KYIV, Ukraine — Life in the capital of war-torn Ukraine seems normal at first glance. In the morning, people rush to work with cups of coffee. The streets are filled with cars and in the evening the restaurants are crowded. But the details tell a different story.
Many buildings across Kyiv bear the scars of Russian bombing. Sandbags are piled around monuments, museums and office buildings to protect against possible attacks. At night, the streets are empty after the midnight curfew goes into effect.
In the restaurants, diners chat about life, friends, and jobs, and discuss whether they preferred the Barbie or Oppenheimer movie, or what concert they might attend. But such conversations can suddenly turn into stories of funerals for loved ones, or how they went into hiding during the last missile attack, or how they adjusted their schedules to balance sleepless nights and the need to be productive at work.
“Death has become a very common part of our life,” said Aliona Vyshnytska, 29, who works as a project coordinator.
Vyshnytska lives in downtown Kyiv. She tries to create comfort in her rented apartment by buying small trinkets and growing indoor plants. She has become accustomed to objects being buffeted from window sills by the vibrations of the exploding waves. After each night filled with loud explosions, she develops migraines. But like millions of others in the capital, she continues to work and “celebrate life during the breaks of war”.
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She fears that the Russian aggression against Ukraine, which began in 2014, “will last forever or for a very long time, in contradiction to human life”.
“And it’s that kind of background feeling that your life is just being taken away from you, a life that should be completely different,” she said.
In the second year of Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine, kyiv suffered less physical damage than in the first months. Ukraine’s reinforced air defense units have become adept at intercepting Russian drones and missiles fired at the capital, mostly at night or in the early hours of the morning.
Walking through the streets of kyiv this summer, signs of normalcy are visible everywhere: a couple cuddling on a bench. Children playing in parks. Bungee jumpers hanging over the Dnieper. A newlywed couple dancing to music playing in the street.
But people’s faces often show the signs of sleepless nights under attack, fatigue from the churning of tragic news and, above all, grief.
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Olesia Kotubei, another Kyiv resident, says her relative is on the front line and her best friend has also joined the army.
This prevents him from forgetting the ongoing war. She recounts her birthday this year on June 7, when she turned 26. She and a friend visited a cafe in the heart of kyiv. Sitting in an inner courtyard adorned with abundant flowers and lush vegetation, they enjoyed their coffee with a direct view of Saint Sophia Cathedral. Yet even in this picturesque scene, she couldn’t get rid of a feeling of unease.
These were the early days of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, during which his relative participated in an assault unit.
“Right now, you can’t influence anything; you have to wait and maintain your sanity, kind of not lose your mind,” she said. On the back of her phone, a picture of her boyfriend is hidden under the cover. Olesia says her image occupies the same spot on her boyfriend’s phone.
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As she spoke, the sound of sirens began to sound. She noticed him with a tired exhale. Shortly after, numerous powerful and loud explosions shook the capital.
“These missile attacks, which are happening alongside my attempts to lead a normal life, affect me deeply,” she said.
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