Notes from a bomb shelter: Waking up to the War in Ukraine (Part 4)

I reach home in a matter of minutes. Denys helps me set down the groceries, and I tell him about the bus to Lviv. 

“And what did you decide on?” he asks. 

I shrug. “I don’t know yet. My bags aren’t packed.” 

“If you want to go, you can go, you know?” 

I give him a weak smile by the counter. I check the time, which seems to speed by so swiftly. Only one hour left if I change my mind. 

“My bags aren’t packed yet,” I reason. “And besides, the girls don’t want to leave.”

I finish placing the meats in our fridge, wash my hands then plop down on the bed next to Denys. I take another look at the clock. My phone continues to buzz with notifications from Filipinos trying to flee. 

Someone from the group says they’re ready to leave. Apparently, the bus was already filling up and ready to leave, and here I was, my clothes still in the closet, my books still on my work table, my entire life still in Kyiv. 

Silence fills the apartment apart from the faint voices of reporters sharing live updates of the ongoing aggression on our TV screen. I ask Denys about what’ll happen to our flat. He says our landlord has asked about our plans and that he’s waiting on our response. 

Everything we have now teeters at the edge of a cliff. One push, and it all falls. 

I spend the next few minutes packing. This time, my head’s no longer in the clouds. It’s fully grasped the situation on ground. 

I stuff the most important items and prized valuables—my laptop, my documents, an extra sweater, a pair of socks, my solar panel, my sleeping bag, a journal, things to write or draw with—in my day pack in case another missile falls from the sky. I pull the clothes out of the closet, take art materials from the drawers, and clear books and notebooks from the table. It doesn’t take long before my entire life is loaded in four separate baggages. 

I look at the time. I could order a costly taxi and be in Shuliavska just in time before the bus leaves. 

“So you’re going?” Denys chimes. 

“Are you leaving for Vinnytsia?” 

“I don’t know. Maybe. I have family there I can stay with.” he answers, telling me that he’s started searching for carpooling options to get out of the city. 

I fold my arms. “And what about me? I don’t want to be in this apartment alone.” 

He looks up, then chews on the skin around his thumbnail. He pauses before saying, “You can come, if you wish.” 

“Won’t your relatives mind?”

“I don’t care,” he says in local slang. “We can go together. It’ll be safer there.” 

“Do we have money for the ride?” I ask. “It’s crazy expensive to get from here to the city center. I doubt the rates are going to be better if we try to go from one city to another.” 

He shrugs. “We need to find a seat first. Carshare rides and train tickets are selling out quick.” 

“And if we can’t? What do we do?” 

He throws his hands up in the air. “We walk.” 

“Walk?” I exclaim in disbelief. 

I’ve conquered 110 snowy kilometers on the roof of the world, trekked across the emerald fields and craggy summits across Myanmar’s vibrant states, and bested the steep inclines and crumbling stones that stood for thousands of years on China’s Great Wall, but the idea of walking over 200 kilometers in a war zone seemed too far fetched and impossible. 

Braving the winter winds on my 110-kilometer trek along the Wakhan Corridor
Conquering the Great Wall of China

Yet it is. 

After swimming for hours to push a disabled boat teeming with refugees to the shores of Lesbos, Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini and her sister trekked for 25 days from Greece to Germany where they were reunited with their father in a refugee camp in Berlin.

Thousands of Afghan refugees braved the perilous deserts to escape the Taliban takeover, making the arduous journey to illegally cross neighboring Pakistan and Iran. They walk the thousand-mile trek, despite knowing that upon crossing, torture, hunger, and even death might await them.

Salva Dut joined thousands of “Lost Boys” to escape the Sudanese civil war. Despite the lack of food and water and the threat of animal attacks, Salva and the exodus of young boys manage to dodge rebel forces and reach a refugee camp near the Gilo River but not without death and suffering.

And there are many more unnamed faces and unheard voices with untold stories of crossing mountains, hills, deserts, rivers, borders on foot after their homes have been turned into a mouth of a shark. 

I have known them all my adult life, yet never did it cross my mind that I might be one of them. 

“We walk,” he repeats. “It is better than staying put with bombs falling over our heads.” 

“And what if the roads aren’t safe? We’ll be too exposed.” 

“Well, at least we tried,” he says. Every decision now meant choosing the lesser evil. He puts his hand on my shoulders, and warmth immediately surrounds me. “We don’t have much money left, and everyone is leaving the city. Almost every car driving south or west is full, and trains are being cancelled here and there. If we need to walk to be safe, we must. Otherwise, we die.” 

“I don’t want to leave Kyiv. My sisters are here. I don’t want to be away from them.” 

“They can come to Vinnytsia too.” 

“But they don’t want to.” 

“Try to convince them. It’s best if we all stick together.”

I nod and steel myself for the possibility of seeking safety on foot. I think of it as another thru-hike across borders, with snow-capped mountains and sun-dappled streams dotted with wildflowers, the damp scent of the earth lingering in the air along with the fresh smell of pine. I think of it as another one of my many misadventures, and the 262-kilometer journey seems to be less and less daunting. 

“Then I’m staying.” I exhale. “I’m not taking the bus. We’re all in this together.” 

I hug Denys. Distant explosions echo beneath the clouds, and the skies shudder. I keep looking out at our window to spot missiles but fail to see one. Instead, I witness neighbors stowing suitcases in the trunks of their cars, terrified children carrying their pets, men dressed in combat gear carrying large duffle bags and bidding their families goodbye.

A family evacuates Kyiv moments after the first strikes in the city
A person holding a cat sits next to a bus window as people go to western parts of the country after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 24, 2022. Source: Reuters.

The rest of the afternoon is spent calling friends and family, assuring them we’re safe and asking whether they are. The television continues to broadcast live updates on the war: more shellings that lay waste to once peaceful cities, the European Council conducting an emergency session to address the Russian aggression, Russian occupants setting foot on Ukrainian soil with Belarus aiding the invasion, an explosion in Brovary, Putin justifying the attack as a special military operation, Poland opening their borders to war refugees, the endless exodus of evacuees heading west.

The aftermath of a Russian shelling at a Ukrainian military facility outside Mariupol. Source: Sergei Grits. AP.
Russian invaders ride to the checkpoint of the Ukrainian border. Source: Sergei Malgavko. Tass.
Residential areas in Mariupol have been caught under fire by the Russian invasion. Source: Sky News.
A man stands at an apartment that’s been damaged by Russian shelling in Kharkiv. Source: Reuters.
CCTV cameras at the Belarus-Ukraine border Senkovka-Veselovka captures a Russian convoy crossing over to Ukraine.
Source: State Border Guard Service of Ukraine
Ukrainians at the customs clearance center at the Polish border. Source: Kacper Pempel. Reuters.
Traffic jam in Kyiv, Ukraine as thousands flee west after Putin’s full-scale invasion. Source: Serge

In the middle of it all, a battle cry is born in a little island on the Black Sea.

Unbeknownst to the brave soldiers defending this tiny island, the words “Russian warship, go fuck yourself!” will then become the motto of the war, uttered by soldiers and civilians alike, shown on evening newscasts, printed on mundane objects, displayed on billboards, inked on skin, and echoed in protests of solidarity across the world.

The defiant response of Russian soldiers defending Ukraine’s Snake Island has become the nation’s battle cry against the invasion.

The government declares a state of emergency and implements a curfew. Everyone must be in their homes or in bomb shelters by 19:00. The mayor of Kyiv announces that the city’s subway stations will be open round-the-clock to shelter civilians in a response reminiscent to Londoners taking refuge in the stations and stairwells of the London Underground during the Blitz, an extensive bombing campaign by Nazi Germany against the United Kingdom in World War II.

Eighty-two years later, thousands of Kyiv residents flock underground to escape air raids. A couple of our neighbors join them, making the five-kilometer walk before sundown and carrying light day packs filled with food and other essentials. Built at the height of the Cold War, the city’s underground network was meant to double as bomb shelters, but nobody ever thought they’d live to see the day where it would be used for such.

“We should sleep there tonight,” Denys says. 

“The metro’s five kilometers away from us!” I protest. “I’m not walking all the way there with bombs falling over our heads. Besides, we have nearby bunkers and basements that can house us,” I add, showing him the map of listed bomb shelters near our area. Having been built in the Soviet era, our very own apartment and the house next to us have their own basements that hopefully can protect us during enemy attacks. 

“But the metro is safer,” he argues. “These basements and bunkers are old and decrepit. They might not be strong enough to keep us safe.” 

“The subway has tons of people there tonight. Do you really think we’d sleep comfortably there? Have you forgotten that COVID isn’t over?” 

“Fuck COVID!” Denys exclaims. I guess when Ukrainians are forced to choose the lesser evil between Putin and the coronavirus, the former is revealed to be the devil incarnate.

An image of Satan, pure evil incarnate.

“And what if they attack the subway? There will be tons of people there trying to escape. It’ll be a stampede.” I assert. 

“Everyone in Kyiv knows the safest place to hide is the metro!” 

I phone Aida and Gayana to ask where they’re spending the night. They tell me that Aida’s hotel has a cellar they can sleep in. 

“See! Even Gayana and Aida aren’t going to the subway, and they’re literally five minutes away from it!” I yell at Denys from the phone. 

“The underground’s the best place!” he screams back. “And you girls know it!” 

“I don’t want to walk five kilometers while there are air raid alerts,” I tell my sisters. “It doesn’t make sense!” 

Gayana asks me if I can put her on speaker. She tries to reason with Denys that the long walk wasn’t worth it, especially if we have immediate underground shelters. We’ll just be wasting time and putting ourselves at risk. 

“That’s what I told him!” I echo. “But you know Denys, he never listens.”

“I thought you were going to Vinnytsia?” Gayana prods. 

“I want to, but there aren’t any cars and the fares are expensive,” Denys responds. 

“And are you taking Kristina?” 

“Yes, yes, if she wants. You both should come too.” 

“You both should come!” I butt in. “We’ll be safer in the village than any major city. We can wait out the war there then come back to Kyiv.” 

“We don’t want to leave,” Gayana says. “But if you want to go with Denys, then you can go. I understand.” 

“You know I’m not leaving without you and Aida. I stayed behind so we could all be together.” 

“I know, but what if you’ll be alone in your apartment? What if we can’t find a way to move from city center near your area? You’ll be facing the war alone,” she reasons. 

“Let me worry about that another time. For now, we need to know where we’ll rest our heads.” 

I ask my sisters if they have everything they need, and if they need to stock up on more supplies, they can let me know so I can send them money for it. 

“No thank you, businka,” Gayana replies. “We have food in the hotel, and we have everything we need. You take care of yourself. Let me know where you’ll sleep tonight.”

“Okay,” I say. “люблу сулууууу (Love and kisses)” 

“люблу сулууууу!” 

People hunker down Kyiv’s underground to escape the relentless air raids above.

I turn to Denys. “Let’s just stay in a nearby bunker tonight,” I suggest. “Or we could just wait and watch at home. It seems safe. We can tape the windows or put cushions against them in case the glass breaks.” 

We decide to stay at home and make use of the run down bunker beneath our apartment. If it was full, we’ll run to the next apartment’s basement or to the nearby school turned bomb shelter. 

Once the sun sets, we kill the lights, except for the TV which continues to give us live updates of the escalating aggression and bathes our small studio in an eerie blue glow. The entire evening is clothed in silence save for the reporters onscreen and the distant firing overhead. 

We try our best to get some rest. We’ve been up since 6:00 AM, but despite the exhaustion, our bodies—afraid of the barrages of Russian bombs—refuse to succumb to sleep. 

With eyes watery and heavy from this morning’s life-threatening wake-up call, we scroll endlessly through our screens for the latest news and relay limportant information to group chats and friends. Kyiv’s Couchsurfing group tells people to be vigilant. A user messages us some intel about carpet bombing at 2:00 AM and encourages everyone to proceed to the nearest underground shelter. 

We get a few calls here and there—one from my mother, another from his, another from my sisters, another from our friend who had decided to stay in his hometown a couple of hours away from Kyiv. With death lurking on our doorsteps, we take them all, not knowing whether we’ll ever hear their voices again. 

After what seems to be one of the longest nights of our lives, Denys says, “Kitsa, let’s try to get some sleep. We need to rest in case the enemy attacks.”

“But how do you sleep?” I ask him. “How do you sleep knowing that you might not wake up?” 

“все буде добре (All will be alright.)” he says, taking me in his arms. “все буде Україна. (All will be Ukraine.)” 

We decide to rest in turns, so that when the sirens ring or when a missile falls, one of us can wake the other up, and we can run towards refuge. I tell Denys I’ll take first watch. He snores within minutes. 

That night, as I lay on my bed, a persistent thought circles my head. I try to bury it, but it keeps crawling out of its grave, long spindly fingers caked with dirt clawing at the ground eager for a fresh breath of acrid evening air. I have no choice but to let it haunt me, and so I lie with it, in hopes that when dawn breaks, the phantom disappears, and this will all have been a nightmare.

But for now as our skies crumble, I lie awake and think, “If the bombs fall over our heads and we die as we sleep, will we feel it?”

– – – – – – – – – – 

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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