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Kharkiv residents return home after months spent underground: ‘It’s scary when there is still shelling’

June 14, 2022 5:14 pmby Asami Terajima
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Kharkiv residents have been living underground for months in the city's metro stations to hide from heavy Russian bombardment. Most of them have left right now as Ukraine's second-most populous city resumes full operation of subway and shelling has slowed down compared to the March-April period. (Dmytro Sanin)

KHARKIV – Weeks after Denys Parkhomenko and his 55-year-old mother moved out of a subway car, it’s still hard for them to readjust to normal life. 

Moving out of one of Kharkiv’s underground metro stations has been especially hard for Parkhomenko’s mother, Svitlana, who can’t get used to hearing shelling outside. 

The two of them had been living in a subway station since March 2, when their apartment in central Kharkiv was severely damaged by a missile that hit a neighboring building. They were both at home when the strike happened – Parkhomenko was working when he heard the plane and sensed that something was flying in his direction. He trusted his instincts and immediately ran to the corridor.

“If I hesitated, even for a second, I would have been killed,” Parkhomenko said, recalling the moment. 

While Russian artillery attacks on Ukraine’s second-largest city have decreased compared to the March-April period, indiscriminate shelling continues, resulting in casualties.

In spite of this, following a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive north of Kharkiv, signs of normal life have reappeared in this city, once home to over 1.4 million people.

To ease transportation throughout Kharkiv, Mayor Ihor Terekhov ordered the relaunch of the metro starting on May 24. Residents were still allowed to stay in a designated space at metro stations and come overnight, but the subway is now running regularly. 

After contemplation, Parkhomenko and his mother decided to ask for a temporary place to live since they can’t go back to their previous apartment. The city gave them a room in the large residential district of Saltivka, the hardest-hit neighborhood on the edge of Kharkiv that continues to be shelled.

Saltivka sits on the city’s northern edge, closest to the front line and keeps getting attacked.

“She (my mother) reacts to the shellings even when she’s asleep,” Parkhomenko said worriedly.

Denys Parkhomenko, 22, and his 55-year-old mother pose for a picture in one of Kharkiv's metro stations on May 7, 2022. (Asami Terajima/The Kyiv Independent)

Moving out with children

Maria Oblik, 72, still feels uneasy about moving back home as well. Above all, she is worried about the safety of her grandsons, aged 8 and 15. 

Until mid-May, she lived with her daughter and two grandchildren inside a tent that they set up in a metro station. The four of them used to sleep inside the tent and occasionally go outside to breathe during breaks in the shelling.

Her daughter and grandsons wanted to leave Kharkiv, but they didn’t want to leave without her, and Oblik refused to go anywhere due to her age. Oblik’s son is also a soldier fighting in Kharkiv Oblast, and she worries about him every single day. 

While her grandsons stayed underground, Oblik would go home regularly, even during the heaviest shelling, to cook warm meals for her family. 

“It was scary but I walked (home) for my kids,” the grandmother told the Kyiv Independent. 

Though her elder grandson began to go home from time to time when the shelling started to fall off, the youngest was still too afraid. 

The boy refused to leave the subway for months, fearing the sound of shelling. Between the family’s move underground on Feb. 24 and their emergence in May, the boy only left the metro station twice to go shower at home. 

The children passed the time by playing games on their phones inside the tent or napping. 

But once metro service resumed, they said they were told to pack their tent and go back home.

Weeks after they returned home, Oblik said that shelling continued, though it wasn't as intense. Despite the uncertainty, she said it was good to get back home again and the children began going outside more often. Yet, their fear didn't disappear.

“It’s still scary when they are shelling,” she said. 

Maria Oblik, 72, and the rest of her family that lived with her inside a tent for months in one of Kharkiv's metro stations went back to their homes in late May. (Asami Terajima/The Kyiv Independent)

Continuing life underground 

For Vitali Bakhmatov, 45, whose flat was blasted by Russia, looking for a place to stay continues to be a challenge. 

His apartment is located in Pivnichna Saltivka, an area within the Saltivka district where shelling has been the most intense. The area is still a ghost town — only a few remaining residents live there, still cut off from electricity, heat, and gas. Bakhmatov came to the nearest metro station at about 5:00 a.m. on Feb. 24 after hearing loud sounds of explosions in his neighborhood. 

“We didn’t know what was happening at the time,” Bakhmatov, a botanist, told the Kyiv Independent. 

He first came with very little stuff, but after several weeks, he began to go back and forth between his apartment and his temporary bunk bed in the metro, where he spends most of his days. He said it’s not possible to live in the apartment anymore because a shell destroyed his staircase and front door. Unlike the others, he says he hasn’t been offered temporary boarding, despite having suffered a head injury more than 10 years ago that qualifies him as disabled under Ukrainian law. 

There are still about 50 people living inside the metro station near Pivnichna Saltivka,  although many people have left for a dormitory, he said. 

“Nothing changed,” Bakhmatov said. “What are we waiting for, we don’t know it ourselves.” 

Bakhmatov initially wanted to flee to another city, but he couldn't afford the move. 

“In our country, if you don’t have money, you don’t think about going somewhere,” he said.

“There’s just no way out.” 

“We are sitting here, and we’ll watch what will happen next.”

Kharkiv resident Vitali Bakhmatov, 45, poses for a picture sitting on a bunk bed in a metro station on May 7, 2022. Bakhmatov continues to live in the same subway station. (Asami Terajima/The Kyiv Independent.)
Asami Terajima
Author: Asami Terajima

Asami Terajima is a national reporter at the Kyiv Independent. She previously worked as a business reporter for the Kyiv Post focusing on international trade, infrastructure, investment and energy.

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