Notes from a bomb shelter: Waking up to the war in Ukraine (Part 1)

KYIV, UKRAINE – FEBRUARY 27, 2022 – Smoke rises over the part of Ukraine’s capital situated on the right bank of the Dnipro River in the morning on Sunday, Kyiv, capital of Ukraine.

We woke up to the sound of explosions in the sky.

He tells me it’s just a car gone awry. I look at the ominous clouds in the deep purple sky and think it’s thunder. A phone call from my sister confirms that we’re wrong. 

The war has begun.

An explosion is seen from a distance as Kyiv suffers from Russian airstrikes. Image sent from the Ukrainian President’s Office to CNN. ​
An explosion is seen from a distance as Kyiv suffers from Russian airstrikes. Image sent from the Ukrainian President’s Office to CNN.
Sirens ring over Kyiv as Putin launches a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Still half-asleep, I convince myself this is all but a vivid dream. A missile lands and tells me otherwise: this is a nightmare we might not wake up from.

“We’re going to the metro station,” Gayana tells me on the phone, voice shaking. 

“Which metro station are you going to?” I ask. 

“Maybe Shuliavska,” she responds. It makes sense. It’s the one closest to their apartment. 

Denys tells me we’re going too, but the nearest metro station is five kilometres away from us. It’s gonna take some time. 

“We’re going too. We’ll meet you there.” 

As I look out our window in an attempt to spot another missile, all I can think about are meeting my sisters, protecting my sisters.

Gayana and Aida, 22-year-old twins from the free city of Kherson, have surpassed every definition of family you can find in the book. I do not want to be away from them as bombs rain down on us.

Gayana, Aida and I in their home in Kherson, Ukraine.
Aida, Gayana and I singing the funny song we made up after realizing that all three of us were always together. The lyrics are “мы всегда втроем, мы всегда втроем. (We three are always together.)

“I love you,” I text them. “Whatever happens.”

Denys starts getting dressed. I start shoving my clothes, which I’ve just unpacked and folded neatly in our wooden closet, back to my 55-liter backpack.

“Are you out of your mind?” he reprimands.  “We need to hurry!” 

“But what do we take with us? Our house might not be standing by the time we return!” I exclaim. “What if we need to leave? What do we do?”

“When the sirens ring and a bomb drops, we only have two minutes to get down the bunker,” he says. 

I look over my things—my entire life—tucked away in shelves and nestled on tabletops: summer dresses I wore as I danced away on the beaches of Odessa, warm woolen sweaters I’ve burrowed myself in during countless starry nights in the mountains, tubes of paint awaiting to be spilled on canvas, books half-read and marked on where we’ve bid temporary farewells.

There was no time to take them. 

Citizens gather around the remains of a Russian shell on a street in Kyiv, Ukraine. Source: Sergei Supinsky / AFP

I hurriedly don a bright pink sweater that my sisters picked out for me. I put on a pair of thermal leggings, and my winter coat. I fix the red beret I’ve taken a liking to, and quickly sneak in the restroom to shape my eyebrows.

Denys sees it, chuckles, and says, “You’ve really lost your goddamn mind!”

“What? We’re going out!” 

“Are you stupid? When a bomb falls, we run!” 

He goes on again about how we only have two minutes to make it underground. I continue filling my brows. 

“Well, if we die, I want to be pretty,” I say, sealing my eyebrow pencil and taking one last look at the mirror. 

Truth is, I have no clue what happens or what to do during a war. Nothing in my life has prepared me for this. 

When I was in school, we were taught to hide under our desks in the event of an earthquake. In case of a fire, we’re told to calmly queue and head for the stairs or the nearest fire exit. 

Nobody taught me what to do when a powerful aggressor state decides to stealthily invade the country you’re in, the country you now call home. 

Maybe part of me also wants to believe that this isn’t happening, that daily life will keep going. I’ll dress up, paint my face, and head to a cozy café with friends. We’ll go for a walk and find fascinating archways with haphazard murals on their walls or roses carved on their ceilings. Maybe I’ll get a drink afterwards. 

I feel my inner coat pocket and check for my passport. We rush outside and catch the first bus we see. I don’t know where it goes, but Denys does. 

A few stops later, we catch a mashrutka that can take us to Pochaina station. 

People on the bus sit calmly as if an air strike didn’t hit us. Most of them are glued to their phones, probably browsing the news. All of them had that familiar exhausted expression you get from waking up at 6:00 AM to go to work—shoulders slouched, glassy eyes staring into nothingness, face masks hiding joyless lips tempted to form a yawn.

Ukrainians on the bus minutes after airstrikes hit Kyiv.

“I need to go to work,” Denys says as if hearing my thoughts.

It was my turn to say he was out of his mind.

We reach Pochaina station, and I ring Gayana again. 

“We’re at Pochaina. Where are you girls? Maybe we can meet somewhere where the blue and red lines cross,” I suggest. 

“We’re going to Aida’s work,” she says. 

Well, I guess Denys isn’t the only one who’s gone insane. 

“It’s war! Why does she need to go to work?” 

“The hotel still has some guests,” Gayana replies. “She can’t just abandon them.”

“Yes, she can! Her life’s more important than this job!” I tell her. 

Furious, I ramble on about how horrible her boss is for making her go to work in spite of the potential threat to her life and how Aida isn’t receiving any hazard pay for working during the wartime. 

But it was no use to argue. The girls are already on their way to Kontraktova Ploshcha station, and I angrily suggest Aida to ask for a significant raise from her nefarious boss.

People on the train were no different than those on the bus. You’d think it was just another typical winter day in Kyiv except for the burly rucksacks, huge suitcases, enormous tote bags, pet carriers bearing terrified animals, and the smell of fear lingering like a lonesome ghost.

Kyiv passengers on the subway. For some, it’s a regular commute to work. For others, it’s time to leave the city.
A Ukrainian woman with a suitcase sits on a bench in Kontraktova Ploshcha Station, preparing to evacuate.

A few stops and we get off at Kontraktova Ploshcha. We take a seat at one of the benches and call my sisters to say we’ve arrived. It doesn’t take too long before they do too.

Gayana and Aida—telling them apart is not rocket science. 

One was blonde while the other was brunette, although Gayana wasn’t fair-haired when I first booked a bunk bed in the hostel they were living in. Frequent dancing to KPop and hitting the jackpot on the genetic code had left them with petite figures, although Aida stood a couple inches taller and packed a few more kilograms than her younger sister. She walked ahead of Gayana too on most days like today, her long legs giving way to large strides coupled with the ever-present mad dash seen on Kyiv commuters during peak hours. 

We hold each other tightly amidst passengers that came and went, some of them dragging large suitcases with wheels singing along the steel chorus of subway trains hurtling on the tracks. 

We each have our own litany of the moment we heard the first explosions over Kyiv. 

Aida recalls how she woke up to the missile that flew above their house, after which she gathered every curse word you can find in the dictionary to describe Putin the dickhead.

Gayana echoes her sister’s blasphemies, then talks to us about fearfully picking up the phone to call our dear Mamochka who is overseas taking care of an elderly woman, 1992 kilometers away from her daughters facing the threat of the Russian invasion. 

Rubbing his half-shut eyes, Denys keeps telling us he needs to go to work. His boss hasn’t informed him if construction continues. Either way, he needs to go back to his workplace and take his phone from the house they’re building. 

He proceeds to make fun of our makeup fiasco at the apartment, which garners a unanimous ‘Kristina’ (my Ukrainian name) followed by a sigh of disbelief from the girls. Aida rolls her eyes like she always does in such cases. 

As if it wasn’t enough, Denys tells them that I tried packing all my stuff amidst the urgent need to run to a bomb shelter. 

“Look at Gayana!” he says, taking the white plastic bag she brought and examining its contents—documents, cash, some biscuits. “She only took what she needed.” 

It was my turn to roll my eyes. Mamochka calls us. I pick up the phone and tell her that the war has started and that all three of us were together underground.

(L-R) Gayana, me, Mamochka, Tyotya Elya (Aunt Elya) in Park Slavy, Kherson, Ukraine.

“Девочки мне уже сказали, (The girls have already told me.)” she confirms. “Как дела, солнышко?  Как ты себя чувствуешь? (How are you, sunshine? How are you feeling?)” 

I recount the same story of waking up to the missiles for the nth time that day and relive the same worry, the same anger, the same fear. 

“Я переживаю за вас троих. я слишком далеко от тебя, (I’m worried about the three of you. I am too far from you.)” she says. The sound of her voice sends daggers to my heart. 

I could picture Mamochka alone in her room in Bologna—lips pursed, eyes damp with held back tears, the lines on her face burrowing deeper into her skin at the thought of being away from her twin daughters and her aging mother. 

I could picture the void inside her, an ugly black thing wrenching her heart with its greedy fingers. As each minute passes away from her home, the tar creature grows, grows and grows. 

Had the war not begun she would have been here in a couple of days. We would have picked her up from the bus station in Kyiv and surprised her with a bouquet in honor of Women’s Day. We would have shared a meal together and gone off for a small stroll around the city. She would have held my sisters, and the void would instantly disappear together with every second she had spent away from them. 

But for now, it lives. 

It lives along with being away from those dearest to her as fighter jets swoop above their cities, as tanks roll on their avenues, as bombs fall from their skies. 

“Mamochka, it’s better if you stay in Italy, far from the war. I know you worry about the girls, but it’s better if you don’t come back,” I say, trying to overpower the sound of steel-on-steel in the subway. 

A sigh escapes her lips. She tells me she doesn’t know what else to do. She doesn’t oppose the idea and says she’ll stay put in Bologna until it’s safe to return. 

But how long will she wait until it’s safe to return? 

“Everything will be okay, Mamochka,” I assure her. 

“What’s important is we stick together,” I say, looking at Gayana and Aida pacing back and forth on the platform and talking among themselves in raised voices and anxious tones. 

With Mamochka away and better off beyond our reach, I make a solemn vow to protect my sisters—my chosen family, my pot of gold at the end of the double rainbow.

Sisters. Forever and always.

“I love my sisters more than anything, Mamochka,” I tell her. “I am not leaving them alone in Kyiv.”

“ты моя солнучка (You are my sunshine),” Mamochka’s too-familiar soothing voice stands out from the brash subway noise.

“люблу сулууууу (Love and kisses),” I say, in an incorrect fashion my chosen family had grown deeply fond of. 

“люблу сулу,” Mamochka responds, and I feel her arms around me. “Береги себя. (Take care).”

– – – – – –

It’s been more than a month since Russian President Vladimir Putin declared war on Ukraine. Situation on ground becomes increasingly dire by the minute. Many Ukrainians cower in subway stations, basements and bomb shelters across the country as Russian aggressors continue to attack peaceful cities. The Russian aggressors do not spare civilians, and the death toll only continues to rise. As of this post, 10 million Ukrainians have already fled the country, while those who have stayed behind struggle with joblessness and supply shortage along as they endure constant attacks by Russian forces.

Here are some ways you can help Ukraine, including my very own fundraising efforts to provide aid to Ukrainian refugees and locals who have chosen to stay behind or who cannot leave their war-torn country.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You May Also Like