Clive Myrie: The Ukrainians I met are not about to give up

By Clive Myrie
BBC News

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The BBC's Clive Myrie, who has left Ukraine, reflects on the indomitable locals he met in Kyiv - convinced they would defeat the Russians.

I didn't really see her face, but at her feet were several cooing pigeons. Every now and again, a shower of birdseed would tumble from her hand. She was wearing a heavy-looking grey coat, keeping out the late morning winter chill. I motioned to my colleague, cameraman David McIlveen, to try to take her picture - but she sensed he was approaching, emptied the brown paper bag of birdseed and briskly walked away.

It was the first time in 48 hours that I had left our lodgings - a basement car park in the heart of Kyiv which had become a make-shift bomb shelter. A weekend-long curfew had been imposed after Russian troops had invaded the country. There was a real fear foreign saboteurs were moving among the population and anyone caught outdoors would have been arrested.

You could see the nervousness on the faces of the soldiers and partisans manning checkpoints, despite the black balaclavas shielding them from the cold. Their eyes told stories of apprehension, concern, worry and existential threat. Russian spies might be plotting routes for incoming troops, or smuggling weapons into the Ukrainian capital, or simply there to somehow sow seeds of discord among ordinary people to break local unity.

The city was awash with rumour and dread. Who might that be in the bomb shelter next to you, who is listening in to your conversation in the bread queue? Best stay indoors and observe the curfew.

The woman feeding the pigeons would have spent the past two days in her own basement as well, and I thought it was interesting that one of the first things she did was to feed the pigeons - as if nothing was awry. An ordinary day out, a bit of fresh air, with no threat of death from above.

Prepared to die

A few other people were on the streets, queuing outside a supermarket which had little on its shelves. Most people were shuttered at home. Villages, towns and cities across the land saw a vanishing, as citizens descended underground to subterranean worlds of refuge.

Vladimir Putin professes to know what the 40 million-plus population of this land want. A few days among these people would have told him much more than he seems to understand.

In an elegant apartment block in the centre of Kyiv, one flat has become a sort of commune for young people who have just moved to the city from the sticks and need a place to crash while they find their feet. It is clean and tidy with a mattress for a sofa in the main room - but still the paraphernalia of student life is on show. There are several guitars lying around and posters on the wall. Giorgy, our local fixer and driver, introduces us to some of his friends. All are in their early 20s and have been waiting tables or studying at college. Oleksiy, 22, a waiter in a local bar, also plays in a rock band.

Now, all that's on hold. He may have to fight the Russians.

"I am prepared to die for my country, for what I love," he told me in perfect English. "Putin doesn't understand we don't want his authority - his world. All of us here know what we want - the right to live our own lives, the right to choose who leads us. That's our right, not Moscow's."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Ukrainian volunteer soldiers, Kyiv, 4 March 2022

I had met other reserve army volunteers who'd put themselves forward to fight while I was in Ukraine. They all displayed the same patriotism and love of their country that Vladimir Putin didn't think existed. They were firm in their convictions and convinced they would prevail - despite the Russian military's greater numbers.

While speaking to Oleksiy, there was a commotion outside with the sound of police sirens in the street below. A long convoy of Ukrainian military vehicles was heading up the road and bystanders were applauding the troops. It was clear the Kremlin thought these people would be cowed by Moscow's ostentatious display of might, with Russian troops stationed on the Ukrainian border for several weeks to intimidate.

Not a chance. These people will fight.

The teenage Russian conscripts in their tanks and armoured personnel carriers who had crossed the border to the north, south and east, have quickly become disabused of Putin's jaundiced view of Ukraine. After the invasion, video footage began to emerge of Ukrainians berating the foreign army, yelling at them "Go home" and "We don't want you here."

War in Ukraine: More coverage

And this was happening even in Russian-speaking parts of the north-east. There were pictures of people lying in the road to block the movement of Russian tanks. Others were throwing bicycles beneath tank tracks - there were no flowers or garlands of welcome. Pictures of Ukrainian men urinating on Russian vehicles, and a dog cocking a hind leg on the tail fin of a missile sticking out of the ground, went viral. On Twitter, one person quipped "give piss a chance!"

On a visit to the magnificent St Sophia Cathedral - a stunning riot of frescoes and gold - I watched an interfaith prayer service for peace, as the war raged across the country. Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim - all were united. A little later, Ukraine's interior minister Denys Monastyrskyy in a bullet-proof vest turned up seeking divine guidance. Four heavily armed Ukrainian army soldiers were protecting him. I asked him if faith was what underpinned the Ukrainian belief that they could defeat the second-largest army on the planet.

Speaking softly, he was unequivocal and clear-eyed - just like the young Ukrainian reservists I had spoken to days earlier. "God is on our side," he told me with deep conviction. "We will win." And to drive home the point, he repeated those words in Ukrainian: "My vyhrayemo".

Image source, Rex Features

Also attending the prayer service was military chaplain Oleksandr Mishura. He had a yellow armband on his right bicep, the insignia of the volunteer brigades - or the citizen soldiers. He said morale was high among the troops he ministered to, and that the soldiers had no choice but to fight to defend and protect the country. He took my arm and looked straight at me. He shared a sentiment that I suspect many in Ukraine believe - "We all know what the Bible says, when the enemy is wicked, God will always intervene."

Shortly before my assignment in Kyiv ended, I began to think about the people I would leave behind to an uncertain fate. They included a mother and her 18-year-old daughter who shared our underground shelter. One morning, the daughter's crying woke me up. She had got word that her father, who had been living near the Chernobyl nuclear plant, had apparently been harmed by a group of Russian soldiers. They had ransacked his house looking for cigarettes and alcohol. The teenager feared the worst.

Throughout the day she tried to call her father, but he wasn't picking up the phone. All of us in the shelter prayed he was still alive. When word finally came from his neighbour, that he was safe and unharmed, it felt like a tiny victory for all of us. I thought about the other dwellers of the underground shelter. The woman with a very large white fluffy cat and the children who had run around playing games oblivious to the madness of adults above ground.

I am writing this from a hotel in Romania having left Ukraine via Moldova a couple of days ago. I can't get the image of the woman feeding the pigeons out of my head. She was risking bombs and missiles to feed the pigeons. For me, she represents strength and courage - the indomitability of an independent state, not the cowering fear of the colonised.

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