Dispatch

Life Underground in Bomb-Shattered Kharkiv

Two weeks into the war, residents of Ukraine’s second-largest city are still surviving in squalid shelters.

Kharkiv residents sleep on the ground in the Kharkiv metro station on March 10.
Kharkiv residents sleep on the ground in the Kharkiv metro station on March 10.
Residents sleep on the ground in the Kharkiv metro station on March 10. Emre Caylak photos for Foreign Policy
By , a journalist based in Ukraine covering the human cost of the war.

KHARKIV, Ukraine—Accompanied by a dog and an amber-colored pet fox, two women and a man try to sleep, fully clothed, sharing one sheet, in the middle of the afternoon. But it’s hard to rest when you’re top-to-toe with strangers on a subway station platform in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

After weeks of bombardment in Kharkiv, about two dozen miles from the Russian border, few windows remain. Heavy artillery, even prohibited cluster munitions, have laid waste to the north and center of what was one of Ukraine’s most iconic cities. Videos shown to Foreign Policy by those fleeing depict the mangled bodies of people hit by Russian shells lying in the street; their crime was dashing out of shelters to look for food and water. Plainly audible in the background of the videos is the rhythmic boom of frequent explosions.

As a result, tens of thousands of the city’s residents have fled west to comparative safe spaces like Lviv, Ukraine, or into bordering countries like Poland. The United Nations said Russia’s invasion has triggered the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, with more than 2.5 million people so far in flight. Thousands of others, unable to find safe passage or not sure they want to leave Kharkiv, are living permanently in shelters like the subway station. 

Kharkiv residents sleep on the ground in the Kharkiv metro station on March 10.
Kharkiv residents sleep on the ground in the Kharkiv metro station on March 10.

Residents sleep on the ground in the Kharkiv metro station in Ukraine on March 10.Emre Caylak for Foreign Policy

KHARKIV, Ukraine—Accompanied by a dog and an amber-colored pet fox, two women and a man try to sleep, fully clothed, sharing one sheet, in the middle of the afternoon. But it’s hard to rest when you’re top-to-toe with strangers on a subway station platform in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

After weeks of bombardment in Kharkiv, about two dozen miles from the Russian border, few windows remain. Heavy artillery, even prohibited cluster munitions, have laid waste to the north and center of what was one of Ukraine’s most iconic cities. Videos shown to Foreign Policy by those fleeing depict the mangled bodies of people hit by Russian shells lying in the street; their crime was dashing out of shelters to look for food and water. Plainly audible in the background of the videos is the rhythmic boom of frequent explosions.

As a result, tens of thousands of the city’s residents have fled west to comparative safe spaces like Lviv, Ukraine, or into bordering countries like Poland. The United Nations said Russia’s invasion has triggered the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, with more than 2.5 million people so far in flight. Thousands of others, unable to find safe passage or not sure they want to leave Kharkiv, are living permanently in shelters like the subway station. 

A family set up a temporary home in a stationary train carriage in Kharkiv station. March 10.
A family set up a temporary home in a stationary train carriage in Kharkiv station. March 10.

A family sets up a temporary home in a stationary train carriage in Kharkiv metro station on March 10.

A woman sleeping on the platform of Kharkiv metro station holds her pet fox that she says "adopted her" as a cub on March 10.
A woman sleeping on the platform of Kharkiv metro station holds her pet fox that she says "adopted her" as a cub on March 10.

A woman sleeping on the platform of Kharkiv metro station holds her pet fox that she says adopted her as a cub on March 10.

Station staff estimate that between 1,000 and 3,000 people stay in the station each day, down from more than 5,000 people a week ago, since many have managed to flee. Some have lived in these conditions since the first day of the war. 

“Anything is better than sleeping at home with bombs,” said Ina, one of the involuntary underground residents. (She declined to give her full name out of security concerns.) “The conditions here are very bad. We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t very scared.” Ina is sheltering alone with her two young children.

With few trappings of comfort, people sleep on cold marble floors in every foot of space, from locker rooms to hallways. Entire families have set up tiny temporary homes in stationary train cars. It’s claustrophobic, the air is thick, and it smells of sweat. It feels like a tomb for the thankfully not yet dead.

Hundreds of people use each bathroom, with a table set up on one side to hold their food and toiletries: Milk and cookies sit next to soap and shampoo. People look exhausted, and paranoia is rampant. I am accused of being a Russian saboteur at least three times. 

Just over two weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, Western officials are warning that Kharkiv could soon be encircled. Hundreds of people have already been killed out of the city’s pre-war population of 1.4 million, but Russia seems determined to grind on. Russian state media has claimed Ukraine is operating U.S.-backed chemical and biological weapons laboratories in Kharkiv, a claim amplified by Russian diplomats at the United Nations and Chinese diplomats abroad. Western officials warn it could mean Russia is about to use “unconventional weapons.” 

Through the windows of a train carriage, duvets and other bed linen can be seen laying on the floor where once busy commuters would have passed through in Kharkiv on March 10.
Through the windows of a train carriage, duvets and other bed linen can be seen laying on the floor where once busy commuters would have passed through in Kharkiv on March 10.

Through the windows of a train carriage, duvets and other bed linen can be seen laying on the floor where once busy commuters would have passed through in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on March 10.

Russian attempts to quickly seize the capital and major cities were met with an unexpectedly solid Ukrainian resistance. Russia’s solution appears to be the tactic it already perfected in Chechnya and Syria: raining wholesale destruction on besieged cities. Mariupol, a key export hub in southern Ukraine, has been mauled by deliberate Russian strikes, including attacks on maternity hospitals.

Kharkiv has been hit with particular cruelty. Street after street has been destroyed, pockmarked with craters and covered with rubble and twisted steel. Residential neighborhoods and its historic downtown have been targeted, and at least 48 schools have been destroyed. A residential home for the disabled was hit by an airstrike on Friday while at least 400 high-rise apartment buildings have been hammered. Residents are left with no heating in sub-zero temperatures amid relentless shelling and missile strikes, according to Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov. 

In Kharkiv, like much of the eastern Donbass region, most people speak Russian, and many previously had sympathy for Moscow. The cruelty is hard for them to fathom. Moscow denies it has targeted civilians. Instead, Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a special operation to “de-Nazify” the country. 

“The other night, Nikolsky shopping mall was destroyed,” said Ivan, a handyman at the subway station who is now volunteering to help people who live there. “There were so many beautiful places in this city, but Russia ruined everything. I drive through the city, and I can’t recognize it anymore. It’s so painful to see.”

“My family wants to leave Kharkiv,” Ivan added, who also asked to withhold his last name out of fear of reprisals. “My girlfriend also tells me to leave. We have relatives in the west of Ukraine, but I don’t want to leave my station.”

With few businesses open and few people going to work, volunteer units have mobilized in the days since the war started. Teams like Volunteer Dnipra—which has already set up a 200-vehicle-strong fleet—shuttle in from relatively safer cities like Dnipro, well to the west of Kharkiv, to bring in supplies and take out evacuees. 

A residential building in Kharkiv damaged during weeks of Russian attacks on the city on March 10.
A residential building in Kharkiv damaged during weeks of Russian attacks on the city on March 10.

A residential building in Kharkiv, Ukraine, is seen damaged during weeks of Russian attacks on the city on March 10.

People file in and out of the station, braving the outside to exercise, fetch supplies or catch some phone signal in Kharkiv on March 10.
People file in and out of the station, braving the outside to exercise, fetch supplies or catch some phone signal in Kharkiv on March 10.

People file in and out of the Kharkiv metro station, braving the outside to exercise, fetch supplies, or catch a phone signal in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on March 10.

Ukrainians cling to hope that the international community can help bring a solution to the war. But diplomatic off-ramps seem hard to find. On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, failed to reach a cease-fire agreement.

For those living in dark, dusty, squalid basements and subways, each day that passes means a little less dignity to their living conditions and a lot more resolve.

“Down here, we try not to talk about outside and instead concentrate on living,” Ina said. “But we can’t help but ask, ‘How can something this bad happen in the modern world?’ We just can’t understand it.”

Liz Cookman is a journalist based in Ukraine covering the human cost of the war. Twitter: @Liz_Cookman

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