In Kharkiv, Ukraine, the basement is the last safe haven

Svetlana, left, her daughters Tatiana, center, and Olga Khorosho are among those hiding in basements in the Saltivka neighborhood of Kharkiv, Ukraine.  (Nicole Tong for The Washington Post).">
Svetlana, left, her daughters Tatiana, center, and Olga Khorosho are among those hiding in basements in the Saltivka neighborhood of Kharkiv, Ukraine. (Nicole Tong for The Washington Post).

KHARKIV, Ukraine – In a cool, dark basement, walls are decorated with Oriental Orthodox icons, a Princess Diana poster and shelves full of stuffed toys. Animal print papers serve as impromptu doors for extra privacy. The beds are thin pillows on wooden boxes. Pots and pans, a color-changing lamp and even an air fryer were eventually brought in as the residence grew from days to weeks to more than two months. Outside, a woman filled tires with mud – a garden for her onions.

The personal touch made this place feel right at home – even with the real homes of the 50 people who spend their nights just a few blocks away. In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, the Saltivka neighborhood is being heavily bombarded every day from this war with Russia. And so the lives of those who chose to stay underground moved to the only safe place.

Cellars at Saltivka have become communities within the largest, located on the eastern edge of Kharkiv, about 20 miles from the Russian border. The vast majority of people here have always regarded Russia as kind of friendly neighbor next door. They speak Russian. They had friends and even family in Russia. They never hated Russia — until his army began bombarding their homes with artillery and airstrikes daily, sometimes every hour.

“The Russians supposedly freed us – from our home, from a happy life, from work and from living alone,” said Olha Khorosho (39).

The irony of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion “to protect people who have been facing the humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime for eight years now,” as he puts it, is that the territories where his forces were hit the hardest. is the home of the very Russian-speakers who falsely claimed to have been persecuted.

The people now living in the basement of what was once a household goods market in Saltivka, ranging in age from the elderly to their young grandchildren, said any benevolence they had for Russia and its people evaporated when the invasion of February 3 began. 24.

“I actually just started texting in Ukrainian,” Khorosho said. “It has been a disgrace to me that we have spoken their language while they are bombarding us.”

Her older sister, Tatiana, was even more blunt: “I hate them all now.”

Khorosho combed her 7-year-old daughter Katya’s hair one morning in the darkness of her basement room and pulled it over her head in a bun. Temporary narrow beds are organized along the walls and in a row in the middle of the room, with narrow corridors between them. The few things people manage to take out of their homes – books, kettles, speakers – pile up on every bed. This is the residence area for three families and Boston twins dressed for Christmas.

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Her first and her husband, Alexander, ran a textile company in this basement before the start of the war. On the first day, they quickly converted it into a shelter and opened it to the neighborhood. They said hundreds of people had moved, causing an unhygienic situation. It was winter in one of the northernmost cities of Ukraine, and the cellar was not hot. Signs of mold and mildew are present on exposed pipes and ceilings.

The soundtrack of the first week of the war was Bombing Outside, Coughing Inside. Most of the people were eventually evacuated, but 50 remained and said they had nowhere to go, or that they felt safe underneath. They settled into a routine.

“Every morning she gets up and peeks outside to see if the buildings are still standing,” Tatiana said. “This is how we know the news instead of watching TV – if it smells like gunpowder outside.”

The military front line passes the Saltivka district. In recent weeks, the Ukrainians have repulsed Russian forces in the Kharkiv region, leading to fewer bombings on the city itself. But Saltivka is still dangerous and largely uninhabited. Many of the buildings are charred black. Some walls are completely missing and leave kitchens or bedrooms bare on the street, like dilapidated dollhouses. Trams with broken windows are stopped on the rails. The roads are full of artillery potholes.

Some basement occupants still venture a quick trip to their apartments in the morning, when the bombing tends to stop. This is where they shower, dress and cook something to bring back. There is a common kitchen space there, but it’s hard to do more than boil water or heat already prepared food. Pets sit in cages on the counter space next to the hot plate.

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For Orthodox Easter, families would bake traditional Kulish cakes in an air fryer and then decorate them with blue and yellow frosting – the colors of the Ukrainian flag. The tablecloth was also blue and yellow. Khurrosho took a selfie with her cake and a flower and posted it on social media.

“It’s not that bad here,” said Tatiana Truchenko, 71, as she prepared some Georgian tea. “It’s a little cold.”

“The worst thing is that we have a bad neighbor,” her husband, Evni Truchenko, said, referring to Russia.

Eyvheni (73) spends idle hours in a basement where he fills a blanket under a blanket and completes a crossword puzzle. (Tatiana prefers Sudoku.) Their relations with Russia are particularly close – and complex. Tatiana was born there but lived most of her life in Ukraine. Their story is not strange, especially for people born during the Soviet era.

“Now opinions have changed,” Evini said. We call them fascists, and they are. They are monsters. They are not people. These people are supposed to be like our family. ”

Veronica Taneva, 13, said she recently came out of the basement to smell the cherry trees. There was snow on the ground when she started living here, and the spring bloom was a sign of how much time had passed. Her favorite part of Saltivka was the apricot trees. She was picking fruit from branches as she walked to a nearby park where children were playing.

Most of her colleagues and neighbors either moved to the west of Ukraine, away from the front line, or abroad. Her family thought it was less predictable to start from a new place than Russian bombing, and so they stayed. One of the people downstairs is a teacher, so 7-year-old Veronica and Katya take lessons with her every day.

Veronica loves to draw. Her recent scribbles are from a Kulich cake she made in the basement for Easter, from Ukrainian flags and a young man holding one. Next to it she wrote: “Glory to Ukraine.”

“At the end of the day, we will be the first to salute our men’s victory,” said her mother, Elena Taneva. “We believe in it a lot.”

Maria Avdeva and Nicole Tong contributed to this report.

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