“We survived”: In the bombed-out Kharkiv, residents are getting used to life underground

THere are two saltivkas. One is above ground, an area with a string of wrecked buildings and charred cars on bomb-scarred streets, lone figures hurrying along and terrified faces peering out windows amidst the noise of explosions.

However, there is another Saltivka, made up of hundreds of people who used to live there and are now being transplanted underground, huddled in subway stations, worried whether the homes they left behind will face the daily barrage of rocket attacks and survived artillery shells.

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

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

(AFP via Getty)

Ukraine’s second largest city is yet to see the withdrawal of Russian forces, as happened with the capital, Kyiv. Here the attack continues as the Kremlin tries to seal off the Donbass, which lies to the east of the city.

Ukrainian troops have made hard-won advances in the villages and towns surrounding Kharkiv, but Vladimir Putin’s forces remain close enough to unleash volleys of deadly attacks, often indiscriminately, into residential areas and exacting a mounting toll in lives.

Residents in some parts of Saltivka are among the most economically disadvantaged in Kharkiv, often either unemployed or without regular work. Many of them do not have the necessary identification papers to receive emergency government assistance, let alone passports to leave the country and escape the war.

Oleksandr Pavluyk has searched abandoned houses on a run-down estate to find food left behind for his elderly mother and himself. He shows what he found after an hour and a half of searching – two loaves of stale, crumbling 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 says 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, that would be a luxury. It would be nice to give her something good at a time like this. I stayed out here because of her – she doesn’t want to leave – but life is hard for her, for us.”

A heavily damaged apartment building in a front-line district of Kharkiv, March 27, 2022

(AFP via Getty)

Mr Pavluyk says he tried to persuade his 73-year-old mother, Yulia, that they should go somewhere safer, stressing it was far too dangerous to stay there, but he hadn’t changed her mind.

Loud noises as the 42-year-old construction worker, who hadn’t worked for five months before the start of the war, described their desperate situation.

“Maybe they’re trying to meet one [Ukrainian] Army post that was there. That was postponed a while ago, but they’re still bombing this area. We hit those buildings head-on too, and those are just people’s homes,” he says, pointing to blasted walls, sheared-off balconies and broken windows.

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

Kharkiv is only 40 km away from Russia, and this section of Saltivka is one of the points closest to the border. “It’s not far for bombs,” says Denis Zhuravlov, who is standing in front of another block of flats. “Since these peace talks began, we haven’t seen any real reduction in attacks. They stop for a few hours and then start again.”

This map shows the extent of the Russian invasion of Ukraine

(Pictures of the Press Association)

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

“They explode in mid-air and then float down and explode again at low altitude,” he said, pointing to pieces of orange fabric hanging from tree branches. “They used all sorts of weapons here. People are afraid to be outside, that’s why they left here. Our neighbors went to the train stations, many people stayed from here.”

On the day of the invasion, February 24, the escape began at the subway stations. Hostilities began in Kharkiv with sustained rocket attacks. Oksana Kovaleva’s apartment building was hit within 45 minutes of the initial attack. She grabbed her four-year-old daughter Iryna and son Yuri, threw on coats and stormed out of the building.

Another family fled in their car and stopped to take Ms. Kovaleva and her children to a nearby subway station, where the vehicle was abandoned and they all rushed underground.

File photo: Residents’ accommodation at a metro station in Kharkiv, March 28, 2022

(Getty Images)

“Soon more and more people came in. Everyone was scared, the explosions were so loud we could even see them underground,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking about our apartment back then. We were just very thankful to be alive, my kids were fine. It was relief more than anything.”

Ms. Kovaleva’s husband, Anton, had joined a volunteer battalion of the Ukrainian Armed Forces stationed on the front east of the city. “I knew he would be very worried about us, I tried to call him many times that evening. The next day I reached his brother and he passed the word that we were safe,” she recalled.

After three days, Ms. Kovaleva and her neighbor returned home to collect important items and two 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 and rarely venturing out.

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

File Photo: People rest while taking shelter at a metro station in Kharkiv, March 28, 2022

(Getty Images)

In Kharkiv, however, danger is never far away. A supermarket near Heroiv Pratsi was recently hit by a rocket, injuring eight people and killing three others queuing for groceries, including a woman from the train station.

Anastasia Kharkova, an activist staying at the station, described the 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 every effort must be made to make life work down here. Lots of people volunteered, people came out of retirement to help. I think the authorities have done their best,” she said. “There was also a lot of help from the churches and people of different faiths, for which we are all very grateful.”

File Photo: A man hides in a metro station in Kharkiv, March 28, 2022

(Getty Images)

A group from a Hare Krishna temple came for lunch with soup, bread and sweets. The day before, it was a Baptist congregation’s turn. “We all work together and do what we can,” said one of Hare Krishna’s followers. “We don’t discuss religion; we only help each other”, while his companions sang with cymbals and drums.

Lubov Mimilova, a social worker, has set up playgroups for families in the train stations. There are children’s drawings on the walls, games and parties are organized. “Obviously what’s happening is having a deep impact on these boys and girls,” she said. “It’s important to let them express their feelings, but it’s also very important to let them hold on to their childhood as much as possible given the circumstances.”

At platform 2 there was a line for Viktoria Gondarova, a beautician who offers nail polish. “Everyone wants to help. I do that in my professional life and I thought why not offer this service? It will be something that reminds the women of their life before the war and cheers them up a bit,” she said. “Everyone needs cheering up at a time like this.”

Viktoria Gondarova polishes nails underground in Kharkiv

(Kim Sengupta)

Elena Doro, a doctor at one of the city hospitals who has set up a part-time practice in the former ticket office, has to deal with mental and physical problems.

“We’ve had the usual illnesses on this ward, coughs and colds, a few accidents where people fell, especially when trying to rush to the shelter because of the bombing,” she said. “There were also two cases of Covid, it became quite obvious they had it when they arrived and were sent for treatment.

“But of course there are also psychological issues, as you would expect from people in this situation. One thing we noticed is that some people are afraid of open spaces and not being around others in an enclosed area. This is something that needs to be addressed as things get better.”

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

(Kim Sengupta)

There are people on Heroiv Pratsi platforms who believe that things will get better.

“We are repelling the enemy, Kharkiv was not conquered. Vladimir Putin failed to conquer our country,” said Nicolai Shevchenko. “Staying down here was excruciating for us but we survived and we will 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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