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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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‘Is it a holiday?’ the children asked when they weren’t woken up for school. ‘No, dears,’ mum replied. ‘The war has started…’

Published by The Daily Mail (25th February, 2022)

The driver of a blue minibus, crammed full of people, was desperately trying to slide the door closed. Then I watched as a frantic woman stopped him from departing – handing a new-born baby girl to one of the passengers.

After the vehicle sped off, the middle-aged woman, weeping softly, told me that her sister was on board, taking the last bus to Uman, a city in central Ukraine, where she would join their parents.

So why was she not going? ‘Why should I go? If they start bombing the cities they’ll bomb all of them. It’s not safe there but at least she’ll be with the family.’

The heartbreaking scene was eerily reminiscent of flickering film footage of the early days of the Second World War.

I found myself among crowds of desperate people clutching bags, suitcases, pets and the hands of their partners as they tried to flee from an advancing army invading their country on three sides.

To make matters worse, I later saw footage from a CCTV camera that showed the deadly impact of Vladimir Putin’s armed forces in Uman – the destination for that bus – when a missile blew apart a 39-year-old cyclist and wounded five others.

This was just one desperate story among many that I came across yesterday on the streets of Kyiv – capital of a country facing the tragedy of our times as a malevolent dictator unleashes the hellish power of his massive military machine to crush its desire for democracy.

My day had begun about five hours earlier – when military targets outside Kyiv were targeted by missile strikes soon after 5am.

I heard a loud thump in the distance. I realised the war had really begun – and Putin was carrying out his crazed threat.

I found my Ukrainian colleague and photographer, Kate Baklitskaya, staring out of the balcony window. ‘Did you hear that?’ she asked. ‘It’s started.’

Those were two haunted words I heard repeatedly yesterday as the fears of millions of Ukrainians turned into the most horrible reality with an assault on their land that was brutally announced by missiles and shells raining down on at least ten cities.

My early morning shock was being shared by countless others in this city straddling the Dnipro River – the capital of a land facing the tragedy of our times. A quick look at social media on my phone showed that a military airport beside Kyiv had been hit – where a young mother called Natsya had also heard the pre-dawn missile strikes.

She told me how she had looked outside her home in Vasylkiv, a town 25 miles from Kyiv – and to her horror saw the nearby air base for Ukrainian MiG-29 fighter planes being struck by shells.

‘I heard it and also saw it through the window,’ she said. ‘So I collected up my things, packed my son’s clothes and we left. I’m not panicking, I just want my child to be safe.’

I met Natsya, 28, standing with her ten-year-old son Vanya in queues for buses with thousands of other fear-filled Ukrainians.

‘I’m leaving everything behind -my home, my job. None of it matters when my son is in danger. That was the only thought that struck me as I woke up to the sound of shelling today. I instantly knew that we needed to go as far as we can.’

Natsya admitted she had not prepared for this catastrophe despite the massing of Russian military on Ukraine’s borders.

‘Whenever I heard some bad news, I always thought it sounded so unrealistic, like a terrible dream. I could not believe that something like this would happen. I still hope I’ll just wake up and it’s all going to be normal, that life is going to be fine.’

But things look far from fine.

My colleague Kate and I left the apartment that we are renting in central Kyiv shortly after 7am.

A bearded man with a sleeping roll dangling from his red backpack followed us down the stairs and told us to take care.

Vitaly was too rushed to talk properly but said: ‘I’m going to my elderly parents, who live on the outskirts of the city, because they are so nervous. I have a small child. Yesterday, we went to the kindergarten but today there is war. It has started.’

Across the courtyard, a middle-aged couple with their son were also leaving with suitcases. The man had the car door open, then yelled back at his wife to ask why she was taking so long. ‘I can’t find the keys,’ she screamed back. A brief burst of panic. Then the howl of sirens across the city.

Yet the atmosphere seemed calm in our local cafe when we went to buy croissants – and some people clearly seemed determined not to have their lives disrupted.

This was shown by a surreal overheard conversation among the counter staff. One woman, whose daughter worked in a beauty parlour, said: ‘We woke up to the sound of shelling and my daughter started calling her clients to cancel appointments. But one girl refused to cancel. She kept saying, “What’s the big deal? I need my nails done”.’

The roads seemed so quiet following Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s imposition of martial law – except for the thundering traffic on one heading out of the city, jammed with people fleeing to join their families. ‘It’s like the early days of the pandemic,’ said my colleague Kate.

Inevitably, despite the early hour, queues were starting to form at cash machines, petrol stations, supermarkets and, later, at pharmacies. ‘We are at an age when medicines are as important as food,’ said an 81-year-old man waiting with 15 others. ‘But we’re not afraid, since we were born in the Second World War.’

Social media was filling with pictures of shell strikes, including a military building struck and a kiosk ripped apart on the outskirts of the city, with debris from a destroyed drone smoking on the street nearby.

A friend of Kate’s posted on Facebook details of the start to her own day which had begun with her young children asking why they had not been woken up for school. ‘Is there a holiday?’ they asked excitedly. ‘No, dears, the war has started,’ their mum replied.

Such chilling words are ones that no child should hear. Yet all around this country of 44million people, the innocence of too many children was being torn asunder by the uniquely grotesque barbarity of war.

We walked for half an hour back to the rail station where there were scenes of chaos, with police guarding entry to the station, many trains delayed and scenes of desperation at the adjacent bus station.

People told me of their frustrated efforts to flee, with flights cancelled, ticket kiosks closed and the instant emergence of war-profiteering. ‘We need to run away,’ said Tetiana, 32, who was with her husband and two young daughters.

This family – based in Poland and visiting her parents in Ukraine – had already been to the airport only to discover that their flights home had been cancelled.

After hearing the hideous sound of a shelling bombardment, they jumped in a taxi to the railway station – but found armed police barring entry to anyone without pre-booked tickets.

Even so, there seemed to be no trains leaving – only ones arriving. Inside the station later, I saw queues of people trying to return tickets from cancelled trips.

Unable to get money from cash machines, which were empty, Tetiana’s family discovered money-changers offering scandalous rates and minibus drivers ramping up prices to charge 2,000 euros – equivalent to five months’ average income in Ukraine – for a ticket to Lviv, a city near Poland in the west of the country.

‘How is that even possible? We are a family of four. We don’t have such money,’ said Tetiana despairingly.

‘It’s horrible. My daughters are so tired. We’ve spent the whole night like this. It’s a war and we can’t escape – and even if we do, my parents are still in Ukraine. But what can I do? How can I help them?’

Another man explained that he worked for a travel company running tours to Europe and that his firm had lent him three buses for evacuation to Lviv. Among his passengers was a woman with her daughter, grandchildren and two Yorkshire terrier dogs.

Stas Mukhin, a drama student, said he was unable to buy tickets to reach his parents in Dnipro, taking with him just a file of personal documents and a laptop.

He said: ‘I don’t want to die being just 20. I’m afraid lots of people will be killed. I had thought that the information about the Russian invasion was spread to scare people. But now it’s happened and I am trying to run away.’

Vitali Klitschko, the former heavyweight boxing champion who is now mayor of Kyiv, posted on social media a couple of hours later that the city was constructing ‘protective structures’ on key roads into the city so ‘entry might be complicated’.

Returning to the city centre, we stopped back at our local cafe. It had a handful of customers, including two 18-year-old students who told me they had bought the first bus ticket out of town and were waiting for it to leave.

A fellow journalist called to tell me that he had encountered a drunken group of vigilantes armed with guns – possibly an unfortunate result of a presidential order to hand weapons to civilians issued earlier that day ‘to protect the country.’

There was also a bizarre warning from the Ukrainian interior ministry telling citizens not to wear red to avoid being targeted. Soon after 3pm, sirens rang out again over the city, urging people to take shelter. Multiple explosions were heard.

There were reports that Russian helicopters had captured Antonov International Airport at Hostomel, 21 miles from the city, and that their tanks were just six miles north of Kyiv – although last night Ukraine claimed to have recaptured the Hostomel airstrip.

A couple of hours later came alarming suggestions on credible social media sources that 18 planeloads of paratroopers were heading towards Kyiv.

Yet, outside my window, things seemed sinisterly calm with a few people strolling down the street, including a man holding his young child by the hand as they passed some swings. Everyone seemed glued to their phones, however, in a nation under a savage siege.

One young man I met amid the bus station melee begged for help from the world amid the unfolding tragedy and terror confronting his nation. ‘I’m trying not to panic but it’s hard,’ he said. ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen.’

Sadly, no one does know what will happen to Kyiv and Ukraine. But as I walked along the empty streets with darkness descending, it was impossible not to feel the pain of these people suddenly plunged into horror and torment amid the terrible ferocity of war.

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