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Home World News Washington Post World News Ukrainians face nuclear threat with grit and dark humor

Ukrainians face nuclear threat with grit and dark humor



KYIV, Ukraine – Dmytro Bondarenko is ready for the worst.

He’s filled the storage space under his pull-out bed and just about every other corner of his apartment in eastern Kiev with water and non-perishable food. There are rolls of packing tape to seal the windows from radioactive fallout. He has a gas-fired camping stove and walkie-talkies.

There’s even an AR-15 rifle and shotgun for protection, along with boxes of ammunition. Fuel bottles and spare tires are stashed by his washing machine in case he has to leave town in a hurry.

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

With the Russian invasion in the ninth month, many Ukrainians no longer ask whether their country will be hit by nuclear weapons. They are actively preparing for that once unimaginable possibility.

At tables and bars, people often discuss which city would be the most likely target or what type of weapon could be used. Many, like Bondarenko, stock up and make survival plans.

No one wants to believe it could happen, but it seems in the minds of many in Ukraine, who witnessed the worst nuclear accident in the world in 1986 at Chernobyl.

“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 made unsubstantiated claims that Ukraine is preparing a “dirty bomb” in Russian-occupied territories – an explosive device to spread radioactive material and sow fear. Kiev vehemently denied it, saying such statements are likely a sign that Moscow itself is preparing such a bomb and is blaming Ukraine.

The nuclear fears evoke painful memories for those who lived through the Chernobyl disaster, when one of the four reactors exploded and exploded about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Kiev, releasing a plume of radiation. The Soviet authorities initially kept the accident a secret, and while the city was evacuated near the factory, Kiev was not.

Svitlana Bozhko was a 26-year-old journalist in Kiev who was seven months pregnant at the time of the accident, and she believed in official statements that downplayed it. 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 Kiev.

Those 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?” That daughter, who was healthy, now has a 1-year-old of her own and left Kiev the month after Russia invaded.

Bozhko was still living in Kiev at the age of 62 and had hoped that she would never experience anything like this again. But all those fears came back when Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his troops on February 24.

“It was deja vu,” she told AP. “Again, the feelings of tragedy and helplessness overwhelmed me.”

The capital is once again preparing for the release of radioactivity, with more than 1,000 personnel trained to respond, said Roman Tkachuk, head of the capital’s municipal security department. It has purchased a large number of potassium iodide pills and protective equipment for distribution, he added.


With all the high-level talk from Moscow, Washington and Kiev about nuclear threats, Ukrainians’ conversations today are laced with phrases like “strategic and tactical nuclear weapons,” “potassium iodide pills,” “radiation masks,” “plastic raincoats,” and “hermetic.” closed food.

Bondarenko said he started making nuclear survival plans when Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, was hit by Russian attacks.

The 33-year-old app designer thinks he has enough supplies to survive a few weeks and more than enough fuel to leave the country or go deep into the mountains if a nuclear disaster strikes.

He moved from the Donetsk region several years ago after it was threatened by pro-Moscow separatists. He hoped for a quiet life in Kiev, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to live a more isolated life in his apartment, and the war accelerated his survival plans.

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

Bondarenko said he cannot be sure he would be safe from a Russian nuclear attack, but believes it is better to be prepared because “they are crazy”.

Websites offer tips for surviving a dirty bomb, while TikTok has multiple reports of people packing “nuclear baggage” to escape quickly and offering advice on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.

According to its creator, Alex Wellerstein, October saw “huge spikes” of Ukrainian visits to NUKEMAP, a website that allows users to simulate an atomic bomb dropped on a particular location.

The fear has led to dark humor. More than 8,000 people took part in a chat on Telegram’s messaging service after a joke tweeted that in the event of a nuclear attack, survivors should go to Kiev’s Schekavytsia Hill for an orgy.

On the serious side, mental health experts say having a support network is key to staying resilient in uncertain times.

“That is often the case in Ukraine and you also have to feel that you can handle this. And there’s a sense of community (that’s) pretty strong,” said Dr Koen Sevenants, head of mental health and psychosocial support for global child protection for UNICEF.

However, he said extended periods under threat can lead to a feeling of helplessness, hopelessness and depression. While a level of normalization may occur, that may change as threats increase.

Those living near the war front lines, such as the residents of Mykolaiv, say they are often too exhausted to think about new threats, having endured almost constant shelling. The city, 500 kilometers south of Kiev, is closest to Kherson, where the battle is raging.

“Whether I believe it or not, we must prepare” for the nuclear threat, regional government chief Vitalii Kim told AP. He said regional officials are working on various scenarios and mapping evacuation routes.

More than half of the pre-war population of 500,000 has fled Mykolaiv. Many who stayed, such as 73-year-old Valentyna, say they are too tired to leave now.

She sleeps in a windowless basement that she shares with about 10 other neighbors in conditions so humiliating that she 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 as she tries to sleep at night on a bed made of stacked wooden beams, her mind wanders to the fate that awaits her.

“During the First World War they mainly fought with horses. During World War II, with tanks,’ she said. “Nobody rules out the possibility that it will be a nuclear weapon this time.”

“People are moving forward, and so are the weapons they use to fight,” Tamara added. “But man does not change, and history repeats itself.”

In Kiev, Bozhko feels the same fatigue. She’s learned what to do if a missile strikes, stocks up on resources for various types of chemical attacks, and packs what she calls her “fear baggage” — essential items in case of sudden evacuation.

“I’m so tired of being scared; I’ll just keep living my life,” she says, “but if something happens, we’ll try to fight and survive.”

And she said she understands 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 someone wants to exterminate you in any way,” said Bozhko, “and the second is much more terrifying.”

Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at

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