An explosion, a burst of flames, then screams: kamikaze drones rain down on Kyiv

Indiscriminate attacks by Russia on Ukraine’s capital sow terror among civilian population

It flew like a kite propelled by a stern wind. Harmless enough to the unschooled eye. Swooping, a small triangle in the sky. Then there was the noise. Similar to a moped at first but ever more like the full-throated roar of a motorbike as the kamikaze drone swept closer into view.

It was one of an estimated 28 launched on Monday morning at targets around Kyiv’s central railway station and elsewhere in Ukraine’s capital; some people had fled at the sight of it, scattering to find cover, as the dark grey triangle swept above the high-rise apartments in the cloudless pale blue sky.

Others stood, staring upwards. Fixed to the spot even as the menacing outline of the Iranian-made Shahed-136, not dissimilar to a fighter jet in miniature, became ever more apparent.

A certain sense of fatalism took over as the drone hovered directly above, turning this way and that. A surreal yet bewitching calm. Then grim-faced soldiers and armed police broke the spell as they vainly fired their AK-47s in its direction, rat-a-tat-tat, as did the slightly heavier-sounding air defence systems. To some, the burst of fire was what first made them aware of the mortal danger.

The question on everyone’s mind was which way would it turn now. Where was it heading? Then the drone fixed on its target. Where was it pointing? It turned in the air, a wing tilted to the right – and it dived. Faster now, not a kite but a swallow. Five seconds, no more, and the boom of an explosion, a burst of flames, screams from those closer to its final destination. Dark grey smoke billowed from the unfortunate spot. Relief for some meant horror for others.

It was the fifth successful attack of the morning on Ukraine’s capital on Monday, timed at 8.21am.

The first had struck a building closer to Kyiv central station, barely 200 metres from its grand front entrance at 6.37am, as the pink of the dawn sun emerged above the city’s horizon, lighting up an apartment block in flames.

A policeman looks over heard for drones near the site of the first drone strike near the train station in Kyiv
A policeman looks overhead for drones near the site of the first drone strike near the train station in Kyiv. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

Then another tell-tale burst of machine gun fire was again followed by the cruel crack of an explosion at 6.45am. And a further heart-leaping boom at 6.59am. Huge bellowing fires erupted off the streets of Kyiv. And a further strike at 7.30am. To those around the station, it seemed constant. The minutes between blasts vanished.

Those making their way through the station ran to the underpasses between the platforms. Down there, parents tried to distract toddlers with anything they had to hand: a toy car, a pebble. Look at this, don’t think of anything else. Couples hugged. Prayers were said. An old woman, helped to sit down on the concrete stairs, shook uncontrollably. Outside, there was panic. Men hurdled pavement railings, women grabbed children and bags, caustic smoke filled the air. At one site, witnesses said they heard cries for help.

A 59-year-old woman, named locally as Tatiana, and a young couple, Bohdan and Victoria, 34, who had been six months pregnant with their first child, were killed when the storeys in their apartment block collapsed into each other. A fourth person, a man, was also said to have died in the flats. Three people were hospitalised, two of whom were said to be rescue workers.

Halyna Stefanova, who lived with her 65-year-old mother two floors down from the deceased young couple, told of how the walls around their own apartment fell apart.

“My bedroom window blew out, the kitchen window blew out and the walls collapsed”, said Stefanova, a retired psychologist. “The smoke was so strong and thick that we could not see anything for five minutes and we were completely disoriented. It was like a heavy fog; me and mum started suffocating in this smoke.”

Stefanova and her mother managed to escape through an emergency exit after finding the front door blocked by debris. “When I passed the rescuers, I saw and was told that the rescuers had already retrieved the body of our 59-year-old neighbour from the fourth floor”, she said. “The body was already packed in a black plastic bag.”

Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv, told a huddle of media outside the devastated apartments that the death toll could have been far higher. “Five explosions took place in the city of Kyiv,” he said. “The rest of the drones were shot down by our military.”

The mayor said electricity substations appeared to have been the targets but that civilians had been the victims.

The site of a further drone strike near the same area as the first, near the train station. Emergency responders work at the scene to clear debris while calls for help can be heard from the rubble.
Emergency responders work at the scene of a drone strike to clear debris. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

“Russians want to leave the city of Kyiv without heat, without heating. Without electricity,” he said. “They want to create a humanitarian disaster in Kyiv.”

Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser at Ukraine’s ministry for internal affairs, and ally of the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, posed with armed police officers and a smashed drone casing that he said had been downed that morning.

“Now you can see how we can shoot down the Shahed drones,” he said on a video posted on Telegram. “If you hear a noise of the drones and you have your own weapon, even a hunting rifle, you can and must shoot.”

The words were likely to offer precious little comfort to many. The strikes, the second mass attack by drones in the past fortnight on Kyiv, had been emulated on a smaller scale across Ukraine. There were three fatalities in Sumy, a region in the east of the country. Russia’s defence ministry said it had carried out a “massive” attack on military targets and energy infrastructure using high-precision weapons.

To some, the use of drones rather than cruise missiles in the latest attacks will offer hope that Russia is running out of its most powerful weapons. Zelenskiy, in a message on social media, spoke simply of his sorrow at the latest cruel loss of life. “The whole night, and the whole morning, the enemy terrorises the civilian population,” he wrote. “The enemy can attack our cities, but it won’t be able to break us.”


Daniel Boffey in Kyiv, Photographs by Ed Ram

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
What are kamikaze drones and why is Russia using them in Ukraine?
Hitting civilian infrastructure seems to be only effective tactic for Putin’s under-pressure forces

Dan Sabbagh

17, Oct, 2022 @9:12 AM

Article image
Ukraine crowdfunding raises almost $10m in 24 hours to buy kamikaze drones
Money raised after wave of Russian strikes on Ukrainian cities on Monday will be used to support army

Daniel Boffey in Kyiv

12, Oct, 2022 @9:58 AM

Article image
‘Kamikaze’ drones hit Kyiv despite Putin’s claim of no further strikes
Pregnant woman and her partner killed in latest wave of drone strikes on Ukraine’s capital

Dan Sabbagh and Charlotte Higgins in Kyiv and Samantha Lock

17, Oct, 2022 @4:45 PM

Article image
Hanging washing over the rubble: life in Mykolaiv as Russian bombs rain down
Residents forced to adjust to terrifying new normal in southern Ukrainian port city, with near-daily strikes

Dan Sabbagh in Mykolaiv. Pictures by Ed Ram

01, Nov, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Iranian advisers killed aiding Russians in Crimea, says Kyiv
Top security official says Tehran military personnel in occupied areas will be ‘targeted’

Julian Borger in Kyiv

24, Nov, 2022 @3:36 PM

Article image
Russia launch morning missile strikes on Kyiv after overnight barrage
Residents run for shelter during attack that appears to have been part of effort to exhaust air defencesUkraine war – latest news updates

Julian Borger in Kyiv

29, May, 2023 @3:09 PM

Article image
Ukrainians involved in ‘referendums’ face prison terms, says Kyiv
Official outlines punishments for those found guilty of helping Russia but says those forced to vote will not be punished

Isobel Koshiw in Kyiv

27, Sep, 2022 @2:57 PM

Article image
Kyiv facing ‘sharp deterioration’ in electric supply after Russian strikes
Supplier tells people living in and around city that blackouts could last ‘a lot longer’ than previously planned

Dan Sabbagh in Kyiv

27, Oct, 2022 @5:20 PM

Article image
Poland could supply Ukraine with F-16 fighters, Kyiv suggests
Ukraine official reports ‘positive signals’ from Warsaw – but Poland stresses it will only act in consultation with Nato allies

Dan Sabbagh in Kyiv

30, Jan, 2023 @10:13 PM

Article image
Ukraine’s advances pose question for world: can Kyiv actually win?
As world leaders prepare for a meeting of UN general assembly, the raging war of narratives shows no sign of abating

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

13, Sep, 2022 @9:40 AM