Notes from a bomb shelter: Waking up to the war in Ukraine (Part 2)

I give the phone to Gayanochka, and she has her go. I turn to Aida and ask what we’ll do next. 

“I still need to go to work,” she said. “You know, I’m the only one who’s going to be there? Our barista can’t make it. Even the cleaning ladies aren’t going to show up. Looks like I’m gonna have a hard day’s work.” 

“Well, you better get a raise for that,” I remind her. 

Gayana hangs up the phone. “So, what’s the plan?” 

“Sleeeeep,” Denys says, head in his hands. 

“Aida and I are going to the hotel. We’re staying there in the meantime,” Gayana says. Aida tells her they need to rush, since it will be her shift in 15 minutes. 

“Are you coming with us?” Gayana asks. 

“I need to go to my workplace,” Denys answers. “I left my phone there, and I need to get it.” 

I hesitate. With uncertainty and danger hanging in the air, I want all four of us to be in one place. I fear that if anyone decides to go on their own, it will be the last time we’ll ever see them.

I prod Denys and ask him his plan after picking up his phone.

“Sleeeeeep,” he replies groggily. 

“Poor Denys,” Gayana coos. 

“So, Kristina, are you coming or are you going with Denys at his workplace?” Aida asks. “We need to go now because I’ll be late.” 

I look at drowsy Denys, still rubbing his hollow, red-rimmed eyes. I look longer than I should, taking in every single bit of him—the messy brown hair under his bonnet, bushy brows separated by a hair’s breadth, the morning dust resting on the lashes that adorn his brown eyes, the faint hint of stubble dotting his jaw and cleft chin, his tall and lanky frame underneath his worn out navy blue coat, his long legs intersecting on his knobby knees, shoddy sneakers with soles starting to peel away.

Denys with our dear friend, Danya, who is also in Kyiv during the war.

“I’ll go,” I tell my sisters. I put my hand over Denys’s. “Will you be okay?” 

He nods.

“Call me when you get your phone, alright?” 

We start walking towards the exit. I run back to Denys and whisper something in his ear, then jog back to my sisters. 

We emerge from the underground to an upbeat melody. Across us, the ever-present Roshen chocolate shop blasts cheesy pop music from its store speakers in hopes to attract potential buyers. 

“What the fuck?” Gayana exclaims in disbelief. “It’s war, and Roshen works!”

Roshen: Still standing strong amidst shelling in Kyiv (Do you hear the pop song?)

We have a good laugh at how chocolate is an essential at the brink of death and destruction and walk quickly to the boutique hotel where Aida works. 

The television is on when we arrive, and some of the guests have settled on the café’s couches to watch the news. Aida calls her colleague and starts fumbling with the coffee machine. Gayana and I sit on the corner near the plasma screen, charging our phones and listening to reporters talk about attacks in peaceful cities—rocket strikes in Kyiv, Russian forces advancing from Crimea, air strikes over Kharkiv, a bombing at the Ivano-Frankivsk airport, helicopters landing on the Hostomel airbase, the shelling of Mariupol, tens of thousands beginning to flee their homes.

The iconic photo of Olena Kurilo, one of the first victims of Putin’s invasion. The 53-year-old schoolteacher survived an airstrike that destroyed her home in Chuhuiv, just outside the city of Kharkiv. February 24,2022. Source: Wolfgang Schwan, Anadolu Agency,
Ukrainian security personnel usher a wounded civilian after his home was hit by an air strike in Chuhuiv, Kharkiv. Source: Wolfgang Schwan / Anadolu Agency.
Russian missile hits Ivano-Frankivsk airport, February 24, 2022.
Traffic jams as people leave Kyiv at the onslaught of the Russian invasion. Source: Reddit.

An elderly grandpa joins Aida in her shift. He comes to repair small things in the hotel: flickering lights, busted sockets, the occasional absence of hot water, a loose screw here and there. He watches the news with us.

We hand him a chocolate-covered wafer bar. My sisters introduce me as their friend to which I put my hands on my hips and quip, “Just a friend?” 

“Fine, our sister!” Aida retorts. “Okay, she’s our sister.” 

“My name is Kristina. I’m from the Philippines!” 

He shakes my hand and smiles. “там тепло? (Is it warm there?)”

“Always,” I beam. “Everyday is summer.” I proceed to tell him about the lush tropical islands that dot our turquoise seas. I tell him I miss it, but in its own charming way, Ukraine has also become my home. 

I proceed to tell him about volunteering for an alternative learning school in Ivano-Frankivsk and about moving to Kyiv and meeting my sisters. Then, it was my turn to ask questions. “Aren’t you scared?”

“конечно (Of course),” he replies. 

“A lot of people are leaving. Will you stay in Kyiv?” 

“Да (Yes),” he answers. “Украина мой дом. Киев мой дом. (Ukraine is my home. Kyiv is my home.)”

Worry beginning to set in, I ring Denys. The phone operator says that the subscriber isn’t available. He mustn’t have reached Dorohozhychi yet. 

A group of guests enter the café. Aida whispers that they’re the British journalists who have come to cover the war in Ukraine. They bring in some professional cameras, the ones you see in broadcast networks, and I overhear them talking about their shooting location and who can drive them there. One of them, a short, stern-looking woman with strong arms on her hips, reminds the group that since Aida is the sole staff available, they can’t expect to have the hotel’s promised stellar services. They agree in an unsynchronized chorus and continue discussing their newscast.

These journalists will later on be under heavy fire by Russian forces.

I call Denys again. This time, he picks up. 

“Are you already at work?” 

“Yes. I just picked up my phone,” he replies. “ATB, Silpo are not working anymore. Banks are closing too, and your credit card might not come through when you buy things.” 

“What?” I conduct a quick mental inventory of our fridge and cupboards—eggs, rice, buckwheat, groats, lentils, soy sauce, liquid seasoning, an open can of olives. I nudge Gayana with my elbow, and tell her that the supermarkets are no longer open. Her eyes widen and we both read each other’s mind: we need to see it for ourselves to be sure. 

“By the way, the subway is already free,” Denys adds. “I just got to work without paying a single cent.”

I hang up the phone, and tell Aida I want to go to the nearest Silpo to check if it’s open and if it is, to stock up on supplies. Gayana and I put on our coats and head out to the sound of fighter planes flying overhead. We don’t see them behind the cloudy winter sky, but their powerful thrusters roar as they whizz past us.

The sound of fighter planes flying over the cloudy winter skies of Kyiv.

On the way to the supermarket, we stumble across a group of men in line for the ATM. I had little money left on my own account, since my meager salary hasn’t arrived yet, and I worry whether it’s enough for us until the end of the month. Denys and Aida haven’t received their salary either, and Gayana was looking for a new job before the war began. 

It doesn’t take long for us to reach Silpo. It was surprisingly open, and unexpectedly, it wasn’t teeming with shoppers. It wasn’t deserted either. If you took away the fact that we were under attack by Russian forces, it would be like peak hours on a Sunday afternoon or on Friday after working hours. 

We grab a cart, and I try to recount what I’ve learned in disaster preparedness courses. 

Set a goal. There should be enough food for a week or two. Go for non-perishable goods and food with long shelf life. I immediately go for the tuna tins and canned vegetables. I search for canned soups but only find them in plastic packages next to the spice rack.I pick up a kilogram of rice, two packs of pasta, then some sausages and dried meat. Knowing that people would clamor for it, I chuck in a bottle of oil but think twice about getting bottles of water, since it was going to be a long ride home. I decide to get them in the supermarkets near our flat.

Stocking up on food and other essentials during the onslaught of the Russian invasion

Gayana asks if she can buy some dried potato pureé and pay me later. I tell her she doesn’t need to.

Around us, fellow shoppers were busy piling items in their carts and baskets. An adorable grandma in a warm furry coat walks down the dairy section with four 1.5-liter bottles of oil, perusing the shelves for milk. A couple of customers take bags of sour cream to top their varenyky or pelmeni. Men line up on the express counter to buy at least a pack of cancers. Mothers grab potatoes and onions—the Ukrainian staple–and stuff them into plastic bags, ready to be weighed. Some of them take the occasional beetroot and cabbage, and I start picturing borscht on a cold winter’s day. A couple of young adults browse the canned food section, wondering which non-perishable items to take with them down the bunker. 

Of course, you stumble across someone whose cart is full of alcohol. This is Ukraine, after all. 

I smirk at the couple discussing their champagne selection. The wife suggests they should add one more blue-labeled bubbly to their cart. The husband argues that they already have enough, and I thought, “Well, if we’re gonna go down, might as well die drunk.”

I call Denys. “Silpo is open. I’m already picking up some supplies.”

“Don’t buy too much,” he says. “I might head to Vinnytsia. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow.”

My heart sinks. Our plans of sharing a life together—renting a humble flat in a quiet residential area in the outskirts of Kyiv, springtime walks in the city’s many parks, sunny summer days sunbathing by the Dniepro River, letting our friends crash on our couch after a long night of drinking, waking up in each other’s arms—were hanging loosely by a feeble thread.

“What do you mean?” 

“I don’t know. I might leave while the city’s not yet barricaded.” 

I feel the blood drain from my face, and I struggle to breathe with the pile of bricks being stacked upon my chest. 

“Let’s talk about it when we both get home,” I say exasperatedly. If he wishes to leave to safety, then who am I to stop him? 

Gayana and I line up at the counter. We wait for a while, and I leave her for a few moments in a last-minute decision to take a few chicken thighs in case I can still whip up a comforting chicken adobo. 

Shoppers in line to purchase supplies at a local supermarket
Shoppers purchasing supplies in a local grocery store in Kyiv

When we reach the cashier, we ask her if credit cards still work, so we can confirm the information from Denys that banks are shutting down. We also ask if Silpo will continue operating during the state of emergency. The lady behind the counter says that credit cards will continue to work for now and that they haven’t received a memo for closing.

We thank her and head back to the hotel. Aida has figured out the coffee machine’s clockwork and has begun to serve the guests steaming cups of caffeine. Gayana and I return to our lovely corner by the TV.

“Denys says he’s leaving,” I confide. 

“What do you mean?” 

“I didn’t fully understand what he was saying, but he’s saying he might go to Vinnytsia today or tomorrow,” I respond. 

“I don’t want him to leave me alone here,” I whisper, feeling my heart sink again. I wish I could throw it a lifeline and pull it from the depths of what seems to be a tempestuous sea turning into a bottomless ocean. 

“He’s not going to,” Gayana assures me. “Besides, if he really loves you like he says, he won’t just abandon you.” 

“You’re right,” I agree. “But what if he doesn’t?”

“Then he doesn’t really love you and his feelings aren’t true,” she replies. “That’s why I don’t trust anyone.” 

“I don’t trust anyone.”

“‘I love you’ is a very easy thing to say,” she reminds me. “But if someone really loves you, they won’t just leave you, especially in a situation like this.”

A photo of Denys and I in our shared apartment with friends.

“I know, but if he leaves, I can’t afford to rent the flatall by myself.”

“Let me talk to him,” she offers. “Maybe you just misunderstood what he said. You told me that you didn’t fully get what he was saying, so let me talk to him.”

We phone Denys and Gayana puts him on speaker. 

“Listen, Kristina says you’re leaving for Vinnytsia. Are you going?” 

“Maybe,” he mumbles. I can picture him saying this, nose red from the sharp winter winds, shoulders slouched to keep warm, one pale hand in his pocket and the other holding his phone. 

“What do you mean?”

“My father lives in a village near Vinnytsia. I can stay with him until the war is over. They’ll start attacking the cities soon. It’s not safe to stay in Kyiv.”

Villagers from Vinnytsia Oblast raising a Ukrainian flag on the Hushchyntsi Checkpoint. Source: Brendan Hoffman, New York Times.

“And how about Kristina?” she prods, raising a doubtful brow.

“I don’t know.” 

“Let’s talk about it at home.” I butt in. 

“Okay,” he utters. 

We hang up, and Gayana says, “Talk about it at home. If he really loves you, he won’t leave you, and if he does, then forget him. His feelings weren’t true in the first place, and you’re better off without him.” 

When I don’t respond, she adds, “Fuck Denys. Just forget him.” 

“But what about the apartment?” I ask. “I can’t afford to rent it alone, and I don’t want to get kicked out in the middle of a war.” 

“You’ll figure something out,” she says. 

“But I don’t want to leave Kyiv,” I protest. “You’re here. Aida is here. I’m not going to leave you behind!”

“We know,” she sighs. 

“I promised Mamochka I’d protect you. If I leave, you will be alone in the city.”

Businka,” Gayana affectionately calls me by my term of endearment. Businka—something small, bright, and shiny like a bead or a button. She puts her hand on my arm and gives it a soft squeeze. “We can protect ourselves. Thank you.”

“We’ll talk about it at home,” I assure her. “Then, I’ll let you know.”

An hour later, Denys tells me he’s on the way back. I bid farewell to my sisters, hoping it’s temporary, hoping that this will not be the last time I will ever see them again.

– – – – – – – – – –

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.

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