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Dispatch from Kiev: Residents begin exodus west after waking to thud of distant explosions

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 24/02/2022 Deborah Haynes

Ukraine’s capital awoke just before dawn to the thud of distant explosions as Russia’s offensive was unleashed.

An air-raid siren wailed close to the foreign ministry, which is in the heart of Kiev, apparently a rehearsal for a war that had already started.

By early morning, lines of vehicles could be seen at petrol stations, queuing for fuel, while roads leading out of the capital filled with traffic.

It was not immediately clear where they are headed.

But a woman I met earlier in the week told me that she had her car already filled with petrol and bags packed to escape with her husband and 10-year-old son and drive west as soon as any invasion started.

The thinking amongst Ukrainians is that the west of their vast country, which borders European Union nations such as Poland and Romania, is the safest place and the area least-likely to be seized, at least in the initial phase, by invading Russian troops.

It is why Britain’s ambassador and a small, remaining team of staff fled to the main western city of Lviv last week.

Roads leading out of Kiev were packed with traffic on Thursday as people try to flee the capital (Getty Images) © Provided by Evening Standard Roads leading out of Kiev were packed with traffic on Thursday as people try to flee the capital (Getty Images)

The sight of a number of residents seemingly choosing to leave Kiev is a significant change for this city.

Most people had spent the past couple of months trying to continue with their daily lives as normal despite increasingly stark warnings from the UK, the US and other western allies that a Russian invasion of Ukraine appeared imminent.

At the same time, they had been quietly preparing for the worst.

Sales of personal guns and ammunition have soared since December.

Deborah Haynes in Kiev (Sky News) © Provided by Evening Standard Deborah Haynes in Kiev (Sky News)

At one weapons store called Tactica, the logo read: Shooting is life.


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A flag made out of bullets in the national colours of yellow and blue summed up a mood of patriotism and a willingness to fight.

There was also a chess board with bullets instead of chess pieces.

On one wall was a stretched glass cabinet filled with assault rifles, hunting rifles, shot guns and even a machete.

A shooting-range was attached to the store where people can come and learn how to shoot or fine-tune their skills.

Ukrainian ex-soldier Anatoly Arefyanov “renewing his skills” at a firing range in Kiev (Sky News) © Provided by Evening Standard Ukrainian ex-soldier Anatoly Arefyanov “renewing his skills” at a firing range in Kiev (Sky News)

On Wednesday – the day before the invasion started – one Ukrainian man enjoyed a session of target practice as a birthday present from his wife.

“I once served in the army and I wanted to renew my skills,” Anatoly Arefyanov, 39, said.

He held up what he had used for target practice – a large piece of paper with the outline of the top half of a man – peppered with bullet holes.

“The situation is difficult and we need to be ready for anything now,” he said.

The shooting range had two lanes, with a rifle fixed at one end and the target hanging from a wire at the other.

Anyone using the facility must wear ear defenders and eye protection.

Pop music played out of an old-looking stereo on a shelf fixed to the back wall – which could be heard even with the ear protection.

Demand to use the facility has rocketed by up to 200 per cent over the past three months – an indicator perhaps of their will to prepare to resist should Russia troops reach their streets.

* Deborah Haynes is security and defence editor at Sky News.

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