KYIV, Ukraine (AFP) — It’s hard to say which frightened older women more: the shrill blare of air raid sirens or the terrified urgency of the Ukrainian soldier ordering everyone to take cover.
“All people! Immediately! Now!” cried the soldier, rushing in his heavy boots down a road strewn with the shattered remains of grenades and shells.
Behind him stood the charred skeleton of a Ukrainian military truck that was hit while transporting ammunition to a burning district in northern Kiev.
Before him were older women with handbags and middle-aged men talking about the war while puffing cigarette smoke.
And above them – somewhere in an eerie distance – echoed the dull sound of mortars or Grad missiles being fired into a barrage on the Ukrainian capital.
Passers-by all ran around the corner of a building and down a dark staircase leading to a concrete basement.
Already awaiting them was a group of exhausted refugees who had desperately nearly left Kiev on the third day of Russia’s invasion of their country.
“We were trying to evacuate, but halfway there they started shelling,” computer engineer Helga Tarasova said.
She had taken a bus to Kiev station with her young son and several friends. Their next stops were to be the city of Lviv in western Ukraine, and then – perhaps – Poland.
“We only had 800 meters [half a mile] to get to the station,” the 36-year-old recalled, bouncing her son on her lap. “But the National Guard did not let us pass. We were running with our bags and I think the bags scared them.
The Ukrainian capital is under siege. It entered a weekend curfew on Saturday night that is enforced with shoot-on-sight orders.
Residents began taping on exposed window panes and covering up street names, building numbers and other identifiable city markings in an attempt to confuse the Russian invasion.
Long queues of dozens of cars wind their way around the few working gas stations. Grocery stores are either closed or filled with people staring at eerily bare shelves that often run out of bread and simple meats and cheeses.
A soldier was digging a trench on the side of a highway that Russian tanks should use to push towards Kiev’s Maidan Square and the government district.
“We hoped that our generation would be the one that would live without war,” lamented retired Tetyana Filonemko, in the basement. “All people can do in a war is hold on, be one, support each other. That’s all we can do.
Filonemko’s basement is divided into three rooms connected by a narrow hallway and lit by incandescent bulbs hanging from black wires.
A man was sleeping on a yoga mat placed on some wooden planks. A bucket stood next to him on a wooden stool. Other men were pacing and some women were whispering. The children seemed the least concerned in their play area.
“I only think of children,” said Nadezhda Tkachuk.
The 58-year-old had just climbed the stairs and stuck her head out for a quick breath of fresh air – and to try and hear how close the fights were. “Let them open a hallway, so they don’t shoot people, so we can send the little kids,” she said.
But Yulia Snitka has even more immediate concerns.
The 32-year-old’s belly has swelled through her clothes in the eighth month of pregnancy and she’s worried she’s worried.
“I try to stay as calm as possible so I don’t induce premature labour,” she said. “At night, for more than an hour, there were huge explosions. I hope this will all be over in a few days.