Ukraine’s Independence Day, which on Wednesday marked the 31st anniversary of when the country voted to break with the Soviet Union, has been a more somber affair this year, with officials attending memorials. The day was darkened by a missile strike on an eastern Ukrainian train station which killed at least 22 people – fulfilling warnings by Ukrainian officials.
While previous years have been marked by celebrations and parades, Wednesday’s commemoration comes exactly six months after Russia’s invasion of the country began.
President Volodymyr Zelensky marked the day with an emotional address that spoke of the Russian invasion as a new independence day – the day Ukraine had to fight for its freedom, rather than simply voting for it at the ballot box.
“A new nation emerged on February 24 at 4 a.m. Not born, but reborn. A nation that didn’t cry, didn’t scream, didn’t get scared. Didn’t run away. Didn’t give up. Didn’t forget,” Zelensky said Wednesday.
He added: “Every new day is a new reason not to give up. Because, having gone through so much, we have no right not to reach the end. What is the end of the war for us? We used to say: Peace. Now we say: Victory.”
Across the country, Ukrainians paid tribute to those who have been killed in military action since the invasion began. Foreign leaders, such as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, also visited Kyiv.
In the capital, Zelensky and first lady Olena Zelenska visited the Memory Wall of Fallen Defenders of Ukraine. In the Western city of Lviv, visibly emotional family members of fallen soldiers attended a ceremony at the memorial, the Field of Mars.
But Zelensky had also warned that Russia might step up efforts to launch attacks, including missile strikes, on “infrastructure facilities or state institutions” around the holiday. The US government joined the chorus of concern, telling Americans on Tuesday to leave the country immediately.
On Wednesday, those fears appeared to play out. Yuri Sak, an adviser to Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, told CNN that Russia conducted “missile strikes across Ukrainian territory.”
“In other major cities of Ukraine, even those which are far away from the battlefield, there have been explosions, there have been missile strikes,” Sak said, adding that Kyiv had at least eight air raid sirens on Wednesday.
The Chaplyne train station in the eastern Dnipropetrovsk Oblast was hit in a strike, killing at least 22 people and wounding 50 more, Zelensky said later on Wednesday. An 11-year-old was among those killed in the strike.
“Chaplyne is our pain today. As of this moment, there are 22 dead, five of them burned in the car. A teenager died, he was 11 years old, a Russian rocket destroyed his house,” Zelensky added.
‘Not that easily scared’
In lieu of a parade, wrecked and captured Russian military vehicles, including tanks, were placed on Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s main street, as a testament to Moscow’s failed attempt to capture the capital in the early weeks of the war.
On the eve of Independence Day, crowds of people were seen in Khreshchatyk, inspecting the display. Some children crawled up the rusty metal carcass of a tank, while others posed for pictures by the mangled vehicles.
Liubov, who asked for her last name to not be published, said she turned up to show the “scrap metal parade” to her 8-year-old son, Illia.
As Illia climbed on a Russian combat vehicle, Liubov described the parade as “symbolic,” saying “a lot of people in Kyiv (have forgotten) about war, so I think this is a good reminder.”
Her husband, who is fighting on the front line, has implored her to leave the capital for their summer home 50 kilometers (31 miles) away, she said. But she has refused to go.
Even if “there are massive missile strikes on Kyiv (on Wednesday), we will not leave,” she said, explaining she has an emergency bag at home, with enough clothes and overalls “in case of radiation pollution … in case of missiles. We are not that easily scared by them anymore.”
“I don’t feel festive about (Independence Day), I rather feel sad,” she added. “Because I understand what is going on and my husband and brother are on the front line.”
Holding a Ukrainian flag, another onlooker told CNN she also has relatives fighting against Russia.
“My father is on the front line, a lot of my relatives are on the front line … so tomorrow is not a celebration per se, but honoring and feeling independence, because this time it will feel differently than for the previous 30 years,” said Daria, 35, who declined to give her last name.
US President Joe Biden marked Ukraine’s Independence Day Wednesday by reiterating the US’ commitment to Ukraine with a new $2.98 billion investment in security assistance.
“This will allow Ukraine to acquire air defense systems, artillery systems and munitions, counter-unmanned aerial systems, and radars to ensure it can continue to defend itself over the long term,” Biden said in a statement Wednesday.
“Today is not only a celebration of the past, but a resounding affirmation that Ukraine proudly remains – and will remain – a sovereign and independent nation,” Biden said, adding that the US “looks forward to continuing to celebrate Ukraine as a democratic, independent, sovereign and prosperous state for decades to come.”
Included in the security assistance package is VAMPIRE counter-unmanned aerial system – or counter-drone system – that uses “small missiles essentially to shoot missiles out of the sky,” Department of Defense Undersecretary for Policy Dr. Colin Kahl told reporters later on Wednesday.
World leaders joined Biden on Wednesday in pledging continuing support for Ukraine.
British Prime Minister Johnson met with Zelensky during his visit. He announced a $66 million aid package for Ukraine, telling the country that it “can and will win” the war against Russia.
Portugal’s Foreign Minister João Gomes Cravinho was also among foreign leaders in Kyiv.
In Brussels, a giant Ukrainian flag was unrolled on Grand-Place during an event attended by President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.
In a Twitter message on Wednesday, President of the European Council Charles Michel said: “Your future is our common future. And it’s why we want to support you as much as we can to protect and to defend your independence, your sovereignty and your territorial integrity. We are with you.”
‘It’s tearing me apart’
On Kyiv’s Khreshchatyk on Tuesday, many who spoke to CNN shared worries about a possible Russian attack on Wednesday.
After six months of conflict that have sent Ukraine’s economy into a tailspin and disrupted almost every part of daily life, the weariness was tangible.
“I don’t feel festive about tomorrow, not in a festive mood,” said 29-year-old Oleksii, explaining that he is worried about missiles being fired on the capital.
“My hatred for Russians has grown so big that it’s tearing me apart,” said Anna, 68, who declined to give her surname for safety reasons.
The clinic that she works in has told her to work remotely for the next few days. “I’ve worked (throughout) the war … sometimes getting home under shelling,” she said.
She described Russian President Vladimir Putin as unpredictable, like “a monkey holding a grenade.”
“He says one thing, does something different and nobody can guess what’s actually on his mind,” she said.
CNN’s Kyle Blaine, Karen Smith, Nicholas Pearce and Radina Gigova contributed to this report.