KYIV, Ukraine — The first explosion woke me. The boom rattled our bedroom window. A car alarm howled from the street below. It was just after 8 in the morning. Still in a sleepy stupor, I leaned over in bed and said to my wife, “Honey, I think there was an explosion.”
Her eyes fluttered open. “What?” she said. “Are you sure?”
I was about to answer when another blast shook the walls and sent our little black cat, Luna, scrambling under the bed. And then another boom. By the fourth blast, we were up and dressed and had wrangled Luna into her crate. We grabbed whatever essentials we could — two sweaters, our passports, a bottle of water, and some snacks — and then sprinted down the stairs and across an outdoor courtyard to a ground-level doorway that led into an unlit stairwell. We descended several stories underground, passed through a solid metal blast door, and entered a Spartan underground space.
Originally built as a nuclear-war fallout shelter during the Soviet era, the room held no furnishings apart from some iron-rod benches along the walls. White paint peeled off the exposed brick walls. Cold War-era wiring draped across the ceiling like cobwebs. Flattened paper boxes covered the floor. A dark hallway in back led to a single toilet — the dirty, cracked porcelain inspired little faith in it actually flushing. Given the close quarters, we certainly weren’t going to test the toilet.
About 10 people were in the bomb shelter already. My wife and I sat on one of the benches; Luna in her crate sat beside us. As the minutes ticked by, more people staggered in. There was an old lady who needed help on the last few steps down the darkened stairway; a mother with her young daughter; a couple of 20-somethings. One by one, they took their seats among us. Nearly everyone smiled politely as they entered. No one panicked.
I scanned the room and caught the look of a middle-aged man across from me. A total stranger, he held my gaze a moment and then slightly smiled and shook his head in disbelief. I returned the gesture.
Shortly after we entered the bomb shelter, another explosion rumbled outside. Then more and more as multiple waves of Russian missiles hit the city. I put an arm over my wife’s shoulder. She’d been shaking at first, but she wasn’t anymore. She asked whether I thought we were safe in this basement. I said I thought so. I knew for certain it was better than being aboveground.
“Okay, I trust you,” said my wife, who is Ukrainian.
She then leaned her head against mine, and I held her tightly.
I’ve spent plenty of time in wars. Both as an Air Force pilot and as a journalist. I thought I knew a lot, but this morning I learned that war weighs far heavier on your soul when your highest priority is someone else’s safety and not your own. War also looks a lot different when you see it through the eyes of the scared kid sitting across from you in the bomb shelter while the sounds of Russian missile blasts beat through the earth.
Most everyone’s eyes remained glued to their smartphones. Many of the things we said were about what was happening. Through social media, we learned that at least two Russian missiles had landed in Shevchenko Park, just a few blocks from where we sat. One missile impacted a playground. Another hit the intersection of Taras Shevchenko Boulevard and Volodymyrska Street, at the park’s corner. The missiles struck just after 8. Rush hour on a Monday. We learned another missile had hit next to Kyiv’s “Klitschko Bridge” — a partially glass-floored, elevated pedestrian bridge in the city center. One missile also struck the building housing the German consulate in Kyiv.
As the hours unfolded, we understood that Russia’s missile strikes today did not stop at Kyiv — they hit across the country, including the cities of Lviv, Kharkiv, Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia, and Kremenchuk. Rather than military targets, the Russian missiles struck civilian areas and civilian infrastructure sites — places such as parks, museums, and power plants. With Russia’s military losing on the battlefields in southern and eastern Ukraine, today’s strikes marked a deliberate assault on Ukraine’s civilians — an act of desperation meant to turn the war in Moscow’s favor.
According to the latest Ukrainian government update at the time I type these words, Russia fired some 84 missiles against Ukraine today. Ukrainian air defenses shot down 43. Those Russian missiles included Kalibr cruise missiles launched from Russian ships in the Black Sea, as well as Kh-101 and Kh-555 missiles fired from strategic bombers flying over Russia’s Caspian Sea region. Russia also reportedly launched at least two dozen drones at Ukraine today, including Iranian Shahed-136 Kamikaze drones, Ukraine’s air force reported. With the threat of more strikes, this night will be a long one — possibly spent in a bomb shelter, almost certainly spent glued to social media looking for warnings of another attack.
Yesterday, my wife and I took our traditional Sunday walk. We traversed the Klitschko Bridge and turned back up Volodymyrska Street, then lapped through Shevchenko Park. For months, anti-shrapnel shielding has encased the statue of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s most famous writer, which stands at the park’s center. Last night, I walked past that up-armored statue and doubted whether Russia would ever purposefully target such a picturesque park in central Kyiv where old men play chess and children play on seesaws. It just seemed too absurd to truly take seriously. But I was wrong to think that way.
We waited in the bomb shelter until noon. Then we walked the few minutes it takes to get to Shevchenko Park. As we approached, the sidewalk showed puddles of broken glass. A road sign pole was snapped at the base like a broken matchstick. Shrapnel had Swiss-cheesed some cars on the roadside.
The physical evidence of destruction mounted as we approached the park. And all of a sudden, it was fully upon us. The missile’s impact crater blemished the earth within the playground enclosure. Trees stripped naked stood around. Snapped branches and metal missile parts littered the surrounding green spaces and brick walkways. The broken pieces of a swing set sat in a bush. I scanned the face of the building across the street and saw only shattered windows. The Shevchenko statue, a few dozen meters from the playground, looked generally undamaged.
Russia’s vaunted Kalibr cruise missiles have an advertised accuracy of 30 meters. Well, there wasn’t a building within 30 meters of the Shevchenko Park playground. No building of even the minutest military value was located anywhere nearby. Just a playground in a downtown park on a Monday morning. Yet, that’s where a Russian missile struck. If that’s not a war crime, then what is?
At the nearby intersection of Taras Shevchenko Boulevard and Volodymyrska Street, workers rapidly cleared wrecked cars from the cratered asphalt. A crowd had gathered at the corner of Shevchenko Park, facing the intersection. Some foreign journalists in body armor vests spoke into cameras while Ukrainian civilians stood on their toes to get a better look at what Russia’s war had wrought on their hometown.
Today’s attacks, both in Kyiv and across the rest of Ukraine, were clearly meant to kill and terrorize Ukrainian civilians. As I type these words, Kyiv City Hall has reported five fatalities in the city from this morning’s attacks. Yet, from what I saw around town today, the people of Kyiv are far from terrified.
Just hours after the missile attacks, pedestrians crowded Kyiv’s city center sidewalks. Flower shops were open. Despite the damage, people strolled through Shevchenko Park. Under today’s clear autumn sky, some sat on benches eating croissants and sipping coffee. Outside a restaurant in the city center, a group of young people sat at an outdoor table smoking and drinking coffee. I approached them and asked why they weren’t scared of more missiles — the air raid alert had not yet ended by that time.
One young man answered, “Because we are Ukrainian.”
When the afternoon air raid alert was over, my wife and I returned to our apartment. We fed Luna some treats and sat on the couch and exhaled. Then we discussed whether to spend the night in the bomb shelter.
This is the twilight zone reality we share with millions of Ukrainians, residents of a European capital city, trying to calculate our risk of random death by a Russian missile in our sleep.
At one point, I asked my wife, “Do you think you’d feel better if you left Kyiv?”
“No,” she answered without hesitation. “I want to stay. This is my home.”