Postcard from kyiv: tulips bloom, wine bars reopen and people return

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Veronika Kozehedub keeps pinching herself. Spring is finally coming to his hometown, kyiv. Tulips bloom in Maidan Square and young couples stroll hand in hand in beautiful Taras Shevchenko Park, next to Ukraine’s most prestigious university. Only a few weeks ago, Kozehedub thought she might never see her beloved city again.

The 25-year-old graphic designer and illustrator never wanted to leave kyiv. When I met her in February at a trendy cafe called The Journalist, she had denied the idea that Russia would ever invade, saying it was all fabricated by the media. Two days later, Russian tanks crossed the border from Belarus, plunging the Ukrainian capital into a months-long nightmare that left thousands dead and saw more than half the population – around two million people – flee the city.

Kozehedub stayed for more than a week after the outbreak of war, deciding to leave only after pleas from family and friends. “My friends took me because of the fighting around kyiv. I wanted to come back from day one,” she says.

After spending two months hiding out with a friend in the Carpathian Mountains in northwestern Ukraine, she returned home to Kyiv as soon as she learned that Ukraine had declared it had won the battle for the capital a while ago. more than a month. Now the fighting is concentrated in the Donbass region, the occupied southern region of Kherson and the city of Kharkiv.

A man rides a bicycle next to the monument to the founders of kyiv covered with protective panels

/ Getty Images

Kozehedub returned to her apartment in the Pechersk district in mid-April and says her arrival at the station was “euphoric”. “All my friends were there to meet me, and I cried with happiness to see people who were so dear to me.

“The first few days, I literally hugged the walls of my apartment. We can live almost the same life as before the war but with some restrictions. kyiv is almost the same as always. There are lots of people and cars everywhere. Cafes and restaurants are open again.

Kozehedub is not the only one enjoying a semblance of life before the war. As a war reporter stationed in Kyiv since January, I’ve spent the past few weeks watching him return to a new kind of normalcy. Beer gardens and wine bars even reopened last weekend.

While the city center avoided major destruction, suburban towns saw heavy fighting and many civilian homes were destroyed. Bridges, roads and other infrastructure exploded. But — slowly — the city is demilitarizing. Every day there are fewer checkpoints and most sandbags and tank traps have been removed. Tourist and cultural attractions such as the National Museum and Saint Sophia Cathedral are also reopened. Air raid sirens still sound regularly, but most people on the street ignore them.

People relax in the beautiful Taras Shevchenko park in Kyiv

/ Tom Mutch

Compared to other parts of the country, Kyiv’s relative safety and accessibility to its now-adored president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has made it a magnet for international politicians looking for a photo opportunity, such as the visits of Boris Johnson and the United States. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. On Sunday, a host of high-profile visitors, including US First Lady Jill Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, came to the country and Bono even held a surprise concert at a downtown Kyiv metro station.

Locals see it as an important vote of confidence that things get back to normal. There is a trickle of tourists. At the station this week, I met Matthew Sample, a 71-year-old English pensioner from Hungerford who had just arrived on a train from Poland and was visiting kyiv for fun.

“I guess I’m a war tourist,” he told me, laughing. “But I don’t want to go anywhere where there aren’t good bars open.” Sample was cautious and bought a train ticket to Warsaw a week before his scheduled departure. “If something goes wrong again, I want to make sure I have a way out!”

TK, the 25-year-old manager of Dream Hostel in trendy Podil, is among those profiting from this new war tourism. “There are five guests here now,” she told me last week. One is a writer and blogger who wants to see what kyiv looks like after the war. Others are people who want to come and volunteer to help Ukraine.

Kyiv’s “new normal”

/ Getty Images

On its wall is a “wish board” where guests were previously asked to write down items from their to-do list. Now it has become a mood board for Ukrainians. “I wish to… kill a Russian soldier with a knife” and “I wish to… kill a Russian soldier by drowning him”, are among the entries made since March.

Russian forces initially believed they could take kyiv within three days of the outbreak of war. But the Ukrainian forces resisted much more effectively than expected. By the end of last month, they had driven them out of almost all of northern Ukraine. But jubilation over the freedom of the Ukrainian capital was met with horror after evidence of the massacre of civilians was uncovered in Bucha and other surrounding towns. Ukrainian authorities have recovered the bodies of at least 1,200 civilians and believe many have yet to be counted. You don’t have to go far outside Kyiv to find evidence of this widespread destruction and the fate the capital narrowly avoided. The roads in the northeast are littered with charred Russian armored vehicles, victims of portable anti-tank weapons supplied by the West.

Towns like Borodyanka, Makarov and Andriivka were razed. But the precarious calm in Kyiv was recently shattered after a missile hit a residential building in the center, killing Vira Hyrych, a journalist with Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty Ukraine. A funeral was held for her last week at St. Michael’s Cathedral. Because the strike coincided with the visit of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, many saw it as a symbol of spite and impunity towards the organization. She was the seventh of my colleagues to be killed in this war.

I visited Kharkiv last week and saw a grim example of the fate kyiv narrowly avoided. There, the wide boulevards are empty and many beautiful buildings are in ruins. Its parks are still hit by rockets. Thousands of residents have taken refuge in metro stations since the start of the war and some have yet to venture outside for more than two months.

Cafes and wine bars reopen in Kyiv

/ Tom Mutch

Young couple Anna and Timothy own Pain Tattoo Studios in the center of Kharkiv. Because it’s underground, they’re safe from artillery. “Whenever I go out to buy food and supplies, I always take this,” he said, taking out a bulletproof vest. “If there is a rocket strike, I would like to help the survivors. But the Russians know that, they are waiting for people to come and help them.” First responders call this sinister strike tactic a “double strike.”

Back in kyiv, the future raises serious concerns. Everyone here fears for a relative in occupied territory, or a friend fighting on the eastern front line. Kozehedub is now determined to stay home. “Nothing will ever make me leave my beloved kyiv again,” she told me. Others are more cautious.

Vladmimir Putin reportedly ordered his generals to produce results in Ukraine by today, May 9, the date of the annual Victory Day parade that marks the Allies’ victory over the Nazis.

Hanna Rachina, 29, a fitness instructor who left Kyiv in February and now lives in Lisbon, was waiting until today to make a call about her return. “I despair of returning to kyiv,” she told me. “But I want to wait until May 9, just to see that Putin hasn’t planned anything.” Spring may be on its way to the Ukrainian capital, but we still live in the shadow of war.

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