Outside a children’s clinic in Kiev that has now become a bomb shelter, a group of passersby wrestled with a question that has haunted Ukraine’s 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 early Thursday morning in an explosion near the entrance to their community shelter, after being locked out in an airstrike. At least a dozen others were injured.
The deaths shocked a city accustomed to airstrikes and missiles, and have sparked multiple investigations, four arrests and widespread mourning. President Volodymyr Zelensky has called for law enforcement to bring those responsible to justice.
“Unfortunately, even today – after all that has happened – the people of Kiev repeatedly post information about the lack of access to shelters,” Zelensky said in a speech Friday evening. “This level of negligence in the city cannot be covered by excuses.”
By Friday afternoon, three different memorials of flowers, stuffed animals and candles had been erected at the doors of the clinic. A woman, standing outside the police line, was crying softly. A young boy drew the Ukrainian flag in blue and yellow chalk on the sidewalk next to an informal tribute, writing in blocky text “Glory to Ukraine.”
“My daughter was delayed by 30 seconds, which saved her life. If they ran together, she would be dead too,” says Larysa Sukhomlyn, 64, whose daughter, Olya, often went to the clinic’s basement during air raids.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine last year, the war has been marked by moments of chance and terror: mere minutes or meters sometimes determine who lives or dies, from frontline battlefields to Ukraine’s densely populated cities and the Russian border regions, where some authorities recently described Ukrainian shelling. and announced evacuations.
But the three Ukrainians murdered in Kiev, Natalia Velchenko, 33, Olha Ivashko, 34, and Olha’s 9-year-old daughter, Viktoria, appeared to have had enough time to reach safety Thursday morning.
Their deaths reflected a worst-case scenario of what happens when the citizens of Kiev have to navigate a web of hundreds of bomb shelters scattered around the city. Those shelters have become increasingly important as Russia has stepped up its airstrikes in recent weeks, after an already brutal winter of long-range strikes and blackouts.
Some shelters are closed. Others are kept in poor condition. And according to several Kiev residents, it is often confusing to find those responsible for its maintenance. This lack of action has placed the burden on local residents to coordinate with each other so they know where to find safety.
“Was it necessary for people to die so that the bomb shelters around Kiev could remain open?” asked Tetiana Kukuruza, 26, who lives in the center of town. “They should have dealt with this case 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, told Telegram that authorities “control access to the shelters.”
Serhiy Popko, the head of Kiev’s military city administration, said the country’s main intelligence and security agency, the prosecutor’s office and the national police are investigating who is to blame.
Some doubted that there would ever be justice.
“No one is handling this. Not Klitschko or anyone else,” said Vadym, a resident who lives near the blast site and declined to give his last name for fear of reprisals. “I don’t know who decides this, they shift the responsibility to each other, and that’s it.”
About seven minutes passed between the air raid siren, which sounded at around 2:49 a.m., and the explosion outside the clinic, residents said. It was long enough for families to get dressed and go to the basement.
The children’s health clinic, known as Primary Health Care Center No. 3 of Desnianskyi District, contains televisions, medicines and medical records. The building is usually locked in the middle of the night, but for some reason, residents said, the outside access to the basement was also locked. One woman, who declined to give her name, said she had to knock repeatedly in recent days to gain access to the shelter.
The watchman on duty Thursday morning was detained and tested for drug and alcohol use, said a police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues. Three other people, including the director and deputy director of the clinic, have been detained for questioning, the prosecutor’s office of Ukraine said.
Authorities in a Russian border region, Belgorod, also described recent war-related casualties and confusion, but without much detail. The region’s governor, Vyacheslav Gladkov, said two women were killed after their car was hit by an artillery shell near the town of Shebekino, about six miles from the Ukrainian border.
A video posted by Russian military correspondents to document the aftermath showed a cloud of smoke rising near a motorcade of passenger cars. The video cannot be independently verified.
“Conditions are quite difficult,” Mr Gladkov said in a Telegram post on Friday, adding that about 2,500 people in Belgorod have been evacuated due to Ukrainian shelling and raids.
The number of people evacuated could not be confirmed, but Belgorod residents who traveled to Shebekino on Thursday described the farming community, with a population of 40,000, as a ghost town. They said many residents had left without waiting for an official evacuation after shelling cellars during hours of shelling.
Unrest in the Belgorod region has intensified since two paramilitary groups crossed the border last week and briefly held 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 had been fighting on the outskirts of Shebekino for a second day. Russian authorities had said on Thursday that the insurgents at the border had been turned back. On Friday, spokesmen for the Russian Volunteer Corps and Free Russia Legion declined to comment, except that operations continued.
Both groups, which operate out of Ukraine and are made up of anti-Kremlin Russian citizens, have claimed they do not target civilians and only attack security installations.
Witnesses in the region have described widespread damage in Shebekino, including to residential buildings. Video footage verified by DailyExpertNews showed an apartment building in the city on fire.
If scenes of flight and destruction are relatively new to Russians, such bombings have become painfully familiar to many Ukrainians.
For the residents of the eastern district of Kiev near the clinic, who lived in a cluster of Soviet-style apartment blocks surrounded by small shops, visiting the children’s clinic had been part of a weeks-long routine as Russia deployed drones, cruise missiles and launched ballistic missiles. much of May in the capital.
About a dozen people had gathered outside Clinic No. 3 early Thursday morning to take shelter in the basement. While huddled, beating and waiting for entry, Ukrainian air defenses, supported by Western-supplied weapons such as the Patriot missile, only partially intercepted a Russian ballistic missile, sending it off course but not destroying its warhead, the police officer said.
The ammunition tumbled from the air and landed just meters from the front door of the air raid shelter, shooting a wide fan of shrapnel that stretched for hundreds of meters. The explosion shattered windows in nearby buildings and knocked doors off their hinges in the clinic, creating a crater about 4 meters wide.
“I watched from the balcony how it happened,” said the neighbor, Ms. Sukhomlyn, describing the last moments of the mother and child. “When the grandmother saw that they had approached the clinic, there was an explosion. She immediately ran out and started yelling their names.”
Anatoly Kurmanaev And Michael Schwirtz reporting contributed.