May 24, 2022

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

In Kharkiv, Ukraine, the basement is the last safe haven
Svetlana, left, her daughters Tatiana, center, and Olga Khorosho are among those who have taken refuge in cellars 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 who have taken refuge in cellars in the Saltivka neighborhood of Kharkiv, Ukraine. (Nicole Tong for The Washington Post).

KHARKIV, Ukraine – In a cool, dark basement, the walls are decorated with Eastern Orthodox icons, a poster of Princess Diana, and shelves full of stuffed toys. Animal print papers serve as impromptu doors for added 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 over two months. Outside, a woman filled tires with mud – a small garden for her onions.

The personal touches made this place feel like home – even with the actual homes of the 50 people spending their nights here just a few blocks away. In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, the Saltivka neighborhood has been heavily bombed every day from this war with Russia. And so the lives of those who chose to remain underground, moved to the only safe place.

Cellars at Saltivka became 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 considered Russia to be kind of friendly next door neighbor. They speak Russian. They had friends and even family in Russia. They never hated Russia – until its army began to bombard their homes with artillery and air raids daily, sometimes every hour.

“The Russians supposedly liberated us — from our home, from a happy life, from work and from just being alive too,” said Olha Khorosho, 39.

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

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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 goodwill they had for Russia and its people evaporated when the invasion began on 3 February. 24.

“I’ve already started texting only in Ukrainian,” Khorosho said. “It became a shame for me that we were speaking their language while they were bombing us.”

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

In the darkness of her basement room one morning, Khorosho combed her 7-year-old daughter Katya’s hair, pulling it into a bun over her head. Temporary narrow beds are organized along the walls and in a row down the middle of the room, with narrow corridors between them. The few things people manage to take from their homes – books, kettles, speakers – pile up around every bed. This is the dormitory area for three families and Boston twins dressed up 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 have moved, causing an unsanitary situation. It was winter in one of the most northern cities of Ukraine, and the basement was not warm. Signs of mold and mildew are present on exposed pipes and ceiling.

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

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“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 of gunpowder outside.”

The military front line passes past the Saltivka district. In recent weeks, the Ukrainians pushed back Russian forces in the Kharkiv region, resulting in less bombing of the city itself. But Saltivka is still dangerous and largely uninhabited. Many buildings are charred black. Some walls are completely missing, leaving kitchens or bedrooms exposed to the street, like dilapidated dollhouses. Trams with broken windows are stopped on the rails. The roads are full of artillery potholes.

Some basement dwellers still risk a quick trip to their apartments in the morning, when the bombing tends to stop. This is where they shower, change and cook something to bring back. There is a communal kitchen space there, but it is difficult 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 downstairs 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,” said her husband, Evni Truchenko, referring to Russia.

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Eyvheni, 73, passes idle hours in a basement spiraling under a blanket and filling in a crossword puzzle. (Tatiana prefers Sudoku.) Their relations with Russia are particularly close – and complex. Tatiana was born there but has 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 human. These people are supposed to be like our relatives.”

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 while walking to a nearby park where children played.

Most of her colleagues and neighbors either moved to western Ukraine, away from the front line, or abroad. Her family thought that starting from a new place was less predictable than Russian bombing, 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 doodles 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 this very much.”

Maria Avdeva and Nicole Tong contributed to this report.