Grim reality of war strikes stunned Ukrainians

A loud boom at 6 a.m. jolted Yana and Sergii Lysenko from sleep in their Kiev home. At first, Yana thought that her husband was mistaken, that it could not be an attack, and told him to go back to sleep. Then they heard another shot.

“We started listening to the news and we understood that the war has started, the Russian invasion is underway,” Sergii told CNN.

After hearing from friends that traffic had clogged the roads outside the capital, the couple initially decided to stay home with their 3-year-old daughter, packing their bags just in case.

“We are a bit in shock and trying to stay calm, not show anything to our child,” Sergii added.

In the afternoon, Yana and Sergii had decided to leave their home in Kiev. They jumped into the car and started heading west towards Ternopil, a town 300 miles west of Kiev, about 120 miles from the Polish border.

Yana and Sergii Lysenko get into their car.
The Lyssenkos' daughter is seen in the back seat.

“We think it will be safer in Ternopil. The last thing was when we heard the bomb, that’s why we decided to move out of town because we live in the center,” Yana told CNN from the car, while they were driving.

Despite Western warnings that an attack was imminent, Ukrainians remained widely divided on the possibility of a Russian invasion, hoping the military buildup was just the latest in Moscow’s mind games. After months of mounting tensions, the large-scale military onslaught came as yet another shock – especially in Kyiv, where residents had, until Wednesday, continued to go about their daily lives as foreign governments withdrew their staff diplomacy from the capital.

The mood was totally different on Thursday morning, as people lined up to buy fuel for cars and head west away from the center of the Russian onslaught. Kyiv’s exit ramps were jammed with traffic for hours after explosions sounded near the city’s main airport.

“We don’t know what to expect and what we’re going to do. We’re a bit in shock and trying to stay calm, not show our child anything.”

Sergii Lyssenko

Grocery stores, pharmacies and stores were packed with people trying to stock up. At a 24/7 supermarket, Oleksandr, 20, who declined to give his last name, said CNN’s shelves were emptied of pasta and bread. Long queues formed with people trying to withdraw cash from ATMs, many of which were empty – a scene that was playing out in other parts of the country.

In central Mariupol, in the southeast of the country, a woman told CNN she had been driving around the city all morning, trying 10 different ATMs while her children waited for her in the idling car at the outside. Residents of the port city on the Sea of ​​Azov were frantic and confused as rumors swirled that roads and checkpoints were closed, preventing them from leaving.

A resident of Mariupol prepares to leave the city.

Across the country, Ukrainian metro stations are also being used as bomb shelters, as the onslaught continues and fears of strikes grow.

In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, people flocked underground as distant booms sounded intermittently. Families with their children and pets descended on a metro station after reports that Russian forces had crossed the border and were heading towards the city in northeast Ukraine. People gathered there said they had vehicles but did not want to risk leaving town.

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A woman there captured the uncertainty and insecurity felt by people across the country, who are now wondering how their lives could change so drastically from day to night. “You wake up at 5 a.m. to a totally new reality and find that the world is no longer the safe place you imagined it to be,” she told CNN.

“It’s hard to believe that it’s actually our neighbor doing this, because we never really believed that our neighbor could just come and take our land and tell us what to do. We (are one) independent country of Ukraine, and … we don’t want to be part of Russia or any other country,” she said, bursting into tears. “I can’t believe this is happening, really.”

People take shelter in a metro station in Kharkiv.

Back in Kyiv, the capital’s metro system was operational. Some residents were camping, sheltering in train stations, but most were trying to find a way out of town, with small suitcases and bags in tow.

A student rushing out of the train station in Kiev’s Independence Square, the epicenter of the 2014 Maidan revolution and a living monument to the so-called “Heavenly Hundred” who died there, said her parents, who live about 300 km to the west, had just picked her up after she found no other transportation options.

“I woke up at 5 a.m. and packed my bags. I went to the train station and it’s closed. There are no buses,” Diana, 20, told CNN, adding “I’m going home because I’m scared.”

But some people say they carry on as if “as if nothing had happened”.

“Well, it’s scary, sure, but we don’t need to panic. All they want us to do right now is panic.”

Alex Klymenok

Alex Klymenok, a 27-year-old lawyer, woke up to the sound of explosions then resolutely put on his suit, walking to his office to grab a laptop and returning home to work remotely.

“Well, it’s scary, sure, but we don’t need to panic. All they want us to do right now is panic,” Klymenok told CNN, adding that he still didn’t believe Putin would launch a full-scale campaign. invasion, moving forces beyond the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which Moscow recognized as independent on Monday.

“For now it’s business as usual. But if they’re here in Kyiv, I’m ready to, I’m ready to fight,” he said.

People take shelter in a metro station in Kiev.

The slightest sense of an impending confrontation had hardly been felt in Lviv, a historic cultural center in the west of the country, until Thursday morning, when the air raid sirens sounded for the first time, outside the regular exercises, since the Second World War. Like clockwork, the quaint town transformed from a tourist mecca into a place of preparation for war.

Even as television screens beamed warnings of an impending attack on the country in recent days, tour groups continued to flock to the city’s cobbled streets, where dazzling Baroque-style architecture spans kilometers. Diplomatic missions and international groups had also fled to the relative safety of Lviv from the capital Kyiv.

But that bubble burst on Thursday. Most stores in town have been closed. Long queues stretched out in front of the few open shops – pharmacies, supermarkets and even pet stores. The wait lasted more than two hours at most gas pumps, where fuel was rationed in an attempt to avoid shortages.

Traffic was blocked on the road leaving Kiev.

Svetlana Locotova let out a hearty laugh in a long line outside an ATM. She was on the phone with her relatives in the heavily bombed city of Kharkiv. Next to her was Margarita, her 12-year-old daughter. Speaking to CNN, but also – it seems – to her daughter, who nervously forced herself to smile, Locotova said happily: “It’s completely normal for this to happen. I expected to that queue. That’s how people react.”

She and Margarita had just returned from a shooting range – a common pastime here lately. “We are confident, but we are preparing for the worst,” she said.

People here defiantly went through the day, even as the city seemed transformed. “Ukraine is no stranger to war” is the common refrain. Many people were still exchanging smiles and jokes, even as they talked about preparing their homes to receive relatives from the far more affected east of the country.

“We are confident, but we are preparing for the worst.”

Svetlana Locotova

As the threat of invasion intensified, people across the country prepared for the worst by packing emergency evacuation kits and spending their weekends training as reservists. When this threat materialized, Ukraine’s Defense Minister urged anyone considering taking up arms to enlist.

On Thursday, black smoke rose from a military airport in Chuguyev, near Kharkiv.
In Kharkiv, 40 km from the Russian border, hundreds of reservists joined the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces to learn combat techniques and survival techniques. The volunteers, who weeks earlier learned to use a rifle and bandage a wounded comrade with a tourniquet, now face the prospect of being deployed to the front lines.

There were reports on Thursday morning of long queues outside one of Kharkiv’s hospitals, where people were desperate to help by donating blood. And in a quiet moment in one of the city’s main squares, when many on the border wondered what might happen next, a small group huddled in the freezing cold and knelt on the sidewalk to pray.

CNN’s Eliza Mackintosh wrote and reported from London, Ivana Kottasová reported from Kyiv and Tamara Qiblawi reported from Lviv. CNN’s Brent Swails and Clarissa Ward in Kharkiv, Gul Tuyuz in Kyiv and Sebastian Shukla in Mariupol contributed reporting.


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