Ukrainians face nuclear threat with courage and black humor

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Dmytro Bondarenko is prepared for the worst.

He filled the storage area under his folding bed and just about every other corner of his apartment in eastern Kyiv with water and non-perishable food. There are rolls of tape to seal the windows from radioactive fallout. He has a gas camping stove and walkie-talkies.

There’s even an AR-15 rifle and shotgun for protection, as well as ammo boxes. Fuel cans and spare tires are hidden near his washing machine in case he needs to leave town urgently.

“Any preparation can increase my chances of survival,” he said, carrying a knife and a first aid kit.

With the Russian invasion in its ninth month, many Ukrainians no longer wonder if their country will be struck by nuclear weapons. They are actively preparing for this once unthinkable possibility.

Over dinner parties and in bars, people often discuss which city would be the most likely target or what type of weapon might be used. Many, like Bondarenko, stock up on supplies and make survival plans.

No one wants to believe this could happen, but it seems to be on the minds of many in Ukraine, which experienced the world’s worst nuclear accident 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 made baseless claims that Ukraine was preparing a “dirty bomb” in Russian-occupied areas – an explosive intended to disperse radioactive materials and spread fear. Kyiv strongly denied this and said such statements are more likely a sign that Moscow is preparing such a bombshell itself and blaming it on Ukraine.


Nuclear fears trigger painful memories in those who lived through the Chernobyl disaster, when one of four reactors exploded and burned about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Kyiv, releasing a plume of radiation. Soviet authorities initially kept the accident a secret, and although the town near the plant was evacuated, Kyiv was not.

Svitlana Bozhko was a 26-year-old journalist in Kyiv who was seven months pregnant at the time of the accident, and she believed official statements that downplayed it. But her husband, who had spoken to a physicist, convinced her to flee with him to the southeastern region of Poltava, and she realized the threat when she saw radiation monitors and officials flushing tires cars leaving Kyiv.

These fears worried Bozhko for the rest of her pregnancy, and when her daughter was born, her first question was, “How many fingers does my child have?” This girl, who was healthy, now has a one-year-old child and left Kyiv the month after the invasion of Russia.

Still living in Kyiv at 62, Bozhko had hoped she would never have to experience something like this again. But all those fears returned when Russian President Vladimir Putin sent in his forces on February 24.

“It was deja vu,” she told AP. “Once again the 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. He bought a large number of potassium iodide tablets and protective equipment to distribute them, he added.


With all the high-profile talk from Moscow, Washington and Kyiv about atomic threats, Ukrainians’ conversations these days are peppered with phrases such as “strategic and tactical nuclear weapons”, “potassium iodide pills”.“, “radiation masks”, “plastic raincoats” and “hermetically sealed food”.

Bondarenko said he began developing nuclear survival plans when Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – the largest in Europe – was hit by Russian attacks.

The 33-year-old app designer reckons he has enough supplies to survive for a few weeks and more than enough fuel to leave the country or go deep into the mountains in the event of a nuclear disaster.

He left the Donetsk region several years ago after being threatened by pro-Moscow separatists. He had hoped for a quiet life in Kyiv, but the COVID-19 pandemic has forced him to live more isolated in his apartment and the war has accelerated his plans for survival.

His supplies include 200 liters (53 gallons) of water, potassium iodide pills to protect his thyroid from radiation, breathing masks and disposable slippers to protect against contaminated soil.

Bondarenko said he couldn’t be sure he would be safe from a Russian nuclear strike, but thinks it’s better to be prepared because “they’re crazy”.

Websites offer tips for surviving a dirty bomb while TikTok has several posts from people packing ‘nuclear luggage’ make a quick getaway and offer advice on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.

October saw “huge spikes” in Ukrainian visits to NUKEMAPa website that allows users to simulate an atomic bomb dropped at a given location, according to its creator, Alex Wellerstein.

Anxiety sparked black humor. More than 8,000 people joined a chat on the Telegram messaging service after a tweeted joke that in the event of a nuclear strike, survivors should go to Schekavytsia hill in Kyiv for an orgy.

More seriously, mental health experts say having a support network is key to staying resilient in these uncertain times.

“This is often the case in Ukraine and you also have to have the feeling of being able to cope with it. And there’s this group feeling (which is) quite strong,” said Dr Koen Sevenants, Head of Mental Health and Psychosocial Support for Global Child Protection for UNICEF.

However, he said long periods under threat can lead to feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and depression. Although a level of normalization may be established, this may change as threats increase.


Those who live near the frontline of the war, like the residents of Mykolaiv, say they are often too exhausted to think of new threats, as they have endured almost constant shelling. The town 500 kilometers (310 miles) south of Kyiv is closest to Kherson, where battles are raging.

“Whether I believe it or not, we have to prepare” for the nuclear threat, the head of the regional administration, Vitalii Kim, told the AP. He said regional officials were working through various scenarios and mapping evacuation routes.

More than half of the 500,000 pre-war inhabitants fled Mykolaiv. Many of those who stayed, like Valentyna, 73, say they are too tired to leave now.

She sleeps in a windowless basement shared with a dozen other neighbors in conditions so humiliating that she has asked not to be fully identified. Of the threat of a nuclear attack, she says, “Now I believe anything can happen.”

Another woman at the shelter, who wanted to be identified only as Tamara for the same reasons, said that trying to sleep at night on a bed made of stacked wooden beams made her mind turn to the fate that awaited her.

“During the First World War, they fought mainly with horses. During World War II, with tanks,” she said. “No one is ruling out the possibility that this time it’s a nuclear weapon.”

“People are progressing, and with them the weapons they use to fight,” Tamara added. “But the man does not change and history repeats itself.”

In Kyiv, Bozhko feels the same fatigue. She’s learned what to do in the event of a missile strike, keeps a stash of remedies for various types of chemical attacks and has what she calls her “anxiety baggage” – packaged essentials in the event of a sudden evacuation.

“I’m so sick of being scared; I continue to live my life,” she says, “but if something happens, we will try to fight and survive.

And she said she understood the difference between 1986 and 2022.

“At the time, we were afraid of the power of atoms. This time we are faced with a situation where one person wants to exterminate you by any means,” Bozhko said, “and the second is much more terrifying.”


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