Ten residents have sought shelter in the basement of a battered school in Kharkov. In a neighborhood not far away, life has somewhat returned to normal. But they choose to stay.
KHARKIV, Ukraine – The shelling had lasted so long and had been so frequent that even moments of silence brought their own kind of terror.
The artillery and rocket attacks started when the Russians first invaded in February 59 days ago and have not stopped. For those still hiding in the school, every day now brings the same routine: get up at first light, light the fires, boil water, make tea, cook soup and go back to the cellar.
They huddle in the unbearably cold underground, huddled together and listening to shells strike Kharkiv, a city in eastern Ukraine of 1.4 million inhabitants before the war, that Russian firepower has tried to force into submission. There were about 300 people who sheltered in the school in the early days of the war, but almost all of them have fled. Now there are only 12 left.
“Here the people who have been left behind have nowhere to go and nowhere to return,” said Larisa Kuznetsova, 55, one of the school residents until recently. ‘And where shall we move? Who needs us elsewhere?”
Trapped in the dangerous ground between Russian and Ukrainian troops, the 12 people still living in the slanted and dusty basement of Kharkiv Municipal Gymnasium No. 172, as the school is officially called, what war has become for those who don’t flee: a test of endurance. Even during the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, there are people who cannot imagine leaving their homes, no matter the price.
They might escape to a safer part of Kharkov just a few miles away, but they stay anyway. A woman refuses to leave her disabled husband and son behind. The school secretary remains to protect against looting. The humanitarian workers who bring food to the 12 are called “the dwarves.”
Even at the risk of a direct attack looming over them, they remain, trying to create a semblance of normalcy. They gathered around a table in the school’s underground on Orthodox Easter Sunday for a traditional meal and Easter cookies.
“We served this table so we could celebrate the holidays, like at home,” said Natalia Afanasenko, 44, the group’s de facto cook.
The conversion of No. 172 to air raid shelter began almost as soon as the war started on February 24. Kharkiv, just 50 kilometers from the Russian border and Ukraine’s second largest city, was immediately attacked. Ms. Kuznetsova, a short, brisk convenience storekeeper, and her son, Dmitry, 23, stayed in their apartment for the first five days.
“There was shelling then, but inconspicuously,” she said. “The shops were open. We stood in line for two hours and bought a lot of canned food.”
Then one day, while the mother and son were having lunch, the power went out. Mrs. Kuznetsova quickly decided to take a half-hour nap. She was awakened by three shells that hit her building, known nearby as Building 40, shaking the foundation, shattering windows and causing her small family to crawl into their bathroom and then into the basement.
A few days later, another strike set Building 40 on fire.
“Everyone came out with whatever they were wearing, and the neighbor came up to me and said, ‘What the hell are you doing here? Hurry up to the school,’” Ms Kuznetsova said.
No. 172 is located near Saltivka, an inhabited residential area in the northeast of Kharkov. It has been shelled incessantly by seemingly every type of artillery in the Russian inventory.
The Soviet-style apartment blocks and small shops were built in the late 1960s and 1970s as Kharkov expanded after the city’s destruction during World War II. Now Ukrainian howitzers and mortars stand nearby, with the residential towers acting as a shield against incoming Russian fire, trapping the residents in the middle of an unending duel.
Built in 1995, the school is what counts as a safe haven for the neighborhood, partly because the basement is underground, unlike some in the surrounding condominiums.
Mrs. Kuznetsova and Dmitry arrived there on March 3, when the original hundreds had dwindled to about 70 people. The cellar was damp and rotten. Basic necessities, such as food and hygiene equipment, were taken from the abandoned apartments until humanitarian workers arrived.
In charge of this disheveled colony is Natalia Skvortsova, 48, the school secretary. She and her son, Yevgeny Kryvoruchko, 18, are staying for two reasons. She wants to protect herself from looting and prevent school records and diplomas from being destroyed. She quietly fears that Yevgeny, now a university student who spends long hours in the semi-darkness mastering Rubik’s cubes (his fastest time is nine seconds), might be summoned.
“That’s right,” she said soberly.
Before the Russian invasion began, No. 172 was a pleasant white-walled educational center with 1,000 students. It had new projectors, a 25-metre pool and wonderfully large windows.
But after at least four artillery shots hit the campus, killing one man, most of the windows have been shattered, some classroom doors have been torn in half, the plaster on the walls has cracked and the water in the pool is a murky gray. An exhibit at a school museum honoring Soviet soldiers who fought in World War II has been taken apart so a German helmet from the conflict can be used for basement protection.
“It’s terrifying to live here,” Yevgeny said. “Yes, I want to leave. But my family is here, how could I?”
As February turned into March and March into April, the exodus of No. 172 slowly gained momentum.
“Whoever could leave, left,” said Valeriy Gretskykh, 67, one of the last 12.
Today Kharkiv is still bombed incessantly, but life has somewhat returned just a few kilometers from Saltivka. Some shops are open, traffic lights are on, and city workers take out the trash at set times. Saltivka remains the hardest hit neighborhood, and with a bit of normality so close, the resistance to evacuation could easily be considered mind-boggling.
The school residents have not showered in months and are resorting to baby wipes and bottled water. Plumbing is not available. Power comes from a small generator that runs for a few hours every few days, and beds are made of school desks and gym mats. For entertainment, they watch old VHS tapes, including high school diplomas and the documentary “Joseph Stalin: The Last Years, the Last Days.”
“We don’t watch heavy movies about war,” said Olga Altukhova, 66, a retired saleswoman whose birthday was celebrated on April 17 with a bouquet of tulips.
Ms. Altukhova has refused to evacuate because her disabled husband and mentally challenged son are still in nearby Building 40 and physically unable to leave. Almost every hour she leaves the basement and talks to her husband as he leans out the window from the sixth floor.
The fear of leaving is also fueled by the unknown. The 12 have heard disturbing stories about those who have fled.
“I spoke on the phone yesterday with a friend who had moved to another part of Kharkov,” said Ms Kuznetsova. “She says, ‘We’re eating regular noodles now, there’s nothing left and the volunteers won’t take anything after we call them.'”
The location of No. 172 – practically on the front lines – has led to frequent visits from humanitarian and non-profit organizations.
“We are being fed amazingly,” Ms Kuznetsova added. “A lot of people who stay here are now eating things they couldn’t eat during their peaceful life.”
No. 172 has so much donated bread that much of it spoils. So each day a resident breaks a loaf of bread and feeds a pack of pigeons, which take off for a moment as the artillery approaches, before returning to their meal.
The residents also take care of the people nearby and act as a distribution point for those who do not leave their apartment. People take food, toiletries and second-hand clothes from the school, which Ms. Altukhova lists in a log book and then signs off from anyone who comes by during the shelling breaks.
For the past week, leading up to Orthodox Easter on Sunday, the challenge was gathering the necessary ingredients for a proper lunch, a task that fell to Ms Afanasenko, 44, the designated cook.
On Sunday she had what she needed after running to her apartment: canned mushrooms and olives she’d kept since last fall, mayonnaise she’d kept months in advance, and onions she’d watered outside the cellar. Volunteers brought eggs, pastries and, two days before the holiday, holy water.
In the semi-dark basement, with sunflower-print napkins and a table arrangement of tulips picked from the neighbourhood, the residents of No. 172 lifted paper cups of wine and hugged.
“When it’s all over, we’ll just visit our homes,” Ms Altukhova joked. “And we’re going to live here!”
Dimitry Yatsenko contributed reporting.