WARNING, of a sort, had come at around 6.50am on Monday, but the vast majority of those awake to hear the air raid sirens will have taken little notice of them. After nearly eight months of hearing them almost on a daily basis, Ukrainians in places not under regular attack (Kyiv hadn’t been hit by missiles in months) have long treated the siren with indifference.

Ninety minutes later, however, it became clear this wouldn’t be an ordinary autumn day in Ukraine’s peaceful and beautiful capital. From my apartment near St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, I heard at least two loud explosions from the downtown area just to the south.

My response was to take a shower and make some coffee, “safe” in the misguided belief that whatever had happened was now over. It wasn’t long before more blasts came, however, and Twitter began to fill up with horrifying images from the blast sites.

I left my flat, still not sure whether to head to the scene or to a shelter, and had been outside for a few seconds when I heard two more huge explosions, the loudest yet. My decision finally and forcefully made, I ran the couple of minutes down Mala Zhytomyrska Street to the iconic Maidan Square, epicentre of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, the underpasses on which double as bomb shelters.

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Before my first post-February 24th trip to Ukraine, I had been told I’d never forget hearing my first air raid siren, but knowing how unlikely it was that the city I was in (Lviv) would be hit had taken the power out of that experience.

The thing I will never forget though is the moment on Monday, moments after I made it to the underpass, when for the first time I heard the dreadful whistle of a missile passing directly above me. Everyone in the shelter dove for cover, some wailed and cried, and the underpass suddenly felt very shallow and vulnerable. The missile passed over the square and moments later, the shelter winced as one as we heard it slam into an unknown target.

When we had recovered our composure, I talked to Tania, a woman in her 30s who had rushed to the shelter in her pyjamas and a winter jacket. “I left Kyiv on February 24th and only came back in the summer,” she told me, “So this is the first time I have experienced this. This war…”

The National: A rocket hit a children’s playground in KyivA rocket hit a children’s playground in Kyiv

Three hours passed in a quiet frenzy of rumours that left the couple of hundred people in the shelter, many of them accompanied by their pets, constantly bracing for new strikes. We heard that several dozen Iranian kamikaze drones were flying towards Kyiv from Belarus, that 47 rockets had just been launched from Astrakhan with an expected impact time of 11am, and that the day would unfold in three long stages of strikes against a rolling list of targets.

I resigned myself to spending all day in the underpass, but at 11.30am, as I was standing on the stairs taking in a risky bit of fresh air and sunlight, I and a couple of others out smoking heard a beautiful sound. It was the anthem of the city, a song named How Can I Not Love You, My Kyiv?, and it was playing full blast on speakers in the square, heralding the all-clear in breathtakingly graceful fashion.

As I walked up the steps into the late-morning sunshine, I met the gaze of a relieved and slightly dazed-looking young man who introduced himself as Vladislav, a barista at the Ulitka Coffee stand, just by the steps.

The National: Bombs were dropped near this subway station shelter in UkraineBombs were dropped near this subway station shelter in Ukraine (Image: Kit MacDonald)


“I closed for five minutes when the first missiles hit but then I opened up again and stayed here through the whole thing making coffee for people down there,” he told me, grinning from ear to ear. Several people emerging from the shelter greeted him and patted him on the back, and it became clear I was in the presence of the hero of the hour.

A surreal day took a couple of particularly surreal turns after that. I walked the kilometre and a half from my apartment to Taras Shevchenko Park, where several rockets had fallen. At the intersection of Volodymyrska Street and Tarasa Shevchenko Boulevard, where a rocket had burned motorists alive in their cars just hours earlier, I joined a gaggle of journalists around Kyiv’s mayor, the towering former boxer Vitali Klitschko.

‘Supporting Ukraine is key to peace and freedom in Europe,” he said in English in response to a question from an American journalist. “Thank you for supporting us, it’s very important for us, we see who are real friends of Ukraine.”

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I walked into the park, where another rocket had ploughed into a children’s playground. Journalists and TV crews surveyed the damage as a man held up a part of the missile. The calm was punctured moments later by another round of air raid sirens, sparking scenes of near-panic as people, myself included, who would have ignored the same sound the previous day, ran for shelter, swearing under their breath as they did so.

Surreal moment number two came when a woman who had started talking to me a little earlier, and who was now guiding me at speed to a subway station shelter refused to cross a deserted road. I turned and shouted that we needed to go. “I can’t,” she shouted back. “It’s a sin to cross the street when the red man is showing. You go ahead and I’ll catch you up.”

The platform at Teatralna metro station is so deep that I wouldn’t have heard any additional blasts even if they had happened, but thankfully they did not, and after two hours the all-clear was given and we emerged into a gorgeously sunny afternoon, and to a city united in shock and grief, but most of all, anger and resolve.

Tuesday morning brought another air alert and, for me, a swift walk to the underpass at Maidan, but just about everyone there was a journalist from western Europe looking to interview sheltering Ukrainians, of which there were almost none. Kyiv had, literally overnight, recalculated the threshold at which it would let Vladimir Putin disrupt daily life, and its citizens had largely decided to stick this one out at home.

Whatever happens in the coming days and weeks, that defiance will prove to be unbreakable.