Inside Kharkiv: Fear, Confusion, and Life Underground in the War-Torn Ukrainian City

KHARKIV, Ukraine — In the northern outskirts of Kharkiv, the sound of artillery shelling never stops. The city is just 25 miles from the Russian border, but Ukrainian forces have thus far been able to prevent the advance of Russian ground troops. In retaliation, the Russians have spent the past weeks using artillery to bombard the city’s defenders and civilians. The residents of the most-targeted areas remain either trapped in their apartments, many without electricity and hot water, or have been sheltering in the city’s subway stations for weeks. A tour of Kharkiv last week made clear the city could be next to suffer a mass humanitarian crisis in a war that has already cost thousands of lives and displaced millions.

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Most of this residential neighborhood feels abandoned. We are on the edge of the town, the frontier, where the fighting takes place. The Ukrainian military let us tour the area to see the destruction. Half of a 16-floor residential building, totally burned by the airstrike, looms over the street we are on. Personal belongings litter the pavement, including burned photo albums with the faces of the people who lived nearby, a stark reminder that this area was once full of life. Only rarely do the locals dare to venture out. I spot an old man in a doorway staring at me and my photographer. He looks scared.

“Why are you staying? Isn’t it dangerous?” I ask.

“I wish to leave,” he tells me. “I have been here for 18 days without electricity, the water in the pipes in my flat got frozen. I just do not know how to get out of here. I called some people. I wish to get to the train station.”

His name is Leonid Andriyovych, he is 72 and a grandfather. Even in these circumstances he is neatly dressed in suit trousers and clean shoes. He speaks in a soft voice. A journalist traveling with us suggests that we help the man right away. We tell him to get his documents. We need to get out of this dangerous area in a hurry, so he has to run upstairs to the ninth floor of the building he lives in to get his papers. The constant shelling continues.

Leonid Andriyovych, 72, runs upstairs to be evacuated from his flat.

Andrii Bashtovy

“I saw you by accident,” Andriyovych tells me. “Most of the time I stay in my flat. Where else? There is this place in one of the basements where there was electricity to charge the mobile phone and boil hot water, so I went there now, but it’s better to be inside. Shrapnell killed a woman who was walking on the streets in front of my eyes.”

The elderly of Kharkiv suffer the most. Many, like Andriyovych, are stuck in their flats under heavy bombardment, the electricity in the suburban areas of town mostly doesn’t work; they are the least mobile and often have neither a place to go, nor the ability to easily get around the country.

Two or three minutes — that’s how much time Andriyovych has to grab the documents and flee from the flat he’s lived in for 30 years. He worked in one of the research institutes in Kharkiv — the largest scientific hub of Ukraine. His daughter and grandson managed to escape in the first hours of the war. He planned to make it later. But waiting even one day was too late.

As we drive away we pass a demolished kindergarten where Andriyovych’s grandson Oleh used to attend. “He will turn six at the end of March, he was going there till the first day of the invasion,” Andriyovych says. “I wonder when I will see him. But I am happy he is in a safe place in western Ukraine”.

On our way to the train station, Andriyovych asks, “Is Kharkiv still standing?” He’s been stuck inside his apartment building cowering in terror and is surprised to see parts of the city still function as we drive from the outskirts through an industrial part of town filled with warehouses, factories, and supermarkets. From time to time we see lines of people — mainly to the post offices, ATMs, or pharmacies. “I thought the whole city was like my area — burned, empty,” he says with some hope, “but here there are lines to the shops, people walking …”

We don’t show him downtown, so as not to disappoint him. In addition to the outskirts, the oldest, central part of Kharkiv was also bombed and is heavily damaged.

We ask the local volunteers to bring Andriyovych to the train station and to give him some hot food. The Ukrainian railroad has made all traveling free, and added trains to evacuate civilians. The station in Kharkiv — and every rail station all over the country — serves as a shelter offering warm food, relative safety, and a place to ​​charge your phone. Andriyovych says he’s going to stay with his sister in western Ukraine.

“We used to have a nice life here,” Andriyovych tells me as we say goodbye. “We didn’t have much trouble, things worked. I believe the war will be over soon. Don’t you think so too? It shouldn’t be like this, the world should find a solution. It can’t be otherwise.”

I nod. I didn’t want to disappoint him.

Subway station where residents of Kharkiv find a shelter.

Andrii Bashtovy

Many residents of Kharkiv believe that the brutality of the attacks on the city are Russian revenge for successfully resisting the invasion for so long. According to Putin, the fact that the majority of Kharkiv speaks Russian, and many have relatives over the border, the city would welcome the invaders. My friends and colleagues from Kharkiv had insisted to me this was not the case and they would resist. They were correct, but the city has paid a terrible toll.

I have friends who live on one of the most-damaged streets in the city. I visited them a month before the war. Today, everything lies in ruins. Their favorite wine store, the local bar, a boutique, the office building of a news agency are all destroyed, all that’s left is debris. Most of the buildings, windows blown out, are now covered with icicles. Mid-March has been unusually cold — hitting lows of -18 C, only adding to the misery .

“Doesn’t matter what, I will rebuild Kharkiv,” Anatolii, an architect tells me. “We possess all the drawings. I live here, I am Ukrainian, it’s my house. Unfortunately, now I am wounded.” He’s sitting on a bed in one of the city’s hospitals. (Rolling Stone has chosen not to reveal the specific location of the hospital at the request of sources, who all fear the Russians may deliberately target medical facilities.) A palm-size shell hit him in the leg. He wasn’t enlisted to the military and had stayed with his wife to take care of at least eight elderly people living in their apartment building.

“I went out to buy some groceries,” Anatolii recalls. “I was two minutes away from my home, just near the school, and felt insane pain. I started to crawl, then a man and a woman came to help me. My wife came down and managed to bind the wound, so I did not lose blood.” He’s worried that since he won’t be able to walk for a few months, he won’t be able to help the residents of his building.

The hospital is filled with wounded. Scores of new patients arrive 24 hours a day. The wounds from artillery shelling became the new norm. The doctors here are normally strict with the press, not wanting to violate their patients’ privacy. But since the war started and they are facing mass casualties every day, they have been allowing journalists into the emergency room “so the world can see,” one doctor tells me.

Stanislav, a middle-aged friendly man, volunteers at the hospital — cleaning, moving things around, anything to help. His son Dima’s life was recently saved here. Dima was in an apartment just a few minutes away from the Regional Administration in central Kharkiv when it was hit on March 1.

“He is an adult,” Stanislav tells me. “We call each other once a day. I received a call from an unknown person who said, ‘Dima is unconscious, he is bleeding at his home.’ I rushed there. It was not easy. The street was filled with debris, ambulances couldn’t get through easily. I saw him on the floor. I went down to the street to ask people there to help me to get him out.”

Three weeks after the incident, Dima can now talk. He has a hematoma in his head, and requires a complex operation. The last thing Dima remembers before waking in the hospital is the blast.

For the doctors, still reeling from the pandemic, the stress has been enormous. Maria Matvienko, an anaesthetist, describes the first week of the war as the hardest, because there were still too many civilians around. Up to 1.7 million people live in the city. Many Kharkiv residents refused to believe that a full-scale invasion was coming, but not because they were careless or naive. It was simply hard to accept that something like that was possible in the 21st century. Most expected that the Kremlin would just continue to meddle in Ukrainian politics or intensify fighting in eastern Ukraine, and would never bomb civilians.

The city authorities do not release the number of the casualties, but talk about there being about 1,200 wounded. The local police registered 250 deaths, but in many cases investigations have not been opened. The numbers of confirmed dead will almost certainly rise in the next weeks and months.

Matvienko herself now lives in the hospital with her husband and 11-year-old daughter, who wants to be useful, so, for instance, she entertains the younger patients. “A few doctors left, mainly those with small kids, but most stayed and we all live here in the facility,” Matvienko tells me. “It’s more convenient, as if something happens we can be ready within a moment. Kharkiv is my home. I love it. If we left, who would treat the people?”

Shevchenko street, where a Ukrainian “Tiger’ military vehicle was destroyed during a battle.

Andrii Bashtovy

The fiercest battles still take place in the villages outside the city, where the media have no access. On one of the first days of the war, Russian paratroopers managed to reach the middle of the town, but were pushed back. They hid in the school — one of the oldest in the town, which was badly damaged in the fight and set on fire. Firefighters were unable to put out the blaze. The paratroopers were reportedly all killed by Ukrainian troops. On the street I may see a burned military vehicle, but also packages of military rations marked “The Russian Army.”

Since the first days of the conflict, the Kharkiv subway system has served as a bomb shelter. One of the stations became an asylum for people who lost their houses or were afraid to go out. Some of them have stayed in the station for more than 18 days now.

“I thought Putin was a reasonable man, a smart person,” says Nina Maksymivna, 80. “Now I wish for him and also the Lavrov family, their kids, to suffer as much as we do. I don’t really know where to go. I have problems with my legs, I can’t move properly, so I just sit here all the time.” She was born in Kharkiv during World War II and didn’t expect to see another war in her lifetime.

There are volunteer groups that try to help evacuate the people, but the scale of the problem is too big. Even if half of the city has fled, almost a million remain. Currently, up to 600 people are camped on a subway platform and in trains. During the first bombardments, up to 2,000 people gathered there. Yulia, the head of the station, said the subway authorities made the decision to shut down the metro lines and let people walk along the tunnels to another station.

“Take your cups, hot borsch (the Ukrainian soup) is available,” the subway conductor who used to announce the next subway stop calls out.

To spend even three hours inside the station is difficult, and there are hundreds of old people who have been down here for weeks. Most of the people try to make the best of it. They read, talk, cry, play, laugh, and most of all, scroll through the news.

Every video statement from President Volodymyr Zelensky draws attention, and crowds huddle around phones. The president looks unshaved and tired. “This time he probably didn’t sleep,” someone near me says.

“I can imagine. I am responsible for about 2,000 people here, and after 18 days, we are drained; he bears responsibility for the whole country,” says Igor, a police officer who seems to be in charge of the subway station. He is 24, but looks way younger.

He’s a charismatic guy, and is followed around by the children in the station who treat Igor like a hero, asking him to give them orders to help. Igor graciously takes time to be their elder brother. He also addresses each grandma or anybody who asks anything, from what type of medicine to use to train schedules, but mostly he just hears people out and listens. His efforts help calm some of the people. Igor himself resides nearby. Before joining the police, he worked as an auto mechanic. He wants to go home to take a shower, but there is no hot water at his flat, the windows are broken, and it’s no longer habitable.

I ask why he is not wearing a uniform.

“My bosses were not happy about it,” Igor tells me. “But it’s more about security. Can you imagine if somebody wants to overtake the station or do something here? A person in uniform would be their primary target. But I would have at least five minutes to build a barricade, or start evacuating the people.”

What he says makes sense. A 24-year-old making calls that will mean life or death. Everyone here is in survival mode and preparing for the worst still to come.

Additional reporting by Andrii Bashtovyy

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