

Military activity from Russian forces in the north of Kyiv has slowed in recent days. But each night still brings fear of bombings and worry that the city will be surrounded and besieged, like Kharkiv or Mariupol.  

In the meantime, residents live life day to day, determined to hold on to a semblance of normality by any means possible.

This article is a translation of the original in French.

© Studio graphique France Médias Monde

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