‘We survived’: In bombarded Kharkiv, residents adapt to life underground

Jhere are two Saltivkas. One is above ground, an area containing row upon row of shattered buildings and charred cars on bomb-scarred roads, lone figures hurrying and frightened faces peering out windows amid the sound of explosions .

There is, however, another Saltivka, made up of hundreds of people who once lived there and are now transplanted underground, crammed into subway stations, anxious to know if the homes they left behind survived the daily barrage. missile fire and artillery fire.

Saltivka is the most bombed district of one of the most bombed cities of the war so far, Kharkiv.

A police car is seen under rubble in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on April 2, 2022.

(AFP via Getty)

Ukraine’s second city has yet to experience the withdrawal of Russian forces, as happened around the capital, kyiv. Here the assault continued as the Kremlin tries to blockade the Donbass, which lies to the east of the city.

Ukrainian troops have made hard-fought gains in villages and towns around Kharkiv, but Vladimir Putin’s forces remain close enough to carry out salvoes of deadly strikes, often indiscriminately, in residential areas, killing increasing numbers of lives.

Residents of parts of Saltivka are among the most economically disadvantaged in Kharkiv, often unemployed or without regular work. Many of them lack the necessary identification documents to receive emergency government aid, let alone passports to exit the country to escape war.

Oleksandr Pavluyk walked through abandoned houses in a dilapidated estate to try to find food for himself and his elderly mother. He shows what he managed to find after an hour and a half of foraging – two stale, crumbly loaves of bread, two onions, four potatoes, three moldy apples and a can of salmon.

“Most people who live here didn’t have much anyway, so I wasn’t expecting much,” he said. The Independent. “We haven’t had electricity for days, so the food in the fridges has rotted. But the salmon is good, my mother would like that, it would be a luxury. It would be nice to give her something nice at a time like this. I stayed here because of her – she doesn’t want to leave – but life is hard for her, for us.

A heavily damaged building in a frontline neighborhood of Kharkiv, March 27, 2022

(AFP via Getty)

Mr Pavluyk says he tried to persuade his 73-year-old mother, Yulia, that they should move to a safer place, pointing out that it was far too dangerous to stay, but failed to do so change one’s mind.

There are sounds of explosions as the 42-year-old construction worker, who had been off work for five months before the war even started, describes their plight.

“Maybe they’re trying to hit a [Ukrainian] military post there. It moved a while ago, but they’re still bombing that area. We’ve also had those buildings directly hit, and they’re just houses,” he says, showing destroyed walls, sheared balconies and shattered windows.

“It happens often, I don’t know why. Most people left. There aren’t many people to kill here.

Kharkiv is only 25 miles from Russia, and this stretch of Saltivka is one of the closest points to the border. “It’s not far for them to bomb,” said Denis Zhuravlov, standing in front of another building. “We have seen no real reduction in attacks since the start of these peace talks. They stop for a few hours then start again.

This map shows the extent of the Russian invasion of Ukraine

(Press Association)

Mr. Zhuravlov refers to the “new types” of bombs used by the Russians.

“They burst in the air, then float and burst again at low altitude,” he says, pointing to pieces of orange fabric hanging from branches. “They used all kinds of weapons here. People are afraid to be outside; that’s why they left here. Our neighbors went to stay in the stations, many people came from here.

The movement to seek refuge in subway stations began on the first day of the invasion, February 24. Hostilities began in Kharkiv with sustained missile attacks. Oksana Kovaleva’s building was hit within 45 minutes of the first attack. She grabbed her four-year-old daughter Iryna, and her son, Yuri, put on a coat and rushed out of the building.

Another family was fleeing by car and stopped to take Ms Kovaleva and her children to one of the nearest metro stations, where the vehicle was abandoned and they all rushed underground.

Residents take shelter in a metro station in Kharkiv on March 28, 2022.


“Soon there were more and more people arriving. Everyone was terrified – the explosions were so loud we could even hear them underground,” she says. “I wasn’t thinking about our apartment at the time. We were just so grateful to be alive, my kids were fine. It was a relief more than anything. »

Ms Kovaleva’s husband, Anton, had joined a volunteer battalion of the Ukrainian forces, which had deployed to the front line east of the city. “I knew he would be very worried about us; I tried to call her several times that night. I managed to reach his brother the next day and he let me know we were safe,” she recalls.

After three days, Ms. Kovaleva and her neighbor returned home to collect essential items and two sets of pets: a dog and two cats. They returned to the Heroiv Pratsi metro station where they have lived ever since, sleeping in tents on the platform, rarely venturing out.

Over time, a certain structure was established in the underground community. A medical clinic has been set up, food is provided by social groups and religious organizations, there are online classes for children, and even a makeshift nail salon. The tracks, where the trains no longer run, are used to walk from station to station by those looking for accommodation.

File photo: People rest as they take shelter in a metro station in Kharkiv, March 28, 2022

(Getty Pictures)

Danger, however, is never far away in Kharkiv. A supermarket near Heroiv Pratsi was recently hit by a missile, injuring eight people and killing three others who were queuing for food, including a woman from the train station.

Anastasia Kharkova, an activist staying at the resort, described attempts to bring some semblance of normalcy to the community with such closeness to violence.

“It was decided early on that this war could go on for a very long time and that every effort should be made to make life work here. Lots of people volunteered, people came out of retirement to help. The authorities did the best they could I think,” she said. “There has also been a lot of help from churches and people of different faiths, we are all very grateful for that.”

File photo: A man takes shelter in a metro station in Kharkiv, March 28, 2022

(Getty Pictures)

A group from a Hare Krishna temple came with soup, bread and sweets to prepare lunch. It was the turn of a Baptist church the day before. “We are all working together doing what we can,” said one of the Hare Krishna followers. “We don’t discuss religion; we just help each other,” as his companions sang with cymbals and drums.

Lubov Mimilova, a social worker, has set up playgroups for families at train stations. There are children’s drawings on the walls, games and organized parties. “What happens obviously has a profound impact on these boys and girls,” she said. “Letting them express their feelings is important, but it’s also very important to let them hold on to their childhood as much as possible under the circumstances.”

There was a queue at Pier 2 for Viktoria Gondarova, a beautician offering nail polishing. “Everyone wants to help. This is what I do in my professional life, so I thought why not offer this service? It will be something that will remind women of their life before the war, lift them up a bit,” she said. “Everyone needs to cheer themselves up at a time like this.”

Viktoria Gondarova polishes nails underground in Kharkiv

(Kim Sengupta)

There are mental and physical issues to deal with for Elena Doro, a doctor at one of the city’s hospitals, who has set up part-time surgery in what used to be the ticket office.

“We had the usual illnesses at this station, coughs and colds, a few accidents with people falling, especially when they tried to get to the shelter in a hurry because of the shelling,” he said. she declared. “There were also two cases of Covid, it became quite obvious that they had it when they arrived and they were sent for treatment.

“But there are also psychological issues of course, as you would expect from people in this situation. One thing we’ve noticed is that some people have started to fear open spaces, not being near others in an enclosed space. This is something that will have to be fixed when things get better. »

Elena Doro set up a makeshift clinic in a Kharkiv metro station

(Kim Sengupta)

There are those on Heroiv Pratsi’s platforms who are confident that things will start to look up.

“We are repelling the enemy, Kharkiv has not been captured. Vladimir Putin failed to conquer our country,” Nicolai Shevchenko said. “Staying here was tough for us, but we survived and we’ll be strong when we get out.

“Ukraine has suffered a lot of losses, a lot of pain, but our country is united, we will be stronger after what happened, we have no doubt about that.”

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