Kharkiv residents emerge from underground to find their city in ruins

Yulia Yuliantseva returns home in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on May 23. She lived for several weeks in a subway station hiding from Russian bombing. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)

KHARKIV, Ukraine – Yulia Yuliantseva’s journey home took longer than her flight to safety, yet each step was accompanied by many of the same fears.

Nearly three months ago, she and her 12-year-old son, Mattvii, fled their apartment in Kharkiv and ran through the snow to the nearest subway station — she in flip-flops, her son in stocking feet — as Russian forces pounded the city with rockets and heavy artillery.

Though no part of the city was spared, Yuliantseva’s neighborhood of Saltivka, in the northeastern part of the city, was among the hardest hit. Thousands of her neighbors sheltered with her in the Studentska station.

This week, as Yuliantseva and her son packed to go after nearly three months in their makeshift bomb shelter, mixed emotions flooded over them. They missed their home but were afraid of periodic shelling. They were reluctant to leave the safety of the station but couldn’t bear to spend another day underground, in close quarters with dozens of other families.

Most of all, Yuliantseva worried about her son’s fragile mental state. Would he be able to sleep at night? Would his speech impediment get worse?

“It’s scary to return home,” said Yuliantseva, 41, adding that it was even scarier knowing there was nothing but sky between her fifth-floor walk-up and a Russian airstrike. “I’m always going to be afraid.”

As the Ukrainian military continues to drive Russian forces back in the north, residents of Ukraine’s second-largest city have begun to dig out. City officials estimate 2,500 to 5,000 residents have returned each day, even as Russian Grad rockets continue to terrorize the populace.

“It’s really difficult to restart life in the city when the Russian aggressor continues hitting it,” Mayor Ihor Terekhov said in an interview. On Thursday, seven people were killed and 17 injured in indiscriminate shelling, a regional official reported on Telegram.

Yet residents are determined to return things to normal. Workers swept broken glass, unsnarled downed electric wires and trimmed the grassy medians of mostly deserted boulevards. A humanitarian aid station handed out flour, sugar and pasta to hundreds of people waiting in line. Others bought bread or produce from the backs of delivery trucks. Near the city center, at Specialty Cafe, baristas drew pictures in the foam of freshly brewed cappuccinos and a group of Ukrainian soldiers downed breakfast as one of them FaceTimed with someone back home.

Yulia Yuliantseva and her son Matviy lived for weeks in the Studentska Metro station in Kharkiv as Russian forces shelled the city. On May 23, they went home. (Video: Fredrick Kunkle, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

But there is destruction everywhere. Large apartment towers scorched, peppered with shrapnel or partially collapsed. Businesses gutted. On the side of a disabled van used as a roadblock, a spray-painted message: “Warning!!! Shelling!!!”

“I just ducked and tried to hide inside the apartment,” said Galyna Chorna, sitting on a bench outside her apartment building, which was untouched but mostly vacant. Chorna, a former factory worker who waited 15 years to get her spot in the building when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, said she was still in shock over the Russian invasion.

“I couldn’t believe they would attack us because we’re intertwined,” the 76-year-old said. Nearby, a similar apartment building had partially collapsed, killing at least one tenant, according to neighbors.

The mayor wouldn’t say how many residents have been killed since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the war Feb. 24. He said bodies are still being found beneath the rubble.

“This was really a genocide against Ukrainians,” Terekhov said. Nearly 2,500 apartment buildings and approximately 1,000 single-family homes were damaged, he said. Russian forces also struck more than 200 schools, 55 medical buildings, five churches and nearly 50 cultural institutions, including the Kharkiv Art Museum.

“The numbers are staggering,” Terekhov said.

Even during the heaviest attacks, though, city workers maintained basic public services — water, electricity, even garbage collection. City courts operated via remote hookups.

Only transportation came to a halt, including the subway, as people sought shelter in stations throughout the city. Before the war, about 450,000 passengers passed through the turnstiles on an average day, said Yulia Fedianina, station manager at the Heroes of Labor stop. Restarting service this week has meant coaxing people to leave, she said, and getting them to cart out all the things they retrieved from home during lulls in the fighting.

And there was still a lot left: beds, cots, mattresses, at least one geodesic tent and a double bunk set up near the eTicket kiosks. Also tables, chairs, stools, stools doubling as tables, crockery, silverware, food tins, bottles of water, clothing, shoes and — here and there — touches of color: a pair of framed religious icons, a print of a bird on a silk scarf, freshly cut lilacs in a vase. And there were pet carriers, litter boxes, water dishes and kibble bowls for dogs and cats.

Somehow, despite the circumstances — including a single primitive toilet — hundreds of strangers managed to get along. (If anything, Fedianina said, the pets got along even better.)

In the cramped space — with individual plots often walled off with cardboard boxes — friendships formed. So did romances. There were breakups, too. Fedianina said she thought about setting up two tables for counseling — one for marriages, the other for divorce.

“Some of them even said, ‘I never loved you. I stayed with you 15 years because of the kids!’ ” Fedianina remembered. Some couples were bold enough to have sex on the crowded platforms.

“I did!” a man said, overhearing her talking about it.

Only about 80 people were still living full-time in the Heroes of Labor station; another 60 returned at night to shelter from possible shelling. There were fewer at Studentska.

Oksana Yarmok, 35, who worked as an editor for a small social media company before the war, ventured home last week, only to have Russian explosives chase her back into the metro station.

“It’s a 30-minute walk from here, 20 minutes if you run,” she said. “It’s not really safe.”

Yuliantseva was also wary about returning home.

“If it was the end of the war, I’d be the first one out of here,” she said, as she packed her things the day before she planned to move and less than an hour after the city had been shelled again. Nearby, Mattvii sat hunched over his phone. Their white housecat, Semyon, presided from the foot of her bed.

Even before the war, Yuliantseva — a single mother and a psychologist by training — had taken time away from work to devote extra care to her son’s special needs, including a speech impediment.

Now she worried about the effect of war on his psyche. Before they were driven out of their home, she had a rule for her son: no more than one hour on the phone — but so much for that in a bomb shelter.

“Mattvii, don’t do that,” she said at one point, interrupting her conversation because he was being a little rough with the cat.

When it came time to go Tuesday, she cleaned out the litter box, gathered her things and walked down a flight of stairs, holding the cat carrier and towing a heavy wheeled bag. Mattvii followed with his belongings.

They crossed the platform past idled trains, climbed a set of stairs, spoke with a security guard who asked whether she would be coming back, then headed down a corridor to yet another set of stairs. Out in the bright sunlight, she hugged her son. It took an hour for their bus to arrive.

Three stops later, they got out near a checkpoint and passed several damaged buildings before turning onto their street where — just beyond the sidewalk’s edge — a blast had carved a crater eight feet wide. Then five more flights of stairs and a search for her key before she could open the door.

“I’m home.”

Serhii Korolchuk contributed to this report

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