Outside a children’s clinic-turned-bomb shelter in Kyiv, a group of passers-by wrestled with a question that has haunted the Ukrainian capital for more than a day: who is responsible for the deaths of their neighbors?
Three people, including a woman and her child, were killed in an explosion around the entrance to their neighborhood shelter early Thursday morning, after being locked down amid an airstrike. At least a dozen others were injured.
The deaths rocked a city accustomed to air raids and missiles, and they led to multiple inquests, four detentions and widespread mourning. President Volodymyr Zelensky called on law enforcement to bring those responsible to justice.
“Unfortunately, even today – after all that has happened – the people of Kyiv repeatedly publish information about the lack of access to shelters,” Zelensky said in a speech on Friday evening. “This level of neglect in the city cannot be excused.”
As of Friday afternoon, three separate memorials of flowers, children’s stuffed animals and candles had been erected near the gates of the clinic. A woman, standing outside the police cordon, wept softly. A young boy drew the Ukrainian flag in blue and yellow chalk on the sidewalk alongside an informal tribute, writing “Glory to Ukraine” in block letters.
“My daughter was delayed for 30 seconds which saved her life. If they ran together, she would have died too,” said Larysa Sukhomlyn, 64, whose daughter, Olya, often visited the clinic’s basement during the air raids.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine last year, war has been defined by moments of chance and terror: mere minutes or meters sometimes dictate who lives or dies, from frontline battlefields to dense cities of Ukraine and to the border regions of Russia, where some authorities have recently described the Ukrainian bombardments. and announced evacuations.
But the three Ukrainians killed in Kiev, Natalia Velchenko, 33, Olha Ivashko, 34, and Olha’s 9-year-old daughter Viktoria, appeared to have had enough time to get to safety on Thursday morning.
Their deaths reflect the worst-case scenario of what happens when Kyiv residents have to navigate a web of hundreds of bomb shelters scattered across the city. These shelters have become increasingly important as Russia has stepped up its air attacks in recent weeks, following an already brutal winter of long-range strikes and blackouts.
Some shelters are closed. Others are in poor condition. And it is often confusing to find those responsible for their upkeep, according to several Kyiv residents. This inaction has left the burden on local residents to coordinate with each other so they know where to find safety.
“Was it necessary for people to die for the shelters to start staying open around Kyiv? asked Tetiana Kukuruza, 26, who lives downtown. “They should have settled this matter before the full-scale invasion, not nearly a year and a half after the start of an active war.”
On Thursday, Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv, said on Telegram that authorities are “checking access to shelters”.
Serhiy Popko, the head of the Kyiv city military administration, said the country’s main intelligence and security services, the prosecutor’s office and the national police were investigating the culprits.
Some doubted there would ever be justice.
“Nobody cares. Not Klitschko or anyone else,” said Vadym, a resident who lives near the site of Thursday’s blast and declined to give his last name for fear of reprisals. “I don’t know who decides this, they pass the blame on to each other, and that’s it.”
About seven minutes elapsed from the airstrike siren, which sounded around 2:49 a.m., to the explosion outside the clinic, residents said. It was long enough for the families to get dressed and head down to the basement.
The children’s health clinic, known as Desnianskyi District Primary Health Care Center No. 3, contains televisions, medicines and medical records. The building is usually locked in the middle of the night, but for some reason, residents said, exterior access to its basement was also locked. A woman, who declined to be named, said that in recent days she had to knock repeatedly to gain access to the shelter.
The guard on duty Thursday morning was arrested and tested for drug and alcohol consumption, said a police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues. Three other people, including the clinic’s director and deputy director, were arrested for questioning, according to Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office.
Authorities in a Russian border region, Belgorod, also described recent war-related casualties and confusion, but without too many details. The region’s governor, Vyacheslav Gladkov, said two women died after their car was hit by an artillery shell near the town of Shebekino, about 10 kilometers from the Ukrainian border.
Video released by Russian military correspondents claiming to capture the aftermath showed a cloud of smoke rising near a column of passenger cars. The video could not be independently verified.
“The conditions are quite difficult,” Gladkov said in a Telegram message on Friday, adding that around 2,500 people have been evacuated to Belgorod due to shelling and Ukrainian incursions.
The number of evacuees could not be confirmed, but Belgorod residents who traveled to Shebekino on Thursday described the farming community, which numbers 40,000, as a ghost town. They said many residents had left without waiting for an official evacuation after taking refuge in cellars during hours of shelling.
Anxiety has been mounting in the Belgorod region since two paramilitary groups crossed the border last week and briefly detained two villages in another part of the region.
The groups, Free Russia Legion and Russian Volunteer Corps, claimed in separate videos on Friday that they were fighting in the outskirts of Shebekino for a second day. The Russian authorities had indicated Thursday that the insurgents had been turned back at the border. On Friday, spokesmen for the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Free Russian Legion declined to comment beyond continuing operations.
Both groups, which operate from Ukraine and are made up of anti-Kremlin Russian citizens, said they do not attack civilians and only target security installations.
Witnesses in the area described extensive damage in Shebekino, including to residential buildings. Video footage verified by The New York Times shows a burning building in the city.
While scenes of flight and destruction are relatively new to Russians, such bombings have become painfully familiar to many Ukrainians.
For residents of the eastern district of Kyiv near the clinic, living in a cluster of Soviet-style apartment buildings amid small shops, going to the children’s clinic shelter was part of a week-long routine, as Russia launched drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. in the capital for a good part of May.
A dozen people had gathered in front of clinic No. 3 to take refuge in its basement early Thursday morning. As they regrouped, struck and waited for entry, Ukrainian air defences, bolstered by Western-supplied weapons such as the Patriot missile, only partially intercepted a Russian ballistic missile, knocking it off course. trajectory but not destroying its warhead, the police officer said.
The round fell from the sky and landed a few feet from the shelter’s entrance door, detonating a wide array of shrapnel that stretched for hundreds of feet. The blast shattered windows of nearby buildings and blew doors off their hinges in the clinic, creating a crater about 13 feet wide.
“I saw from the balcony how it happened,” said neighbor Ms Sukhomlyn, describing the final moments of mother and child. “When the grandmother saw that they had approached the clinic, there was an explosion. She ran away instantly and started screaming their names.
Anatoly Kurmanayev And Michael Schwirtz contributed report.