The Amstor shopping mall has for years been the modest commercial heart of Kremenchuk, the place where residents of this quiet mid-sized city in central Ukraine came to buy everything from cheap electronics to fresh fish. It was where teenagers went to hang out on weekends.
By Monday evening, Amstor was a smouldering mess after it was struck by a pair of Russian missiles. At least 16 people were killed, a number that was expected to continue to rise as an unknown number of shoppers were believed to be buried beneath the wreckage of the shopping centre’s roof, which collapsed on top of them as they tried to escape the blazing mall.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that as many as 1,000 people were in the mall at the time of the attack, and that it was “impossible to even imagine the number of victims.” In his evening video message, Mr. Zelensky said, “This is not an accidental hit, this is a calculated Russian strike exactly onto this shopping centre.”
Walking through the wreckage of the mall, Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the country’s Interior Minister, said, “A large number of people have died. Almost everyone who was inside. How can we know how many?”
Many interpreted the attack as the latest in a series of messages aimed at scaring both Ukrainians and their allies in the West. The strike on Kremenchuk was one of several Russian barrages on Sunday and Monday, with missiles hitting civilian targets in cities including Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa as G7 leaders were gathering in Germany pledging to support Ukraine militarily and economically “for as long as it takes.”
In a joint statement, the G7 leaders said Monday that they condemned “the abominable attack on a shopping mall in Kremenchuk,” noting that the targeting of innocent civilians was a war crime. “We will not rest until Russia ends its cruel and senseless war on Ukraine,” the statement concludes.
The G7 meeting ended Monday, but there are worries that Russia will continue to bombard Ukrainian cities throughout the NATO summit, which runs Tuesday through Thursday in Madrid. On Monday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the 30-member alliance would name Russia as “the most significant and direct threat to our security” and increase the number of troops on high readiness for combat to “well over 300,000.”
Hours after the attack on Kremenchuk, smoke was still rising from the twisted metal and broken cement that once was a collection of dozens of smaller shops under the Amstor roof: among them a popular grocer, a trendy jeans store, a pet shop and a jeweller. On one clothing rack that somehow remained upright after the blast, an “Air Jordan” Nike sweatshirt still hung, blackened by soot.
The Prosecutor General’s Office reported on Monday that more than 40 people were missing after the attack.
Small fires continued to burn as evening fell, and the painstaking hunt for survivors was interrupted by an air-raid siren that sent firefighters, police and local residents scrambling into shelters, fearing a follow-up attack.
But four months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and after hearing air-raid sirens several times a day for most of that time – not everyone goes into the shelters any more, a reality that likely cost lives in Kremenchuk. Anna Vasenko, a local spokeswoman for the National Police of Ukraine, said that a siren had sounded “five to seven minutes” before the rockets slammed into the mall around 4 p.m. local time.
Some shoppers, she said, had likely decided to ignore the sirens that had long since become routine everywhere in Ukraine. Others, she said, simply didn’t have time to get out.
Roman Shamray, a manager at one of the shops inside Amstor, likely survived for two reasons: He was on a smoke break when the sirens went, and he had promised his wife and young daughter – who have been living as refugees in Germany since the start of the war – that he would always go into a shelter when he heard a siren.
Hours after the attack, he stood outside Kremenchuk’s Hospital No. 3, waiting for news about colleagues – some of whom were injured and inside the hospital, others from whom he had heard nothing since the explosions. Evidently still in shock from the day’s events, Mr. Shamray said he couldn’t even say how many of his friends were missing.
“This shopping centre had the biggest toy store in the city. How could this be a strategic object?” the 28-year-old said. “It was targeted because it was a large accumulation of people, and the Russians want to create panic. They can’t win the war, so they want to sow panic.”
Mr. Shamray said the management of the mall had decided three days ago to end its previous practice of shutting down during air-raid sirens and asking shoppers and staff to go into shelters, and to instead allow stores to operate as normal during the alarms.
Kremenchuk, which had a prewar population of 217,000, is home to the country’s largest oil refinery, which was hit by Russian missiles in April. Like many Ukrainian cities, something like prewar life had only been starting to return in recent weeks as some of those who had fled Kremenchuk at the start of the war had started to trickle back.
Some residents said they believed the Amstor mall was hit by accident, and that the real target might have been the city’s railway station.
“A lot of armour and heavy weapons are transported through the railway, so maybe that was their target. Even their so-called precise missiles miss the target quite often,” said Alyona Zakharova, a 41-year-old foreign languages teacher who was watching the rescue operation on Monday evening with her 15-year-old daughter, Irina, who had been at the mall on Saturday.
“But maybe their aim was to scare people. Who knows? Putin is a monster. He doesn’t really give a damn about the lives of his own people, and especially not Ukrainians, whom he hates,” she said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Fear has certainly arrived in Kremenchuk. Lyudmilla Yorzh was in her apartment across the street from Amstor when the missiles struck and blew her window in. The 67-year-old retiree said she grabbed some medicine and tried to go across to help survivors, but couldn’t get closer than the parking lot because of the heat and the smoke.
As evening fell, she was sitting on a bench, steps from the local bomb shelter. “I’m afraid even to go back into my home, in case there’s another attack,” she said.
SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT
The Globe and Mail, June 27, 2022