In the deserted center of Kyiv where the blasts of war echo, an American couple quietly walk their dogs after deciding to stay put in the city they call home.
John and Natasha Sennett heard the war sirens for the first time in their old district of Kyiv after Russian forces invaded Ukraine last month.
Panic ensued. “We threw things into backpacks, we took the dogs and rushed to the basement,” said Natasha, 42.
A false alarm, the first in this part of Kyiv which remains spared from bombardments by Russian forces, 10 days after the invasion began. But they are at the gates of the capital, around 20 kilometers (12 miles) away
The bombardments, deafening and regular, often disturb the couple’s peaceful two-room apartment which has a New York style with American photos, exposed bricks and glass interior.
Elsewhere in the city, thousands of people fled by train or by car, fearing Russia will turn Kyiv into a new Aleppo or Grozny.
But John and Natasha decided to stay.
“You hear explosions, but they’re far away. After a while you get used to it,” said 57-year-old John, wearing a T-shirt with tattoos underneath, crew-cut hair and a trimmed beard.
On this weekend afternoon, John and Natasha take their dogs, Samantha, 7, and Philly, 6, for a walk. They brought the dogs over from the United States when they moved to Kyiv in late 2020.
They put a small black winter jacket on each canine to protect them from the biting cold and walk them on a leash in the deserted streets, where the war thunders from afar.
The couple give several reasons for wanting to stay.
In Kyiv, they say they feel “at home” for the first time in their lives. They initially moved to the city to be close to the family of Natasha, who was born in Belarus.
‘It’s all we have’
“We fell in love with this city, it feels like freedom here,” said John, who like his wife, says he feels “more Ukrainian than anything else” today.
Here he can also truly live his Orthodox faith which he converted to eight years ago.
The couple said they had found balance in Kyiv, far from the United States, where they felt like they spent all their lives working without being able to save much.
They bought their run-down apartment on the top floor and entirely renovated it. “We put all our savings into it. These 54 square meters are all we have,” John said.
“This is where we came to establish our lives,” he added, “and if it is our destiny to die, then I guess it is.”
Both work remotely. John runs a taxi-limousine service in his native city of Philadelphia and Natasha is an English teacher.
“We don’t have huge salaries, but it’s enough for us to live well here,” John said.
Other factors played a role in their decision to stay.
“We don’t have kids, we don’t have a car,” Natasha said, and one of the dogs, Samantha, is “very sick and cannot travel easily”.
The two Americans are more supportive than ever of the Ukrainian forces.
John, who was in the army between the ages of 19 to 21, publishes poems on social media glorifying the struggle of local fighters in their blue and gold national colors.
“These people are ready to die for their country, they’re an inspiration,” John said. He said he was ready, like his wife, “to use a weapon” if necessary.
But they do not rule out fleeing with their dogs, “if things go very badly”.
At the entrance to their apartment, they keep two small backpacks ready just in case.
In his bag, John put a laptop, chargers and blanket — as well as a crowbar and hammer, to “force doors (open) or break windows” to find shelter.
In the meantime, John looks to his faith. He goes once a week to the nearby church, to pray for Ukrainian soldiers and to confess.
Because when “death is close,” he said, “it’s best to go with a clean soul.”