KYIV, Ukraine — Dmytro Bondarenko is ready for the worst.
He’s filled the storage area under his fold-up bed and just about every other nook of his apartment in eastern Kyiv with water and nonperishable 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 a shotgun for protection, along with boxes of ammo. Fuel canisters and spare tires are stashed by his washing machine in case he needs to leave the city in a hurry.
“Any preparation can increase my chance to survive,” he said, wearing a knife and a first-aid kit.
With the Russian invasion in its ninth month, many Ukrainians no longer ask if their country will be hit by nuclear weapons. They are actively preparing for that once-unthinkable possibility.
Over dinner tables and in bars, people often discuss which city would be the most likely target or what type of weapon could be used. Many, like Bondarenko, are stocking up on supplies and making survival plans.
PHOTOS: Ukrainians face nuclear threat with grit and dark humor
Nobody wants to believe it can happen, but it seems to be on the mind of many in Ukraine, which saw 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 has made unsubstantiated claims that Ukraine is preparing a “dirty bomb” in Russian-occupied areas – an explosive to scatter radioactive material and sow fear. Kyiv strenuously denied it and said such statements are more probably a sign that Moscow is itself preparing such a bomb and blame it on Ukraine.
MEMORIES OF CHERNOBYL
The nuclear fears trigger painful memories from 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 secret, and while 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 played it down. 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 rinsing the tires of cars leaving Kyiv.
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 Kyiv the month after Russia invaded.
Still living in Kyiv at age 62, Bozhko had hoped she would never have to go through something like that again. But all those fears returned when Russian President Vladimir Putin sent in his forces on Feb. 24.
“It was a deja vu,” she told AP. “Once again, the feelings of tragedy and helplessness overwhelmed me.”
The capital again is 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 bought a large number of potassium iodide pills and protective equipment for distribution, he added.
CASUAL TALK AND DARK HUMOR ABOUT NUKES
With all the high-level talk from Moscow, Washington and Kyiv about atomic threats, Ukrainians’ conversations these days are studded with phrases like “strategic and tactical nuclear weapons,” “ potassium iodide pills,” “radiation masks,” “plastic raincoats,” and “hermetically sealed food.”
Bondarenko said he started making nuclear survival plans when Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant – the largest in Europe – was affected by Russian attacks.
The 33-year-old app designer figures he’s got enough supplies to survive for a couple of weeks and more than enough fuel to leave the country or move deep into the mountains if nuclear disaster strikes.
He moved from the Donetsk region several years ago after it was threatened by pro-Moscow separatists. He hoped for a calm life in Kyiv but the COVID-19 pandemic forced 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 face masks and disposable booties to guard against contaminated soil.
Bondarenko said he can’t be sure he would be safe from a Russian nuclear strike but believes it’s better to be prepared because “they’re crazy.”
Websites offer tips for surviving a dirty bomb while TikTok has multiple posts of people packing “nuclear luggage” to make a quick getaway and offering advice on what to do in case of a nuclear attack.
October has seen “huge spikes” of Ukrainian visits to NUKEMAP, a website that allows users to simulate an atomic bomb dropped on a given location, according to its creator, Alex Wellerstein.
The anxiety has prompted dark humor. More than 8,000 people joined a chat on the Telegram messaging service after a tweeted joke that in case of a nuclear strike, survivors should go to Kyiv’s Schekavytsia Hill for an orgy.
On the serious side, mental health experts say having a support network is key to remaining resilient during uncertain times.
“That’s often the case in Ukraine and also you need to have the feeling that you can cope with this. And there is this group feeling (that is) quite strong,” said Dr, Koen Sevenants, lead for mental health and psychosocial support for global child protection for UNICEF.
However, he said extended periods under threat can lead to a sense of helplessness, hopelessness and depression. While a level of normalization can set in, that can change when threats increase.
Those living near the war’s front line, like residents of Mykolaiv, say they often are too exhausted to think about new threats, since they have endured almost constant shelling. The city 500 kilometers (310 miles) south of Kyiv is the closest to Kherson, where battles are raging.
“Whether I believe it or not, we must prepare” for the nuclear threat, the head of regional administration, Vitalii Kim, told AP. He said regional officials are working on various scenarios and mapping evacuation routes.
More than half the prewar population of 500,000 has fled Mykolaiv. Many who stayed, like 73-year-old Valentyna, say they are too tired to leave now.
She sleeps in a windowless basement shared 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 that everything can happen.”
Another woman in the shelter, who wanted to be identified only as Tamara for the same reasons, said that while trying to sleep at night on a bed made from stacked wooden beams, her mind turns to what fate awaits her.
“During the First World War, they fought mainly with horses. During the Second World War, with tanks,” she said. “No one excludes the possibility that this time it will be a nuclear weapon.”
“People progress, and with it, the weapons they use to fight,” Tamara added. “But man does not change, and history repeats itself.”
In Kyiv, Bozhko feels that same fatigue. She has learned what to do in case a missile hits, keeps a supply of remedies for various kinds of chemical attacks, and has what she calls her “anxiety luggage” – essentials packed in case of sudden evacuation.
“I’m so tired of being scared; I just keep living my life,” she says, “But if something happens, we will 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 face a situation when a person wants to exterminate you by any means,” Bozhko said, “and the second is much more terrifying.”
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