Eight-year-old Danil Baranovsky spent months living underground in a Kharkiv subway station with his family as they tried to avoid Russian rockets.
Now, finally living back above ground, his favourite book is A Multitude of Rabbits, about a community of bunnies having lots of fun living below ground while they avoid the foxes above.
“We were like these rabbits,” said Danil, who misses the friends he made with other children camped out in the subway. “Because it was fun down there.”
Danil and his family were among those to emerge from the subway stations they’d been sheltering in for weeks and months toward the end of May, after Ukrainian forces pushed Russian troops far enough away from the city centre to offer some relief from the constant shelling Kharkiv has endured through the war.
But with the Russians having dug into positions north of Kharkiv, and the Russian border just 50 kilometres away, outlying neighbourhoods are still coming under fire.
On Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he believes the Russian army is “trying to gather forces to attack Kharkiv again.”
Not surprisingly, Danil’s mother, Elena Baranovska, holding his eight-month-old sister in her arms, has a very different memory of their time underground.
“It was very hard,” she said. “Because you cannot clean and wash your kids there. It was cold and wet. [The baby] was very small. It’s good that I was breastfeeding.”
The family home they fled in March, in a village called Korobochkyno, southeast of Kharkiv, is no longer there. “When we left, only the windows were broken,” Baranovoska said of their former home. “Also the doors and the fence.”
“Now nothing is there, and it’s very hard because I don’t have any place to come back to. What will I do with my kids? I don’t know.”
Displaced families moved to student dormitory
For now, along with her husband, they’re living in a single room offered by the city in what used to be a student dormitory.
The dorm is on a single floor in a building that also houses a bakery. Residents share a communal kitchen and bathrooms. Each knock on the door in a long, dimly lit hallway is answered with similar stories.
Larisa Nesterenko is a woman of faith, a bible laid out on a neat table also holding flowers in a vase and covered with a checkered plastic tablecloth.
Four single beds are made with military precision and each item in the room has an assigned place, right down to the neat row of shoes on a rack by the wall.
Nesterenko, a widow, was actually working for the Kharkiv subway when the war started. When her neighbourhood came under fire, she soon found herself living there as well, fleeing the apartment she lived in with her daughter, grandchild and son-in-law.
“By the end of February, our house was already bombed,” she said, frequently overcome with emotion, tears running down her cheeks. “The main thing is that we have a roof above our heads [now].”
‘How could this happen?’
Nesterenko was able to visit her apartment a month ago, returning in search of documents left behind in the rush to leave. A rocket had hit the apartment above hers, setting it on fire.
She shows a video of what was left behind: a basket of eggs on a counter, still intact, while everything around it is charred; a teapot standing on a pile of burnt debris.
“All my pantry was full of pickled vegetables,” she said. “Everything was burned. The jars fell and smashed. The child’s room. The living room. It seems to me like I never had any furniture.”
Her biggest loss, though, is more personal than the apartment she worked hard to keep. Photographs of her late husband were also destroyed.
“How could this happen that our so-called brother, Russia, attacked Ukraine? I cannot understand this, even now.”
Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city before the invasion, is a majority Russian-speaking town. Its proximity to the Russian border has meant more cross-border traffic and family ties on the other side. Many Kharkiv residents say those ties are now irrevocably broken.
The city’s mayor, Ihor Terkhov, has said Russia’s bombardment of Kharkiv has left about 150,000 people homeless.
It was Terkhov’s decision to get the subway system running again, which it now is, free for all passengers as the city tries to encourage people — and the economy — back to work.
Pressing humanitarian needs
As people re-emerge or start to return to the city, the humanitarian needs are great.
A recent food distribution point run by the Catholic charity Caritas drew a huge crowd in the centre of Kharkiv. Scuffles broke out after rumours spread that there wouldn’t be enough food bags for all those waiting.
A Caritas worker at the scene said the charity is feeding at least 3,000 people each day in different parts of the city.
Natalia Desiatinnikova is one of them. The 57-year-old had her three-year-old granddaughter in tow helping to carry some of the canned meat and bottles of water on offer.
“Our life has changed completely,” said Desiatinnikova. “To live under shelling is very hard. It’s very hard when your kids are afraid. It’s hard not to have a job.”
There are a few restaurants and cafes starting to re-open in Kharkiv, but many more are still boarded up.
Desiatinnikova believes it is still too dangerous for people who fled the city in the early days of the bombing to contemplate returning.
“It’s not worth coming back yet. Because [there is] shelling still happening every day. Like on a schedule,” she said. “It’s too early to come back. We can hear it in the city centre and also in the suburbs.”
Saltivka, a neighbourhood in northern Kharkiv, has been one of the hardest hit by Russian bombs and rockets. It was full of densely populated apartment buildings before the war.
Those that still stand are full of holes, blackened by fire.
One building was hit by rockets on 11 different occasions, according to a resident who had returned to make sure no one was looting his apartment.
Part of the building’s front simply fell off, exposing a collapsed staircase, the innards of the structure and the lives of people who used to live there; tables teetering on the edge of nothing, radiators dangling between floors.
Saltivka remains one of the most exposed parts of Kharkiv. When it’s shelled, the rest of the city can hear it.
That’s been enough to keep some people below ground, given permission to remain in certain underground stations, in corners tucked away from passenger traffic.
“It is scary what’s happening in the north of the city, in Saltivka,” said Ruslan Omelnik who used to make a living repairing printers.
“There are explosions. And we are afraid to leave the shelter because the bombs are still flying.”
‘Waiting every day for bombs to fall’
Omelnik and about eight others have set up their mattresses behind the escalators in a central station. There’s a table with a microwave, bottles of water and boxes to delineate people’s personal space.
Another station, closer to Saltivka, reportedly has some 50 people still living underground.
Omelnik first moved into the shelter, not far from his own apartment, just days after the Russians invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
WATCH | Russian forces pushed back in Kharkiv, but attacks continue:
“At the beginning, I went to the basement and stayed there for a while. But when the planes started to fly over us, I couldn’t stand it and came here,” Omelnik said.
His apartment hasn’t been hit, but he’s still not willing to leave the subway, acknowledging he’s likely suffering psychological trauma. His wife and daughter, he said, are in Lviv, a comparatively safe city in western Ukraine.
“I was offered to talk to a psychologist, but it’s very hard to conquer your fear. Because when you come out [of the subway] and at night you hear explosions, it makes you paranoid. You are waiting every day for bombs to fall. I want to be at home, but I cannot make myself do it.”
He’s also convinced that the Russians will be returning to Kharkiv.
“They have more weapons. And the power. And probably it’s more likely that they will come back.”