Outside a children’s clinic-turned-bomb shelter in Kyiv, a huddle of passers-by wrestled with a question that has haunted Ukraine’s capital for over a day: Who is to blame for their neighbors’ deaths?
Three people, including a woman and her child, were killed in an explosion around the entrance of their neighborhood shelter early Thursday morning, having been locked out in the middle of an air raid. At least a dozen others were wounded.
The deaths rattled a city used to air raids and missiles, and they have led to multiple investigations, four detentions and widespread mourning. President Volodymyr Zelensky has called for law enforcement to bring those responsible for to justice.
“Unfortunately, even today — after everything that has happened — Kyiv residents repeatedly post information about the lack of access to shelters,” Mr. Zelensky said in a speech Friday night. “This level of negligence in the city cannot be covered with any excuses.”
By Friday afternoon, three distinct memorials of flowers, children’s stuffed animals and candles had been erected near the clinic doors. One woman, standing outside the police line, cried quietly. A young boy drew the Ukrainian flag in blue and yellow chalk on the sidewalk next to one informal tribute, writing “Glory to Ukraine” in blocky text.
“My daughter got delayed by 30 seconds, which saved her life. If they were running together, she would be dead too,” said Larysa Sukhomlyn, 64, whose daughter, Olya, often went to the clinic’s basement during air raids.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine last year, the war has been defined by moments of happenstance and terror: Mere minutes or yards sometimes dictate who lives or dies, from frontline battlefields to Ukraine’s dense cities and Russia’s border regions, where some authorities have recently described Ukrainian shelling and announced evacuations.
But the three Ukrainians killed in Kyiv, Natalia Velchenko, 33, Olha Ivashko, 34 and Olha’s 9-year-old daughter, Viktoria, by all accounts seemed to have had enough time to get to safety on Thursday morning.
Their deaths reflected a worst-case scenario of what happens when Kyiv’s residents have to navigate a web of hundreds of bomb shelters scattered around the city. Those shelters have become more and more important as Russia has ramped up aerial attacks in recent weeks, after an already brutal winter of long-range strikes and power outages.
Some of the shelters are closed. Others are kept in poor condition. And it is often confusing to find those responsible for their upkeep, according to several Kyiv residents. This inaction has left the burden on local residents to coordinate with each other so they know where to find safety.
“Was it necessary for people to die so that the shelters start to be kept open around Kyiv?” asked Tetiana Kukuruza, 26, who lives in the city’s center. “They should have dealt with this matter before the full-scale invasion, not almost a year and a half after the beginning of an active war.”
On Thursday, Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv, said on Telegram that the authorities are “checking access to the shelters.”
Serhiy Popko, the head of Kyiv’s city military administration, said that the country’s main intelligence and security service, the prosecutor’s office and the national police, were investigating who’s to blame.
Some were doubtful there would ever be justice.
“No one is handling this. Not Klitschko or anyone else,” said Vadym, a resident who lives near Thursday’s blast site and declined to provide his surname for fear of reprisal. “I don’t know who decides this, they are passing the responsibility on to each other, and that’s it.”
Roughly seven minutes passed between the air-raid siren, which sounded at around 2:49 a.m., until the explosion outside the clinic, residents said. It was long enough for families to get dressed and make their way toward the basement.
The children’s health clinic, known as Center of Primary Health Care No. 3 of Desnianskyi District, contains televisions, medicine and medical records. The building is usually locked in the middle of the night, but, for some reason, residents said, the outdoor access to its basement was also locked. One woman, who declined to give her name, said that in recent days she had to knock repeatedly to gain access to the shelter.
The watchman on duty Thursday morning was detained and tested for drug and alcohol consumption, said a police officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues. Three other people, including the director and deputy director of the clinic, have been detained for questioning, according to the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office.
The authorities in a Russian border region, Belgorod, also described recent war-related casualties and confusion, though without much detail. The region’s governor, Vyacheslav Gladkov, said that two women had died after their car was hit by an artillery shell near the town of Shebekino, about six miles from the Ukrainian border.
A video posted by Russian military correspondents purporting to capture the aftermath showed a cloud of smoke rising near a column of passenger cars. The video could not be independently verified.
“The conditions are quite difficult,” Mr. Gladkov said in a post on Telegram on Friday, adding that about 2,500 people have been evacuated in Belgorod because of Ukrainian shelling and incursions.
The number of people evacuating could not be confirmed, but Belgorod residents who had traveled to Shebekino on Thursday described the agricultural community, with a population of 40,000, as a ghost town. They said many residents had left without waiting for an official evacuation after sheltering in cellars during hours of bombardment.
Anxiety in the Belgorod region has been rising since two paramilitary groups crossed the border last week and briefly held two villages in another part of the region.
The groups, Free Russia Legion and Russian Volunteer Corps, claimed in separate videos on Friday that they were fighting on the outskirts of Shebekino for a second day. The Russian authorities had said on Thursday that the insurgents had been turned back at the border. On Friday, spokesmen for the Russian Volunteer Corps and Free Russia Legion declined to comment beyond saying operations were continuing.
Both groups, which operate from Ukraine and are made up of anti-Kremlin Russian citizens, have claimed they do not attack civilians and only target security installations.
Witnesses in the region have described widespread damage in Shebekino, including to residential buildings. Video footage verified by The New York Times showed an apartment block in the town on fire.
If scenes of flight and destruction are relatively novel for Russians, such bombardment have become painfully familiar for many Ukrainians.
For the residents of the eastern Kyiv district near the clinic, living in a cluster of Soviet-style apartment blocks amid small shops, going to the children’s clinic shelter had been part of a weekslong routine, as Russia launched drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles at the capital for much of May.
About a dozen people had gathered outside the No. 3 clinic to take shelter in its basement early Thursday morning. As they huddled, knocked and waited for entry, Ukrainian air defenses, bolstered by Western-supplied weapons such as the Patriot missile, only partially intercepted a Russian ballistic missile, knocking it off course but not destroying its warhead, the police officer said.
The munition tumbled out of the sky and landed just yards away from the front door of the shelter, blasting a wide fan of shrapnel that extended hundreds of feet. The explosion shattered windows in nearby buildings and blasted doors off their hinges in the clinic, creating a crater roughly 13 feet wide.
“I saw from the balcony how it happened,” said the neighbor, Ms. Sukhomlyn, describing the last moments of the mother and child. “When the grandmother saw that they had approached the clinic, there was the blast. She ran out instantly and started to scream their names.”
Anatoly Kurmanaev and Michael Schwirtz contributed reporting.