“When do we get our weapons?”: Kyiv under siege Photographer Ron Haviv roams a city that woke up to explosions, and knows worse is to come
Photographer Ron Haviv roams a city that woke up to explosions and knows worse is to come
People in Kyiv are quickly grasping the gravity of the situation. The central railway station was packed this morning, though not chaotic. Some people were waiting for canceled or delayed trains, some were even trying to get to Kharkiv, on the frontline, which I found hard to understand. Others were looking for a ticket to anywhere, so long as it’s not here.
The bus station was more desperate, there was a mix of bewilderment and anger. In the afternoon I spoke to a woman who’d been trying to board a bus with her ticket since 10 am but kept being pushed out of the line. Some people were drunk and very angry with journalists like me. They blamed Europeans and Americans for the situation.
In central Kyiv, I saw a tent with the flag of a right-wing militia that was signing people up. (Several of these ultra-nationalist organizations have sprung up in recent years as tensions with Russia have grown.) Across the way, the police were recruiting too. I saw them lead seven people off, two of whom were women. One said: “When do we get our weapons?”
It reminded me of Bosnia in the early 1990s, at the start of the war. There I saw schoolteachers and bartenders pick up hunting rifles and Scout uniforms, trying to take on the highly-trained forces of the Bosnian-Serb army. They knew they were outgunned. They just wanted a chance to survive.
Like Sarajevo, it really isn’t clear how Kyiv is going to be defended. There aren’t sandbags or any other signs of defense you’d expect to see. There were queues in shops this morning, but they’d gone by the afternoon. When an air-raid siren went off, people didn’t seem to be too anxious. Some were laughing and strolled hand-in-hand to a shelter. Though the war has started, Kyiv still feels like it’s in a suspended bubble that may burst at any moment. No one knows what will happen next.
The mood was not so different a few days ago before the Russians invaded. On Tuesday I went to a gun shop in Kyiv and spent some time with the owner as he helped a couple of customers buy automatic weapons. He helped them choose ones they liked and explained how they worked – the basic stuff. Then he took them downstairs to the target range to try out the guns.
All kinds of people were waiting in line to enter the shooting range, including elderly men and women. Even with war so close, they weren’t quite sure how seriously to take things. Some were making jokes.
Inside the shooting range, some people looked like those you’d see in a gun club in America, having fun and learning to shoot. But I knew – and they knew – that they might actually have to defend their families or join a militia. I’ve seen school teachers who, a month later, were suddenly captain of their unit.
Kyiv is a tough city with a dark past. There are skeletons here, horrible things have happened. I feel conscious of that when I’m walking around. Before going to the gun shop on Tuesday I went to the funeral of a Ukrainian intelligence officer who died of shrapnel wounds in Donetsk, the eastern region of Ukraine which has been fought over since 2014 and is now poised to be overrun by Russian troops. I was struck by the mourners’ resignation. Few cried. The most emotion came from a small child: she was completely terrified when she looked inside the open coffin.