Welcome to the new normal in Ukraine – Kyiv residents live with ‘anxiety’

Last week, in the middle of May, the night sky over Kyiv was clear, and the temperature warm enough to open the windows, which made the sudden blast of air raid sirens sound particularly ominous.

There was nothing else on the move outside to muffle the noise. Still in bed in the dark, I flipped through rapid-fire posts on social media reporting that the city was under attack.

From my balcony I could not see anyone making a beeline for the nearby shelter, but there was some bumping about in the flat below me.

Then a sharp flash of light on the otherwise black horizon, followed by a thundering boom and then the ­rat-a-tat-tat of anti-aircraft fire.

Car alarms started going off below, and the trace of anti-aircraft missiles could be seen rising in an arc against the night sky. If one had not known better, it could have been mistaken for a firework display. I waited for the whistle of a missile or falling debris, as a signal to take cover in the toilet, but all went quiet and dark again in anticipation of dawn.

Thirteen months into the war, the panic of Kyiv’s encirclement in spring last year is now just a memory. And the fear of freezing to death in one’s lightless flat from last autumn has passed with the winter.

Day-to-day low anxiety is the new normal – getting up, going to work, early to bed and regularly awoken by scenes outside the window that recall a science fiction movie.

The building where I live has acquired the feel of a dormitory, with new faces showing up and disappearing so fast you are no longer quite sure who your neighbours are.

Many look like they are from the war-torn east. The city’s nighttime curfew has been shortened by an hour and all metro stations are back up and running. But a ride across the river can still see you stranded in a station if the Russians decide to send up a war plane in Belarus.

On a warm day, cafes and eateries overflow on to the pavement. But most shopping malls have a ­half-deserted look, their once bustling entertainment complexes shuttered indefinitely.

The local park is full and not just with pensioners and new mothers, but entire families whiling away the day where it doesn’t cost money.

Inflation is high and employment low, which is probably why the authorities are generous in reporting the apprehension and prosecution of corrupt officials.

Churches are doing well. In mine, the Russian language mass has been cancelled due to the now ubiquitous aversion to anything Russian.

The English-language mass is gone too, along with the city’s once thriving expat community. My eldest daughter is graduating from school in June, but around half of her classmates are refugees and won’t be at the graduation ceremony.

Some of Kyiv’s residents are waiting to come home, others want to stay where they are. Many have someone serving in the army, or worse, languishing in a prisoner of war camp. Hundreds of those found dead in war zones have yet to be identified.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is no shortage of strapping young men walking the streets as civilians, while those in uniform often look like someone’s father.

Nevertheless, there is always a news report from border guards describing the latest method to avoid conscription, such as dressing like a woman and swimming across a border river in scuba gear.

Meanwhile, the military compete with panhandlers on Independence Square, as soldiers ask passers-by to put donations into a glass box. My friend Alexey, a 50-something travel agent, escorted his wife, stepdaughter and 12-year-old son to the Polish border after the February 24 invasion, then returned to look after his bedridden mother-in-law.

His family are in Germany where they have a free place to stay, health care and a monthly allowance.

When they tried to reunite in Kyiv for the New Year, the city was targeted in a massive missile attack.

Although Alexey keeps in touch with his wife and kids daily, he says it feels like his family has been shattered. He adds: “Nevertheless, I’m glad they are safe and I’m lucky to have a job.”

Unlikely to be conscripted, he regularly donates a portion of his salary to the war effort. His eldest son, 23, and already a father, could however be called up any time.

Alexey says: “My grandfather once told me the Russians were the greatest threat to Ukraine, but I found this incredible at the time. Now I understand.”

Marina, a single mother in her early 40s, also fled Kyiv in March 2022 for Italy “with two kids and a suitcase” on an evacuation train.

This month she returned to Kyiv, to pick up documents and take care of personal business. Again, a Russian missile attack coincided and Marina, now back in Italy, says she is in no hurry to return.

She explains: “No one is waiting for me in Kyiv. My mother is in Italy and my relatives in Donbas.”

Authorities are warning people to stay away from beaches to avoid missile attacks and private boats are banned from the Dnipro River.

This month alone there have been 10 huge air attacks on the capital. As Oleksiy Danilov, head of the security and defence council, put it: “Kyiv remains the maniacal unattainable goal of Putin.”

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