Restaurants bustle, new bookshops open, the air raid app goes off. This is our defiant reality in Kyiv

<span>‘The fact the capital stays intact is purely the product of its air defences’ … A florist in the Comfort Town area of Kyiv.</span><span>Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian</span>
‘The fact the capital stays intact is purely the product of its air defences’ … A florist in the Comfort Town area of Kyiv.Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

A family member who works for the Kyiv Сity State Administration, recently told me about a colleague. She is a single mother with a 10-year-old son. After hearing a recent explosion during one of the air raids, she fainted; her son, convinced she had died, knocked on the neighbour’s door asking for help at 3am.

Two months later, she quit her job at the administration’s housing department, which, on top of its regular work, is now reviewing requests for financial compensation from Kyiv residents whose flats were damaged by recent missile attacks. They have two months to provide residents with decisions. They often work from 7am till 11pm, rushing home just before the curfew. Her resignation has taken a toll on the others.

Such stories are not dramatic enough to be reported, but they are everyday realities for many people in Ukraine. Two years after the full-scale invasion, most Ukrainians are pretending to live normal lives. On the surface, a foreign visitor might be amazed by how vibrant daily life still appears to be in Kyiv, with restaurants bustling, new bookstores opening, and people going about their lives. But the fact the capital stays intact is purely the product of its air defences, which are the best in Ukraine. To imagine what could happen otherwise, one only has to visit Kharkiv, where the historic downtown has been partially destroyed and some suburbs have been wiped out.

Our country finds itself in an impossible position: we’re expected to show that we’re in control, while making it clear how critical the situation is

In Kyiv, life might feel like normal during the daytime, but at night it’s a different story. This is when most of the attacks take place. By now, people have figured out how to navigate these risks: there is a state alert, and multiple Telegram channels indicating the levels of danger depending on the types of weapons involved. We all know it’s riskier to reside on the top floors, have large windows, or live in the neighbourhoods situated close to power substations.

The official alert app warning of air raids tells us, borrowing from Luke Skywalker: “Don’t be careless. Your overconfidence is your weakness.” Usually it’s not overconfidence that puts people at risk but exhaustion, after a string of sleepless nights forces you to snooze the air alert as if it were a regular alarm. Once you get an alert, you stay glued to your mobile phone, searching for which neighbourhood has been targeted. We’re forbidden from publishing the precise address of attacks until hours have passed; doing so could give the Russians the opportunity to make a more precise strike. So we message our relatives, colleagues and friends, hoping for the response: “It was far away. We’re in the shelter.”

The following day, unexpected sounds will startle you. But pursuing a normal working day after such a night is a matter of dignity. When Russia wants to destroy our way of life, living itself becomes an act of defiance. Ukrainians are the victims of Russian aggression, but being perceived as victims feels unpleasant, especially when you’re fighting back. These signs of resilience have perhaps made outsiders take for granted the efforts that Ukrainians are making to keep our state and society functioning. It takes all the running we can do simply to stand still.

Acknowledging this collective exhaustion may seem like admitting weakness – as if our international audience expects Ukrainians to demonstrate their successes in their flawless fight against Goliath. Our country finds itself in an impossible position, where we are expected to show that we’re in control, while simultaneously making it clear how critical the situation is. Delays with weapons deliveries mean our armed forces are lacking ammunition. Foreign aid – financial, humanitarian, military – is essential right now.

But two years of imminent threat has taught Ukrainians the value of staying calm. Emotions do not help organise a life inside a permanent calamity. Western debates about the war with Russia can seem more emotional and dramatic than the discussions at home. Most of the questions I’m asked by foreign analysts or pundits demand categorical answers: do you win now or give up? Do all Ukrainians support the government no matter what? Are all Ukrainians ready to join the army or not? Will all the refugees return or not?

Domestic debates on many issues,such as mobilisation, are heated but nuanced. Some insist that the only way to defend your own family is not to stay with them but to join the armed forces. They argue current government policies are not strict enough, while the economy should be reorganised around ammunition production. They are annoyed by signs of peaceful life, such as shops and restaurants, which create a misleading sense of normalcy that discourages people from joining the fight. Others appreciate this, and believe that abandoning freedoms may force even more people to leave the country to raise their kids elsewhere. Then the state will lose the labour force – the taxpayers who are funding the army.

During a recent train ride I met a Ukrainian soldier. Hanna Vasyk was a cultural manager and curated a famous rave festival in Kyiv. She was in Berlin during the first months of the invasion, but joined the army as a paratrooper six months later. After some time on the frontline she was assigned to organise a communication campaign to recruit more women to the army. About 60,000 women serve in the armed forces of Ukraine, with 5,000 in combat positions. After years of campaigning from civil society groups, women are now allowed to be snipers, launch grenades or act as deputy commanders of reconnaissance groups. But there is still a lot that needs to happen until women feel welcome in the military. Hanna is preoccupied with the question of how to motivate women who took up refuge abroad. She is adamant that all citizens have duties.

On the train back two young women, both of whom worked in IT, joined me in the carriage. They live abroad and now visit Ukraine to see their families, go to the dentist and have massages, because services here are cheap. During the journey they kept justifying why they don’t live here. “Any human in the world has the right to have a normal life without a war,” the first woman told her friend, who seemed to think there ought to be a limit to personal freedoms. “If too many progressives leave Ukraine, what country would the rest of us be fighting for?” the second woman responded. In a modern democracy one cannot force a person to risk their life. The biggest questions Ukrainians debate now often have no right or wrong answer, as they are about moral choices. Having multiple opinions on how to survive during the long-lasting war is what I appreciate the most.

Related: ‘Not losing’ is not enough: it’s time for Europe to finally get serious about a Ukrainian victory | Timothy Garton Ash

Two weeks ago I spoke with Natalia, a woman from Berdiansk, the southern port in the Zaporizhzhia region, which has been occupied since the first days of the full-scale Russian invasion. Her husband was abducted by the Russian military after spending half a year volunteering to deliver humanitarian aid to those fleeing atrocities. During his 44 days in detention, he was subjected to electric torture and received death threats. His story is one of thousands. “Under the Russian occupation, it’s enough to have your own opinion to be considered an enemy,” Natalia told me. It felt like a summary of what life might be like for Ukrainians if Ukraine were to give up. This understanding of the threat unites us all: we all have our own opinions, but we all agree that what we have now is worth defending.

  • Nataliya Gumenyuk is a Ukrainian journalist, and co-founder of the Reckoning Project