‘There is no safe place in Ukraine’: Russian retreat gives little sense of relief in Kyiv

Two weeks ago the new Retroville shopping centre in north-western Kyiv was hit by Russian shelling, killing eight people. Now, a backhoe digger is clearing a mountain of debris in one section of the mall and Vladyslav Apostolov, co-founder of coffee chain Coffeelat, is trying to get back to business.

“I am working on reopening the café here,” he said in the parking lot.

When President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian tanks to head towards Ukraine’s capital on February 24, most shops there and elsewhere in Kyiv and its satellite towns shut down. City officials estimate that more than 2mn people fled Kyiv — out of a total of 3.9mn — as Russian forces approached the outskirts and shelling rained down on parts of the capital.

Now that the Russians seem to have given up on seizing Kyiv and retreated, residents who remained through the onslaught are attempting to resume some semblance of life, even as revelations pile up of apparent war crimes in nearby towns and war rages on in the east and the south of the country.

In the past week, Apostolov has reopened four of his three dozen coffee shops in Kyiv.

“People want to have their lives back, going to get coffee is a good start,” he said. “We are lucky here in Kyiv. In other places nearby, unfortunately, they are not.”

He was referring to growing evidence of civilian killings and mass graves in Bucha, a city about 25km from the Retroville mall, and other areas surrounding the capital during the Russian occupation.

“There is no safe place in Ukraine now, just look at the atrocities in Bucha,” said Alina Greben, the manager of Mimosa, a pizza restaurant in central Kyiv that reopened to the public this week. She spent weeks focused on cooking rations for those on the frontline.

“There are people in the city who want to feel the way they used to. Also, it was financially hard to sustain volunteering cooking, so that was one of the reasons we had to reopen,” she said.

Dmytro Bilotserkovets, an adviser to Kyiv’s mayor Vitaly Klitschko, said 400 restaurants in the city had reopened this week and that about 700 food shops were operating compared with 100 a month ago.

Klitschko urged those willing to return to wait. “There is still a probable threat of shelling the city,” he said on Wednesday.

To help those who have already returned, the town council is offering tax breaks and cash transfers to small and medium enterprises to help reboot their businesses, he said.

Traffic jams on highways into the city from the west suggest some residents are returning home. Bilotserkovets estimated that the capital’s population slightly recovered to about 1.8mn in the past days, from a low of 1.3mn three weeks ago.

The devastation in the suburbs, where severe fighting took place, will have long-lasting effects. “The economy of Kyiv is also the economy of its satellite cities of Irpin, Bucha, Hostomel,” Bilotserkovets said. “We are in one economic system and we have lost everything in the satellite cities, they are completely destroyed, they don’t have energy, petrol, water, so many of their people came to Kyiv.”

Irpin’s mayor Oleksandr Markushin said in an interview that it would take more than a year to rebuild the city and much longer to recover from the trauma of the Russian occupation.

Nearby in Bucha, where authorities said hundreds of civilians were killed by Moscow’s forces, locals lined up for humanitarian aid and warmed themselves with street bonfires.

Anastasia Ivchenko fled Bucha last month after her apartment was bombed by Russian shelling. The professional fencer and her husband joined the Ukrainian armed forces in Kyiv. “Life in Kyiv is good now, some cafés and shops are open, but in Bucha everything is destroyed,” she said.

While charred armoured cars cram the streets of Bucha, in central Kyiv military checkpoints, sandbags and bomb sirens are still commonplace. Martial law and curfews remain in force.

But life is trickling back: women in Gucci jackets and Prada shoes come out to walk their dogs, and joggers and chess players are back in the parks.

A ban on alcohol has been lifted. “We feel a little bit more free to enjoy,” Roman Shevchuk and his fiancée Anastasia Zheliznova said in unison, sipping a beer on a bench.

Oleksander Zengilevsky, owner of a beer stall in central Kyiv, said he was worried over supply chains after Russian rockets hit fuel refineries as well as distribution warehouses and breweries.

He lacked staff too, he said.

Kedy, a once-popular restaurant in the basement that he used to supply, has not reopened because of staff shortages. He expects more people to be able to go to work after the three lines of the metro fully reopened this week.

“It takes a lot of workers to get started — in the kitchen, in the hall, in the bar — and most of the workers have left Kyiv,” Zengilevsky said. But he said he was hopeful they and customers would be back within days.

Back at the Mimosa pizza restaurant, Greben said there were “people who have stayed in the city and they want to get some kind of social life”.

“This is a cool moment,” she said. “We can communicate, share with each other, talk about feelings, plans.”