‘Everything was burnt’: Kharkiv residents emerge from underground life to find city in ruins

Eight-year-old Danil Baranovsky spent months living underground in a Kharkiv metro station with his family as they tried to avoid Russian rockets.

Now that he finally lives above ground, his favorite book is A multitude of rabbitsabout a community of rabbits having fun living underground while dodging the foxes above.

“We were like those bunnies,” said Danil, who misses the friends he made with other kids camping out on the subway. “Because it was fun there.”

Danil Baranovsky, 8, said he enjoyed living in the subway tunnels in Kharkiv, Ukraine, during the Russian assault on the city. Her mother has a decidedly less rosy impression of the situation. (Jason Ho/CBC)

Danil and his family were among those who emerged from the metro stations they had sheltered in for weeks and months towards the end of May, after Ukrainian forces pushed Russian troops far enough from the center -city to relieve them of the constant bombardment. Kharkiv has endured war.

But with the Russians having dug in positions north of Kharkiv and the Russian border just 50 kilometers away, outlying neighborhoods are still under fire.

Unsurprisingly, Danil’s mother, Elena Baranovska, holding her eight-month-old sister in her arms, has a very different memory of their time underground.

“It was very hard,” she said. “Because you can’t clean and wash your children there. It was cold and damp. [The baby] was very small. It’s good that I’m 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 gates and the fence.”

Elena Baranovska, who lived in subway tunnels with her family for months during the Russian attacks on Kharkiv, holds her baby, Camila, while her eight-year-old son, Danil, reads. (Jason Ho/CBC)

“Now there is nothing, and it is very difficult because I have no place to come back to. What will I do with my children? I do not know. »

Displaced families moved into student dormitories

For now, she and her husband live in a single room donated by the city in what was once a student dormitory.

The dorm is on one floor in a building that also houses a bakery. Residents share a common kitchen and bathrooms. Every knock on the door in a long, dimly lit hallway is answered with similar stories.

A shared room in a dormitory for people who lost their homes in Kharkiv. (Jason Ho/CBC)

Larisa Nesterenko is a woman of faith, a bible on a neat table also holding flowers in a vase and covered with a checkered plastic tablecloth.

Four single beds are crafted with military precision, and every item in the bedroom has an assigned place, right down to the neat row of shoes on a shelf by the wall.

Nesterenko, a widow, was actually working for the Kharkiv metro when the war started. When her neighborhood came under fire, she soon found herself living there as well, fleeing the apartment she lived in with her daughter, grandson and son-in-law.

“At the end of February, our house was already bombed,” she says, often overwhelmed with emotion, tears streaming down her cheeks. “The main thing is that we have a roof over our heads [now].”

‘How could this happen?’

Nesterenko was able to visit his apartment a month ago, returning to search for documents left behind in the rush to leave. A rocket had hit the apartment above his, setting it on fire.

She shows a video of what was left: a basket of eggs on a counter, still intact, while everything around it is charred; a teapot resting on a pile of burnt debris.

A damaged building is pictured in the Kharkiv neighborhood of Saltivka, the area hardest hit by Russian shelling. (Jason Ho/CBC)

“My whole pantry was full of pickled vegetables,” she said. “Everything burned. The jars fell and broke. The child’s room. The living room. It seems to me that I never had any furniture.”

Her greatest loss, however, is more personal than the apartment she worked hard to keep. Photographs of her late husband were also destroyed.

“How could it happen that our so-called brother Russia attacked Ukraine? I can’t understand that even now.”

Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine before the invasion, is a predominantly Russian-speaking city. Its proximity to the Russian border has resulted in more cross-border traffic and family ties on the other side. Many Kharkiv residents say those ties are now irrevocably severed.

The city’s mayor, Ihor Terkhov, said the Russian bombardment of Kharkiv had left around 150,000 people homeless.

It was Terkhov’s decision to get the subway system back in service, which it is now, free for all passengers as the city tries to encourage people – and the economy – to get back to work.

Pressing humanitarian needs

As people reappear or begin to return to the city, the humanitarian needs are great.

A recent food distribution point run by Catholic charity Caritas drew huge crowds in central Kharkiv. Scuffles broke out after rumors spread that there weren’t enough bags of food for everyone waiting.

An elderly woman carries a plastic bag full of food aid next to her granddaughter in a red dress.
Natalia Desiatinnikova, left, and her granddaughter Sofia collect food aid in Kharkiv in June. Following the bombing of the city by Russia, many residents needed humanitarian aid. (Jason Ho/CBC)

A Caritas worker at the scene said the charity was feeding at least 3,000 people every 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 to help carry some of the canned meat and bottled water on offer.

“Our life has completely changed,” Desiatinnikova said. “Living under bombardment is very difficult. It’s very difficult when your children are scared. It’s difficult not to have a job.”

A few restaurants and cafes are starting to reopen in Kharkiv, but many more are still closed.

Residents of Kharkiv receive food aid from a charity as some normality returns after Russia bombed the city. (Jason Ho/CBC)

Desiatinnikova thinks it is still too dangerous for people who fled the city when the shelling began to consider returning.

“It’s not worth coming back yet. Because [there is] bombings still occur every day. Like on a schedule,” she said. “It’s too early to come back. You can hear it in the city center and also in the suburbs.”

Neighborhoods destroyed

Saltivka, a district in northern Kharkiv, was one of the hardest hit by Russian bombs and rockets. It was full of densely populated apartment buildings before the war.

Those still standing are full of holes, blackened by fire.

A building was hit by rockets 11 times, according to a resident who had returned to make sure no one was looting his apartment.

Debris of a damaged building is pictured in the Saltivka district of Kharkiv. (Jason Ho/CBC)

Part of the building’s facade simply fell off, exposing a collapsed staircase, the innards of the structure, and the lives of the people who previously lived there; tables tottering on the edge of nothing, radiators hanging between floors.

Saltivka remains one of the most exposed parts of Kharkiv. When it is bombed, the rest of the town can hear it.

That was enough to keep some people underground, allowed to stay in certain subway stations, in corners away from passenger traffic.

“It’s scary what’s happening in the north of the city, in Saltivka,” said Ruslan Omelnik, who made his living fixing 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 set up their mattresses behind escalators at a central station. There’s a table with a microwave, water bottles, and boxes to delineate people’s personal space.

Another station, closer to Saltivka, would still have about fifty people living underground.

Omelnik first moved into the shelter, not far from his own apartment, just days after the Russians invaded Ukraine on February 24.

WATCH | Russian forces have repelled Kharkiv, but the attacks continue:

Russian forces repelled in Kharkiv, but attacks continue

The CBC News team in Ukraine travels to Kharkiv, the country’s second largest city. Civilians there spent months sheltering in the subway as Russian forces bombarded the city.

“At first I went to the basement and stayed there for a while. But when the planes started flying over us, I couldn’t stand it and came here,” Omelnik said.

His apartment was unaffected, but he is still unwilling to leave the subway, acknowledging that he is likely suffering from psychological trauma. His wife and daughter, he said, are in Lviv, a relatively safe city in western Ukraine.

“I was offered to talk to a psychologist, but it’s very difficult to overcome your fear. Because when you go out [of the subway] and at night you hear explosions, it makes you paranoid. You wait every day for bombs to fall. I want to be home, but I can’t force myself to do it.”

He is also convinced that the Russians will return to Kharkiv.

“They have more weapons. And power. And they’re probably more likely to come back.”

Bonny J. Streater