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‘We don’t want to leave’: Fear and defiance in Ukraine as country faces all-out war

Civilians given weapons and urged to make petrol bombs as Russian onslaught continues

In mere days Kyiv has gone from being a vibrant European capital determined not to be cowed by the Russian troops massing at Ukraine’s borders to a city living under curfew, the wail of air-raid sirens, the thud of missile strikes and warnings that the Kremlin’s invasion force is at the gates.

Apartment blocks on the outskirts of Kyiv were hit by shells and the wreckage of a stricken warplane on Friday, and thousands of the city’s 3 million residents are now spending hours underground in metro stations that offer shelter from any missile fire.

From president Volodymyr Zelenskiy down, Ukrainian officials have now donned military fatigues and are calling on Ukraine's 41 million people to join the army or units of highly motivated volunteer fighters that they hope could grind down Russia's powerful military machine.

"We are already handing out weapons, and will hand them out to defend our country to everyone who wants and has the capacity to defend our sovereignty. The future of Ukraine depends on every citizen," said Zelenskiy, who has announced a general mobilisation and urged his compatriots to sign up with local territorial defence units.

As Ukraine's outgunned troops put up fierce resistance to the Russians across their country, Ukrainian defence minister Olexiy Reznikov claimed "the whole nation is gradually joining the resistance. Thousands of citizens have already joined the territorial defence forces."

When Russian troops entered northern suburbs of Kyiv on Friday, the defence ministry urged local civilians: “Make Molotov cocktails, neutralise the occupier!” Guns and ammunition were distributed to territorial defence volunteers who now have to show only their passport to receive a weapon.

“We are giving weapons to all patriots who are ready without hesitation to use them against the enemy!” Reznikov announced on Twitter.

In an update on Friday, he said that “in Kyiv alone we have given out 18,000 automatic rifles and ammunition”.

Famous sons

Two of Ukraine’s most famous sporting sons, former world heavyweight boxing champions Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, have vowed to help defend the capital city where Vitali is now mayor and Wladimir recently signed up for the territorial defence force.

“I don’t have another choice, I have to do that. I’ll be fighting,” Vitali said this week. “I believe in Ukraine, I believe in my country and I believe in my people.”

Many other Ukrainians are less sure how to cope with the sudden plunge into all-out war, and wonder whether to escape to western Ukraine or the European Union, or to stay and try to ride out the worst of the fighting and whatever will follow.

Passengers arrived at Kharkiv station in eastern Ukraine for Friday's early morning train to Kyiv trailing suitcases, sleepy children, reluctant dogs and clouds of previously unimaginable fears.

The day before, according to United Nations estimates, some 100,000 Ukrainians had taken to the roads and railways to flee their homes amid Russia's invasion of their country, as the Kremlin unleashed missile strikes on targets nationwide and sent tens of thousands of soldiers, tanks, fighter jets and attack helicopters across the border.

Many at Kharkiv station – a grand communist-era building the colour of lemon curd that is still decorated with stylised scenes from Soviet history – were already flustered by last-minute packing and trouble getting across town now that most public transport and taxis have stopped working, and were worried that the 500km trip to Kyiv might not happen at all.

"We'll be leaving on time," says Jan Barmak, sitting at the controls of the engine alongside fellow driver Eduard Zorya.

“We did this route yesterday, from Kyiv, and it was alright. They say it was ‘hot’ last night around Kyiv and a jet fighter was shot down near Darnytsia,” he adds, referring to an eastern suburb of Kyiv that is the last stop on the route before the capital’s central station.

“But don’t worry, we’ll get there.”

Donetsk route

The two men have been driving trains for decades, and Zorya used to work the Donetsk-Kyiv route before the former city was seized by Moscow-led militants in 2014 and became the stronghold of one of two self-declared "people's republics" in the east of Ukraine that Russia recognised as independent states in the run up to its all-out invasion of the country.

He hails from Slovyansk, a city between Donetsk and Kharkiv that was briefly under militia control eight years ago before being retaken by Ukrainian government forces, and which is in an area that Russia now claims rightfully belongs to the breakaway region of Donetsk.

As Barmak promised the train pulled away on time, and despite being sold out according Ukraine’s national rail operator, its comfortable carriages were barely half-full.

"Lots of people who bought tickets have probably already left," explains chief conductor Maxim Onishchuk, leaning on the bar of the closed buffet beside a flag of Ukraine.

“Many left yesterday evening on overnight trains to the west, and some probably went by car or decided in the end to sit tight. I think this train is carrying the last ones who want to leave,” he says.

“The journey from Kyiv to Kharkiv yesterday [was] fine, nothing out of the ordinary, no incidents. But you can imagine the state that people are in with what’s happening in the country. They are scared, worried, uncertain. Even more so when they’re fleeing with kids.”

Breaching defences

As the train neared Kyiv, passengers began receiving calls and messages and reading social media posts about Russian troops reportedly breaching Kyiv’s defences and entering the capital.

“We were going to stay with relatives in Kyiv and see what happens, hoping that somehow everything would calm down,” says Iryna, a teacher from Kharkiv.

“But now, we just don’t know. How will it be if the Russians take over, how will they treat people?” she wonders, while debating a potential change of plans with her husband.

"He has family near Lviv, so perhaps we'll try to go straight there. Some of our friends left for Poland yesterday. We don't want to leave Ukraine, but we just don't know what will happen – until a few days ago, who would have imagined Russian soldiers in Kyiv?"

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