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This is what it’s like to wake up in a war zone

Pictures and video on social media from Ukraine have shown the radical, overnight change from normal life to conflict.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine had been simmering for weeks but the scale of the assault still took the world by surprise.

Citizens and journalists have flooded social media with footage of the invasion and chaos unfolding on streets across the country: rockets embedded in residential streets, apartment buildings on fire, residents taking refuge in subways and commuter stations filled with evacuees.

The warning signs of war had been clear, but the radical, overnight change from normal life to conflict is jarring.

This is what it’s like to wake up in a war zone.

Diplomatic discussions had focussed on the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, near the Russian border but, since the morning of February 24, rockets have rained down on cities across the breadth of the country. Air raid sirens sound out as far west as Ukraine’s western-most city, Lviv, 700km from Russia but just 70km from Poland and Slovakia. Tank columns have invaded from Belarus in the north, Crimea in the south and Russia to the east.

Lviv looks like many others across the continent: cobbled streets, gothic churches, bars and restaurants. The videos of sirens and evacuation announcements blaring over loudspeakers are out of place against such a mundane backdrop.

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Videos show empty streets, with sirens blaring and a voice telling residents to shelter in place.

At the city’s railway station, the square is filled with people anxiously waiting next to suitcases, taking videos and rushing in and out of cars as the sirens ring.

The same was true in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, where many foreign journalists have been based.

Christopher Miller is an American correspondent who has lived in Kyiv for more than a decade, reporting for numerous outlets.

He described evacuating with other journalists to the basement of a hotel he was staying at in Kramatorsk, in Ukraine’s east: “It was jarring to see them there, having spent the previous evening celebrating a good reporting week with cocktails and steaks.

“Before turning in and because I had used up all my reporter’s notebooks, I visited a stationery shop, where a young girl pleaded with her mother to buy her a pen with a teddy bear on it. It was the last normal thing I remember experiencing before the bombs went off.”

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On returning to Kyiv he found most people had been trying to leave.

The platforms at Kyiv train station are dangerously crowded as people hope to escape the fighting. The station concourse is similarly full, as people arrive with whatever they can carry.

One woman was filmed with a backpack and her cat, August, in a carrier.

Images shared widely online from the city’s south east made it clear why. The district of Pozniaky is characterised by its tall apartment buildings painted pink, red and cream, but fighting had already nearly torched one to the ground.

Ukrainian forces had apparently shot down a Russian rocket or fighter jet — reports differ — which crashed in the residential district, blowing out windows, collapsing balconies and leaving a crater of charred rubble.

Many spent the night sleeping in the city’s subway station for safety.

The situation in Kharkiv, 40km from the Russian border was more serious. Graphic images showed civilian casualties as some residential buildings near the city had been hit directly with rocket fire.

Other residents awoke to find discarded missile casings the size of a man lodged in the tarmac outside local shops or standing tall on the pedestrian crossing.

Western countries have placed sanctions on much of the Russian economy in an attempt to slow or halt the assault. But the invasions shows no signs of slowing. For the citizens of Ukraine, it is just the beginning.

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