Kyiv was released from a 39-hour curfew on Monday, and some of its three million residents quickly rushed out into the sunshine of a crisp early spring morning in Ukraine.
Many needed to buy essentials or see how relatives were faring on day five of Russia’s all-out invasion, and all seemed glad to get some fresh air and stretch their legs after being confined to flats and bomb shelters due to fears of shelling and gun battles.
Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko had warned on Saturday that people on the streets after 5pm would be regarded as Russian saboteurs, and the defence ministry said troops would shoot to kill anyone trying to cross bridges over the Dnieper river towards the city centre.
Olena Hanich spent the curfew in the office of an LGBT+ rights group where she works in central Kyiv, because it felt safer than her flat in the suburbs, she could be with friends, and there was space there for her dog Ace and two cats.
“Where I live the explosions were very loud, they made Ace bark all the time, and the basements of our old buildings don’t make very good bomb shelters. There were maybe 100 people in each shelter, including lots of children, so we couldn’t take pets down there,” she says.
“I couldn’t leave them behind, so the office was ideal. There’s even a small yard for Ace. It also meant several of us could be together and support each other, and we managed to get enough supplies. It’s scary to be alone in the flat at a time like this, just communicating with people on social media,” she explains.
“The office building has thick walls so we felt safe there and didn’t have to go down into the metro,” Hanich adds, at time when many thousands of people in Kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, are spending long hours underground in station passageways.
Air-raid sirens wailed several times over Kyiv in the hours after curfew was lifted, but no one ran for cover in the nearly deserted streets and parks.
Most of the booms of missile and artillery strikes are rolling in from the outskirts of Kyiv, where Ukrainian troops and volunteers of the rapidly growing territorial defence force managed to halt Russia’s invasion force about 30km from the city centre.
It is not clear how long the defenders of Kyiv and Ukraine’s other main cities can hold out against the heft of Russia’s army, air force and navy, which are being supported by the military of Kremlin ally Belarus, which is just 140km north of the Ukrainian capital.
Kyiv also fears that before Russia declared war last week it sent operatives into Ukraine with orders to wreak bloody havoc in major cities and to catch or kill its president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and other prominent figures.
Hastily erected concrete barriers now force drivers to slow down and slalom past the security service headquarters in the historic heart of Kyiv, and heavy pavement planters, some still holding trees, are strewn across a nearby street as obstacles to traffic.
There are now many more guns on the streets, in the hands of soldiers and security service personnel but also wielded by civilian volunteers, and sandbags block doors and windows of the Kyiv city council on the Kyiv’s central avenue.
Few shops opened on Monday due to a lack of stock and staff, increasing the likelihood that people could run short of key supplies in the coming days.
At the same time, Hanich and others say Ukrainians are banding together like never before to help each other.
“I think this feeling of unity, solidarity and support is everywhere in Ukraine now,” she says.
“Everyone is trying to keep in touch with friends and relatives, and even with people they may only have met once or twice, to check they have everything they need. I know my neighbours are checking on my flat and taking care of elderly people and children.”
Analysts say Russia’s armed forces are having a tougher time in Ukraine than the country’s president, Vladimir Putin, would have expected when he announced his “special military operation” in the early hours of last Thursday.
Moscow’s apparent bid to replace Ukraine’s pro-western leaders will be made harder if Nato states can make good on pledges to send more weapons to Kyiv, a factor that could make Russian forces use more brutal and indiscriminate methods in a race for victory.
“Putin miscalculated,” says Oleh Bespalov, a former military officer and parliamentary deputy, as he takes a break from Nordic walking around a Kyiv park.
“He had a plan to cause panic and send in sabotage groups, but did not take into account that the whole world is now connected on social media. Now there is so much support for Ukraine that Putin’s plan could never work,” he argues.
“He also completely misunderstood Ukrainians. He thought of them as weak and foolish. He forgot how many people given the Hero of the Soviet Union award were Ukrainian,” adds Bespalov (73).
He also believes, like many people, that Putin seriously underestimated Zelenskiy, a television comic before he entered politics just three years ago, who now seems to grow in stature every time he addresses his nation and with every day that Ukraine holds out.
“I’m not surprised he didn’t take the American offer of evacuation,” says Bespalov, referring to a report – now already part of Ukraine’s wartime lore – that when the US asked him if he wanted to be rescued, Zelenskiy replied: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
“I always supported him and didn’t like how the opposition disrespected him,” Bespalov says of Zelenskiy (44), who is from a Russian-speaking Jewish family yet is accused by Putin of presiding over a far-right regime that subjects ethnic Russians to “genocide”.
“I know a bit about his story, and he is from the [southeastern] Dnipropetrovsk region, like me. He’s a guy with backbone,” he adds.
Before striding off through the park towards a sweeping view over the Dnieper river, Bespalov says Ukrainians are determined not to be cowed by curfews or Russian aggression.
“Life goes on. And if the war goes on, we will all fight,” he says.
“And God forbid we let Putin go any further. We must stop him now.”