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Scarred by Russian attacks, some Ukrainians stick to life underground

A Kharkiv station has become a makeshift home for people still sheltering from the prospect of Russian attacks even as Ukrainian forces push invading troops away from the crucial city.

KHARKIV, Ukraine — Liliya Gritchina lives in a tent underground by column seven of Kharkiv’s Imeni Maselskoho metro station, and says she’s only seen the sun four times since Russia invaded.

The metro station columns aren’t usually numbered, but they’ve become makeshift addresses for scores of people still sheltering from the prospect of shelling and rockets even as Ukrainian forces push Russian troops away from this crucial northeastern city.

“One time I left the shelter I saw rockets in the sky. There were sirens and I was very afraid,” said Gritchina, a 42-year-old seamstress who spoke by her tent on the cluttered metro platform.

“I will never forget this sound at the start of the war, the day I went up to see the sun. This scares me every time and I can’t leave this place until there are no sirens,” she added, wiping away tears.

Liliya Gritchina, a seamstress, has taken shelter at the Imeni Maselskoho metro station in Kharkiv.
Liliya Gritchina, a seamstress, has taken shelter at the Imeni Maselskoho metro station in Kharkiv.Mo Abbas / NBC News

Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second largest city and has been pummeled by Russian attacks since the start of the war. The strikes have become more distant in recent days as Kyiv’s forces recapture villages and suburbs north and east of the city.

The regional government plans to move the roughly 5,000 people sheltering in the metro system to housing elsewhere in the coming weeks. But despite the successful counterattack, many locals aren’t yet ready to return to their former lives. 

The air underground at Imeni Maselskoho station is fetid and smells of sewage. There are mattresses and tents among the turnstiles and in the open carriages of stationary trains. Heaps of blankets suddenly convulse with the sounds of coughing as people sleep through the day — it’s hard to keep track of time with no daylight, Gritchina said.

The numbers of a giant LED clock glared above the dark mouth of a tunnel, timing trains that hadn’t moved for months.

People are reluctant to leave the Imeni Maselskoho metro station in Kharkiv despite Ukrainian military successes pushing Russian forces away from the city.
People are reluctant to leave the Imeni Maselskoho metro station in Kharkiv despite Ukrainian military successes pushing Russian forces away from the city.Mo Abbas / NBC News

But despite the gloom, displaced people living at the metro station said they had come to feel a sense of support and safety underground.

“I can feel safe in this community because I can talk to them about my fears, about the shelling, about not wanting to go out. I feel supported because we all have the same understanding,” Gritchina said.

One woman had set flowers in a vase by her easel, where she had painted landscapes with bright blue skies. A man tuned his guitar, which he said he uses to teach children music in the shelter. Another two men sat and played cards. Mothers chatted with each other and children ran around playing tag and badminton.

“Here they’re a united community. They’re not very comfortable, and don’t have the space for everything that they need. But they have information and support,” said Yarolsava Volkova, 40, who had come to teach the station’s younger children.

“If they go home they’re alone.”

Volkova set up her class among the ticket machines and turnstiles. Her students danced to the Ukrainian version of “Baby Shark,” before turning to drawing and coloring pictures.

Drawings of flowers, leaves and sea creatures adorned the surrounding walls.

A young boy lies on the floor of the Imeni Maselskoho metro station in Kharkiv.
A young boy lies on the floor of the Imeni Maselskoho metro station in Kharkiv.Mo Abbas / NBC News

Like Gritchina, one boy appeared to be traumatized.

“I went home today, but when we got there I heard some shelling,” Nikita Serduk, 9, said as he held a stuffed toy octopus. “I feel panic and I want to go to the bunker,” he added.

Above ground, the sun shines and flowers are in full bloom as spring — and the recent Ukrainian military successes — stir small signs of life in the mostly empty city center.

Gennady Moroz, 51, an electrical engineer, swept away dust and leaves outside his apartment, where there was also an enormous bomb crater.

“It’s my city and my country. I have to keep them clean,” he said.

Gennady Moroz sweeps outside his apartment in Kharkiv.
Gennady Moroz sweeps outside his apartment in Kharkiv.Mo Abbas / NBC News

Some of the sites that were once the pride of Kharkiv were charred, smashed and broken. 

Shrapnel had torn chunks off trees and pockmarked buildings. Cozy rooms in well-appointed apartments stood exposed to the open air, with art and photos still hanging from the walls. The gold tiles of a domed church had been torn off and the windows of whole neighborhoods shattered.

And yet, throughout the city, there were signs of the small acts that will be needed to mitigate the physical scars of this city — if not its emotional ones.

A water truck drenched flower beds on Kharkiv’s main thoroughfare, and a street sweeper vehicle brushed the sidewalk clean. Workers filled potholes and fixed wonky curbstones.

Galina Shedayeva, 58, was part of a group of women planting flowers in a park and laying down different colored gravel to create bright, patterned flower beds.

Galina Shedayeva plants flowers in central Kharkiv.
Galina Shedayeva plants flowers in central Kharkiv.Mo Abbas / NBC News

The distant thump and crunch of shelling could be heard as they worked.

“We’re used to it,” she laughed, explaining why she was still out gardening.

“It’s important for people to come out and see beauty, not just destruction.”