The corcuses are coming out in Kyiv, at last. So too are its residents, after a 35-hour lockdown imposed by the city’s mayor at what is described as another ‘dangerous moment’ for the besieged metropolis.
It is bright and bitterly cold as we travel to the Obolon neighbourhood on the northern outskirts. The roads are quiet but the journey is necessarily stop-start. Kyiv is now a city of checkpoints, fighting positions and tank obstacles.
On the highway beside the Dnieper River, we have to weave through a chicane consisting of road construction vehicles, a street-cleaning wagon and half a dozen yellow buses. All have their tyres deflated: anything to impede a Russian armoured column.
Near Minska metro station, there are people on the streets; parents walking with their children, and queues forming outside pharmacies and food shops. The Georgian bakery is giving away fresh bread. It looks normal.
Then you notice the sandbagged trenches dug into the centre of a roundabout and a dozen anti-tank mines snaking along a gutter, ready to be placed across the highway. Green and brown, they glint in the sunlight: innocuous, deadly.
We are in Obolon at the invitation of Anatolii and Nadia Kostiuchenko. Both are retired engineers and, until the war came, they had hardly spent a day apart in their 53 years together.
The Kostiuchenkos are a heart-rending example of how older people here are standing their ground, despite the threat of cataclysm, while millions from the younger generations have become refugees. Pictured: Anatolii and Nadia Kostiuchenko
The Kostiuchenkos are a heart-rending example of how older people here are standing their ground, despite the threat of cataclysm, while millions from the younger generations have become refugees. We are welcomed into their tiny flat on the tenth floor of a crumbling Soviet-era block.
This is where they brought up their two sons – Yevhen and Oleksandr. Yevhen emigrated to the US and was killed while working as a deputy sheriff in California. Oleksandr is now the Mail’s translator here.
The flat is filled with the accumulated clutter of a lifetime: pictures of their boys, religious icons, landscape paintings and an impressive collection of radios and cassette players. These are the treasures of former broadcasting engineer Anatolii – now a ham whose hobby is collecting and restoring Soviet-era radio sets.
There are also all kinds of representations of cats.
They have four – Martha, Zaia, Shere Khan and Enei – and they are one of the reasons they will not leave. And cats explain the first separation of the Kostiuchenkos in their married life.
We are welcomed into their tiny flat on the tenth floor of a crumbling Soviet-era block (pictured)
Oleksandr’s family home is on the eighth floor of another block, 100 yards away. His wife and two daughters are now in western Ukraine and he is busy assisting us. So his mother Nadia is flat-sitting to look after her son’s three cats and her granddaughter Alina’s hamster, Bantik, which had the temerity to bite her last week.
‘I was raised in a village and he probably sensed what I have always felt about rodents,’ she grimaces. Speaking about his wife, Anatolii says: ‘We see each other every other day. Sometimes I go to her, sometimes she comes here. It is strange to live like this.’ It is difficult for them to see each other for two reasons. The first is that they are scared to go outside. The second is that the lifts in both blocks have been deactivated for the duration of the war.
This is to prevent residents from being trapped in them if their block is hit or the power supply goes down. That means the pensioners, who both have health issues, must use the stairs. ‘It’s very difficult at my age, particularly if I have shopping,’ says Anatolii, 72.
‘I have to stop and rest every two floors and the bomb shelter is in the basement. That’s why I’ve only used it once.
‘Now when the sirens go off, which they do as much as seven times a day, I sit in the bathroom or the toilet because they have concrete walls and no windows.’ But what if a missile hits his block below the tenth floor and he is trapped by a fire?
A person mourns next to a wrapped body near a residential building which was hit by the debris from a downed rocket in Kyiv today
‘Nadia thought of that!’ He beams and produces a coil of rope from the balcony. ‘I will tie it to this,’ he says, pointing to a radiator. ‘And climb down.’
As his father speaks, Oleksandr becomes visibly upset. He wants them to leave. But his parents have been busy making other preparations against attack.
Many of the pictures and all the crockery have been moved from the walls and packed away. Anatolii has also taken down an interior door and fixed it to the window in the second bedroom.
And on the balcony that faces west towards the frontline, he has hung two rugs over a washing line – what he calls ‘double protection’ against blasts.
All but five of the 40 families in the block have ‘run from the war’. So why did he and his wife choose to stay?
‘My opinion is if we leave this apartment and the Russians move into Kyiv, in one month it would be looted or destroyed,’ Anatolii explains. ‘And if we are not here and the building is hit by a missile, the search and rescue services will probably open all the flats and leave them open, so that again things would be taken.
‘When we moved in here in 1978, all we had was a very simple bench, a bed and two chairs. What you see is what we have earned in 45 years: our radio, TV, refrigerator and other luxuries. We could lose everything.’
But he realises the risks. ‘You see our way of life has changed. One hit from a rocket and it would disappear completely.’
Refusing to leave: Damage to a neighbouring apartment block to the Kostiuchenkos , in the Obolonskyi District of Kyiv, where they vow they will stay until the end of the war
Nadia, 69, has made us deruny – traditional potato pancakes – which she serves with pickled cucumber, roast chicken slices, sour cream and a hot sauce called adjika. ‘It’s made from potatoes, carrots, tomato, pepper, salt and sugar, and I put it on the hob for three hours,’ she tells us. It is also delicious – Ukrainian soul food.
Later, after we have taken our leave and are back out on the streets, we are confronted by an elderly woman.
‘Hey, why are you here?’ she demands. ‘Who are you? What are you doing? I’m calling the police!’ She has her phone out and tears on her cheeks. She, like so many Kyivans, is fearful of strangers because of the very real threat of undercover Russian infiltrators.
I have been told they have been recruited among Russian nationalists in the occupied Donbas region, because they know how to speak Ukrainian.
We have to show her our ID cards and passports before she is mollified. Then we drive further into Obolon.
Half a mile away from the Kostiuchenko residence stands Bohatyrska 20. There is a poster on the entrance door to the apartment block. It shows a photograph of a yellow and green budgerigar in a cage, a phone number and the message: ‘We have your bird.’
Kyiv has emerged from its latest curfew. But the nightmare for this city is far from ending. Pictured: Ukrainian firefighters extinguish a blaze at a warehouse after a bombing on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine today
One might find such a public-spirited notice in any city in the world. Then you look up and take in what is left of Bohatyrska 20: nine storeys of fire-charred apartments and two enormous holes where Russian missiles hit while the residents slept.
At least one of them died and three were wounded. The budgie was among the survivors.
Debris is scattered halfway across a neighbouring football pitch. A window frame hangs from the upper branches of a silver birch. There is a background rumble of air defence fire or artillery.
We call the number on the poster. A woman answers. ‘We also found a turtle and a hamster in a cage,’ she tells us. ‘They had all been blown onto the street and somehow survived.’
No, no one has claimed the bird yet, she adds.
On the way back into the centre, we pass almost two miles of stationary traffic. It is waiting to cross a checkpoint by one of the bridges over the Dnieper.
By the missile-struck Artem military equipment plant, a street florist is selling individual tulips. Behind her, a workman is fixing plywood sheets to the window frames of the shattered Kvadrat shopping centre.
The owner of the Wear Me ladies’ budget fashion boutique is looking glum, as well he might. His premises were made almost entirely of glass. Now it looks as if a giant has thrust his nose into the kiosk and sneezed.
Kyiv has emerged from its latest curfew. But the nightmare for this city is far from ending.