How do you know? Hiding in an underground car park in Kyiv
The world was talking about Ukraine in the days after the Russian invasion but for this Ukrainian writer, in an underground car park in Kyiv, information is a scarce and precious resource
Olena Kozar lives in Kyiv. When Russia’s invasion started on 24 February, she and her family spent about three weeks hiding in an underground car park. They would go there every time the air sirens went off, sometimes staying for hours.
The following story ("How do you know?") is about the first feverish days after the invasion, which Olena largely spent underground, trying to figure out what was going on and what was coming next. It was written in Kyiv, where Olena remains. You can read it in Ukrainian here.
How do you know?
“Let’s play a word game, shall we? I’ll start. War. You’ve got ‘R’.”
Every spoken word comes with a tiny cloud of vapour. The cold in the underground car park where we are sitting, wrapped in winter parkas and blankets, gets into your bones. The place smells of wet concrete and tyres. The wind whistles round the corners. Somewhere, a dog is barking. It echoes off the thick walls, waking up the other dogs in the car park.
This is our bomb shelter. An underground maze on three levels. I have come down here many times, but I still don't know where all the entrances and exits are. For a while, I used a white car as my landmark, but then its owner decided to leave Kyiv as the Russian troops were right outside the city. The same thing happened to the red car – my next landmark. The car park is emptying out and I find myself at a crossroads more and more often, unsure which way to go.
A mere week ago I wouldn’t have thought I’d be hiding in a bomb shelter. That’s though everything pointed to the contrary. In the autumn of 2021, Russia had begun massing troops along its border with Ukraine. The media had begun talking about a new invasion, bloodier than the previous one. I didn’t believe a major war would start, but I did wait to see what would happen. We all waited. But we clung to the hope – or doubt? – until the very last moment, that war would not break out. We went on living our usual lives, making dinners and planning trips, even as each day began and ended with alarming new forecasts.
“War came to us as soon as we began to wait for it to start,” wrote Slavenka Drakulić about the run-up to Croatia’s 1991 independence war. The waiting was unbearable. Every day, reporters and various experts “revealed” yet another Kremlin plan. Every week, there was a new date for the Russian assault. “How could they possibly know that?” we asked each other, even as we glanced at the calendar.
In February, Kyiv's streets filled with rumours and new signs advertising bomb shelters. The city administration urged us all to find the closest shelter. We pretended not to care but studied maps anyway. One night, sitting in my warm, well-lit kitchen, I learnt that the closest bomb shelters were a basement, an underpass and the underground car park. Of the three, the car park seemed the safest. Its concrete walls and the many levels deep underground would protect me from bombs. The thought made me shiver, as if I were already in a frozen dungeon. There were no bombs yet, but in my mind, I was already sheltering from them.
On the morning of 24 February, the imagined became real. I heard the first wails of the sirens, the first dull thumps that crept closer and closer. The new war had begun, the one I had not believed would start but for which I had waited. Once we had recovered from the initial shock, we went down to the car park and sat in the freezing cold, utterly lost.
I remember how eerie the first hours felt in the bomb shelter. Car parks are built for people to park their cars and go about their business. No one in their right mind would stay in a car park all day long, not to mention the night. Unrolling a duvet on the cold cement would mean admitting that war had reached Kyiv. But eventually, exhaustion won. I brought down a sleeping bag. My neighbours did the same.
Now, you wouldn't recognise the car park. Where once there were rows of cars, there are islands of mattresses, blankets and pillows. People wrap themselves in three layers of clothing and watch the news. Someone is eating a sandwich; someone else is listening to the explosions. Everyone desperately wants to know what is happening and what will happen. A neighbour arrives and she seems cheerful, even elated (although she will leave the city in the next few days, just as cheerfully, because her “nerves can't take it anymore”).
She holds up a bottle. “Would you like some? Cherry liqueur.”
We nod awkwardly. She pulls out plastic glasses, pours us drinks, smiles and goes on her way round the car park. She knows everyone here. We return to our word game. We've been playing it for half-an-hour to distract ourselves, but our minds won't let go of what’s happening above ground.
It's my turn. I need a word that starts with a 'd' but I'm stuck on the air raid. The silence stretches; no one is eager to continue the game. Eventually, we all pull out our phones. To go 30 minutes without checking the news is a lot.
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Messages flicker on my phone screen. Everyone I know has read the same news and is rushing to tell me how bad things are. I go from numb to angry
“Remain in the bomb shelters. Today they will hit Kyiv with everything they have.” That's the news this morning. The news itself is a strange mix now. There are photos and messages on Telegram, information campaigns, online attacks that we are not yet used to. Someone knows someone in the military. Someone has said something. Someone has seen a tweet by a senior government official. Kyiv will be erased from the face of the earth, that is certain. How can they possibly know, I wonder. But sickening doubt clouds my tired mind. What if it's true? I feel a cold weight settle in the pit of my stomach; my feet go numb. The chilly car park has nothing to do with it. The cold dread is inside me. They will be bombing Kyiv today, just wait.
Messages flicker on my phone screen. Everyone I know has read the same news and is rushing to tell me how bad things are. I go from numb to angry. Do they think I haven't read the same news? I tell myself, “They are just worried about you.” . But every message makes the threat more real.
“They say Kyiv will be bombed today,” writes a friend, yet another to convey the fateful prediction.
“How do you know?” I ask, desperate.
These first feverish days of the invasion overflow with information. We read everything we can get, we question everything, then we read some more. You would think the more information the greater the chance of finding the truth. In fact, more information just means more rumours, more fears, more hopes and more misleading theories. All of it becomes like a giant word game. What's the first letter of the truth? What's the last letter of lies? What awaits us all when this game ends?
The news comes in: “We have learned from reliable sources of a possible missile attack tonight.” I remind myself to breathe. Breathe in, breathe out. There has been news like this before and nothing happened. Breathe in, breathe out. If the sources are so reliable, why don't they say who they are? Breathe in, breathe out. I no longer know if I’m looking for the truth or for consolation. What I want, as I sit in the icy labyrinthine car park, is for someone to take me by the hand and lead me towards something solid, something that cannot be doubted. I want someone to say, “Everything is going to be OK, I'm certain of it”. I wouldn't ask how they know.
This is how people start buying into all that rubbish on TV, isn't it? The announcer's confident voice cuts through the unсertainty and helps you make sense of life as we now live it. Someone says it wasn’t us who started the war. Someone says we’re defending our people. The whole world is against us, but you and I – on either side of the TV screen – we know what's really going on. Have no doubt, the truth is on our side. God is on our side. And before you know it, you find yourself inside your very own hermetically sealed car park, bounded by thick walls of lies. The illusion of knowledge sets like cement in your mind and it gets harder and harder to step out into the uncertainty of the unknown.
“Everyone says Kyiv will be bombed today. How are you? Have you heard anything?” people I know, who have left the city, ask me.
I’ve heard a dog bark in the car park, I think. That's about it. We are in the eye of the storm. Everyone, from China to the United States, is talking about Ukraine. The irony is that we, the protagonists of the story, have no idea what is happening and we crave that knowledge as if it can save us. Our underground car park might as well be under water, the waves crashing around us; with no one able to tell if they're bearing us to the jagged rocks or to safe harbour. If only someone all-knowing would come round the corner and tell us what is really going on! But what if our habit of doubt is so strong we do not believe him? What if we gave him a strange look and asked: How do you know?
Neighbours rush past us, dragging suitcases. Material goods no longer matter, that's what everyone says, but their suitcases are filled to bursting. I too have an over-full suitcase, just like that, upstairs.
“Are you staying?” they ask. There is fear in their faces. They too have read the news. Kyiv is getting bombed today...
“Yes,” we nod. “For the time being.”
“Good luck,” they say with a nervous laugh and hurry on. Faster, faster, heading west. Perhaps they have family there that will take them in. Perhaps they will drive to the first gas station, stop for a coffee and a cold hotdog, look at each other and ask, “now what?” In these days marked by constant fear, the destination does not matter, only the direction of movement. West, west, away from the war.
We listen in silence as the sound of suitcase wheels fades. Is that the growl of jet bombers above our heads? Hope starts to leak away. What if the neighbours who just left knew something? What if we are wasting the little time we still have to escape? Every hurried departure, every sound of suitcase wheels seems to bring the enemy army closer. The closer the Russian troops to the city, the faster life pours out of it. I want to run after them, stop them and ask, “Why are you leaving? How do you know it's time?” Then again, perhaps I just want to plead with them. “Please stay!”
War came to us as soon as we began to wait for it to start
“I'm going for a walk,” I say. My muscles are numb from the long, tense period of sitting. My skin itches under my two sweaters. I know it is not safe to go out into the street, but I can't stand the stale air of the car park any more. I go to the exit, inhale the cold February air. Kyiv has never been so dark and quiet. Not a window is lit, not a bus rumbles by. The city is cowed, waiting for the big hit.
“How are you?” messages a friend. She is perhaps the only one of our circle still in the city. Every time I talk to her I dread her saying that she too has decided to leave.
“I'm hanging in there,” I write back to her. “How are you?”
“I'm in Kyiv,” she answers the question I didn't dare ask. “Are you here too?”
“Where else! We'll go have coffee one of these days,” I try to joke, practically weeping with relief. My silent wounded city has not emptied out completely. There are still people behind those darkened windows, listening to the news, doubting everything, still believing we will prevail.
I go back into the shelter, wrap myself in a blanket, pick up my phone again. I should save battery life but I keep reading. The two men on the bench next to me are talking softly. Instinctively, I listen. What do they know? And how? I no longer ask myself if it's true. I only ask whether I can endure this. Today Kyiv will be bombed... Today Kyiv will be surrounded... Today is still here, but there will be no tomorrow... How many more of these scenarios can I take? Would I be able to remain calm, to wait and see whether this new prediction comes true or turns out to be another lie?
We are taught to think critically. To make informed decisions. In the chaos of the invasion's first days, I started to question whether that was even possible. We are lost, frightened. We don't know anything. Sometimes I think that I can only trust my ears, but they don't always hear the truth either. They hear explosions. “A hit,” we tell each other in low voices. “A hit,” echo the news channels. Who was it? Us? Them? What was it? Did we shoot it down? Or did it hit the target? The only sound I can trust is the beating of my heart. Perhaps it is enough for now.
“Should we go on playing? What was the last letter? 'D'?” I bite my tongue before I say “despair”.
I say: “deer. Ok. You've got 'r' again.”
Ukraine Lab is run by the Ukrainian Institute London in partnership with PEN Ukraine and Ukrainian Institute. It is supported by the British Council as part of the UK/UA Season of Culture 2022. Ukraine Lab pieces that tackle environmental challenges appeared in The Ecologist, while those focussing on the war were published in MIR Online. Ukraine Lab is curated by Sasha Dovzhyk.
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