As War Begins in Kyiv, a Ukrainian Family Hunkers Down


On the day that Russia launched a new invasion of Ukraine, I reached Lena Samoilenko, a cultural activist and freelance journalist who works in Kyiv, in the early evening. “We are just barricading ourselves in,” she said. “I’m happy to take a break to talk.”

Samoilenko, who is thirty-six, grew up in Antratsyt, a small city in eastern Ukraine that has been occupied by Russia for the last eight years. In the years immediately following the first Russian invasion, Samoilenko helped organize relief efforts in the east, and, as a journalist, covered the occupation of Crimea. She now lives in a suburb just east of Kyiv, with her husband, the poet Anton Polunin, their two children, aged five and six, and Samoilenko’s parents. While we talked, Samoilenko’s father walked in, worried that Polunin had left the house—he thought that the newly announced curfew kicked in at 5 P.M. (In fact, it would begin at ten o’clock.) Samoilenko interrupted our conversation a couple of times to tell her five-year-old, Marta, to step away from the window. “I can’t get the kids used to that,” she said.

A month before our conversation, Samoilenko and I had met in Kyiv to talk about the ways in which people were preparing for war. She told me that she had refreshed her first-aid skills and made arrangements with friends who might come and stay at the house. But she also said that war, as she and her loved ones had experienced it in the east, was impossible to prepare for. We spoke in Russian; our conversation has been translated and condensed.

“On Wednesday, we packed medicine kits with tourniquets, gauze, and elastic bandages, all the things I know how to use. We watched ‘Brassic’—it’s a fun British show that puts us in a good mood—and then put the kids to bed. The kids took a long time to fall asleep, so we read to them for more than an hour. We are reading ‘Comet in Moominland,’ which has suited the last few weeks well. There is stuff like, ‘Let’s go dancing—the comet isn’t coming until Sunday, so we have plenty of time to dance.’ I made a list of all the contact information for my friends, and we made arrangements for keeping in touch, if there is no Internet or cell service, via Bluetooth-based messenger apps. But we didn’t have a sense that it was about to start. We went to sleep in a calm mood. My husband was planning to go to work in the morning. The kids went down after one in the morning. I turned in a project and went to bed around three.

“We all slept through the first explosions. My oldest daughter, Dasha, woke me up—she lives in the city. She called at five-thirty, in a panic. She said that there had been an explosion somewhere near her, and she was saying, ‘Let’s get out of here.’ Anton said, ‘Why can’t they attack at noon? Why does it always have to be five in the morning?’ I calmed Dasha down. I told her that I love her very much, that if need be we will come and pick her up in the city. I told her that the sounds, which I could now hear, too, didn’t sound like explosions on the ground. I was in the Donbass during the war there, and I know that when a building explodes it sounds different—it’s a larger and more frightening sound. What we were hearing were probably ground-to-air missiles hitting something in the air. So I told Dasha that at least our anti-aircraft systems are working.

“I reminded her that she was not alone—her fiancé is with her—that they have their go bags, and that they can go down into the metro. They had planned to go to a village in central Ukraine, west of here, to stay with her fiancé’s distant relatives. They thought that they had a ride, and they went to the pick-up spot, but somehow it had fallen through. They ended up spending almost half the day in the metro, rolling their suitcases back and forth. Now they are with their friends in Kyiv. Dasha lives in a taller apartment building, on one of the upper floors, and she is scared to spend the night there, so they went to stay with their friends who live on the ground floor, near a metro station. When they hear an air-raid siren, they run down to the metro. The rest of the time they are in their friends’ apartment, hanging out, or perhaps fortifying it, as we’ve been fortifying our place.

“After her phone call woke us up, we discussed whether we should get the kids up and take them down to the cellar. We decided not to wake them yet. So I started by getting all our documents in one place—passports and my displaced-person papers. We started packing warm clothes and preparing the cellar. We have a large enough and well-reinforced cellar. We swept it, brought down some mattresses and warm clothes. We set it up for basement living in case there is actual bombing here. Then I texted all our close contacts in Kyiv, to reconfirm that they can come to our place. Anton cooked an incredible breakfast for everyone. It was heavenly: couscous, red beans, and gorgonzola. Around eight, after the kids had woken up, we sat down to eat. It felt calmer by then.

“I went down to the first floor, where my parents live, and brought them medicine. My mother has a broken arm, so she is on meds. She recently had COVID. I made sure that they both took their heart medicine, because they were sitting in front of the TV and watching TV makes people even more anxious than reading Telegram, as we do. I asked them to get their things together in case we have to leave the area. Mom said that she is not going anywhere because she doesn’t feel well enough. That foreclosed the possibility of leaving for me, too. I’m not going to leave them here alone.

“Once we knew that we were all staying, we started playing games and fortifying the house. We played hide-and-seek. As we ran around the house, we taught the kids how to fall while opening their mouths—that helps protect your lungs during an explosion. I told them that Russia had attacked us—I couldn’t hide that—but we did it in a way that wasn’t scary. Anton and I have funny ways of falling, so it was all a game. I said, ‘Let’s learn how to do this in case you hear a loud sound, or in case I tell you it’s necessary to get down.’ This comes from my experience of the first occupation. When I went to the Donbass regularly, it would often happen that you were riding a bus and there was artillery fire, and then you’d have to get out and get down.

“We played doctor, too. Along the way, I was reviewing instructional videos on how to stop bleeding. The kids learned how to call emergency numbers or their grandparents, how to unlock my phone and their dad’s phone. And we just let off steam by running and jumping around.

“We live only about a kilometre and a half from a military training camp. The first strikes—the ones that came around five in the morning—seemed to target military installations. So it was pretty loud here all morning, up until about one in the afternoon. There were several explosions an hour, and that’s just what we could hear here, on our side of the city, in the woods. The loudest explosions came at 12:01 P.M. The news later said that there were cruise missiles. These are large, dull, very loud sounds. It sounds like it’s all around you. I understand that there were six people killed and twelve wounded here, near us, as a result of those strikes. Then there was a small explosion of some sort, and since then it’s been quiet.

“The kids’ room has a good load-bearing interior wall, and their bed is right next to it. We figure they’ll sleep there tonight. So in that room we have been putting books in the windows, to fill the entire opening. Fortunately, we have a lot of books, including ones we published ourselves, so we have the remainders or press runs. This is in case there is artillery fire. Books will stop shards from flying, and they also dull the sound. Plus, it kept the kids occupied: they spent two hours lugging books. People recommend using sandbags to block the windows, but we didn’t have any sandbags.

“I realized that I totally forgot something in my preparations, and now I regret it: we don’t have a fire extinguisher in the house. We have a hose in the basement, so if there is a fire down there we can put it out. And we have buckets of water. But if there is a real fire we’ll have to ask the neighbors for shelter.

“Because some of the early strikes were near here, our friends are a bit afraid to come. Also, taxis were charging upward of two thousand hryvnia [about sixty-seven dollars] this morning, so people couldn’t afford to come. There are still trains leaving the city, so many people are probably going to try to leave. But for those who decide to stay, our house is still open to all.”



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