11 korrik 2023
Traveling to Ukraine: Between Normality and Russian Bombs
Traveling to Ukraine during times of war is not easy, even in areas far from the front lines. The most common means of transportation to reach the Ukrainian capital is by train through Poland. The journey takes about three hours to the Polish border town of Chelm, where those heading to Kyiv change trains.
Among the many travelers heading to the Ukrainian capital on June 20, there is also a group of journalists from Southeast Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the Western Balkans – myself among them.
The journey begins at midnight and takes about 13 hours. The longest waits occur at border checkpoints, where the police check the passport of each traveler. Despite Russian efforts to damage the railway infrastructure, Ukrainians take pride in the accuracy of their trains.
The problem is that there is no certainty the train you are on will not become a target of Russian missiles. This instills fear among travelers heading to Ukraine. The decision to go there requires courage and determination.
Destroyed Russian tanks stand on display in central Kiev.
Arriving in Kyiv
The last stop is the main railway station in Kyiv, which buzzes from so many people. To exit the station, you must, again, go through security checks, reminiscent of airport controls.
Driving through the streets of the Ukrainian capital gives you the feeling of a normal place, living in peace. The Kyiv we met with my journalist colleagues seemed to have fully returned to normal, more than a year after the Russian invasion.
On the road to the hotel “Radisson Blu”, where we would stay for the next three days, shops, cafes and restaurants seemed well supplied. Kyiv residents got on with their lives as if there was no war. They were going to work, children were going to schools, while construction companies worked on rebuilding squares and buildings damaged by shelling.
But everything comes to a standstill, as soon as we hear alarm sirens, warning of an incoming Russian airstrike. Nothing is unusual about this. Following every alarm siren, residents are forced to shelter in tunnels, metro stations and basements until the danger has subsided.
Thanks to Western allies, Ukraine possesses advanced technology which tracks the trajectory and ultimate target of incoming Russian missiles in real time.
The hotel housing the group of journalists is located in the city center, and it mainly welcomes foreign guests, including diplomats. At midnight, the curfew strikes and every activity comes to a halt until 7 the next morning.
At midnight of June 21, the alarm sounds, followed by the voice of the speaker in hotel rooms, instructing guests to take shelter in the hotel basement, which is considered the safest space in case of air raids. There are heavy-duty beds and food supplies on the hotel’s ground floor. After danger subsides, another announcement instructs clients to return to their rooms. This has become an almost daily routine.
As a result of constant Russian shelling, the government of Ukraine was forced to create safe spaces for its citizens. Currently, Kyiv has more than 3,600 shelters, which can accommodate more than three million people at any one time.
The next day, our group explores the streets and squares of the capital city. Destroyed Russian heavy weaponry is on display in the city center, just in front of the building of Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“The Russians wanted to visit our capital city, and this is our way of ‘welcoming’ them,” says the guide of our group with a pinch of irony.
After Kyiv, our next destination is the most northern city of Chernihiv, which is located 144 kilometers from the capital city. The journey to Chernihiv lasts about three hours on a minibus. On June 22nd, our team arrives in the city at noon. What we see is devastating.
Destruction of Chernihiv
The state of Chernihiv was miserable. The city was almost destroyed from one end to another. In some of the buildings still standing, some of the residents had returned, and they did not hesitate to tell their stories, which are strikingly similar to what had happened during the war in Kosovo.
“For days, we suffered horrific attacks, and the Russian army entered the city”, says Alla, as she points to a building in ruins.
Blocks of buildings destroyed in Chernihiv by the Russian military's 39-day shelling campaign during the offensive to occupy the northern Ukrainian city.
Being that Chernihiv is only 45 kilometers away from the Belarusian border, where Russian forces first came in through, the fear of attacks and shelling still grips the city. For more than a month, the Russian army brutally shelled the residents of Chernihiv, turning the city into an urban death trap.
“The main problem is safety, because we live near the border and we know Russians returning is always a possibility. For a year and a half there hasn’t been a single rocket fired by them, nevertheless, we don’t yet feel completely safe,” she adds.
The shelling did not even spare the iconic city hotel, “Hotel Ukraina,” or the maternity ward, which are located within a 10-kilometer radius. Neither did it spare religious and cultural buildings. They were initially turned into military bases by the Russians but were later destroyed.
The old Orthodox church in the village of Lukashivka had survived the Second World War and the most brutal years of the ex-Soviet Union, but it did not survive the Russian aggression. Its bells have been knocked down, and all that is left of it is the ruins. This church is among 1,600 cultural heritage buildings destroyed in Ukraine.
The Orthodox Church in the village of Lukashivka, Chernihiv, had been turned into a military base by the Russians. After attacks by the Ukrainian army and several days of fighting, the church was partially burned.
Just a few kilometers away from the church, there is a door of a school with a board, which reminds us of the period March-April 2022, when more than 300 inhabitants were trapped by the Russian army in the basement of this building.
Survivors tell of basement rooms that were so narrow that people used to sleep while sitting. Instead of toilets, there were plastic buckets, and as a result of suffocating conditions, 11 of them died. The Russians had not allowed them to be buried for several days.
“We were many people in this space. Now we are in summer and it is hot outside, but here, as you can see, it is cold. When we were thrown in here, it was very cold and there was no heating. We were not allowed to go outside,” says Ludmilla Kaduka, one of the survivors.
The ruins of the iconic hotel of Chernihiv - "Hotel Ukraina", which was destroyed by an airstrike on March 12, 2022.
As the Russian army retreated from Chernihiv, Ukrainian officials and people said that the city had played a heroic role in preventing further attacks on Kyiv.
During the siege of Chernihiv, there were 700 Ukrainian civilians and soldiers that were killed. 47 people were killed only during the attack on March 3, 2022. According to the human rights organization “Amnesty International”, at least eight missiles, otherwise known as cluster bombs, were fired during the attack.
Meanwhile, two-thirds of the pre-war 300 thousand inhabitants had left the city. According to residents, many others died as a result of low temperatures, lack of medical care and lack of food.
Nonetheless, despite the enormous devastation and the unpredictability of the war, there is one ultimate goal for the Ukrainians: Freedom and preservation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. The message they give to any visitor about to leave Ukraine is: “See you in victory.”
11 korrik 2023