As Russia pulls back, life slowly returns to Kyiv

Sasha Chengova, who runs a Kyiv coffee shop, said more people were returning to the city after five weeks of war.
Click to play video: 'Some residents return to Kyiv as Russian forces scale back' Some residents return to Kyiv as Russian forces scale back
Some people have begun returning to war-torn Kyiv, as Russia pulls back some of its forces from Ukraine's capital. – Apr 1, 2022

After five hard weeks in which Kyiv became a city of checkpoints, empty streets and Russian attacks, there are signs the Ukrainian capital is coming back to life.

Kyiv remains a fortified city of sandbags and tank barriers, barbed wire and trenches, military vehicles and plastic crates of Molotov cocktails, but it is trying to re-open.

While it may be too soon for a victory parade in Maidan Square, with Russia’s hopes of capturing Kyiv apparently fading, locals said normalcy was beginning to return.

Read more: Inside Kharkiv, a city once close to Russia comes under daily bombardment

“The city is alive,” said Sasha Chengova, who runs Blur Coffee, which shut down when the war began and has since re-opened.

“More and more places are opening, and more and more people are coming back.”

She expected more customers “because we have a lot of people who are missing the city and want to be here,” she said.

In a nearby gourmet food store, staff stocked shelves with wine bottles on Friday. A ban on alcohol sales imposed by the Ukrainian government at the start of the war ended at 11 a.m.

Customers pushing shopping carts roamed the aisles, although some shelves were still bare.

Kate Polanska stocks shelves as ban on alcohol sales was lifted in Kyiv on April 1, 2022. Stewart Bell/Global News

“It feels like we’ve been missing lots of ordinary life, something that used to be normal, like having a bottle of wine on a Friday night,” said Konstanin, as he picked up the Spanish wines he had forgone for over a month.

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The software developer sent his children to safety in Poland, but he said Kyiv was getting noticeably busier, and there were more cars in the parking lot outside his apartment building.

In the hours after President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, some predicted the capital would fall quickly, but the Russian troops were unmotivated, inept, and ill-equipped.

The Ukrainian defences also proved surprisingly resilient and have been pushing the stalled Russians away from the outskirts of Kyiv.

Read more: ‘Just hell that burns again and again’: Mariupol residents describe city in ruins

A Pentagon official said about 20% of the Russian forces around Kyiv were beginning to withdraw.

Moscow’s claim this week that it was pulling back from Kyiv has met skepticism, and officials are calling it an attempt to reposition Russian troops to the fight in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region.

What that will mean for Kyiv remains to be seen, but officials said the capital was getting back on its feet.

“The city is gradually coming to life,” Mykola Povoroznyk, the first deputy of Kyiv’s administration, wrote on Facebook.

Molotov cocktails at a Ukrainian Territorial Defence Force position, Kyiv, April 1, 2022. Stewart Bell/Global News

As she unboxed wine bottles to fill the shelves at the shop where she worked, Kate Polanska said Kyiv was not by any means back to normal, but she couldn’t be bothered with the Russian army anymore.

“We just don’t give a shit what they do,” she said.

She said it was good to be back at work, which was a distraction from the cycle of grim news.

“You can’t just stay at home and go through the telephone all the time.”

But she said the city would never be the same and needed to find a “new normal” that recognized the hazards of living between Europe and Russia.

“I want us to be prepared for every occasion,” she said.

Shopping mall in Kyiv bombed by Russian forces, April 1, 2022. Stewart Bell/Global News

Half of Kyiv’s population has fled. The Territorial Defence Forces stop traffic at roadblocks to check identification and inspect the trunks of vehicles.

Workers were clearing the debris from a missile strike on a shopping mall.

But chef Volodymyr Yaroslavskyi said the city’s food supply was improving day-by-day, and prices were dropping.

A judge on the reality cooking show MasterChef Ukraine, Yaroslavskyi re-opened his upscale Lucky Restaurant on Monday.

He served just four dishes on the first night, then five and then seven.

He was drawing about 50 customers a day, compared to 300 before the war, he said. His stable of cooks was down to seven from the usual 11, but he was glad to be back at work.

“It’s like life is back,” he said.

Kyiv, Ukraine, April 1, 2022. Stewart Bell/Global News

Since the war started, his staff have been preparing 300 daily meals for Ukrainian soldiers, civil-defence volunteers and doctors. “They protect us, we help them,” Yaroslavskyi said.

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But he said he needed to pay the bills, the workers needed their salaries and the city was reviving, so he decided to open the doors of his restaurant once again.

“A lot of people are coming back, customers and staff also,” he said.

Khrystyna Melnyk was among those who returned to the city.

The advance of Russian forces on Kyiv panicked the 26-year-old and she fled, driving out of the city with her boyfriend, mother and brother. Her father stayed behind to join the volunteer Territorial Defence Forces.

Family in west Ukraine’s Lviv region took them in. But when missiles struck Lviv, Melnyk felt that nowhere in Ukraine was safe and returned home to the capital.

Khrystyna Melnyk, left, fled Kyiv when the war started but has since returned. Stewart Bell/Global News

The once-vibrant city was eerily dark and quiet due to the evening curfew.

“Now it’s much much better,” she said. The city felt “much more alive, we see now so many cars.”

As she spoke, a bus pulled in to a stop. Passengers disembarked holding shopping bags. A man walked past with take-out coffee. A nearby bank and printing shop were open. A taxi waited curbside for a fare. A food delivery bike sped past.

Still, most downtown shops were closed and their windows were covered.

Melnyk said it was a struggle to find basics like milk. She used to order purchases online. Now she had to phone around and see what stores were open and what they had in stock.

“It’s far away from normal still,” she said. “I think war is not over and it will last, unfortunately.”

Stewart.Bell@globalnews.ca

Click to play video: 'Some residents return to Kyiv as Russian forces scale back' Some residents return to Kyiv as Russian forces scale back
Some residents return to Kyiv as Russian forces scale back – Apr 1, 2022