Ukraine has endured a relentless siege from neighbouring Russia since February 2022. On a whirlwind visit to Kyiv, HERMAN GRECH witnessed resilience, hopelessness and the desperate need to live a ‘normal life’.

The security briefing for journalists in Warsaw sounded ominous. 

“Your mobile phone could land you and many others in trouble. If you get out of line and do not follow instructions, you will be left behind... and you do not want to be left behind in a war zone.

"Avoid sharing any potentially sensitive information on social media before we leave Ukrainian territory. And do not break any embargoes,” the Italian head of security warned.

Video compiled by Karl Andrew Micallef

The briefing preceded a visit by European Parliament President Roberta Metsola to Ukraine to mark Europe Day on May 9.

The main streets of central Warsaw were throbbing with people in cafes, cyclists and students carrying backpacks. But a meeting with Andrzej Halicki, head of the Polish MEP delegation, made it clear that below the surface, Poles’ fears are palpable and focused on one issue: security.

Throw into the mix the “fact” that the Kremlin has infiltrated the Polish political and judicial system and there is good reason why war is high on the agenda in Central and Eastern Europe.

We headed back to Warsaw’s Chopin airport to meet Metsola who had arrived fresh from a meeting with former chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.

The Maltese delegation and security on the border with Ukraine. Photo: Herman GrechThe Maltese delegation and security on the border with Ukraine. Photo: Herman Grech

The Maltese EP president has become one of Ukraine’s most vocal supporters as neighbouring Russia continues to unleash its military might in what is now 26 months of war. 

Ukraine was on high alert on Thursday, with Russia launching 50 missiles and 20 drones at Ukraine the night before. The display of military might was probably timed to mark Russia’s Victory Day, which would fall the following day.

I joined other Maltese journalists on a three-hour drive from Warsaw airport to the border with Ukraine where we made our way along a dusty path to a small train station platform in the dead of night.

With Ukrainian airspace shut down, the 11-hour train into Kyiv is now the only means of mass transportation into the war-torn country. 

The railway service has seen better days. Heavily armed soldiers patrol the narrow train corridors, scrutinising passports of all those on board.

The curtains are drawn, a security measure to help the vehicle remain under the radar, especially since the European Parliament boss is on board. The narrow corridors are illuminated with flickering white neon lights.

The trip is anything but comfortable. Spartan mattresses thinly pad the cabins, providing little insulation from the relentless clatter that echoes throughout the train journey, eerily sounding like a constant barrage of machine gun fire. It’s a sleepless night. 

The train carriage.The train carriage.

Bulletproof vests and helmets

Upon arrival in Kyiv, we were handed bulletproof vests and helmets “just in case” instructed to do so by security. Thankfully, they were never needed. 

Metsola is welcomed by the Speaker of the House Ruslan Stefanchuk – the Ukrainian government is clearly indebted to the Maltese EP president, who was the first European leader to visit Kyiv when the invasion started in 2022. She has also repeatedly delivered on her pledges to Ukraine.

Metsola and the Maltese journalists were immediately transported to a tour of two sites recently bombed by the Russians – a power plant and an art school. 

The acrid scent of smouldering steel welcomed us as we made our way to the power plant where Russian missiles pierced the walls in another attempt to cripple Ukraine’s power supply.

The missile punctured a big enough hole in the ceiling to expose the clear blue sky, its weight strong enough to drill a huge hole in the ground below. Workmen were seen trying to salvage what was left of the large structure.

The art school in the heart of Kyiv was reduced to rubble following an air strike on March 25. Spikes of steel jutted from the ground while neighbouring properties had broken window panes.

The 18-year-old barista across the street shared a video capturing the dramatic impact of the missile blast, which sent equipment flying, damaging the cafe. 

She asks Metsola to add her signature to the wall: “on Europe Day, Slava Ukraini (Glory to Ukraine)”, writes the Maltese president.

Heavy security is present across Kyiv. Photo: Karl Andrew MicallefHeavy security is present across Kyiv. Photo: Karl Andrew Micallef

Life in the capital seems surprisingly normal

Yet, life in the capital seems surprisingly normal on the surface. The streets are filled with cars, restaurants are busy, schools are open and young people are seen on lawns sipping holding cups of coffee.

Most of the city’s rich monuments and churches stand proudly in the spring sun. But there are some caveats.

Soldiers brandishing all kinds of weapons patrol most of the streets, many stationed in camouflaged tents erected all around the city landmarks.

Thousands of sandbags have been stacked around monuments and prominent buildings. They are also placed strategically inside the corridors of top government offices, in anticipation of any possible Russian infiltration of Kyiv.

Torched Russian tanks are displayed as trophies in the historic Mykhailivska Square. The blue and yellow colours of the Ukrainian flag are attached to the charred remains of cars, while large metal tank traps are used to block strategic roads.

Small Ukrainian flags are also planted on Independence Square, each bearing the name of victims of war.

Despite the reminder of war, people in Kyiv are resilient, despite the almost daily air raid sirens that sound through the air and the fact they have to lock themselves indoors to observe a curfew.

The bombed art school in the middle of Kyiv. Photo: Karl Andrew MicallefThe bombed art school in the middle of Kyiv. Photo: Karl Andrew Micallef

'My life and that of millions of others is being wasted away'

During all of Metsola’s meetings, everybody, from government officials to students, sounded one chorus: that Ukraine would emerge victorious and eventually join the European Union.

Hundreds of people were seen clutching desperately at EU flags during the different meetings and events, but deep down aware that the prospect may be a distant one.

“Meanwhile, my life and that of millions of others is being wasted away,” Anna, 28, tells Times of Malta

Like most Ukrainians, the government worker says she is determined to fight but there is also a stark reality they have to contend with. 

“It’s been more than two years and every day I live in fear that a missile will crush my life, or that of my family. My friends in other countries ask why I don’t flee Ukraine. Why should I leave my home country, after all that I have built all my life.

"Who will take care of my parents? Why should we hand all that we’ve built to a brutal dictator?”

Sand bags are placed in most buildings. Photo: Karl Andrew MicallefSand bags are placed in most buildings. Photo: Karl Andrew Micallef

'I might be dead tomorrow'

Asked if she had any long-term plans or prospects, Anna barked back: “How can I make plans? I might be dead tomorrow.”

Under the current martial law, in place since February 2022, Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are generally not allowed to leave the country because the military might call them to serve.

Anna says most of her male friends have been called up to serve and she has lost contact with a number of them who went to fight in the east. She presumes they are dead. 

“I have friends who live under this cloud of terror daily, fearing they will get the call to go fight for their country. Why should they go into a war instead of building their careers and families?”

Death is on everybody’s lips in the country of 38 million. The overwhelming majority of Ukrainians – 78 per cent – have close relatives or friends who have been injured or killed due to the Russian invasion. 

Ukrainians openly speak about the way they had to readjust their lives to try to avoid the danger. 

Metsola and Zelensky at the press conference before the sirens were sounded. Photo: Rene RossiganudMetsola and Zelensky at the press conference before the sirens were sounded. Photo: Rene Rossiganud

'Sirens have become soundtrack to daily lives'

A 35-year-old journalist in Kyiv said air sirens have become the soundtrack to everyone’s daily lives. 

Sirens even interrupted a press conference that Metsola held with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday. 

“This is what the Nazis do in Europe. This is the reality of Europe Day for us Ukrainians,” a visibly angry Zelensky told reporters before being shuffled away into a shelter.

Metsola, Speaker Ruslan Stefanchuk and the Maltese journalists were sent to a nearby bunker underground and told to wait until the sirens go off. 

There was a sense of surrealism in being cooped up in a small, low-ceilinged, faintly illuminated room. A press conference was relocated to another venue underground and while the Maltese contingent tried to get to terms with operating in a country in war, for the Ukrainian journalists it was business as usual.

Within minutes, the online rumour mill started, with posts on social media claiming the air sirens were nothing but a Ukrainian scam intended to impress Metsola on Europe Day. To counteract the narrative, Ukrainian officials showed Metsola and the journalists real-time alerts on a tablet – the flickering red lights on a map showed a barrage of Russian drones entering Ukrainian airspace. 

Metsola with her team and the Ukrainian delegation in a war shelter. Photo: Rene RossignaudMetsola with her team and the Ukrainian delegation in a war shelter. Photo: Rene Rossignaud

'Slava Ukraini'

Ukraine’s bolstered air defence units have become more adept at intercepting Russian drones and missiles fired at the capital, but the fear remains. 

Metsola concluded the whirlwind trip with a visit to a university where she addressed hundreds of students. Very few spoke of war.

Instead, the students excitedly spoke of their dream to become lawyers and human rights activists. Many spoke of their dream to live in a European Union where values and democracy are promoted. Metsola once again promised she would keep fighting to make this dream come true.

As we made our way onto the train for the long journey back to Poland, several people gathered to hug and thank Metsola, some with tears in their eyes. 

A frail elderly frail man clutching a Ukrainian flag, shouted out: “Slava Ukraini”.

Metsola was showered with awards and accolades wherever she went. Photo: Rene RossignaudMetsola was showered with awards and accolades wherever she went. Photo: Rene Rossignaud

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