With cats, ferrets and handcarts, life goes on underground in Kharkiv | Ukraine

Dracoa the ferret and the ginger cat named Cat have reached an uneasy trick. And while the dog across the platform still yaps at them both, after more than a month, the humans and their pets living in this corner of Kharkiv’s metro station are used to each other.

On one side of the platform, Tetiana Kapustynska hung up balloons for her 24th birthday on the pillar she sleeps behind. “The day before I cried because I didn’t know what it was going to be like, but in the end people got together and celebrated with me,” she said.

“The biggest problem was champagne, I couldn’t find a bottle anywhere,” she added with a grin, as she made cups of instant coffee for visitors with water in a flask. “Cake wasn’t so much of a problem. You can still get it in the shops.”

Kapustynska, who is a maths and physics teacher, turned the metro station’s operation room into a cross between a childcare facility and a school for the children living in the underground chamber. For her birthday, they made decorations and organized flowers.

Kapustynska organized decorations and flowers for her birthday. Photograph: Tetiana Kapustynska

Barely a month ago, she had been trying to choose a bar or restaurant for celebrations. But since the war began, bombs, shells and rockets have smashed Kharkiv city center and residential areas, killing hundreds of civilians, in perhaps the most intense offensives of the war outside the besieged port town of Mariupol.

In response, life has largely moved indoors and underground, with thousands of people taking refuge in Soviet-era stations. These were designed in the cold war era to shelter the city’s residents from a western attack, but now the bunkers are protecting civilians from the Russians.

“I don’t go out much; it’s frightening,” said Denis Kapustynskyi, 19, Tetiana’s brother. He lived with his mother in Saltivka, a northern suburb that has been turned into a burnt-out wasteland by some of the most intense shelling of the war.

He does not even know if they have a house any more, after fleeing with little more than the clothes on their backs at the start of the war. “On the first day of the war, the sounds of explosions were really loud. They were already shelling housing blocks. We got dressed, picked up our documents and left,” he said.

Some still risk venturing out in the daytime for light, fresh air, shopping, and Tetiana goes to feed and play with her dog, who is too big to be brought into the metro station – although every trip above ground is potentially deadly.

Last Thursday, a rocket strike in the north of the city hit a group of people queuing for food. One of the dead was a woman living in the metro, who had gone above ground for a short break.

Vast metal doors swing shut every evening at 6pm, when curfew silences the streets above and seals those inside into relative safety, although they say the reverberations of the biggest bombs still cut through the layers of concrete and metal.

After several weeks of war, the refugees have formed a kind of subterranean village, whose residents try to support each other through the tensions of communal life.

Julia Miroshrichenko with Cat the cat in Kharkiv.
Julia Miroshrichenko with Cat the cat in Kharkiv. Photograph: Handout

There is a constant supply of boiled water for tea, coffee and noodles, and sometimes volunteers bring cooked meals to the station, stews or soups that can be easily eaten. Kapustynska’s school keeps the children distracted from the bombings.

Exercise and supplies come from daily treks through the vast network of tunnels; the trains have stopped running, and now the only vehicles that come trundling down the tracks are hand-pulled carts, loaded with water and food.

“We go walking through the tunnels to collect humanitarian aid,” said Dracoa’s owner, Dascha Tyrinova, 34, who worked in an electronics shop until the war upended her life. “When I heard the fighter jets overhead, I decided to come here.”

Her neighborhood, just over a kilometer away, has been badly hit. Kharkiv’s mostly Russian-speaking residents believe civilians are being punished by a Russian army furious its soldiers were not welcomed as liberators.

“My apartment has suffered, part of the block was completely demolished, there was shrapnel damage and a fire started, neighbors told me. I haven’t been back to check, it’s too frightening.”

Now she spends most of her days and nights on the double mattress that is her new home, playing with her ferret, keeping a watchful eye on children who come to admire him, or reading an ebook. It felt safe for women despite the large numbers of people on the platform, because there were police in the station, and even at night the lights stayed on, she said.

Bringing aid through the tunnels
Bringing aid through the tunnels. Photograph: Evgenij Gonskij

Tyrinova’s job stopped when the war closed her shop. But many of the younger people on the platform are still trying to work or study despite the stress and chaos, helped a little in their preparations for this traumatic new life by the isolation of Covid.

“I’m still doing my job, though it’s a bit hard to focus,” said Julia Miroshrichenko, 25, an IT consultant who has moved into the station with her flatmate, Ksenia Zhytnyk, also 25, and Cat the ginger cat.

A few people who were living on the platform have returned to their homes, deciding the risk was preferable to the strains of communal life, and some have left the city entirely. Overland trains are still running west, and there is a road open out of the city, if you can find a car.

The flatmates say they are determined to stay. They have already been displaced once by Russian forces, when their homes in the east were seized by Moscow-backed forces in 2014, who set up self-proclaimed separatist republics.

“It’s OK here. We made friends with a lot of people, and the cat is fine. I’m reading a lot of news and waiting for the situation to get better,” said Zhytnyk, who still goes home for showers and to pick up cat food.

“I don’t want to move again, I already moved once,” she said. “Others are scared, but we are used to war, to the sounds of bombing.”

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