A woman stops to look at Ukrainian flags placed in memory of those killed during the war, near Maidan Square in central Kyiv (Daniel Cole/AP)
22 January 2023

Ukraine’s tragic week shows there is no safe place in war

22 January 2023

A particularly tragic week in Ukraine has been a stark reminder for many in the country that not many places are safe from violence in the war against Russia.

A barrage of Russian missiles struck an apartment building in the south-eastern city of Dnipro last Saturday, and the death toll from that attack rose steadily in the days that followed. At least 45 civilians were killed, including six children.

Then on Wednesday, a government helicopter carrying the interior minister and other officials crashed into a building housing a children’s nursery in a suburb of Kyiv. That killed 14, including a child on the ground.

Brovary resident Olga Prenzilevich told how she is “still in shock”, as she cleaned up the debris next to a cordoned-off mound of charred vehicles and misshapen wreckage where the helicopter fell.

The 62-year-old said she will never shake the memory of seeing the government helicopter tumbling through the fog and crashing into the nursery building. Or the frantic dash afterwards to save the children.

Nearby, Oksana Yuriy, 33, watches investigators photograph the scene to try to piece together how the crash happened.

“I thought this was a safe place,” she said. “Now I understand there is no such thing.”

This is the hard lesson Ukrainians have had to learn in a week of mourning at least 59 people killed in places that many considered safe.

Since February, they have seen lives lost from missile strikes and battlefield combat, and civilians dying in schools, theatres, hospitals and apartment buildings. They have suffered irretrievable losses: a loved one, a place to call home, and for some, any hope for the future.

But this past week seemed to have a special cruelty to it.

The missile strike on Dnipro was the deadliest on civilians since the spring – in an area once considered safe for many who fled front-line areas farther east.

Then came Wednesday’s helicopter crash. Interior minister Denys Monastyrskyi, other members of his ministry and the aircraft’s crew were killed. One child on the ground also died and 25 people were injured, including 11 children.

Mr Monastyrskyi, 42, had been travelling to the front line when the Super Puma helicopter went down in the fog, although no official cause has yet been determined.

Flowers have piled up at the fence outside the nursery. A 73-year-old woman hung a plastic bag full of aloe vera plants after reading that they might help heal burn victims.

But not all the mourning was in Brovary or Dnipro.

At a cemetery in the town of Bucha, near the capital, Oleksy Zavadskyi was laid to rest after falling in battle in Bakhmut, where fighting has been intense for months.

His fiancee, Anya Korostenstka, dropped soil on his coffin after it was lowered into the grave. Then she collapsed in tears.

“The courage of our military and the motivations of the Ukrainian people is not enough,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a news conference on Thursday at the Mariinskyi Palace in Kyiv.

He had appeared a day earlier in a video link to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he asked his high-powered audience to stand silently to honour those killed in the helicopter crash.

His wife, Olena Zelenska, who had travelled to the conference to muster support for Ukraine in person, dabbed tears from her eyes as she learned of the crash.

At an event on Thursday at Kyiv’s lavish Fairmont Hotel, US Ambassador Bridget Brink told attendees that some of the embassy’s staff had died in fighting on the front.

“I know a lot of Ukrainians inside and outside the government are hurting right now,” she said, urging her audience of diplomats, businessmen and journalists not to lose faith.

“If you’re looking at it day to day, it’s almost too hard,” she said. “In the bigger sweep of things, it’s a different story.”

In Dnipro too, survivors of the missile strike are not ready to give up.

Olha Botvinova, 40, celebrated in hospital with birthday balloons and cards. It was not her actual birthday, she said, but she believes she was born a second time by merely surviving.

“We plan to keep living,” she added.

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