Rzhyshchiv is a picturesque town on the banks of the River Dnipro, an hour south of Kyiv. With its farmers’ markets, linden alleys, beaches, and even a cute pizzeria run by Americans, who moved there because of the local area’s beauty, this town, with an unspellable name, has always seemed cozy, quiet, and safe. Even during the war. Even with all kinds of dangers flying in the skies overhead, missiles that invariably landed somewhere else.
Early March 22, Rzhyshchiv was struck by Russian-directed Iranian drones. The explosive aircraft left three civilian buildings (two dormitories and an administrative building) partially destroyed and took nine lives. About 20 people, including an 11-year-old boy, were wounded.
As the air raid sirens were howling, and the drones ripped into the town, some residents naturally headed to the bomb shelters. Some got there. When morning came, community chat groups were filled with accounts of something very grim. The House of Culture shelter was locked. Because it was nighttime.
“We were there from 2:50 a.m. to 3:10 a.m. It was closed. I had a backpack and a 10-month-old baby was asleep in my arms. We were standing outside, knocking on all the building doors. There was no one inside,” Vladislava Kolesnik says. “Other families came later, and they said the shelter was still closed. It opened after 4 a.m.”
Kolesnik shared her experience in a community chat, talked to others, and received a phone call from the city council afterwards. “They tried to tell me that the shelter was open at 3 a.m.,” she says.
Residents say this approach has characterized the town’s response. A representative of a local museum situated in the House of Culture building, emerged on the chat boards to berate those sharing accounts of what they had witnessed. She told citizens that “they should be ashamed” to lie by giving accounts of the locked shelter and stated that “everything is working.” The official later deleted her posts. The man on duty in the shelter that night subsequently wrote that he had been feeling unwell and may not have heard the air raid sirens. Nonetheless, he said the doors were opened at 3:06am but there was no one waiting to enter. Rzhyshchiv’s mayor offered no clear explanation.
And that’s not really unusual. Because air raid shelters are often locked in Ukraine.
Kyiv Oblast Prosecutor’s Office, the regional police, and the State Service for Emergencies told this author that they have no information about the House of Culture shelter closure.
Ivanna Malchevska, Project Manager at the Center for Civil Liberties, the Nobel Prize-winning human rights organization, says bomb shelters are currently one of its main focuses.
“Last November, we launched a national shelter monitoring campaign,” Malchevska says. “We faced the problem of shelters on a personal level, when our volunteers couldn’t find those or couldn’t get inside because they were closed.
“I have a right to enter any bomb shelter in Ukraine. That is my right for protection”, she says.
The Center for Civil Liberties and OZON volunteers constantly monitor check bomb shelters in major Ukrainian cities. “We check the basic quality and accessibility. And the ability to find, reach and enter a shelter. People don’t have time to run around and search,” Malchevska continues.
Its findings? “A large number of shelters are closed. And there’s a big risk that ZhEK [housing and communal services] won’t go out to open those in every raid. They do not drive around the city, opening endless shelters, that is physically difficult. That’s a problem. So either we agree that shelters are closed . . . or we agree that this cannot be so during the war. Shelters must be open for every alarm”.
Bizarrely, there are very few penalties for leaving a shelter locked. If it’s on private property, for example, a basement is rented by a restaurant, and is systematically closed for civil defense purposes, the lease can be terminated. But that’s it. For local authorities, for housing and communal companies, there will be no consequences for leaving people in danger.
“Our only tool now is public control and dialogue. In order for it to become a criminal or administrative responsibility, it is necessary to write down very clearly whose responsibility is it, and for what specifically,” Malchevska says.
Officials need to take responsibility, otherwise, they must share the blame. The Russians are overwhelmingly guilty of firing missiles almost indiscriminately at civilian areas, but the Ukrainian state has a duty to protect its people.
Lera Burlakova is a Democracy Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) She is a journalist and former soldier from Ukraine. She served in combat from 2014-2017 after joining the Ukrainian army following the Russian invasion of Crimea. Her war diary ‘Life P.S.’ received the UN Women in Arts award in 2021.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.