What displaced Ukrainians are finding upon their return to Kyiv

·Contributor
·7 min read

Seconds after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the window to Kyrylo Krasnokutsky’s apartment in Kyiv was blown out by a nearby explosion. While his friends and family quickly packed up and left, he stayed on two weeks longer as Vladimir Putin’s troops bombarded the city and its suburbs. Reluctantly, realizing that not one of his circle remained in the capital, Krasnokutsky left for the Carpathian region in western Ukraine.

But in early April, despite continued shelling, he became one of the first Kyiv residents displaced by the fighting to return.

“In Ukraine, we have a saying that bullets don't hit the same place twice. So since my place was under attack in the first minutes of the war, I felt that I’d be protected here,” Krasnokutsky, a project manager, told Yahoo News.

Last Tuesday, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko announced that nearly two-thirds of the city’s 3.5 million residents were back in the capital, though some recently returned locals question that assessment.

“My first thought was ‘It’s a ghost town,’” said copywriter Dmytro Demchenko, who arrived in the capital last Wednesday from western Ukraine, where he’d been living with friends after a sleepless and terrifying night spent in a bomb shelter on Feb. 24 prompted him to leave Kyiv. “Now it’s like I’m living my ordinary life again, but there’s tension here. Yes, it’s safe in terms of right now we’re not facing the risk of occupation and siege, but there is always a risk of airstrikes in a single second. You hear an air alert — and they will maybe strike and maybe not. You never know.”

A young Ukrainian family reunites after a more than two month separation
A young Ukrainian family reunites in Kyiv on April 23 after a separation of more than two months. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

“It’s very quiet here now — there are not many people out,” said IT manager Oleksiy Nechay, who returned three weeks ago from Africa, where he’d been working when war broke out.

Roadblocks and barricades are still in place, monuments are protected by sandbags and two of Kyiv’s four main bridges are closed to cars. But only one attack has occurred in Kyiv in three weeks, Nechay said — on April 28, the day United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres was visiting.

Chestnut trees in the city are blooming, their white flowers perfuming the streets. The U.S. Embassy, which relocated to Lviv in February, reopened in Kyiv last week, as did the embassies of the U.K., Canada, Germany and Greece. Grocery shelves are again stocked, though prices are higher; many cafés, restaurants and cinemas are opening their doors, and locals are once again flocking to them, hoping that their outings won’t be interrupted by more attacks like those that destroyed or damaged 200 buildings and scores of schools in Kyiv.

“People are returning,” Olga Khomenko, the CEO of a game development company who spent much of the war in western Ukraine, told Yahoo News. “Everyone is smiling,” she added — all the more, say locals, since the Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision music competition this weekend. The band's video entry in the competition, for the song “Stefania,” is a defiant chronicle of love for the motherland despite what Russian forces have left behind in Ukraine.

It’s also given some of the estimated 6 million Ukrainians who have left the country since late February a hint of what they can expect to find when they return. To date, the U.N. estimates, 1.5 million have done so.

In Kyiv, since gasoline is hard to find, traffic on the normally packed avenues is scant. Schools remain closed, and children are a rare sight. A curfew shuts down the city from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., air raid sirens still blare at odd hours and apartment windows remain covered with tape to prevent them from shattering. The metro is running, but on a limited schedule, and officials warn of land mines in parks and booby-trapped abandoned cars. Nevertheless, many are elated to be home.

Severely damaged buildings in Irpin, Ukraine
Severely damaged buildings in Irpin, Ukraine, on May 14. (Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)

Urban projects manager Alya Drazhenko, who returned to Kyiv in March, was taken aback to discover that part of the population is still living full-time in underground bomb shelters, some because they are homeless, others because they are traumatized, she said. But many of those who’ve returned no longer take cover in official shelters, even while acknowledging that the capital isn’t entirely safe. Beefed-up air defenses from the U.S. and Slovakia are helping to make residents feel more secure. But to those who returned in April or before, Kyiv appears to be almost getting back to normal. “We can even get sushi delivered now,” said gaming CEO Khomenko.

Upon her return, Drazhenko was able to contact her parents in the suburb of Bucha, site of some of the war’s worst atrocities. To her relief, they had survived the ordeal that human rights advocates say constituted war crimes carried out by the Russian military. “They’re OK,” she said. “They’re alive.”

Back in the city, things aren’t as bad, though some sections still feel “very apocalyptic,” said Drazhenko.

There are “many people in their 20s, and many older people, who didn’t leave, and many military guys,” she said. “But you rarely see children or people from age 30 to 45.” Those who’ve ventured back, she explained, are typically single. Many of her friends, including almost all who have young families, “are still scared to return.”

“Nowhere in Ukraine is safe,” musician Oleksandra Zhurba told Yahoo News from her temporary home in southwestern Germany. For the time being, she believes she can better serve her homeland from abroad, playing benefit concerts and sending money to local charities.

But many are coming back to Kyiv. Dasha Stokoz, a project manager in the arts who fled to Germany in March and who is now eight months pregnant, wanted to return to give birth to her baby in Ukraine. When several countries reopened their embassies last month in Kyiv, she took that as her cue.

“They relocated from Kyiv weeks before the war began. So if they’re returning here, they must know something,” she told Yahoo News.

Ukrainians wait to board a train
Ukrainians at a Lviv train station bound for Kyiv on May 14. (Omar Marques/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

On Friday, Stokoz was reunited with her husband and family in Kyiv. “I am finally home,” she told Yahoo News hours after her arrival.

Yet the weekend proved eye-opening. On Saturday, she took a 30-minute drive west from the center of Kyiv to pick up a secondhand baby crib she’d purchased online. Approaching Irpin, where some 300 civilians were killed in the early days of the war, she encountered “dozens of burned-out Russian tanks” on roads pockmarked with craters, and drove down streets “where not a single house survived.” The home of the people selling the crib was riddled with bullet holes, and the garage and the car within it were destroyed. Electricity still hasn’t been fully restored in many areas surrounding the capital. “While in Kyiv you can pretend you’re having a normal life,” she said, “but in the suburbs you still witness the horrors of war.”

Inside the city, there’s a palpable feeling of pride among residents stemming from the fact that Ukrainian forces drove off Russian fighters who’d expected to take the capital in three days.

“I’m impressed that Kyiv held up so well,” said copywriter Demchenko. “Kyiv feels more mature as a city, more prominent as a capital.”

As for Khomenko, the gaming CEO, she said that coming home to Kyiv was the best thing she could have done. An avid traveler before the war who has visited 32 countries since birth, her focus moving forward will be different.

“Now I’m thinking that I don’t want any more traveling,” she said. “I’m just so happy to stay at home.”

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What happened last week in Ukraine? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.