KHARKIV, Ukraine — Scores of people are camping out in the metro system of Ukraine’s city of Kharkiv, still fearful of Russian shelling and refusing to renounce the discomforts despite Moscow’s retreat from the area.
“We call ourselves the moles because we live underground,” said Kateryna Talpa, 35, a call centre manager who has been living in the metro since Russian troops invaded her country on February 24.
Talpa lives in a station called “Heroes of Labour” in the Saltivka district, one of the worst affected by shelling in Ukraine’s second largest metropolis.
Wearing a woolly hat, pale-faced Talpa admits that living on a platform underground is not easy.
“We’re tired. You can see what home comforts that we have,” she said, pointing to mattresses and sheets on the ground and some food in a cardboard box.
She and her husband Yuriy have acquired their own habits at the station, which is decorated in Soviet style with bronze statues including one of Lenin.
Their two cats, Marek and Sima, appear relaxed.
“They got used to it” after some difficulties in the early days, Talpa said.
– ‘War not over’ –
Some 200 people still sleep inside the station every night — far below the peak of around 2,000 when city residents slept anywhere they could find space, including inside the metro train carriages.
Russian forces began pulling back from Kharkiv earlier this month to concentrate on wresting control of Donbas, south of Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine.
At the peak of the offensive against the city near Russia’s border, the smell and humidity in the metro were hard to bear.
“I was never ill before but here I got bronchitis for a month,” Talpa said.
Even so, she and her husband are refusing to leave.
While shelling in Kharkiv has reduced drastically as Russian troops have pulled back, “they have not been pushed back enough for us to be reassured,” she said.
“We are still within (artillery) range. The war is not over.
“I’m afraid to go back. Kharkiv was shelled just yesterday. We can hear detonations during the day. Some neighbours tried to sleep in their homes but came back to the metro,” Talpa said.
“There is nothing safer than the metro. Even basements are not safe,” she added.
– ‘Psychological help’ –
But station manager Yulia Fedianina, 33, said that “people need to leave so that we can use the metro again”.
“It will not be possible to move some people without psychological help,” she added.
Gennadiy, a 72-year-old pensioner, is another one of those who are refusing to leave.
“There is no safe place in Ukraine. It’s calm now but nobody knows what will happen tomorrow,” said Gennadiy, who declined to give his surname.
“Nobody has ever been injured inside the metro but people die outside. We want to save our lives,” said the pensioner, who has been living in the station with his wife since February 24.
Recently, the couple have started going out “for a morning walk when there is no shelling”.
Their house has been destroyed.
– ‘Nowhere to go’ –
“I’m a man but when I saw it I wanted to cry. We don’t have any family we can go and stay with. What did I do to deserve this?” he said.
As the daily attacks cease, city authorities are making efforts to restore some normality.
“We don’t want to force people to leave but we want to get the metro working again in two weeks’ time,” Kharkiv mayor Igor Terekhov said.
“We are working on finding accommodation for people.”
Larisa Nistirenko, 54, said she had been relocated to student housing in a safe part of the city.
“It was tough in the metro. The cold, no shower… Here we have beds, mattresses, showers, clean toilets, a kitchen, some food,” she said in the room that she shares with her daughter and grandson.
But a few moments later she broke down in tears as she remembered her destroyed home.
“We have nothing left. We have nowhere to go.”