Eighteen months after the start of Russian President Vladimir Putin's 'Special Operation', in this guest post, Briton Alan Sutton describes daily life as civilians shrug off the constant threat of missile strikes.
Image: A screen shot of the Dnipro City Council website
Although I have been back in Ukraine since early May, I have been working for a UK company on a remote basis, and so, ensconced for much of the time in my study, have not got out as much as would normally be the case, but having been asked by Kester for some observations on every day life, here they are.
The fact that I am able to work from home despite being in a war zone is at least one indicator of a level of normality. The internet works, the connections work, although there were power cuts over the winter, the electricity works subject to occasional power cuts, the bank systems, ATMs and on-line transfers all work. Finally the gas supply works – though it is summer so there is less demand. We are stocking up gas bottles for the winter, nevertheless.
Map of Ukraine. Dnipro is 460 km (290 m) south-east of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, about 260 km (160 m) from the eastern front (Donetsk, Bakhmut) and 140 km (90 m) from the southern one (Vassilivka, Zaporizhzhye oblast)
Normality is also the appearance on the surface if you make a trip into the city. The streets on a Saturday night are full of youngsters chatting away in cafes and at pop-up pavement bars as if there was no war on. The supermarkets are open and well supplied. There is no rationing. At the Lutheran church, where I play the organ, the pastor has managed more than once to preach for 45 minutes without even mentioning the war.
But beneath the surface, things are less normal.
First and most obvious are the air raid sirens. There is the actual siren which you can hear in the city and then there is the siren app on the phone, which helpfully makes the same wailing noise. These go off every time the authorities are aware of something being launched against the country, usually from the Black or Caspian Seas. Then, when they find that the missiles are not coming to us, we get a follow up “ping” on the app with a message “air raid is canceled” (sic). Consequently the sirens go off at all hours of the day and night, typically between 6 and 8 times a day, and few people pay any attention to them. During a recent concert given by a friend from Kyiv at the Organ hall, off went the siren just before a piece:
“Trevoga ?“ (Siren?) - asked the organist
“Pratsuim”(We carry on working) – replied the director
I noticed however that the main Post Office and some – but not all - of the supermarkets close when the siren goes off. My son, Julian, tells me that McDonalds (which has recently reopened) closes inside but allows customers to continue eating outside.
We have perhaps been lucky in Dnipro (until 2016, officially named Dnipropetrovsk) in that we have not experienced the carnage of the areas now under Russian control, nor the relentless bombing night after night such as they have had in Kyiv, Odessa, Kharkiv, and, closer to us in our oblast, Nikopol. We have very good anti-missile defence systems. Most things coming our way get shot down, and there is perhaps more danger is being hit by falling debris than being hit by a missile.
Having said that, we have had at least three nights with heavy air raids – although I famously managed to sleep right through one of them. What wakes you up is the deep “boom” of the air defence systems. This is a noise you could mistake for thunder in the distance. Then, almost as with lightning, you count and wait for the crash as the missile is hit – and hope you are not underneath it. Last summer there was one such just a few hundred yards from my house: an almighty crash with black smoke visible in the air for some time afterwards, and lumps of hot, heavy metal in the roads outside.
This is what they have had in Kyiv nearly every night. One friend, who is a teacher, and lives in the centre, in an area which has been hit, told me that her whole routine has changed. She arrives at home at 5.30 pm and goes straight to bed. The attacks invariably start at 2 a.m. at which point she moves with her mother to an indoor corridor, thus obeying the “two walls” rule we are enjoined to follow.
I spent the worst night we had likewise, sitting on the landing drinking stiff G&Ts while Julian leant out of the window filming the whole thing on his phone. When he asked me why I was sitting there and I reminded him of the 'two walls' rule, he said “well if a bomb hits the house it won’t matter where you are sitting”.
“Yes, but what if one lands nearby and there is glass flying everywhere?”
“We’ve taped up the windows and there are blinds and curtains”. No arguing with the youth of today – I went back to bed.
As for the missiles, there are the cruise missiles, the Calibers and so on, which you barely see, and then there are the Shaheeds, the Iranian made drones which make a noise something like a moped and fly in erratic movements across the sky. I have a neighbour who is terrified of these things.
A bigger worry for us is if the Russians engineer an incident at the nuclear power station at Energodar. This is about 80 miles distant, and we will surely be affected. One likes to think they would not be so stupid, but, as we have already seen with the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam, there is no legislating for stupidity, especially where these people are concerned. While the destruction of the dam did not affect us – we are upriver from it – the effect on the towns of the lower Dnipro has been devastating. Lost irrigation systems, communities flooded, a lost water supply to North Crimea, and tonnes and tonnes of dead fish.
Just about everyone keeps an emergency case packed in case one has to leave at zero notice. Spare clothes, fresh water, documents such as those for the house. We also have gas masks with radiation filters, though they only last for a few hours.
Photo: Alan Sutton in more peaceful times - and in the west Ukrainian city of Lviv.
The other main change to remark on – so many people have left home. I have a flat up in the town and have been in the habit of sleeping there on Saturday nights to avoid an early start on Sundays for the trip to church. Every time I go, I rummage through a cardboard box at the bottom of the staircase where all the bills are left. Judging from the quantity there, I would say that 15 of the 20 flats in the staircase are empty. So the utility companies will be having huge collection problems.
The butcher I see regularly at the market said the same. He is a small Armenian man with swarthy features and massive eyebrows. Like Hungarians, Ukrainians generally don’t eat lamb and his is some of the best. In his block, a lot of people have gone “And how do you live?” I asked him “From day to day” he said, as he sold me a side of lamb chops plus the bit at the end for 400 hryvnia: pre war about 200 hryvnia, but at £9 for the side, still a very good price.
Looking round the market, milk products and meat were still in good supply, if more expensive, but nearly all the fruit and vegetable stalls have gone. Why? Well these were supplied from the areas now under Russian control, none more noticeable than the Kherson water melons, which are no more.
Back at the church, one member from the congregation, a seamstress with a teenage daughter, told me she had been offered a job in Cardiff doing the same thing. She didn’t want to leave but was doing so for the sake of her daughter, who was no longer getting any education because all the teachers at her school had left. Amazingly she got a visa to go very quickly. This contrasted with one of our neighbours who arrived at Calais in March 2022, only to be told to go to Paris to apply for a visa and spend two months with her children in a French hostel waiting for it to come through.
Lastly, nearly all the foreign students have left. We used to have a fair contingent of Africans, people from the Indian sub-continent, and some Brazilians. It is very rare to see a foreigner now, and people are genuinely happy to meet me.
Everyone asks about Julian. Julian is a dual national, having, with impeccable timing, managed to obtain Ukrainian nationality just three months before the start of the war. On the second day of the war a law was passed forbidding Ukrainian males between 18 and 60 from leaving the country. The law applies to Ukrainian citizens and dual nationals. I do get very weary of explaining to people who say “But he’s got a British passport” of how dual nationality works. It does not get you out of your responsibilities to the other country, especially if you happen to be in it, and especially if their legal system does not recognise dual nationality.
Any Brit expats who have acquired Hungarian passports should take note!
Having spent the whole of the war in our house, Julian told me about the winter, which was far worse. We had months and months of power cuts as the Russians attacked the power plants continuously. There was no real scheduling to them, other than it was four hours on, then four hours off, and that they tried to keep to that. There were then some comical situations where in the evening all the lights would go out, people would go to bed, and then at some time in the night all the lights would come back on again (and music start up) as everyone had gone to bed without thinking to switch things off. We also have a generator which is enough to power the lighting, computers and most importantly the water pump, but not hot water.
This was all part of the Russian scheme to freeze the country into submission by attacking the power plants and energy supply facilities. As with just about everything the Russians have tried, it did not work, and just encouraged everyone to be even more resilient. So the war grinds on. The Russians will be driven out and Ukraine will win, but it will take a long time and heaven knows how much more suffering as they hit civilian target after civilian target.