“I know I have to leave, but I don’t want to leave my life in Kyiv”

“When this dull noise woke me up, I immediately understood that it was a bombardment”. Still stunned by the events of the past few hours, Kevin, a 29-year-old Frenchman living in Kiev, refuses to believe it. However, since this Thursday morning, Ukraine is at war. “I have made the decision for a special military operation,” Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in the middle of the night, in a surprise statement on television.

Shortly after his intervention, powerful explosions sounded in the port city of Mariupol, in eastern Ukraine. Then in Kiev, the capital, in Kharkiv, the second city of the country located near the Russian border or in Odessa, in the south. In the country, Ukrainians and French nationals living in Ukraine are torn between the desire to stay and the need to flee.

“It filled me with sadness”

Unable to fall into a deep sleep, Natalia, a 30-year-old Ukrainian living in the suburbs of Kiev with her family, also heard the shelling break the silence of the night. “At first, I didn’t think of a bombardment, the noise was far away. We did not want to believe it, especially in Kiev and Odessa, where we did not imagine that the Russian forces could strike. It was my father who came to tell me that it was indeed an explosion, which was aimed at the airport, ”says the young woman, still upset. However, this scenario “is not a complete surprise: the US intelligence services, obviously well informed, had been warning for some time of the possibility that the Russian offensive, if launched, could be carried out into the capital”.

A mixed feeling shared by Kevin. “A week ago, everything was normal, the atmosphere was even joyful and festive in the city, explains the young man living in the Ukrainian capital. Then in recent days, the tension has increased crescendo. And everything changed this morning. I’m not sure I fully understand what is happening, but hearing the bombardments filled me with sadness,” he breathes. Several thousand kilometers away, his relatives were filled with concern. “I called them last night to tell them I was safe. It was important to reassure them, but also not to add their concerns to mine, because for me, here, it is not easy to emotionally manage these events”.

“For the moment, we are not moving from home”

After the sound of the bombs, it was the sound of the emergency sirens that sounded in the capital. Yet in the streets, “nobody panics, we can feel the anxiety that reigns, but everyone remains incredibly calm, describes Kevin after going to do some shopping. In shops, petrol stations and at vending machines, there are no crowd movements, everyone is wisely queuing. A few kilometers away, on the outskirts, Natalia observes the same scenes. “There are long queues in front of shops and pharmacies, but without panic. And the shelves are far from empty, the stocks are important”.

For now, Kevin has still not left the Ukrainian capital. “I listen to my Ukrainian relatives who told me to stay at home, and the French embassy also told me the same thing. So for now, with my girlfriend, we’re not moving. Anyway, I don’t see any alternative, it’s not easy to leave: the roads are taken by storm, there are miles of traffic jams, and the airports are closed. This Thursday morning, Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky also called on his fellow citizens to calm down and to stay at home. So, with her family, Natalia also stays at home for now. If in the city center of Kiev, many inhabitants have massed in shelters and metro stations to protect themselves from potential new strikes, Natalia, she prefers to avoid the shelters which are under the building where she lives. “It is sixteen stories high: if strikes hit it, it would be difficult to evacuate these shelters, which could then prove to be more dangerous than protective”. But she doesn’t see herself staying in the family apartment either. “We would like to leave, but with the world on all the main roads, it would take hours to leave the city, and we don’t know if it’s safe to take the road now. Especially since the mayor of Kiev announced a curfew just now”.

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“My father is ready to join the armed forces”

An “extremely stressful” situation, says Natalia, who does not know what the next few days will look like. She who dreamed of her next trip to France in a few weeks with her husband, now fears a long armed conflict that would darken the daily life and hopes of Ukrainians. “I’m so scared of what’s going to happen. My father, who is nearly 60 years old, is ready to join the armed forces, and many of my friends are also ready to go and fight against the Russian forces to defend our country and our freedom. And here we see large lines of people also ready to join the Ukrainian forces. Me, all this terrifies me, I cannot imagine a war in my country”.

“I think it’s the older ones, who have known the USSR, who are ready to fight, confirms Kevin. There is a kind of continuity among Ukrainians in the will to fight for their freedom. The Maidan revolution was only eight years ago,” he recalls. This momentum, Kevin observes it and understands it. “I’m 29, almost the same age as this country. And it’s a really great country, with great, happy, brave people who love freedom. They are a people used to suffering, but who want to live and who are ready to fight to defend themselves. And the reality is also the fact that many people have no car, no money, no other place to go to take refuge, he underlines. We don’t know how lucky we are in France.

“I looked at my apartment, and I said to myself that this might be the last time”

If he loves France, Kevin had until then relished his chance to be in Ukraine. “I moved there in 2020, after the first confinement. Life is so beautiful here in Kiev,” confides the young man, who found love there, launched his business, and enjoys comfortable purchasing power in Kiev, he who lives “on the local equivalent of Champs-Elysees”. “Unfortunately, I doubt things will settle down anytime soon. Russia seems determined to politically and militarily capitulate Ukraine”. A fear shared by Natalia, who is studying with her relatives the possible options to get to safety. “We hope to be able to visit relatives living in the west of the country, near the border with Poland. It remains to be seen when it will be possible for us to make this long journey without taking any risks”.

Kevin, he is “not afraid. But I’ve never been so sad. I have a great life in Ukraine, much more beautiful than in France. And since this morning, I know that I have to leave, but I don’t want to leave my life. Earlier in the day, while at his Ukrainian girlfriend’s house that night, he returned briefly to his home “to pick up some clothes, a few books and my passport. And it was a very painful moment. I looked at my apartment, this place where I feel so good, and I said to myself that this might be the last time I was there”. Registered on the Ariane list of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be informed in real time of the evolution of the situation, Kevin “still hopes not to leave Kiev. If an evacuation plan is organized and I receive a message to return to France, I will do it for my relatives, but I would be really disgusted”. For the time being, around 500 French nationals are still present in Ukraine.

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