The Kharkiv metro: a month underground


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August 3, 2022

The Kharkiv metro: a month underground

  • Dispatches from Ukraine
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • war

Thousands of Kharkiv residents hide from the war in metro stations. They hope to return to their homes soon.

Photo: Depositphotos

There is not much free space at the large Heroiv Pratsi (Heroes of Labor) metro station. About eight hundred people take refuge here. The policemen who keep order say that at its peak there were over two thousand.

According to 33-year-old Marina, it was hardly possible to get in until recently. There were people everywhere. It was hard to put your foot down without stepping on someone.

Even now there are whole families on the platform, sometimes with pets. They lie on inflatable mattresses and mats, covered with blankets or duvets. The station looks like an underground encampment.

Marina, her 33-year-old husband Mykhailo, and two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Katya have been living in the metro station since February 24, the first day of the full-scale Russian invasion. Since then Kharkiv — the second largest city in Ukraine with one and a half million residents, and only 40 kilometers from the border — has found itself under constant threat from Russia. Russian tanks appeared on the ring road on the very first day. Airplanes bombed the city on a regular basis, destroying a part of the city center. According to mayor Ihor Terekhov, Russian troops have already destroyed 1,143 buildings.

Like most people with children, Marina, Mykhailo and Katia ended up in a train car. They got in the first car. The train usually goes from the terminus at Heroes station to the other end of the blue line, which is the Historical Museum in the city center. However, the Kharkiv metro has stopped running and today it only serves as a shelter.

Get some fresh air

At the Heroes of Labor station, located in the district of Saltivka, the air is already heavy and musty. Apart from the war, the spread of disease is the biggest problem for people who take refuge in the metro. Every now and then someone coughs or can be seen staring deliriously. Although doctors and volunteers bring medicine, it is easy to deteriorate in these conditions.

Right behind the heavy door leading to the station, neighbors from the same street have arranged their beds: 45 year old Ruslan and 40 year old Mykola. Sweat can be seen beading on Mykola’s face even though it isn’t hot inside the station. His eyes dart around. Two days ago he was examined by a doctor who regularly visits the station. He was diagnosed with bronchitis.

“He recommended that I go out to get fresh air more often. How am I supposed to do that? Today I was on the street for two hours, because the weather was good and it was quiet. Then the shelling started again and we all came down here, because if a bomb falls from a plane, we will only be safe here,” says Mykoła.

The sound we hear now is Ukrainian artillery, which is shelling with full force. At the wide intersection, which was busy just a month ago, it is so loud that even the people of Kharkiv, already used to the war, flinch.

Not all of them feel such fear of course. A man smokes a cigarette at the entrance to a still-working pub, now cooking meals for those taking refuge in the subway. There is another boom but he doesn’t even blink. “They’re ours,” he says emotionlessly, holding a cigarette between his fingers.

Some people don’t have enough nerve. Usually, at the first loud salvo of explosions (because the quieter ones can be heard almost constantly), those out to smoke or get fresh air descend in a hurry either to the pedestrian underpass or deeper into the station.

I don’t know if the house is still standing

Most of those seeking shelter at the Heroes of Labor station are residents of Saltivka, the largest housing development in all of Ukraine. Over 400,000 people live here — more than in many regional capitals, such as Kherson, Chernihiv or Poltava.

The development is dotted with tall apartment buildings built mainly during the times of the Soviet Union, and is divided into two parts: Saltivka and Northern Saltivka. Both have been under fire since the first day of the invasion, but the latter experiences it more. Rockets leave windows broken and holes in the walls. They start fires, as a result of which the facades are blackened. They deprive the housing estate of life, literally and figuratively, because apart from the killed and wounded, blocks and yards are emptied. Only individuals with nowhere to go remain, as well as hungry dogs abandoned by their owners, and debris.

Mykola and Ruslan live in North Saltivka

“The house was under fire day and night. You lie in bed and the whole building is shaking. You hear a whistle, an explosion, and you run to the basement,” says Ruslan.

He decided to leave his home when a Russian missile hit the first floor of his building. He didn’t even check to see what happened to his apartment. Then Mykola’s window panes were blown out and he also decided to move to the metro station. They have not returned to their own apartments since.

“It’s terrible to go there. People go to the store and bullets hit them,” says Ruslan. “I would have to walk a few kilometers to get to the apartment. Then climb to the seventh floor because the elevator doesn’t work. By the time I get there, I might have to stay there.”

He  recalls the shelling of the bazaar in Saltivka. Two people were killed then and five wounded.

“There was no electricity or water in the house. And I don’t even know if it is still standing,” admits Ruslan. “I only had biscuits and water.”

“Everyday I try to find out if my building is still standing. I know there are no windows, but the structure is holding together. This is most important,” says Mykola. He adds that as long as the walls are standing and the floors hang on, the damaged interior can always be repaired.

You can’t hear the explosions in the metro

When Russia again attacked Ukraine in February, explosions spread through Kharkiv and many other cities in the morning. Mykhailo and Marina headed straight to the nearest metro station with Katia in their arms. From then on, the immobile train became their temporary home. It is warmer here than it is on the platform but there is no electricity, so they sit in the dark. There is order here. Things are put away in different parts of the wagon.

“We decided that this is the safest place to shelter,” says Mykhailo.

“If you are sitting in a basement in some building and something happens, who will find you later?” 36-year-old Natasha, who has from February 24 also been hiding in the first car with her 8-year-old daughter Veronika, asks rhetorically. “If an apocalypse happens, they will transport us out first, because this is a central shelter.”

Veronika looks through the glass, behind which you can see hundreds of people just like her and her mother taking shelter from the war here. Natasha jokes that her daughter is their bodyguard.

Natalia and her 11-year-old son also live in the same car. They only came to the Heroes of Labor station at the beginning of March. They lived in a basement during the first days of the Russian offensive but, like Mykhailo’s family, they concluded that they would be safer in the metro. “You can’t hear the explosions here. This is very important, especially for the children,” admits Natalia.

Located deep underground, the station almost completely conceals the noise of artillery. This provides a bit of peace, because every loud sound — such as the opening of a heavy wagon door — immediately draws the attention of Kharkivians, who have experienced war, the thunder of artillery, the whistling of rockets and their explosions; the sound of war  makes you feel as if something is tearing you apart from the inside.

“The worst is when you hear a plane, because you do not know where the bomb will fall. These sounds frighten the children. A shell exploded not far from my son and me. He cried so hard that I could hardly calm him down,” admits Natalia.

They won’t be coming home for now

In the first days after Mykhailo and his family came to the metro, he went to his home every morning. He prepared food, took things and brought them to the wagon. With Marina, they began to consider returning. The artillery rumbles, but maybe it wouldn’t hit their home. In the metro, even in a wagon, it isn’t comfortable and it is difficult to function with a small child. You sometimes encounter bothersome people while sleeping in the seats, but most of all there is not even a second of privacy. There is always someone next to you, possibly excluding the toilet.

Mykhailo and Marina’s neighbors at some point could not stand it and decided to move back. “Miraculously, they survived,” says Marina.

“They lived here for a week, returned home and it just so happened that their building was hit. The shell hit the staircase. The shards went through the door of their apartment like butter. If someone had been standing in the kitchen, that would be the end,” adds Mykhailo.

He was lucky too, because he was already in the metro when it happened. One of the inhabitants on his floor was killed as a result of the shelling. The neighbors have since moved elsewhere.

“They have an elderly mother, maybe she was not able to stay here,” Mykhailo wonders.

All their doubts vanished after this incident. No one spoke about returning home any longer.

Mykhailo claims that from time to time there appear more people in the metro who are deprived of the illusion of safety and the delusion that the war will bypass their home: “You can see that they come after shelling. Sometimes with a scarred face, barely escaping with their life.”

Natalia, found a huge fragment when out for a cigarette, probably from a rocket, at the entrance. She took it with her. “I put it aside as a souvenir, although I think that I will never forget this regardless,” she says.

Ever since the Russian artillery started reaching the vicinity of their metro, Mykhailo thinks twice about going to  light up. He looks at the sky every time to see that nothing is incoming.

War will catch up with everyone

Thanks to the instructions of her father, a former military man, Natalia knows that she does not have to be afraid of — as she describes it — the rustling of passing rockets, because they are flying somewhere further. That’s why she has still not quit smoking.

Natalia was born in Poland, in Legnica, where her father served. She is Russian and speaks Russian. It wasn’t until she was 11 that she moved to Kharkiv, and it has been her home ever since. For her, the notion of Russkiy Mir, the Russian world, has been compromised. Contrary to what the Kremlin says, she does not feel discriminated against or oppressed in Ukraine. “We have always welcomed Russians with open arms, with joy! They regularly came to us from Belgorod. We welcomed them as kin,” says Natalia.

According to a survey by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center from early March, 71 percent of Russians support the “special operation” (as the Kremlin calls the attack on Ukraine). Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claims that its aim is to liberate Ukrainians from oppression.

“They freed me from home and work, and my child from school,” says Natalia. “It will be very dreadful if it becomes like Donbas here.”

In 2014, shortly after the protests in Independence Square in Kyiv, which ended with the flight of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, the Russians annexed Crimea and started the war in the Donbas with the support of part of the local population. According to the United Nations, at least 13,000 people have died as a result, of which at least 3,375 are civilians. Now, according to the UN, 1,000 civilians have lost their lives in the month-long Russian offensive in Ukraine. The UN admits that the actual number of victims is probably much higher (e.g. in besieged Mariupol, it is thought that civilian casualties are in the thousands), but at this point it is not able to verify this.

Despite the threat, Natalia has no intention of leaving. “This is my home, city and land,” she says.

“People are leaving, and it keeps catching up with them,” Natasha echoes.

She gives examples of her friends who went to other oblasts, and soon after these areas were also under rocket fire.

“At least we are in our city and in a safe place. You can call a doctor, there is medicine and food. You don’t know what awaits you elsewhere. The fact that it is quiet there today does not mean that it will be like that tomorrow,” says Natasha.

“When this started, my neighbor escaped with her husband to their dacha. They had scarcely arrived when they found themselves in territory occupied by the Russians. Now they cannot return,” adds Natalia.

Weeks pass and the war in Kharkiv doesn’t let up. After a quiet day, a worse one comes. Every now and then you hear sirens warning against an air attack and artillery, as if the rockets and shells were never going to end.

And yet, in the metro at the Heroes of Labor station, the temporary residents of the first wagon are thinking about what will come next.

“Sometimes we are haunted by thoughts of how it will all end,” says Mykhailo.

“We are trying to look at the future with positivity. We have children after all, and this is above all their future,” admits Natalia.

“We are waiting for victory,” says Natasha.

Everyone wants to return home as soon as possible. Natalia already imagines putting in windows and sometimes erecting buildings from scratch, cleaning up and renovating the district: “We are waiting for the war to end and we will work, build anew,” she says.

“Our city is beautiful and they’ve destroyed it like this,” admits Natasha.

Natalia: “It’s okay. If we made Kharkiv pretty once, we’ll do it again.”

This text was originally published in Polish in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Translated from Polish by Lukasz ChelminskiThis piece is part of the DS collection: Dispatches from Ukraine.


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