In a city north of nuclear site attacked by Russians, youth have mobilized to defend Ukraine

The city of Dnipro between central and eastern Ukraine is a relatively safe distance from the parts of the country currently experiencing the fiercest attacks by Russian forces and has become a hub for people on their way to less-dangerous cities in the west. But some youth have come this way to fight.

Dnipro has not seen the shelling that other cities have, but residents are preparing anyway

Volunteers unload supplies received from across the country at a charitable centre set up to oversee the distribution of humanitarian supplies to servicemen and others in need in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, an industrial hub that sits on the western side of the Dnieper River between east and central Ukraine. (Emre Caylak/AFP/Getty Images)

The road from Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine to Dnipro about 80 kilometres north is riddled with concrete blockades, iron anti-tank barriers, Molotov cocktails and several military checkpoints where soldiers check passports and trunks of cars for war-time contraband.

Drivers hurry on to their destinations, not to avoid oncoming strikes, but to make it home before curfew kicks in at 8 p.m. 

Civilians seen on the roads between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. are considered a threat, and discerning civilians from invaders in the dark can be tricky. The only vehicles on the road at that time are buses carrying soldiers, ambulances and other emergency vehicles and cargo transport trucks.

In the daytime, people in Dnipro walk around seemingly unafraid but vigilant. Heavily armed police officers patrol the streets, and soldiers protect strategic areas, infrastructure and government buildings.

The city of almost a million people, known as Dnipropetrovsk until recently, is an industrial hub that was once one of the Soviet Union's closed cities on account of its space and defence manufacturing.

It sits on the Dnieper River between east and central Ukraine and has not come under the kind of shelling that other urban centres to the north, south and east have since Russian forces invaded the country Feb. 24.

Still, during curfew not one pedestrian dares to wander outside. There is no point anyway. The stores close early at 5 p.m., and some businesses have shut down completely, with sandbags covering their windows in anticipation of possible air strikes, artillery shelling or firefights. 

Rocket Park in Dnipro, shown in August 2017. The city was once known for producing Soviet missiles and rockets. Now, its citizens fear that Russian rockets will target it as they have other Ukrainian cities. (Alessandra Prentice/Reuters)

Dnipro is a relatively safe distance from the parts of the country experiencing the fiercest attacks from Russian forces. Refugees from Kharkiv to the north, Kherson in the south and Donetsk in the east arrive in Dnipro on a daily basis.

From here, they either find shelter or board a train heading west to Lviv near the Polish border. The trains are packed to the brim. As of Saturday, more than 1.2 million people have fled to neighbouring countries, according to the UNHCR.

But some youth who've arrived here travelled in the opposite direction, boarding trains in the west and heading toward danger, instead of away from it. 

This is the case for Ilias Spiridis, 25, who is originally from Zaporizhzhia. He'd been living and working in Poland, but when war broke out over a week ago, he returned to Ukraine, first to Lviv and then his hometown.

Ilias Spiridis, 25, far right, with his friends Ternovich Dmitriy Anatolevich, left, and Kuprin Rostislav Valerevich in Lviv. He and Anatolevich took a train from the city in western Ukraine to his hometown of Zaporizhzhia, southwest of Dnipro, so they could help protect it if it's attacked by Russian forces. (Shant Kel Khatcherian/CBC)

He spent the 22-hour-long train ride to Zaporizhzhia frantically checking his phone for updates from the war, a common habit now for all Ukrainians, young and old, and reassuring his family.

He, like the other men on the train he took, came this way to volunteer to help resist the Russian invasion, he told CBC News.

"For me, this is not Ukraine's war against Russia," said Spiridis, who was born in Ukraine and is of Greek descent.

"For me, this is a war of life against death, not absolute good, but against absolute evil. Freedom against dictatorship." 

His plan is to help evacuate vulnerable citizens from the region, he said, and then protect Zaporizhzhia by signing up with one of the volunteer civilian units helping the military defend Ukrainian cities.

He had hoped to get one of the rifles local authorities were giving out to arm the so-called Territorial Defence Forces, he said, but they had run out.

Volunteers unload supplies at a charitable centre in Dnipro. Since the invasion began. Ukraine has seen a massive mobilization effort by citizens to help defend cities and resist the invasion. (Emre Caylak/AFP/Getty Images)
Volunteers sort clothes received from across the country at the distribution centre in Dnipro. (Emre Caylak/AFP/Getty Images)

Alarm over strike at nuclear plant

The war in Ukraine raised fresh global alarm Friday after Russian forces attacked and seized control of a key nuclear plant, also called Zaporizhzhia but about 120 kilometres southwest of the town.

The attack came as the Russian military advanced on nearby Enerhodar, a strategic city on the Dnieper River, and gained ground in their bid to cut Ukraine's access to the Black Sea. That move could worsen an already dire humanitarian situation.

The UN human rights office, in its latest count of casualties released Friday afternoon, said it had confirmed that 331 civilians had been killed and 675 injured since the beginning of the Russian invasion. The rights office only reports casualties it has confirmed. It says the real figures are much higher. 

WATCH | Russia now controls Europe's largest nuclear power plant:

Russia in control of Ukraine nuclear plant after attack

7 months ago
Duration 13:06
The UN's atomic agency says Russia now has control of Europe's largest nuclear power plant after its attack last night. The IAEA says Ukrainian staff are still operating the Zaporizhzhia plant, and the safety of its reactors was not affected.

Dnipro stretches along the banks of the wide Dnieper River near where it meets the Samara. Several garrisoned bridges connect the two parts of town. Tramway lines trace the boulevards in every direction.

Near the train station, there is always a family walking on the sidewalk dragging colourful suitcases toward what they hope is a safer future.

On the platform, men who must stay behind kiss their wives, children and elderly relatives goodbye. Martial law prevents men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country. 

A man walks past sandbags protecting the entrance of a cafe of Dnipro, which has so far avoided some of the shelling that has damaged cities to the north and south. (Emre Caylak/AFP/Getty Images)

'We serve all the military defenders of our country'

Anna Chaikovskaia, who leads a local volunteer corps uses her social media following to request provisions for those fighting on the front lines.

People bring them to a distribution centre where they are dispersed to different organisations, good Samaritans and soldiers.

"We serve all the military defenders of our country," Chaikovskaia said.

"We will provide them with everything they need, [whether] it's food, toilet paper, soap, medicine ... because they protect our native Ukraine."

Anna Chaikovskaia, an organizer with a local volunteer corps in Dnipro, uses her social media following to rally people to donate provisions for soldiers. (Shant Kel Khatcherian/CBC)

In Zaporizhzhia to the south, locals have already placed sandbags around the train station in anticipation of an attack. Inside the town, dust kicks up like in a scene from a cowboy Western. Only a few people walk the streets of the industrial hub. Young people are mostly absent but those who are still around show a readiness to fight.

Ukraine isn't without its problems, Spiridis says, but he will protect all the country has achieved since it broke from the Soviet Union three decades ago and declared independence.

"[Ukraine] was able to achieve fair elections and a real president despite the pressure of the Putin regime, the annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbas and the deadly inaction of the West."

Volunteers share a laugh as they help distribute supplies in Dnipro. Young people across Ukraine have been helping cities shore up defences and supply those fighting against Russian forces. (Shant Kel Khatcherian/CBC)


Born and raised in Montreal, Shant is a freelance photojournalist who covers the Caucasus and eastern Europe. He is usually based in Yerevan, Armenia, but is currently reporting on the war in Ukraine.

With files from The Associated Press and CBC News