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One witness describes the Russian invasion of Ukraine: 'I woke up and heard bombing'

Vitaliy Shutov says he is willing to fight for Ukraine if he needs to.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
Vitaliy Shutov says he is willing to fight for Ukraine if he needs to.

When 22-year-old college student Vitaliy went to bed last night, he didn't think a Russian invasion of Ukraine would actually happen.

But then he woke to the sound of explosions near his home city of Kherson, in the country's south, and his apartment was trembling.

"I'm like paralyzed and freaking out right now. It's a really scary situation," he told NPR.

"Everybody in my college right now is scared. And we're sharing the news and information that we have."

Vitaliy's grandmother lives about 40 miles from him, and he said she lost electricity. He was bracing for the same, and worried that within hours Russian troops could take control of his city.

He plans to stay because he said he doesn't have anywhere else to go. Others are already making a run for it, but with everyone scrambling for supplies it is slow going.

"It's like a 2-hour line at every single grocery store, so it's crazy outside," he said. "It's crazy out there. In the morning, you cannot even fill the gas for your car because there is like a 3-hour-long, I guess like a couple of kilometers, line just to get the gas."

People wait for gas at the station near Ukraine's border with Poland after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in Ukraine.
Janek Skarzynski / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
People wait for gas at the station near Ukraine's border with Poland after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in Ukraine.

Just days ago, Vitaliy was confident Russia would never invade.

"I was like 80% sure that [it would] never happen to us. And today I woke up in the morning, I heard bombing and I did not know what was going on," he said. "I never thought that this can happen. But it did."

A senior U.S. defense official told NPR that more than 100 missiles were fired at Ukrainian targets last night.

The official said there are indications that Ukrainian forces are fighting back, but there is no estimate yet on the overall damage or casualties. They said the heaviest fighting was in the northeast city of Kharkiv, and there has been some fighting at an airport in Kyiv.

The official added that the Russian assault on Ukraine was in the "initial phase" of a "large-scale invasion" and was likely to be "multi-phases."

Another Pentagon official told NPR that upcoming military targets were in population areas, so casualties could increase.

In Kherson, Vitaliy said he was willing to fight if called upon by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

"If I have to, then I will. Of course, I mean, I've never held in my arms a gun, for example. I don't know how to shoot it. I don't know how to use it," he said. "But if I get drafted, then I'll be OK with it. And I'll go fight."

For now, he is watching local news and messaging his friends to try to keep up to date with the latest developments.

"So, we just hope and pray for the best that we stand strong," he said.

"We are Ukrainians, and I will never be Russian."

There were similar scenes playing out across Ukraine.

In Kyiv, local Svetlana was taking refuge in her apartment with a friend.

"I'm really scared and frustrated. Today has been a real hell on earth for the Ukrainians," she said.

In the same city, resident Misha echoed the sentiment, saying: "We decided to stay for family reasons ... and it's all just terrible. It's terrifying. It's a disaster. It's like being inside a Hollywood movie about some sort of the end of the world."

It was a markedly different scene in the western city of Lviv earlier on Thursday.

"It's actually warm and the spring is coming and the sun is shining. We have a beautiful peaceful blue sky," Ivanka Hanok told NPR. "It's absolutely peaceful today comparing to many other Ukrainian cities, absolutely peaceful. So far all Lviv is untouched, and, oh God, help us to stay that way."

The 39-year-old city guide and mother of three said that generally, daily life still bears some semblance of normalcy. Store shelves remain stocked and public transport is still operating.

Despite the relatively calm scene in Lviv, the gravity of the threat from Russia's invasion is not lost on her.

"Actually, I'm close to panic, because it's damn scary. Everything looks perfectly normal here. But it's just, I have kids."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.