KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The missile fragment pierced the ceiling of Mikhail Shcherbakov’s apartment in Kharkiv. In an instant, Ukrainians found that war, after weeks of warnings, had hit home.
“I heard noise and woke up. I realized it sounded like artillery,” Shcherbakov said. He jumped from the couch and ran to wake his mother, and something exploded behind him.
The missile left a nearby computer and teacup shrouded with dust, instant artifacts of Europe’s latest war.
At dawn on Thursday, Ukrainians’ uneasy efforts at normality were shattered. Smoke rose from cities, even well away from the country’s disputed eastern border. A morning commute turned into lines of cars waiting at fuel stations or fleeing from the gray and drizzly capital, Kyiv. People with luggage took shelter in the subway, unsure of where to go.
Some panicked immediately. Others clung to routine, with irritation.
“I’m not afraid. I’m going to work. The only unusual thing is that you can’t find a taxi in Kyiv,” one resident complained, even as air raid sirens wailed.
Many seemed unsure of know how to react. Kyiv’s main street, Khreshchatyk, rippled with anxiety as people checked their phones. Some walked their dogs or waved at friends.
“I’m not scared at the moment. Maybe I’ll be scared later,” resident Maxim Prudskoi said.
The hotel where many Associated Press journalists stayed ordered an evacuation within 30 minutes. During the hurried checkout, the friendly desk clerk asked: “Did you have anything from the mini-bar?”
In Mariupol, the Azov Sea port city that many fear will be the first major target because of its strategic importance, AP journalists saw similar confused scenes of routine and fear.
Some residents waited at bus stops, seemingly on their way to work, while others rushed to leave the city that is only about 15 kilometers (less than 10 miles) from the front line with the Donetsk People’s Republic, one of two separatist-held areas recognized by Russian President Vladimir Putin as independent this week in a prelude to the invasion.
As the day progressed, alarm across Ukraine rose. People crowded grocery stores and ATMs, seeking supplies and cash. In Kharkiv, worried residents inspected fragments of military equipment strewn across a children’s playground.
Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko called on the city’s 3 million people to stay indoors unless they worked in critical sectors and said everyone should prepare go-bags with necessities such as medicine and documents.
For weeks, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had tried to moderate expectations of aggression by Russia, even as warnings by the United States became more urgent. Zelenskyy argued that panic would lead to societal destabilization that could be as much of a tactical advantage for Russia as the estimated 150,000 troops that had massed on Ukraine’s borders.
On Thursday, as the president imposed martial law, Ukrainians realized with a jolt that everything might change.
“I feel panic, scared and excited. I don’t know who I should ask for help,” said Kyiv resident Elizaveta Melnik.” We didn’t believe this situation would come.”