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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Mortars And Flowers: In Kyiv, The Grim Banality Of Life At War

Those who have not fled are emerging in these early days of spring to establish new rhythms of life as a tense wartime normalcy takes over.

Mortars And Flowers: In Kyiv, The Grim Banality Of Life At War

Daily life in Kyiv

Francesca Mannocchi

KYIV — A few stores and cafes have opened back up. The sun strikes the roadblocks and bags of soil piled in the streets and in front of windows to protect buildings. And yes, flowers are blooming.

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With temperatures mild by midday, this is what was on display Thursday in Kyiv. Or rather, the fact that it stubbornly tried to hide: The city, the people left behind, are getting used to the war. They are adapting to the idea that the war has come to stay.


And so they learned to arrange the hours according to new needs. The hours to spend at the gas station, those at the bank counter, those to buy some bread. These are the needs of wartime, to which temperaments slowly align.

Those left behind

There are no civilians trying to cross the demolished bridge of Irpin, wholly conquered back by the Ukrainian army, according to the declarations of the Ministry of Defense in Kyiv. There are no yellow vehicles or volunteers waiting for them. There are no kilometer-long queues of cars with white drapes heading towards the city from Bucha or Hostomel.

Before the war, 3,000 people lived there. Today there are 50.

Those who managed to get out are already in the capital or have left the country. Those who didn't make it are hostages of war. The roads heading northwest are now deserted, just as the road leading to Petrushki, west of Kyiv. A town of low houses, each with its own garden and vegetable plot. Many of them have a slide and a swing set in front of them. Before the war, 3,000 people lived there. Today there are 50. Almost all elderly people.

Along the road that leads to the church, there are signs of the mortars that have destroyed the asphalt and the houses. In front of the church, which has also been hit, there are four elderly people and a woman on a bicycle.

Tatiana Serenov is in her 60s and lives in Petruskhi by herself. She is still here because the only person she has left is her father, who lives a few kilometers away, in the small village of Mila, and suffers from a heart condition. But she can't reach him, because in Mila there are still Russians, hiding in the woods, and they set up improvised checkpoints. It is impossible to know where they are, impossible to predict their movements, therefore too dangerous to bring medicine to her father.

A family in a supermarket in downtown Kyiv

Daniel Ceng Shou-Yi/ZUMA

A church turned into warehouse

That is why Tatiana comes to the church to see Father Vassily, who prefers now to be called just Vassily, and whose church has become a warehouse: the prayer benches, the holy books, the candles and incense have all been taken away. Boxes of diapers, oil, flour, and medicines, locked away in a room. And then, under the cross, in front of the altar, cans of gasoline arriving from Kyiv, to be shared to run the power generators.There is no electricity and you learn to live again, in a new way.

The church is no longer the church, says Vassily, now simply leader of the community of those left behind. "It's not blasphemy," he says, "it's that war changes everything."

Almost everything. Even outside the church, in the garden, flowers have bloomed.

Alexander is the youngest of those who remain and the only one in uniform. Before the war he had a grocery store, today he is the head of the Territorial Defense Unit in Petrushki. It is to him that Tatiana entrusts the medicines to take to her father. Vassily puts on his prayer robe, makes Alexander bow his head, makes the sign of the cross with his fingertips on the back of his head and says only: return.

Here too, as in Kyiv, they understand that the war has come to stay.

Bombed out frozen food warehouse near Kyiv

Hunger as a weapon

In the sacristy, the men divvy up fuel and antibiotics. They have learned that living together means learning to ration. Then they divvy up flour, oil, and salt.

Vassily asks to be followed. He walks up the avenue leading out of the church, then down a street; he is silent and so is everything around him. He moves only his hands, left and right, pointing out certain houses that have been destroyed.

He arrives in front of a checkpoint, and with a gesture of his face, once again silent, he asks the soldiers for permission to reach the large side building, manned by other soldiers who are unloading weapons and cots, ammunition and sleeping bags.

The lack of diplomatic victory is the war of attrition against civilians

It was the warehouse where food was stored to supply the area's supermarkets. It was hit by a Russian missile. On the ground there are still cans of fruit juice, milk cartons, packages of flour blackened by fire.

The warehouse of Brovary was destroyed by Russian forces

Hennadii Minchenko/Ukrinform/ZUMA

Hostage of negotiations

The first weapon of war is hunger. This is what disfigures civilians, changes their faces, weakens their minds. Putin knows it. For this reason, hitting warehouses and food deposits has always been part of his military strategy. It was so in Syria, it is again in Ukraine.

That is why it is not a coincidence that a few days ago, on the very day of the negotiations held in Turkey that many hoped was moving toward a ceasefire, the Russian army bombed the warehouse of Krasilivky, 20 kilometers from Kyiv.

It had done the same two weeks ago with the gigantic warehouse of Brovary, a few hundred meters away. The message was and is very clear: the Russian answer to military setback and the lack of diplomatic victory is the war of attrition against civilians. Either taken hostage, or starved to death.

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