KYIV, Ukraine — Dmytro Bondarenko is prepared for the worst.
She has filled the storage area under her rollaway bed and almost every other corner of her apartment in eastern Kyiv with water and non-perishable food. There are rolls of packing tape to seal the windows from radioactive fallout. It has a gas camping stove and walkie-talkies.
There’s even an AR-15 rifle and shotgun for protection, along with boxes of ammo. Fuel cans and spare tires are stashed by your washing machine in case you need to get out of town in a hurry.
“Any preparation can increase my chances of survival,” he said, using a knife and first aid kit.
With the Russian invasion in its ninth month, many Ukrainians no longer ask if their country will be attacked by nuclear weapons. They are actively preparing for that once unthinkable possibility.
Over dinner and in bars, people often discuss which city would be the most likely target or what kind of weapon could be used. Many, like Bondarenko, are stocking up on supplies and making survival plans.
No one wants to believe it could happen, but it seems to be on the minds of many in Ukraine, which saw the world’s worst nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986.
The Kremlin has made unsubstantiated claims that Ukraine is preparing a “dirty bomb” in the Russian-occupied areas, an explosive to spread radioactive material and spread fear. Kyiv strongly denied this, saying that such statements are more likely a sign that Moscow is preparing such a bomb and blames Ukraine.
Nuclear fears trigger painful memories for those who lived through the Chernobyl disaster, when one of the four reactors exploded and burned some 60 miles north of Kyiv, releasing a plume of radiation. Initially, Soviet authorities 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 from Kyiv who was seven months pregnant at the time of the accident and believed official statements that downplayed her. 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 Kyiv.
Those fears haunted 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 son and left Kyiv a month after the Russian invasion.
Still living in Kyiv at 62, Bozhko hoped he would never have to go through something like this again. But all those fears returned when Russian President Vladimir Putin sent in his forces on February 24.
“It was déjà vu,” he told the AP. “Once again, 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 has purchased a large quantity of potassium iodide tablets and protective gear for distribution, he added.
Casual talk about nukes
With all the high-level talk from Moscow, Washington, and Kyiv about atomic threats, the Ukrainians’ conversations these days are peppered with phrases like “strategic and tactical nuclear weapons,” “potassium iodide pills”, “radiation masks”, “plastic raincoats” and “hermetically sealed food”.
Bondarenko said he began making nuclear survival plans when Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, was hit by Russian strikes.
The 33-year-old app designer thinks he has enough supplies to get by for a couple of weeks and more than enough fuel to leave the country or head into the mountains if a nuclear disaster strikes.
She moved from the Donetsk region several years ago after pro-Moscow separatists threatened her. She hoped to have a quiet life in Kyiv, but the coronavirus pandemic forced a more isolated life in her apartment and the war accelerated her plans for survival.
His supplies include 53 gallons of water, potassium iodide tablets to protect his thyroid from radiation, respirator masks and disposable booties to protect him from contaminated soil.
Bondarenko said he can’t be sure he’s safe from a Russian nuclear attack, but believes it’s best to be prepared because “they’re crazy.”
October has seen “huge spikes” in Ukrainian visits to NUKEMAPa website that allows users to simulate an atomic bomb being dropped at a certain location, according to its creator, Alex Wellerstein.
Anxiety has provoked black humor. More than 8,000 people joined a chat on the Telegram messaging service after a joke was tweeted that in the event of a nuclear attack, 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 staying resilient during uncertain times.
“That is often the case in Ukraine, and you also need to have a feeling that you can cope with this. And there’s this group feeling [that is] quite strong,” said Dr. Koen Sevenants, mental health and psychosocial support lead for global child protection for UNICEF.
However, he said prolonged periods under threat can lead to a sense of helplessness, hopelessness and depression. While a level of normalization can be set, that can change when threats increase.
Those who live close to the war front, like residents of Mykolaiv, say they are often too tired to think about new threats, having endured almost constant shelling. The city 500 kilometers south of Kyiv is the closest to Kherson, where battles are fought.
“Whether you believe it or not, we must prepare” for the nuclear threat, the head of the regional administration, Vitalii Kim, told the AP. He said regional officials are working through various scenarios and mapping evacuation routes.
More than half of the pre-war population of 500,000 has fled Mykolaiv. Many of those who stayed, like 73-year-old Valentyna, say they are now too tired to leave.
She sleeps in a windowless basement shared with 10 other neighbors in conditions so humiliating that she asked not to be identified. She says about the threat of a nuclear attack: “Now I believe that everything 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 in a bed made of stacked wooden beams, her mind turns to the fate that awaits her.
“During the First World War, they fought mainly with horses. During World War II, with tanks,” he said. “Nobody 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 the same weariness. She has learned what to do in case she drops a missile, keeps a supply of remedies for various types of chemical attacks, and has what she calls her “anxiety kit”: essentials packed in case of a sudden evacuation.
“I am so tired of being afraid; I am still living my life,” she says, “but if something happens, we will try to fight and survive.”
And he said he 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 a person wants to exterminate you by any means,” Bozhko said, “and the second one is much more terrifying.”