A Cuban Living in Kyiv, Ukraine under Fire

A Cuban Living in Kyiv, Ukraine under Fire

4 / marzo / 2022

“Let’s talk here, from the bathroom. The bathroom’s windows don’t overlook the street, so you can’t see the lights from outside. Lights turn you into an easy target or, at the very least, send the message that somebody is at home. It’s better not to send this message when you’re in a war, because all kinds of things happen in a war: a missile can hit you, there’s the enemy that wants to hurt you or the robber that wants to take the little you have.”

The basement

When he can go up to his house, Humberto Valdes locks himself in the bathroom to talk to his loved ones. He’s been staying in his building’s basement for days now, located in Kyiv, the city where he’s been living the past 5 years. He flew from Cuba to Russia, making the most of the visa exemption, but he wasn’t fully convinced about this country and continued hopping around the region, until he finally settled in Ukraine. Back then, Kyiv wasn’t the ghost city it is now. “I never imagined seeing the streets so empty,” he comments.

He already knows every inch of the basement. Two families have sought refuge there, 7 people in total, counting himself and his wife. The rest of the neighbors have left, except for some elderly people, who haven’t left their homes. Their building of approximately 120 apartments is now pretty much empty.

The basement is just over 200m2. Each family has taken over a small part, where they keep their supplies and a piece or two of furniture to rest on.

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“Every now and again, somebody will complain about the mice, but that really is the least of our concerns right now.”

“Every now and again, somebody will complain about the mice, but that really is the least of our concerns right now.”

“We’ve taken down some chairs, and the other family has even brought down a mattress so they can sleep here. I don’t sleep in the night. I prefer to sleep in the day when things are calmer. I will try and enjoy my bed for as long as I can.”

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The basement where different families have sought refuge.

“This situation has led us to get to know our neighbors better. In these huge buildings, and with the everyday hustle and bustle, you barely know anyone. Ever since we’ve been down here, we talk to each other, help each other, and even joke about to ease the stress. The neighbors’ daughter plays with our pets because they don’t leave our side, and we share and protect what we have together. Sometimes, we take some of the elderly neighbors who are alone in the building for a walk. They haven’t wanted to leave their homes; they’ve spent their entire lives here and say they won’t leave. Some couldn’t even if they wanted to, some of them are bed-ridden, with fragile health, how long will they last?”

“I am constantly receiving calls from my friends. Some of them are in Russia. One of them was obsessed with politics and was always saying good things about the Government. Now, he doesn’t talk about it at all. He feels shame even though it isn’t his fault. I am also ashamed about the stance Cuba has taken in this regard, but it’s not my fault either. Being in the basement has taught me that there’s no room for reproaching right now. None of us wanted this war.”

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Humberto and his wife sleep in their apartment during the day. They’ve put a mattress up against the window to protect themselves from possible explosions.

Supplies

“When we’re not sleeping in the day, we wait in line. There are lots of lines, and a lot of shortages. This reminds of Cuba more and more: you stop when you see a crowd of people, and you don’t even ask what there is anymore. There isn’t a lot of choice. You have to grab what shows up.”

“Getting a hold of provisions has become a complicated matter. Something as simple as bread has become a “rich man’s” food. As canned food is in shortage, fresh products have shot up in price.”

“Add to this the fact that banks are closed, and most ATM machines don’t let you withdraw cash. With uncertainty about what’s going to happen with the banks, very few of the businesses left open are accepting card payments. So, people like me, who found ourselves without cash or any way to withdraw it overnight, have to walk about like madmen trying to find somewhere with food, where they also accept the goddamn card.”

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They almost always eat bread, cold cuts or other kinds of fast food. They always try to eat something hot to beat off the cold.

“Lines can be hours long. You wait a long time, and you get pretty much nothing. We spent approximately 70 USD today, and we didn’t even get enough to fill a small bag. A packet of six sausages cost me 200 hryvnia, which is more or less the equivalent of 7 dollars. This was the cheapest food around before. It didn’t even cost a dollar, and now look…”

“On the other hand, we’ve had to buy in small quantities, because we don’t know how long this war is going to last. On the one hand, we’re feeling pressured to stock up any food that shows up, but on the other, we have to make sure we’re not storing too much. We don’t know if we’ll have to move, or if we’ll get robbed, or if a bomb falls on us and we lose everything we have, plus the money we invested in it. It might sound like an exaggeration to those of you who aren’t living this, but when you walk around a neighborhood and see a building hit by a missile, you realize that you can’t’ rule anything out, that it could also happen to your building.”

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The family that stays with Humberto in the basement is a 40-something year old couple, their teenage daughter, and their parents, who are around 60 years old.

“We’ve been able to keep the fresh food we’ve found in the fridge, for now. Luckily, they haven’t cut the electricity, or water. We leave the basement and go up to our apartment once or twice a day and prepare something to eat. It has to be something fast, not very complicated, in case the air raid sirens go off. We almost always eat a sandwich, spaghetti, or a bowl of soup, to get something hot into the body. Soup is the best, as it’s only 1 degree outside and it’s a little cold in the basement.”

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They almost always eat bread, cold cuts or other kinds of fast food. They always try to eat something hot to beat off the cold.

“Water is the thing we’re most worried about. You can’t drink the tap water, and we have very little bottled water left. You can get it for free apparently from some places, but it runs out real quick. Yesterday, we went out looking for it and we couldn’t find any. If we don’t find any tomorrow and we finish what’s left, I’ll have to boil tap water and filter it. I’m praying so it won’t affect my stomach. I hope not because I’m from Cuba, goddamit, my stomach is supposed to be used to it, hahaha.”

Strategies

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Part of this family sleeps in the basement at night or use the mattress there to rest a little in the morning.

“We can only be outside for a limited period of time. There’s a curfew at 8 PM that lasts until 8 AM. If they catch anyone in the street during this time, they are arrested. I understand it on the one hand: someone walking about at night, in this situation, could be planning an act of sabotage, a theft or be an infiltrated Russian agent.”

“Anyhow, almost nobody waits for it to be 8 PM to go home. Air raid sirens start going off at 5 and 6 PM, and pretty much all of us go running to seek cover.”

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Mika and Chika, Humberto’s pets. They have also had to adapt to the new situation.

“We’ve set up a WhatsApp group with friends from different regions. Each of us have included other people we trust, and that’s where we notify each other of the places that are under attack, or we give each other some moral support. The only condition we have is that the information needs to be verified: there’s a lot of fake news out there, people are fascinated by war, they share fake images and suddenly you’re under the impression you’re in a completely destroyed city, when that’s not exactly the case. The Russian Army hasn’t been able to enter Kyiv, yet. The Ukrainian Army have blown up bridges and access points to stop them getting through. The main ravages have been from the air or caused by separatist forces inside the city. We also take care around them, because many of them are sabotaging places, abusing civilians or stealing from empty buildings.”

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Families voluntarily donate some of their shopping to Ukrainian soldiers who protect the area. They also give them their empty bottles so they can fabricate Molotov cocktails.

“The WhatsApp group is the best strategy we have to keep updated, and it also helps with simpler matters too, such as telling us where we can find free water or food. “Whoever gets there first, get me a place in line,” I joke, as if we were in Cuba.” But the reality is that we’re all over the place. Some people are writing from metro stations, others from shelters in other cities. We tell each other that we’ll have a big party to get to know each other in person once all this shit calms down.”

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Damage in the city, because of air raids or clashes with separatist forces. The Ukrainian Army has blown up most of the bridges to stop the Russian Army from reaching the city.

Fears

“I remember people looking up when they heard a plane in Cuba, and they would be excited by the prospect of traveling, of getting on board one. I never thought that this sound would become a source of fear. I never thought that I would run when I heard this noise, or that I would be frightened by the sound of a car starting up, or any other loud noise. Loud noises kill our nerves. When you realize it’s nothing, you calm down, and even laugh, but you can never shake off this initial fear.”

“It’s sad to have your heart beating fast all the time.”

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Lines can be hours long and some products are being rationed because of shortages.

“Every time one of these frightening episodes happens, a thousand things go through your mind: your family, what you’ve done in your life until then. Can you imagine starting from scratch all over again?”

“That’s one of the reasons I haven’t left Kyiv, like so many others have, because I refuse to start all over again. After five years in this country, having lived as an illegal immigrant, working in jobs I never imagined and doing work I never imagined, it’s not fair that I have to leave everything behind when it’s taken me so much to get it.”

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Water reserves are running out.

“I have a life here. If I leave here, I’ll be alone, with nobody to look out for me in these new countries. I have no guarantees as a Ukrainian citizen, because I’m still in the process of getting my papers, and as a Cuban citizen… well, our Embassy hasn’t exactly been the best. I am constantly seeing news reports of how embassies have protected their staff, and how they are looking out for their citizens crossing the border. Ours hasn’t done any of this. I feel unprotected, in this sense at least.”

“Nor would I leave my wife behind, who has elderly parents, children, a family that already had their lives here. She couldn’t leave even if she wanted to. Her children are 14 and 23 years old, and they wouldn’t be allowed to leave. Adult males are being recruited into the Army, to fight for Ukraine. We’ve hidden them for now, we don’t want them to go to a war where they have more chance of dying than they do winning. This is a war of an ant against an elephant, and they’re still kids.”

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Streets after the curfew comes into place.

“I just hope all these fears go away soon. That I don’t have to worry about sirens anymore, or our family, or my dogs Mika and Chika, or for the animals in private zoos who are dying of hunger near Kyiv. I don’t want to have to worry about my friends in shelters or those crossing the border with Poland or Romania. Every day, I look at my saints, and I pray for us and everyone else. My saints came with from Cuba, we’ve been together in different countries, and I was even stopped at borders and airports because the iron and nails they are made out of are dangerous. I didn’t travel without them, and I hope that if they’ve come with me this far, they will protect me now. I have faith they will.”


This article was translated into English from the original in Spanish.

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Ely Justiniani Pérez
Mucha gente me llama "Justa" en esfuerzo cariñoso por acortar mi apellido. Intento serlo, en mis textos y en la vida. Amo a los animales, viajar y el olor a libro nuevo. Creo que el buen periodismo puede cambiar el mundo.
ely

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