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Eyewitness: In Kyiv, as Russia invades

Alexander Savitsky
February 25, 2022

Distant explosions, long queues and the fear that any moment Russian troops might arrive. Yet most of Kyiv remained calm as DW reporters toured the city.

Rows of cars leaving Kyiv
As the air strikes on Kyiv intensified people tried to get out as fast as possibleImage: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Shortly after Kyiv residents recovered from the shock of hearing explosions in their city in the very early on Thursday, some began packing their cars. They took only the bare necessities and headed out of town.

The first explosions came around 5 a.m. and just an hour later, there were traffic jams on the roads out of Kyiv toward the south and west. In the event of accidents, police urged people to quickly pull the damaged vehicles aside and clear the way. Arterial roads and highways heading south and west were particularly popular for those trying to flee the Russian invasion.

Those who stayed in the city listened carefully to official messages and appeals by Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and the mayor of Kyiv, Vitaly Klitschko.

People queue to a petrol station in Kyiv on February 24, 2022.
There were long queues in front of petrol stations in the city Image: Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

The city's mayor assured them that life in the city would go on, that public transport would continue to run and that it would be free for all passengers. Schools and kindergartens would be closed though, he said.

Klitschko advised anybody who was not working on essential parts of the city's infrastructure to stay at home. They should find out where the nearest air raid shelter might be and stay calm. They could depend on the Ukrainian military, he said.

There were similar appeals made by Zelenskyy and other members of the local parliament, all of whom said that they too would remain in Kyiv.

Fear, but no panic

All of the politicians who regularly appeared in the media declared their unconditional support for the country's Commander-in-Chief and the leadership of Ukraine's military. There were almost non-stop press briefings in the president's offices that morning.

However, by the afternoon, journalists were being asked to return to their own offices. The president's senior advisor, Mykhailo Podolyak, explained that this was due to security, adding that he couldn't rule out Russian troops advancing into Kyiv's government district to try and overthrow the Ukrainian leadership.

During that morning, there were just as many people on the underground, on trams and buses as you'd find on any normal workday. What was unusual, though, were the queues in front of money machines, pharmacies and supermarkets. These showed how tense things were.

There were no shortages of food and the mood among those queuing was calm even though many people looked anxious. People remained polite. They were happy to give interviews, but didn't want to be photographed or give their names. For security reasons, they said.

Karte - Wo Russland die Ukraine angegriffen hat - EN

Excellent shooting skills

One middle-aged woman who had been queuing for more than two hours at a money machine, said she believed the bank's assurances that they wouldn't run out of cash. But, she explained, she wanted to withdraw some extra money to give to Ukrainian soldiers.

She assured us she was not scared because she was convinced that Ukraine would be victorious. "This is our land and we won't give it to anyone!," she said. "This war has been going on for eight years already and this is its final phase."

The woman also said she had excellent shooting skills. "If necessary, I am ready to take up weapons and defend my city and my family together with the men," she stated.

An older woman in another queue, this time in front of the pharmacy, said she'd already lined up at the money machine, had withdrawn her pension and was now planning to stock up on medication and groceries.

"Only in case all of this suddenly stops working tomorrow," she noted, "or if the terminals can't accept bank cards."

The woman said she didn't have enough curse words in her vocabulary to convey how she felt about Russian President Vladimir Putin. So she simply described him as insane and expressed indignation that he had destroyed the relations between what she called "three fraternal peoples." By that, she meant the Ukrainians, the Russians and the Belarusians. She has relatives among all of them.

Airport battle

Around noon that first day, people began reporting hearing explosions on the western outskirts of Kyiv. Later on there were images on social media and in the press showing fighting at Hostomel, an airport around 10 kilometers (6 miles) outside of the city, owned by the Ukrainian aircraft manufacturing company Antonov.

The battle was apparently fierce. At first, it was reported that Russian special forces had captured the airport, then later that Ukrainian forces had recaptured it.

A queu in front of an ATM machine in Kyiv.
Ukrainian banks said they would not run out of cashImage: Oleksandr Sawytsky/DW

Around 3 p.m., small stores, cafes and foreign exchange offices began shutting. An hour later, the National Guard — part of the Ministry of Interior's security forces — started closing bridges over the Dnieper River, which runs through the city. From then on, you could only get to the other side by using the underground.

As night fell, there was less and less traffic on the street. There were also fewer people. Once dusk fell, you could see that there were far fewer windows lit up in apartment buildings than usual.

Small groups of men were talking in courtyards in the city center. They were reluctant to give any interviews.

"I have to think about how to protect my family, not give interviews," one of them explained. "Surely, you can see what's happening here."

This piece was originally written in Russian.

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