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Day 12: A Day in Kiev During the War on Ukraine

The title to this blog: a day in kiev day 12

I woke to a clicking noise. Nearby.

I opened my eyes and tried to remember where I was.

Moving. Loud. Rocking.

A boat?

My eyes adjusted. No, not a boat. That’s right. I was on a night train headed to Kiev, Ukraine.

My friend Luksaz was heading to Kiev to deliver two drones to the military--he and Jullia were in a different car. I was not invited to the drop but could spend some time in Kiev collecting stories.

But, wait. What was that noise? That clicking noise.

View from the top bunk of a sleeper car.
(View from the top bunk of the sleeper car on the way to Kiev.)

I peered over the edge of my top bunk at the Ukrainian father and adult-aged son snoring on the bottom bunks. The clicking was coming from one of their devices.

Was it an alarm for low blood sugar? That’s what it sounded like.

I worried from my top bunk for several minutes until a railway worker came into our car. She shouted to the men. The father woke up. She shouted at the son, he slept on.

The father lifted the son’s feet and dropped them on the bunk.

He slept on.

He pulled the son’s feet off of the bed and began pulling his body up. The son woke, suddenly.

There was no medical emergency: that clicking was their alarm clock. Too bad the alarm only woke the one person who didn’t need to wake.


The men packed up and a few minutes later when the train stopped, they left. Within minutes new people had taken their places.

Train travel is so efficient.

I relaxed on my bunk and thought about my day. Before I left I texted Dasha and asked if she knew anyone in Kiev who could show me around, since Luksaz and Jullia would be busy most of the day.

No. She didn’t know anyone.

A teen dressed in white and the authro dressed in black.
(A video chat with Dasha before I leave for Kiev.)

I sent her a video chat.

We talked for a while. She couldn’t think of anyone, neither could her mom. She told me about how much she loved the Kiev train station for it’s enormity, it’s beauty and the feeling that you could go anywhere you wanted to go.

As I was packing to leave for the trip, she sent me a message. She thought of someone who spoke wonderful English—a friend of hers from school. He would meet me at the train station at 8:10.


And his mother would make me a gluten-free breakfast.


I didn’t want to look like I had slept on a sleeper car, so I woke early, freshened up with a few wet wipes and was ready when the train arrived in Kiev.


A tall fourteen-year-old boy approached me and as he shook my hand, he said, “My name is Nazar. You can ask me anything about Kiev; I am like a live Wikipedia.”

“Great.” I smiled.

“without ads.” He added.

"Even better."

We walked towards the metro. “The metro was built in 1916 and is the fastest metro in the world.”

He navigated around people, doors, signs and paid for my ticket.

When we got to the platform, I told him that I’d never seen so many people on a metro.

“Rush hour.”

“I get that… but…”

Our subway arrived. We couldn’t get on; it was too full, we wouldn’t fit.

I was mostly sure we’d never get on. Every train had closed doors, but inside the cars people were crammed so tight that it looked like there wasn’t enough air to breath. I’ve ridden my fair share of subways in New York City and thought I knew what a packed one looked like.

So, this is a packed subway.

A boys pays for a metrocard.
(Nazar buys my metro ticket in Kiev.)

People were literally pressed up against each other. I couldn’t figure out how you got on the train or how you wiggled your way off. If it weren’t for Nazar buying my ticket, walking me up and down stairs to get to the next ride, I would likely take me all day to find my way around.

His mother’s breakfast would become a midnight snack if I had to find my own way. What a gift for him to show me around.

It was the first of many times I would thank Nazar for being my guide, my translator and my encyclopedia.

We pushed our way onto the next train. I wore my daypack on my back. Normally I would worry that someone standing behind me would get into my pack and rip me off. It wasn’t possible to lift a hand; my things were safe.

In Europe personal space is different; people stand closer together than we do in America. But being pressed this close to strangers felt strange. There was a man on one side of me and a woman on the other side who were standing so close to me that I could feel them breathing on my neck.

Did I smell like a wet wipe?


A mosaic on the wall/
(Mosaic in the Metro in Kiev.)

As we switched to a different tram line, he had me photograph some beautiful mosaic work in one of the stations. He explained that this famous artist was hired to design the space during the Soviet occupation many years ago.

In his design, the artist added “Glory to Ukraine” which was not what Stalin was hoping for when it came to modern art.

The artist was arrested and jailed for going against the rulers in power. But, through some odd mistake, the artists’ work and words remained in place. They are still there today.

Nazar told me that in terms of size, Kiev (839 square kilometers) is larger than New York City (790 square kilometers.) He said that he loved the stations in the center; they had benches.

During our long commute, he told me that he spoke 7 languages: Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, English, Hebrew, Czech and Arabic. He said that it was easier to learn Hebrew and Arabic than Ukrainian.


He also said that it’s difficult to keep 4 different alphabets in your head at the same time.

I thought that maybe I should check his birth certificate; how could a 14-ear-old know so much?

As we found seats on our final metro, he told me that his father, an evening news anchor at the main Ukrainian television station, volunteered for the army on the first day of the war. And that his mother, an executive producer at the same TV station was from Bakhmut, a city completely destroyed by the Russians.

He plans on going to a military high school and then wants to attend a university to study international relations or law.

People around us on the metro were dressed more casually than people I’d seen in other parts of Ukraine. Women wore comfortable shoes with rubber soles and dark colors. I mentioned this to him.

“Maybe this is from the war.”

I nodded.

He looked out the window at the tracks alongside the metro and said that he missed the pandemic; it was an easier time of life than living in a war.

His mother met us at the station.

She was strikingly beautiful with long, dark hair and wearing a designer short set with a white t-shirt and put me at ease right away. She said that when I got to her house I could take a rest if I needed one or have a shower.

Could she tell how I cleaned up today? I’m never using wet wipes again.

The family dog met us when we arrived, keeping her distance and making sure that I wasn’t there to hurt anyone.

After showing me around their three-story home, that mom designed, she worked on making our meal while Nazar and I sat at the table nearby. They explained that his little sister was in a kindergarten readiness program for the summer.

For the summer?

“Yes. It is so she will be ready to start school in September.” His mother explained.

I told them that in the school district where I teach, children get a 4-day readiness program before they begin kindergarten.

“But that isn’t enough for them to be ready.” His mother said.

I know. I know.

While we ate the best meal I’d had in ages, baked salmon, steamed vegetables and salad, they told me how the war weighed on their family.

On February 24th, a Thursday, Nazar was awake until 2:00 AM studying for his physics test. When he finally went to bed, he felt certain that he would pass it.

He didn’t hear about anything that happened while he slept.

Early the next morning, his father stood at the door to his room and woke him up. He asked if Nazar had a good sleep.

He answered that he slept great and announced that he was certain that he would pass his test.

His dad answered, “Wake up. The war is starting.”

Later that day, his father joined the war efforts. He was able to live at home and work from Kiev until last night. He was moved to the to the south of Ukraine, about 100 kilometers from the front.

The first days were tough for everyone in Ukraine; nobody thought there would be a war. Once it started, they were plagued with uncertainty about what was happening and what was going to happen next.

On the second day of the war, there were constant reports that families should pack their valuables and important documents and be ready to leave.

Nazar asked his mother if they were ready to leave.

She answered, “No. I’m going to wash my hair.”

They both laughed at the memory.

Later that day she had just made a big lunch when they all heard a swishing sound. A rocket landed 200 meters from their house. His mother shouted to them to get to the basement but bring their meals with them.

War or no war, she was not letting a good meal go to waste.

The next day her cousin, who lived in Russia, called and said, “I’m sorry. My president is stupid.” She and her family left Russia soon after. (I can’t remember where they moved, Europe?)

Nazar’s friend was a 17-year-old boy who lived in Mariupol when it fell to the Russians. He was put on a bus and sent to a discrete location in Russia. Nobody knew where he was.

He was able to secretly contact his parents. They moved to the area where he was being held so they could be close to him.

Nazar thinks that his friend was able to sign up for university there but is unhappy about it. Even if he graduates from there, the degree will not be recognized as a valid degree anywhere in the world.

I asked if he thought his friend would be made to fight against Ukraine.

He thought for a moment and then said, “I don’t know.”

His mother said that Russia insists that it must liberate Ukraine, but the soldiers who show up to their country are amazed by simple things like electricity, washing machines and toilets.

There is some kind of deal where they can ship things home to their families in Russia. Many ship things from Belarus.

They ship water tanks, washing machines, toilets, underwear.

The Ukrainian houses are stripped clean. It has become an ongoing meme, that the Russians steal everything from occupied territories, even toilets.

A boy shows a flag on his small computer.
(Nazar shows me the flag of Belarus.)

Nazar gave me a lesson on the countries surrounding Ukraine: which were friends with Ukraine, which were aligned with Russia.

He showed me the flag of Belarus, a neighboring nation. He said that though this was an independent country, it was dubbed, ‘Little Russia.’ Russian troops and supplies were stationed there.

He said that in Belarus, it is illegal to wear the colors red and white and that if you wore those colors, you could be jailed. These are the colors of the underground group that want Belarus to be an independent nation.

A boy shows a red and white flag on his computer
(Nazar shows me the flag that represents the people who want Belarus to become an independent nation.)

I asked him what would happen if I went there and wore red and white.

He said that Americans are not welcome in Belarus.

In my mind I asked more questions. Could one wear red and ivory? How about pink and white? Dark pink and white? Exactly which color wheel did they use to determine who went to jail and who could remain free?

What if I had a white face with red cheeks – due to overexertion or makeup, would I be jailed for resembling the flag of independence?

Mother showed me pictures from Bucha, a town that was destroyed and over 400 people killed during an ethnic cleansing takeover. She showed me photos of dead people with their hands tied behind their backs and the mayor naked and stuffed into a water pipe.

I told her that I had not seen graphic photos of the occupations, my country protects us from those scenes. (Below I will link a well-documented short video of the Bucha cleansing by the AP that mostly proves my point.)

They asked if I wanted to see a video of a Ukrainian soldier getting his head chopped off by a Russian soldier.

Head? Chopped off?

His mother started searching for the video, then held back and didn’t show me.

She said, “We are back in 1939.”

I nodded.

Her voice broke as she talked about the rapes, the torturing, and the complete destruction of cities, the piles of dead civilians.

I said that I could not understand why a man in one country could bomb people in another country. How is this permitted in our world today?

Mother and son sat quietly.

“I mean it.” I took a deep breath. “How is it that one group of people can destroy an innocent group of people? I can’t figure out why the world agrees that this is wrong but does nothing.”

Nazar said that Russian soldiers had something called a “Kill List.” For each person they kill, soldier or civilian, they would earn more money.

I was confused. “But how could they prove…” I sat quietly for a moment, trying to integrate this information. “Do you think it’s true.”

The mother nodded her head. “Yes. It is true.”


Mother asked me why I came to Ukraine.

I told her that last year I was so upset about the war starting, that I spent my summer working with refugees in Poland. This year I thought maybe I could do more. Maybe I could go into the country and help people who lacked resources due to the war.

I added that if I wrote about stories from Ukrainian people, then my readers from around the world could understand the war from a personal level.

She asked if I got scared.


I asked her if it was hard to report the news as the war continued.

She said, “It is a terrible time in Ukraine’s history, but reporting is our work. We must inform our people.” She piled plates on the table, preparing to clear them away. “We understand the value of people knowing the truth of what is happening around them.”

I nodded and checked my phone. Luksaz sent me a message. If we wanted to leave Kiev in the next week, we had to leave tonight, on another overnight train. Seats were booked for the next week. He cancelled my hotel room but kept theirs. I could store my backpack in their room. We had to leave the hotel by 9:00 PM.

I returned his message. Yes, buy me a train ticket. I will leave my bag in your room. I will see you by 9:00 PM.

I told my new friends that I was leaving Kiev tonight.

Mother said, “But that’s not enough time…”

I agreed and told her I would return again one day. And I insisted that they come to New York one day to visit me.

As we cleared the table, I asked Nazar if he passed that physics test.

He exhaled and looked down for a moment and then looked up again. He said, “Because of the war the exams were cancelled.”



Three people in a car
(From L to R: Holly Winter Huppert: the author, Nazar, Mother)

His mother drove us into the city center. Nazar was going to show me around while she went to work for a few hours.

She drove up to my hotel and had to stop at what I thought was a checkpoint. Soldiers with sour expressions blocked the road.

That’s not the kind of welcome I want to see when I arrive at my hotel.

Nazar said that the presidential palace is right behind my hotel.

I wondered if that was a good idea, to stay so close to the main target of Ukraine.

The soldiers, who had their fingers on the triggers of their machine guns, told us that the road was closed. No, we could not walk.

She turned the car around and tried to approach the hotel from a different direction.

Sigh. This one was blocked with traffic.

She picked up the phone and said that she had to call her assistant.

As she spoke in Ukrainian, her son told me that she had to postpone an interview with Zalinski’s secretary.

My eyes widened. “She is canceling an interview with Zalinski, the president of Ukraine?”

She hung up the phone. “No, one of his advisors." she said. "I had my assistant reschedule the interview.”

I apologized for taking up so much of her day.

She smiled and said this was no problem at all and she enjoyed having time with me and made me promise to return to Ukraine one day.

I promised to return and thanked her again for the warm and delicious welcome.


a hill in a residential neighborhood
(Looking down the hill to Kiev's city center.)

After walking around the city center for a few hours, I told Nazar I liked old churches. We climbed a large hill in what appeared to be a small neighborhood.

He said, the right bank of Kiev is built on 7 hills, the left bank is like a field.

I huffed next to him on the hilly side of the city and asked what he knew about my country.

He gave me a history lesson that included Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci and George Washington. He knew that we had fifty stars on our red, white and blue flag and that each star stood for one of the 50 states.


He said we also had territories like Puerto Rico and Hawaii.

I know, he got Hawaii wrong. That’s a small mistake when you compare it to how much he knew.

We arrived at an 11th century church on Sophia Square. I knew that it was an 11th century church because he told me.


Buildings surrounding an open area.
(Sophia square, Kiev)

He said that this square was the most beautiful square all year long, but at Christmas it was even better. He showed me a photo on his phone from a Christmas before the war. He was with Dasha and some other friends. The square and tree were lit with golden lights.

I told him it looked magical.

He said it felt magical to go there and then added that the song, “Carol of the Bells” was written by a Ukrainian composer.

Paitings on the wall.
(The walls of the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev.)

We spent a few hours in Saint Sophia’s Cathedral where I took photograph after photograph of the paintings, the gold and the frescos. It was an amazing museum of beauty. I asked him if he was getting tired.

“Not at all.” He explained that tomorrow he would go to a camp where they would speak English all day long. He was getting good practice before he went.

But after we entered another building and looked at more art, he asked if he might sit down for a bit. He was tired.

Just then his mother called and said maybe I needed to rest and surely, he was tired. She gave him a place to meet her so she could drove him home. He had to pack his bags for camp.

As we walked down the hill, I heard an air raid siren go off. It wasn’t my first siren, but it gave me pause.

He said that there was nothing to worry about.


As we walked more sirens went off. Some near, some far.

I asked if this was usual.

He picked up his phone and started flipping through screens. “It sounds like music, so many sirens.” Then he added that this wasn’t normal.

(Nazar shows me all of the regions of "Alarm" in Ukraine.)

He showed me his phone. Most of Ukraine was red – showing the zones that were considered unsafe.

More air raid sirens went off.

We continued walking. The sirens were unnerving, but seeing a rocket launcher drive by on the road made me tense.

A rocket launcher driving on city streets?

He said softly, “That is there to help us. We are never afraid of things that are here to help us.”

(Yes, I wrote this in my journal so I might study the words later. This kid is deep in every way.”

He showed me how all of the trollies and busses closed their doors and drove to the safety of the bomb shelters.

Buses line up at shelters.
(During an air raid alarm, all busses bring people to shelters.)

People on the busses frowned. It appeared as if they were held hostage as they were driven to the bottom of the hill so they could go underground.

Many people were out walking around, like we were.

An alert in Ukrainian on my phone.
(An alert popped up on my phone.)

An alarm went off on my phone. My phone? The people around us stopped to look at their phones, too. It was an air raid warning – in Ukrainian. This was the first time I got an alert on my phone.

I asked if we should go to a shelter.

“Not at all.” He said, “We have these sirens going off all day, every day. Sometimes the alarms ring for hours at a time.”

I nodded.

He added that the sky over Kiev is like an iron zone – nothing can get through.

And on this visit to Kiev on this day, he was right: nothing did get through.

But as I left Kiev some hours later, I felt unsettled.

The noise of those many air sirens—alarms—stuck with me.

Here is a video put our by the AP about the massacre in Bucha. Crime Scene: Bucha | How Russian soldiers ran a ‘cleansing’ operation in the Ukrainian city - YouTube




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