“We Must Keep Going”: An Eyewitness Report from Kyiv

We at the Jordan Center stand with all the people of Ukraine, Russia, and the rest of the world who oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine. See our statement here.

Above: A view of Khreshchatyk from 2008. Source

A version of this piece has previously appeared here.

Helen Chervits is a fashion marketing and branding expert who was born in Ukraine. After immigrating to the United States in the 1980s to escape anti-Semitism at home, she joined her husband in Kyiv, where he worked as a venture capitalist who invested in Ukrainian start-ups. Their stay was supposed to last for a year, but due to the Ukrainian revolution and ensuing economic collapse, the couple ended up staying and now live in Kyiv full-time.

I live right in the center of Kyiv — around the corner from Khreshchatyk, the equivalent of Times Square in New York City. Just two weeks ago, it was a lively place. Crowds filled the street: locals and tourists from other parts of Ukraine, visitors from around the world. We used to complain about the street performers that we could hear late into the evening hours, because they were too loud. How I miss them now! In just two weeks — two short weeks, that now feel like two decades — Kyiv has become nearly unrecognizable. It’s no longer lively, yet it is still very much alive.

Kyiv is a beautiful European city with centuries of rich history, picturesque parks, and a thriving art scene. Just two weeks ago, you could take your pick of dozens of operas, concerts, museums, Dnipro River tours, and art exhibitions. You could attend fashion lectures that fashion experts (including myself) were giving at local universities, among a wealth of educational programming open to the public. The restaurant industry was booming. New places opened every month, with amazing interiors, creative and delicious menus, and outstanding service. Of course, we had our favorites, where we were friendly with the owners and waitstaff. It was great to mingle with people, meet old friends and make new ones. Where are they now?

While many have escaped the city, many locals are staying. Without its people, the city would not be breathing and would not be alive. However scary it is to remain, there are many Kyivites who are here to stand against Putin’s attempts to terrorize people.

Through restaurant windows, we see chefs cooking meals for those in need and delivery workers on their bicycles. We venture out when we can to stand in line at the few stores that are still open, though the shelves are nearly empty. When we run into others in the mostly empty streets, we don’t talk to each other about horrors; instead, we try to support each other and keep each other’s spirits up with occasional jokes. It reminds me of how people interacted in New York after September 11.

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A friend of mine went to a bomb shelter with her dog, but came back with two because its owner had had a stroke. We have been helping elderly neighbors in our apartment building obtain the food and medication they need because they are afraid to leave their homes. A few days ago a few old women stood in the line at the pharmacy. It was freezing cold and they were obviously in a frail state. The other customers not only let them go to the front of the line, but also happily paid for the women’s medications. They even argued with each other over the opportunity to do so.

Laying aside our galloping fears, my husband and I have decided to stay in Kyiv. By being in the midst of the disaster, we can better identify the needs of the families around us and try to be as helpful as we can. The people of Kyiv are our inspiration and the main reason we stayed. We now feel we are on a kind of mission. Sometimes I think about younger Ukrainians who escaped from Kyiv to western parts of Ukraine – those in their 30s, with no children to care for – and I wonder, why didn’t they stay? I understand their decision, but I also sometimes feel that they abandoned their city and their people in a time of need.

Rather than focus too much on that question, I spend my time volunteering and translating petitions. I also continue giving online English lessons to my teenage students over Zoom while they sit in bomb shelters. This activity at least provides some distraction for the kids and offers peace of mind to their parents. My heart bleeds for these youngsters, who have not gotten a chance to experience their youth — no dating, no proms, no schooling — first due to COVID-19, and now the war. It’s so sad and painful to watch.

A friend in a nearby village tried to get his daughter, who was about to give birth, out of Irpin, which was under heavy bombardment. My friend owns a car, but that wasn’t so helpful because he had no gas and all the gas stations are shut down. But neighbors chipped in with whatever they had in their tanks, pumping the gas out of their cars. With their help, he managed to get his daughter to relative safety, where she gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Hundreds of babies have been born in Kyiv during the war, some of them right in the bomb shelters.

It’s heartbreaking and impossible to comprehend what’s happening in Ukraine. The situation in Mariupol, for instance, is unfathomably atrocious: a starving population cut off completely from food or clean water, dehydrated children, shelling, and mass graves. On 9 March, the Russians even bombed a maternity hospital full of babies, mothers-to-be, and doctors. I fear and dread that the same fate awaits Ukraine’s other beautiful cities.

So much has already been done by Ukrainian allies around the world for this great independent country and its incredible people. The gratitude is enormous. Yet more is needed. It’s urgent and critical that Ukraine becomes a NO FLY zone. This alone will save civilians’ lives. The MIG29 planes that Ukraine requested, and that Poland has in its possession, should finally be provided and not just discussed and tossed between Polish and US politicians. Time is life!

It makes sense that politicians around the world are afraid of Putin. But Ukrainians are living in immediate fear for their lives right now. And we understand firsthand that Putin will not stop with Ukraine if the world permits it. The citizens of many more countries will be in immediate danger and this disaster will continue. Putin must be stopped by any means necessary.

Please, do not be silent. You can join social media groups and in-person gatherings in support of Ukrainian people. You can contact your government representatives to urge them to #CloseTheSky over Ukraine. Trust me, I know how tiring it can be to constantly think and talk about war. But over 40 million Ukrainians need your help. Russian authorities are blocking information about the war from reaching Russia’s own population, but the rest of the world can and should see their crimes.

We strongly believe that where there are people, there is always the hope — and it’s not a small hope — for peace and for love. And as long as we have the wherewithal and means to help, we must keep going.