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‘Business as usual’ amid war in Ukraine

After time, people get inured to the air raid sirens, civilian deaths and bombing
Kharkiv, Ukraine. (Photo by Phil Bialobzyski)

By Phil Bialobzyski

Special to The Terrace Standard

Here in Kyiv I could see the morning sun and high clouds from my seventh floor apartment window. I took the opportunity to get out early and walk to the grocery store adjacent to the bus station.

I would buy some food for my breakfast: fresh poppy seed rolls, milk for my cereal, and some freshly made pierogies and a small tub of sour cream. I bought all of this for just a few dollars. Yes, the exchange rate is great but that does not outweigh the harsh reality of the war.

Here in Kyiv it appears as if it is business as usual; it was like this before Feb. 24, before the Russian invasion, when I last visited. The war seemed far away. There is food on the grocery shelves and beer in the bars albeit a curfew from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.

After time, people get inured to the air raid sirens, the reports of civilian deaths and bombings. But behind that facade of daily life, in the background, everyone has an attentive ear that is piqued when Russian president Vladimir Putin uses phrases like ‘nuclear weapons’ and ‘I am not bluffing’.

At the bus station I walk through throngs of people. There are more buses here than usual today, most with signs on them reading Zaporizhzhia, a city 600 kilometres to the south straddling the Dnipro River, actively contested by both sides.

The people are not standing with a purpose — more like milling about — wondering what their next steps will be. I could read their thoughts in their body language — ‘now that I am safe where do I go now?’

They have become refugees in their own country. They are mostly women and children; the younger men are noticeably absent in these groups. Men under 60 are not allowed to leave the country.

The mothers with young children have gaunt faces sunken by lack of sleep, worry and probably everyone escaping is dealing with PTSD.

The annexation of the four eastern regions of Ukraine and making them Russian territory by Putin has changed the geopolitical chessboard.

The recent sabotage of the Nordstream I and II natural gas pipelines, the mobilization of 300,000 Russians, Chechnyan influence and Ukraine asking for fast tracked NATO membership have all added layers of complexity to this high stakes game. But looming over it all is Putin holding a preemptive nuclear strike trump card to World War III.

This week I visited Kharkiv, the second largest city in Eastern Ukraine, 500 kilometres to the east of Kyiv and 30 kilometres from the Russian border. Its population is predominantly Russian speaking. Between 1918 and 1934 it was the capital of Ukraine before being moved to Kyiv. It has recently been liberated from Russian occupation.

One morning I took the squealing rocking subway which was more like riding a retired Conklin carnival ride to a large market on the northeast of the city. This market had been struck by massive Russian artillery barrages.

Walking amongst the clean up operation there were bomb craters, piles of twisted metal and charred shop goods. Buildings were scorched, their windows streaked upwards by black soot looking like Amy Winehouse’s black eyeliner.

The intense fires that were within these buildings warped their steel beams and melted nearby windows. But today some of the shops were back to business as usual; next to these blackened twisted metal ruins. It was a curious juxtaposition of colourful islands commerce inside a sea of destruction.

Having some military training I wondered why this popular market would be considered a military target. I did not find any cogent military reason; the only one seemed to be for the Russians to spread fear and terror amongst the unarmed, untrained civilians — the defenseless population.

Taking the return subway journey I got out early and walked around the city centre. I wandered in Freedom Square and the nearby park where Russian paratroopers landed on March 2. This triggered small arms battles within the city. I saw the evidence of this as shop doors boarded up with multiple bullet holes in their windows and walls.

I returned to my fourth floor hotel room by mid afternoon. Laying in bed reading I was getting used to the frequent air raid sirens. In the evening, the air raid sirens went on again around 8 p.m. This time three missiles landed in my field of view over the city — I could see the red and orange flash like lightning and after a delay the shock waves. They came as deep bass throated ‘booms’. The power then went out.

From news reports the next morning the missiles had struck an infrastructure target; no casualties were reported and response teams were on scene controlling ongoing fires.

The hotel restaurant being closed, my ‘included’ breakfast was delivered to my room by the hotel hostess. There was no inkling of the evening’s events.

We were both all smiles and politeness. Later, when I was outside on the street, people were about their daily routines of life and what businesses were open — it was just business as usual.

Phil Bialobzyski is a Terrace resident visiting Kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukraine. His next stop is Odesa.