KYIV, Ukraine – On February 25, the day after Russia invaded Ukraine, Kolya Rybytva reunited with her grandmother and younger sister and left Kyiv “quickly and without unnecessary feelings”, it said. he stated heading west. His parents and his brother stayed behind to help with the war effort.
“The decision was made in minutes,” he said, “and it was one of the most difficult in life, but we all understood that war does not bring comfortable solutions.”
At the time, Mr. Rybytva, 24, realized he might never come back. But two weeks ago he did, returning to the capital Kyiv just as Ukrainian forces began pushing Russian troops out of the suburbs and, eventually, into full retreat. After a month of artillery attacks that tore through buildings and caused Kyiv residents to seek refuge in metro stations, relative calm is returning.
And people like Mr Rybytva – who also works for the Free Belarus Center, a group that helps people flee Lukashenko’s brutal government in Belarus – are returning home.
“Feelings are strange,” he wrote in a series of text messages. “It’s hard to explain. It’s not just a house. It’s a symbol. And of course I really wanted to hug my family and friends.
In kyiv this week, instead of seeking refuge in the metro, people are now taking it; it works on all lines, although not all stops are open. About 150 buses and 30 trams are working again. The city council said more than 500 businesses had reopened in the past week. The Kyiv school district has started online education for students, including those in western Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe.
There are still checkpoints and barricades on some streets, and the sandbags are part of the city’s architecture. But there are also large lines of cars now forming on the highways to the city, a reversal from the early days of the war when tens of thousands fled and traffic jams clogged the roads.
Deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office Andriy Smyrnov told Ukrainian media that city officials are considering resuming court hearings because enough judges have returned to the capital.
Although many residents evacuated Kyiv, others were reluctant to stay put, despite the continuing dangers. City officials estimate that nearly half of kyiv’s pre-war population, around three million, remained in the city.
Like Mr. Rybytva’s parents and brother, many of those who remained joined an army of volunteer militants, a component so important to Ukraine’s defense that Oleksandr Danylyuk, a former secretary of the Council of national security and defense, called it “the fourth branch of the military.
Volunteers, many of whom in ordinary life were far removed from military matters, provided body armor, purchased riflescopes online and gave them to soldiers. They organized a battlefield medical evacuation system and set up field kitchens to feed forces at checkpoints.
This flurry of volunteer activity has highlighted a key difference between the Russian and Ukrainian armies: the Russian military is top-down, while Ukrainian society and even its armed forces are largely organized horizontally, Danylyuk said.
“Let me get to the heart of it,” he said. “Volunteers are another force in this war. Without them, we would have half the capacity to fight. Volunteers do phenomenal work, sometimes at the risk of their lives. I’m proud of it.
Now, as businesses open up, they are mixing support for the military with a return to for-profit activities. Yana Zhadan, restaurateur and founder of foodie group Foodies, reopened a pizzeria called Bus Station last weekend. She said her company provides free pizza to soldiers and civilians.
“I see three main goals in our work,” Ms. Zhadan said in an interview. “To support company employees, to support the city’s economy and livelihoods with taxes and utility payments, and volunteerism.”
Russo-Ukrainian War: Main Developments
Missile attack. A missile strike at a crowded train station in eastern Ukraine left at least 50 dead and nearly 100 injured, according to Ukrainian officials, who blamed Russia for hitting a major evacuation point for those attempting to flee ahead of an expected reinforced offensive.
The chef had in any case prepared free meals over the past month, she said, but a shift to regular business activity was needed to keep the operation going. “Everyone wants to be able to do their job, because that’s how you can influence the most, help the most effectively,” she said.
“The city is alive – there are children in the streets, flowers in the markets – and Kyivans want to be close to each other,” she said. “And it’s the food that helps you feel safe, at least for a while.”
When Mr. Rybytva headed west with his grandmother and sister, he volunteered, but soon he felt like coming back. “Feelings are strange,” he said. “You seem to be going back to your usual life, realizing that it will never be normal again.”
Just being able to come back, he said, was “a real treat.”
When you see the first familiar streets, you can’t even believe you’re here,” he said. “It’s strange, joyful and painful.”
His apartment was not damaged, he said. In the hallway, which her family used as a shelter, there were blankets strewn on the floor as they had left them, and a board game, “which we tried to distract ourselves with”. There was uneaten soup in the kitchen.
Despite the disruption in his life, his return to Kyiv provided a kind of “sense of triumph”, he said. “But you understand that’s deceiving – victory is a long way off, security is fragile and in many parts of the country everything is getting worse. You are not happy, and you cannot be happy, remembering this. happened in the suburbs,” he said, referring to atrocities like those in Bucha.
“There is no joy, only anger and indifference, endless gratitude to everyone involved, that you have somewhere to return. Pride that kyiv resisted.