kyiv (HPD) — Dmytro Bondarenko is prepared for the worst.
In almost every corner of his apartment in the east of kyiv there is water and non-perishable food; even under his rollaway bed there are supplies. There are rolls of packing tape to insulate the windows from radioactive fallout. It has a gas-powered camping stove and walkie-talkies.
There’s even an AR-15 rifle and shotgun for protection, along with boxes of ammo. There are fuel cans and spare tires stashed next to your washing machine in case you need to get out of town in a hurry.
“Any preparation can increase my chances of survival,” he said, using a knife and first aid kit.
Nine months after the Russian invasion, many Ukrainians no longer wonder if their country will be attacked by nuclear weapons. They are actively preparing for that once unthinkable possibility.
In restaurants and bars, people often discuss which city will be the most likely target or what type of weapon might be used. Many, like Bondarenko, are stocking up on supplies and making survival plans.
No one wants to believe it could happen, but it seems to be on the minds of many in Ukraine, where the world’s worst nuclear accident occurred at Chernobyl in 1986.
“Of course Ukraine takes this threat seriously, because we understand what kind of country we are dealing with,” presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said in an interview with The Associated Press, referring to Russia.
The Kremlin has unsubstantiated claims that Ukraine is preparing a “dirty bomb” in the Russian-occupied areas, an explosive that disperses radioactive material and creates panic. kyiv denies this and has said that such statements are more likely a sign that Moscow is preparing such a bomb and blame Ukraine.
MEMORIES OF CHERNOBYL
Nuclear fears trigger painful memories in those who lived through the Chernobyl disaster, when one of the four reactors exploded and burned about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of kyiv, releasing a radioactive plume. Initially, the Soviet authorities kept the accident secret and, although the city near the plant was evacuated, the Ukrainian capital was not.
Svitlana Bozhko was a 26-year-old journalist from kyiv who was seven months pregnant at the time of the accident and believed official statements downplaying the nuclear accident. But her husband, who had spoken to a physicist, convinced her to flee with him to the southeastern Poltava region, and she realized the threat when she saw radiation monitors and officials washing the tires of cars leaving kyiv.
Those fears haunted Bozhko for the rest of her pregnancy, and when her daughter was born, her first question was, “How many fingers does she have?” The girl, who was born healthy, now has a 1-year-old son and left kyiv a month after Russia launched the invasion on February 24.
Still living in kyiv at 62, Bozhko hoped he would never have to go through something like this again. But all those fears returned when Russian President Vladimir Putin sent in his forces.
“It was deja vu,” he told the HPD. “Once again, feelings of tragedy and helplessness overwhelmed me.”
The capital is again preparing for the release of radioactivity, with more than 1,000 people trained to respond, said Roman Tkachuk, head of the capital’s Municipal Security Department. A large quantity of potassium iodide tablets and protective gear have been purchased for distribution, he added.
BLACK HUMOR ABOUT NUCLEAR BOMBS
With all the high-level talk from Moscow, Washington, and kyiv about atomic threats, the Ukrainians’ conversations these days include phrases like “strategic and tactical nuclear weapons,” “potassium iodide pills,” “radiation masks.” , “plastic raincoats” and “hermetically sealed food”.
Bondarenko said he started making survival plans when the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhia, the largest in Europe, was hit by Russian attacks.
The 33-year-old app designer thinks he has enough supplies to get him through a couple of weeks and more than enough fuel to leave the country or head into the mountains if a nuclear disaster strikes.
Bondarenko left Donetsk several years ago after pro-Russian separatists threatened her. She hoped to have a quiet life in kyiv, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to further isolate himself in her apartment, and the war accelerated her plans for survival.
His supplies include 200 liters (53 gallons) of water, potassium iodide tablets to protect his thyroid from radiation, respirator masks and disposable booties to protect him from contaminated soil.
Bondarenko said he can’t be sure he’s safe from a Russian nuclear attack, but believes it’s best to be prepared because “they’re crazy.”
There are websites offering tips on how to survive a dirty bomb, while TikTok has several posts from people packing “nuclear luggage” for a quick escape and offering advice on what to do in the event of an atomic attack.
In October, the number of Ukrainian visits to NUKEMHPD, a website that allows users to simulate an atomic bomb being dropped at a given location, skyrocketed, according to its creator, Alex Wellerstein.
Anxiety has provoked black humor. More than 8,000 people joined a Telegram chat after a joke was tweeted that in the event of a nuclear attack, survivors should go to kyiv’s Schekavytsia hill for an orgy.
On the serious side, mental health experts say having a support network is key to weathering uncertain times.
“That is usually the case in Ukraine and you also have to have a feeling that you can cope with this. And there is this group feeling (which is) quite strong,” said Dr Koen Sevenants, lead for mental health and psychosocial support at UNICEF, the UN children’s agency.
However, Sevenants warns that prolonged periods under threat can lead to feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and depression. While a level of normalization can be set, that can change when threats increase.
FATIGUE ON THE WAR FRONT
Those who live close to the war front, like residents of Mykolaiv, say they are often too tired to think of new threats, having endured almost constant shelling. The city 500 kilometers (310 miles) south of kyiv is the closest to Kherson, where battles are fought.
“Whether you believe it or not, we must prepare” for the nuclear threat, the head of the regional administration, Vitalii Kim, told the HPD. He added that regional authorities are working on various scenarios and mapping evacuation routes.
More than half of the pre-war population of 500,000 has fled Mykolaiv. Many of those who stayed, like 73-year-old Valentyna, say they are too tired to leave.
She sleeps in a windowless basement shared with 10 other neighbors in conditions so humiliating that she asked not to be identified. She says about the threat of a nuclear attack: “Now I believe that everything can happen”.
Another woman at the shelter, who wanted to be identified only as Tamara for the same reasons, said that as she tries to sleep at night in a bed made of stacked wooden beams, her mind drifts to the fate that awaits her.
“During the First World War, they fought mainly with horses. During World War II, with tanks,” he stated. “Nobody excludes the possibility that this time it will be a nuclear weapon.”
“People progress, and with it, the weapons they use to fight,” Tamara added. “But man does not change, and history repeats itself.”
In kyiv, Bozhko is also tired. She has learned what to do in case she drops a missile, keeps a supply of remedies for various types of chemical attacks, and has what she calls her “anxiety kit”: essentials packed in case of a sudden evacuation.
“I am so tired of being afraid; I just keep living my life,” she says, “but if something happens, we will try to fight and survive.”
And he claims to understand the difference between 1986 and 2022.
“Back then, we were afraid of the power of atoms. This time, we are faced with a situation where a person wants to exterminate you by any means,” Bozhko said, “and the second one is much more terrifying.”