Kyiv is no longer a whole city.
The Ukrainian capital, once the vibrant and graceful home of three million people, has been broken into pieces by the 12-day-old invasion launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Today, the city is a collection of neighbourhoods divided by sand berms and checkpoints made of cement, tires and metal tank traps. You need to show your passport half a dozen times to move from one part of the city to another. And any trip is fraught with calculations about what Russia’s air force and artillery might target next.
Areas of Kyiv, particularly the northern suburbs of Bucha, Irpin and Hostomel, are under at least partial Russian control, shattered and without electricity, gas or water after days of air strikes and artillery fire.
At least eight civilians – including an entire family of four – were killed by Russian shelling Sunday as they attempted to flee Irpin.
The eastern areas of the city have been similarly battered by long-range attacks and are bracing for worse as a 65-kilometre-long Russian convoy – which has been stalled for several days – portends urban warfare ahead.
Highways into the south of the city, however, remain open – and clogged with Ukrainians not only trying to get out of Kyiv but also trying to get back in.
“We’re going back in to evacuate people who haven’t been able to get out so far. We do this every day,” said Vasyl, sitting with his wife in their white Toyota Corolla, waiting in a kilometres-long traffic jam. Like many Ukrainians who are worried about what the future might hold, he was unwilling to give his last name.
Behind him sat empty evacuation buses marked with the sign “deti” – indicating their intent to take children back out with them. A convoy of humanitarian aid from the Caritas charity was similarly trapped, waiting for the soldiers at a checkpoint to examine the identity documents and baggage of every person in each vehicle.
Russia announced a ceasefire for Kyiv and three other cities starting Monday morning at 10 a.m. But with the only guaranteed safe evacuation route from Kyiv heading north into Belarus – a plan rejected by Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk as “ridiculous” and “cynical,” as Belarus has assisted Russia in the war – what that meant for the southern route in and out of the capital was uncertain.
In better times, the road into Kyiv, which still bears its Soviet-era name, “Friendship of the Peoples Highway,” connected the capital with the Black Sea port of Odesa in the south – which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned Sunday will be the next target of the widening Russian assault – and the Russian city of St. Petersburg in the north.
There was no friendship left for Russians at the southern entrance to Kyiv. “Welcome to hell,” read a sign over one checkpoint. The rest of the message was an expletive directed at Russian soldiers. A scorched car sat in the middle of the road, its interior and tires melted, as if to emphasize the message.
Further into the city, the only signs of economic activity were a long line outside one of the few open pharmacies and a longer one outside a grocery store that has been turned into an aid distribution point for the International Committee of the Red Cross. Except for the bottlenecks at checkpoints, the highways and roads were eerily empty.
It’s unclear how many people remain in Kyiv. Thousands across the country have died, and more than 1.7 million people have left Ukraine since the conflict began.
Despite the grim situation, morale appeared high among the Ukrainians guarding their capital. “If you see any Russians, tell them that we’ll end them if they come this way,” one soldier said, cradling his assault rifle as he looked over our passports.
Russia’s vaunted military had been predicted to seize all of Kyiv in 72 hours. With each passing day, belief is spreading here that Ukrainians can defend the capital from the ground – if they can get respite from the air strikes and cruise missile attacks. Echoing Mr. Zelensky’s oft-repeated plea for a no-fly zone over his country, an electronic billboard in Kyiv read, “NATO close the sky,” its white letters glowing over the red outline of a bomb.
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