Nicolas Tonev (special envoy to kyiv), edited by Mélanie Faure
8:03 a.m., March 28, 2022modified to
12:58 p.m., March 28, 2022
The war continues in Ukraine, the Russian offensive on the country will soon be six weeks old. The eastern and southern regions of the country are the most affected by the massive bombardments as well as the northern and north-western front of kyiv. In the northwest of the capital, residents of a neighborhood hit by Russian bombs have taken refuge in a fallout shelter from the 1980s built under a hospital. Our reporter, Nicolas Tonev, went to meet them.
“If you are looking for the big shelter, go around the building, it’s behind, there are people inside”
Negative situational sequences sometimes do things well. First we face a refusal from the hospital, no access, no interview. A disillusioned first exit from the scene but the sound of gunfire brutally arouses attention. The explosions bounce from building to building.
A man emerges from the building which contains the boiler of the hospital of kyiv. He speaks his words: “If you’re looking for the big shelter, go around the building, it’s behind it, there are people inside.” We weren’t looking for shelter, but the chain has just gone over to the right side. A species of tiled mushroom stands on a field covered in yellowed grass and it says in spray paint on it, “air raid shelter”. No door, just two chairs at the top of the stairs. There is therefore a regular presence here.
The concrete serpent descends again and again underground, the leprous walls peel off, they are neither white nor blue. The temperature drops, then comes a thick door as armored as it is rusty. It already looks like the end of the expedition. It was well worth making every effort. Nothing and nobody seems to be there. We keep quiet and listen. And there, very weakly and indistinctly, voices filter through the 500 kilos of steel.
We strike a few timid blows on the inert mass before striking in earnest. “Who is there?” asks Sergei, a Ukrainian member of our team. The man inside responds, “Are you on the safe side?” Sergei replies: “Yes, we are good guys, arrived by chance.”
This is the comprehensible translation for us, laymen, of the questioning of man. In fact, it uses a code that only Ukrainians understand, the term “palyanitsa”, a kind of Ukrainian bread. A word that Russians are unable to pronounce correctly. Whoever answers it well is therefore necessarily a friend, thank you dear Sergei. Thanks to you and your perfect “palyanitsa”, the adventure can continue.
Fifty people sleep every night
Inside, we meet Alexei. He has been living in the fallout shelter since February 24, when the war began. He tells us that here live children and families. The man is finishing a coffee table. It will be a change from the old empty wooden boxes from the Cold War era that serve as a support for daily life activities. Here, everything is cold war, an atmosphere heralding that of today.
The children gallop, run after each other, laughing and shouting as everywhere, but innocence lets off steam in a vast gray living room, concrete, with walls covered with recommendations to follow in the event of a nuclear attack: the explanatory diagrams adorn the walls, the shock wave of the bombs, from what distance from the epicenter to reorganize, how to best use the resources of the fallout shelter.
This literature dominates beds, tables and a kitchen. Here, up to 50 people sleep at night. In two small adjoining rooms, we discover reserves of equipment from the time, gas masks and small individual pharmacies against radiation. No wave pierces the gangue of concrete: there is therefore neither telephone nor internet. This atmosphere is the cost of security, but it is welcome.
A woman recounts the daily life to our microphone: “Here, nothing falls on our heads. (…) Look at the city. They are shooting, there are a lot of destroyed houses.
And when the bombings ring out, this is where the doctors take refuge, says Alexei. “There are reserves, food, the doctors come there when it shoots or bombs.”
The omnipresence of war
It is over time, alert after alert, buildings destroyed after buildings destroyed, deflagrations after explosions, that this need is understandable: whatever the atmosphere of the place, its appearance, the desire for safe days and nights dominates any other concerns.
However, the shelter constantly refers to war. Access to the back of the main room leads to the doctors, the hospital above, making Alexei and the refugees in the fallout shelter the closest witnesses to the horror at the front. “In fact, it is an underground city, which occupies the entire surface under the territory of the hospital”, he explains to us.
The “200 loads” area
He takes us through endless corridors – rooms closed off or open to the right and left, technical rooms, at the bottom the elevators, including the one reserved for “loads 200”, in Soviet military jargon this means coffins.
And precisely, the “200 loads” have been marching since the beginning of the war. The mood changes. Here, the supply of funeral wreaths is at its lowest, as families file outside for burials. A little further, in the hallway leading to the morgue, there are two abandoned stretchers, the door is locked, but the smell of death still diffuses discreetly, but heavily between the doors. The place is said to be full of civilian and military corpses, but morgue and death are secrets in times of war.
“Over there, it’s the morgue, the refrigerators with the bodies, but it’s still a little early for us,” says Alexei subtly. “Are there many dead?” I ask him. “They bring it. It’s war, it’s not possible that on one side there are dead and not on the other.”
Are there many civilian casualties? “Yes, a lot,” answers Alexei. “Yesterday they brought in two civilians who had lost their legs.” Neighboring the morgue, the two reserves of coffins also bear witness to this: they are almost empty.
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