When Russian troops passed through her village in eastern Ukraine in February, Elena…

When Russian troops passed through her village in eastern Ukraine in February, Elena Ivanovna’s family packed up their car before dawn and fled to Kharkiv, where they unwittingly found themselves on first line.

Ukraine’s second city has been hit day and night by strikes since Russian forces attempted to seize it at the start of the invasion.

The fierce fighting has turned the city of 1.5 million people into a tangle of blown shops and smoking buildings, and has forced families like the Ivanovna underground where they take refuge in the subway.

“We thought that here (in Kharkiv) we would find salvation, but this has become the front line. Helicopters and planes bombarded the city. So we decided to come on the metro, ”says the 40-year-old kindergarten teacher.

On February 24, the night of the invasion, Ivanovna and her family were sleeping in their village of Lyptsi, just 10 kilometers (six miles) from the Russian border.

“We woke up at 4.30am…even the kids woke up and immediately realized it was war,” she said.

“Through the window, we could see that everything was on fire, our house was shaking.”

Ivanovna, her husband and their children, aged 8, 10 and 17, quickly dressed, grabbed a handful of belongings and first took refuge in their own basement.

“After 15 minutes it became quieter, so we ran to our car and drove towards Kharkiv…as fast as we could.”

As they drove, they saw missiles “falling everywhere”, she said.

When they arrived in town to join Ivanovna’s mother, they found that she too was under fire.

So, once again, the family huddles together in a cellar as the strikes rain down on them.

After six days they knew they needed a safer place, so they joined hundreds of others at one of the stations.

– Living in the subway –

Two months later, around 700 people are still living in the various metro stations that dot Kharkiv.

Close to the Russian border, the city saw heavy fighting at the start of Moscow’s offensive but always remained under Ukrainian control.

“The first week, people were sleeping on top of each other. There was no humanitarian aid. Nobody understood what was happening,” said Iolia, one of the volunteers helping the displaced.

To create a semblance of privacy, families have divided the long station platform.

Mattresses, blankets, beds, tables and chairs have been brought into the station, while volunteers regularly clean the passageways and keep the electricity running.

In quieter times, the inhabitants of the station take care of themselves as best they can. Some read, some sleep, while others talk or walk the streets.

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“Volunteers bring us food three times a day, even hot meals, sweets for the children…gifts, toys, pencils,” Ivanovna said.

Sitting on a mattress, one of Ivanovna’s daughters explored a large princess castle that had just arrived.

For the past month, the children have even been able to resume their studies underground, with a mix of face-to-face lessons and online study.

To keep residents busy, volunteers organized theater performances, concerts, puppet shows and led exercise classes.

“There was an animal show, (as well as) painting and games so that our children could feel better mentally and physically,” Ivanovna said.

The Friday before Easter, the volunteers distributed the “paska”, a traditional brioche coated with icing and colored sprinkles.

But the conflict raging above them is never far away.

When the rockets hit, the children “still wake up, shiver and ask for medicine”.

“Our life is scary, difficult. But we wait and we hope,” Ivanovna said.

She added that she looks forward to the day when “all Russian soldiers leave, when we don’t hear any more missile fire and we don’t see any more rockets.”


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