Nataliya Belchenko did everything she was supposed to do. When she and her family heard the air-raid siren screaming over Kyiv early Thursday morning, they ran to the nearby children’s medical clinic, where residents of the city’s Desnianskyi district were supposed to shelter beneath the building.
But when Ms. Belchenko and her husband and child got there, the door to the shelter was locked. Her husband, Yaroslav Riabchuk, ran around the building, trying to find someone with a key. Moments later, 33-year-old Ms. Belchenko was killed by falling debris from a Russian missile that had been shot out of the sky by Ukrainian air-defence systems.
“The shelter was simply locked. People knocked, knocked for a very long time. … There were women and children, but no one opened the door,” Mr. Riabchuk told Ukrainian public broadcaster Suspilne. “Our child survived, but my wife was killed.”
Local residents told The Globe and Mail that when the door was finally opened, they found the guard with the key sleeping inside, apparently drunk. Ukrainian media reported that the guard was later arrested.
A nine-year-old girl and her mother were also killed by falling debris while waiting for the shelter door to open. Fourteen other people were injured around Kyiv in the fifth large-scale aerial attack on the capital in the past five days – the 18th since May 1. Thursday’s early morning attack was a barrage of 10 Iskander ballistic missiles, all of which were intercepted by the city’s increasingly sophisticated air-defence systems, many of which have been donated by Ukraine’s Western allies.
But while a missile or drone that has been intercepted will no longer reach its intended target, Thursday’s tragedy was a reminder that the flaming parts that fall to the ground can still be deadly.
Kyiv Mayor Vitaliy Klitschko, who visited the scene where the three were killed, said the director of the clinic, as well as the head of the district, would be suspended while an investigation was carried out. He said police would be tasked with ensuring that all of the city’s shelters were open and ready.
But the fact that the shelter door in Desnianskyi was locked is hardly surprising. All across Kyiv, shelters residents relied on earlier in this 463-day-old war are now only open if and when there’s someone nearby with a key. The only reliable shelters after the city’s midnight curfew – when the vast majority of Russian missile and drone strikes take place – are Kyiv’s 52 subway stations, which can be a long and dangerous run from people’s homes.
When the attack involves fast-moving missiles, like the Iskanders fired Thursday, residents have only a few minutes to get to safety.
Most Kyiv residents now choose to wait out the increasingly regular air raids in their homes. “There are very few shelters in our area, and those that exist often remain closed. That’s why this tragedy occurred,” said Maxim Cheberyaka, a 24-year-old press attaché for the local judo federation who lives in a building beside the children’s clinic. He said he decided to stay in his home during Thursday morning’s attack because he didn’t think he had enough time to get to anywhere safer.
“There is no reason to go to the shelter. These people ran to the shelter and they died. We just go into our bathroom because it’s safer,” said Angelika Hrianka, a 31-year-old office manager and mother of one who also lives in a building overlooking the children’s clinic.
Ms. Hrianka said she had planned to spend International Children’s Day taking her three-year-old son to a fair at his kindergarten. But Kyiv authorities cancelled all Children’s Day activities early Thursday, shortly after air-raid sirens sounded for the third time that morning. “We can’t party when children have died in our neighbourhood,” Ms. Hrianka said.
The surge in Russian air attacks on Kyiv comes as both sides continue to prepare for a long-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive. While that push is expected to focus on retaking some of the 15 per cent of Ukrainian territory under Russian occupation, there has also been an escalation in fighting on the Russian side of the border.
Thursday saw the latest in a series of cross-border raids carried out in Russia’s Belgorod region by members of the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps, two units of Russian citizens fighting on Ukraine’s side of the conflict.
Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said eight civilians were wounded by what he described as “endless” shelling from Ukrainian territory. Mr. Gladkov said civilians were being evacuated from the border area. “The lives of civilians and the population are in danger,” he said in a video posted to Telegram.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said its troops had destroyed “Ukrainian terrorist formations” and prevented them from crossing the border. That claim was contradicted by videos posted to social media that appeared to show the main administration building in the city of Shebekino – about 10 kilometres inside Russian territory – in flames, amid reports of persistent gunfire in the area.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, attending a summit of European leaders Thursday in Moldova, called on NATO to give his country a clear path to membership at a summit scheduled for next month in Vilnius.
“This year is for decisions,” Mr. Zelensky said, speaking in English. “In summer in Vilnius at the NATO summit, a clear invitation from members to Ukraine is needed, and security guarantees on the way to NATO membership are needed.”