Residents of Kharkiv hidden underground: “In this cellar we became a family”

Saltivka, District No. 5: a popular district of high apartment buildings on the north-eastern outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, a stone’s throw from the first fields of black earth plowed in the countryside.

Since Russian troops invaded Ukraine on February 24, they have been shelling the place almost every day with their entire armada. HLMs are nothing more than a devastated battlefield, a ghost city swept by the winds where only a handful of traumatized old men survive, holed up in the cellars.

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Torn lawns, shredded playgrounds, charred tops of buildings, everything is mutilated and scarred by shells.


Forecourts and parking lots are strewn with broken glass mixed with sheared tree branches or the remains of PVC window rails. An antique Lada has been cut in half by a concrete slab that fell from the sky, the few cars left there are all pulverized.


Pink curtains and pieces of scrap metal hang from the facades of the deserted apartments. Shells and missiles pierced the walls, gutted several upstairs towers.

In her three-room apartment with tired tapestries on the ground floor of Metrobudivelnykiv Street, Galyna Malakhova, “63 years old for three days”, survived. With his sweet smile, his woolen coat, and for only company his two dogs Rita and Mafa.


“It’s dark, and it’s cold here without electricity,” she almost apologizes, sitting on her threadbare green sofa, under the benevolent gaze of three postcard-like Orthodox icons.

Cans of water clutter the miraculously spared apartment everywhere. The door to the landing opposite has been shredded, a filthy mattress bathes in the middle of the rubble in the flood caused by the broken pipes.

“A missile hit the facade on the other side,” says Galyna, who takes advantage of the moments of respite to feed the neighborhood cats left to their fate.

“We are right in front of the Russians, they are bombing us non-stop. At first I was terrified, now I’ve gotten used to it a bit. (…) When it bombards too hard, I go to the bathroom. I don’t know what’s going on outside…”


Outside, the bombs have been silent for a while. Two hooded figures station themselves cautiously at the exit of a stairwell, ensuring that no one comes to loot the apartments of the abandoned city.

Eyes red with fatigue, a man draws nervously on his cigarette. He invites you to visit his shelter, in the bowels of what was supposed to be a school a month ago.

You sink into this dark, pungent-smelling basement, lowering your head and following the piping of a boiler room. The flickering flame of a candle illuminates the vacant stare of an old man, seated at a school desk, motionless as a wax statue.

Sitting on classroom benches or lying on a makeshift bed, dazed silhouettes, thick blankets over their shoulders, can be seen little by little in the half-light.

The gray bags under the eyes betray exhaustion, the terribly pale complexion shows that these war-displaced people, though a stone’s throw from their apartment, haven’t left their lair for days.

“Physically we cling. We live, we cook, we talk together, it helps us to cope with the situation. But psychologically, we are exhausted,” admits Olga Panchenko, 65, her red cap pulled down to her eyebrows.

“The Russian soldiers stole our life, our freedom. We lost our apartments, we don’t know where to go, we don’t know how to get out of here,” exclaims Vadim, one of the few young people in the group. “War is everywhere all around”.

“I’m too scared to go out, even to pee. All day, night, there are bombs,” adds a desperate grandmother. “Where are the Nazis here?”, she continues in a vehement tone, in reference to the campaign of “denazification” pretexted by Russian President Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine.

There are perhaps twenty of them surviving in this basement, surrounded by boxes and rare belongings brought from home in a sports bag, depending on the food brought to them daily by courageous volunteers. Cooking, or tea, is also done over a fire, when the electricity is off.

“City employees try to repair, but it often cuts off as soon as the shells fall,” explains Olga, who, like many people in District 5, has “family in Russia” and also thunders against this “war of Putin”.

“These last few days have changed everything in our lives, now we are here…”, cowards in a weary voice Yevhen, 18 years old. “In this cellar, we have become a bit like a big family,” he tries to smile, his mother by his side, looking depressed, caressing a big tomcat on his lap.

Most are weakened old people, sick or disabled, dependent on a relative or having nowhere to go, in a neighborhood where incomes are modest and social problems numerous.

Why this fury of the Russian artillery on this popular city? A unit of the Ukrainian DCA camped near the neighborhood at the start of the invasion, batteries of rocket launchers also came to shoot at the Russians from the area, by the admission of the inhabitants themselves.

It is difficult to know how many died in the bombardments. Two people were chopped up by a rocket that fell just outside the school, recalls Roman, already a 38-year-old army veteran, who shows a clump of dried blood still stuck to the facade.

Several in this school basement have loved ones stuck in the apartments, too old or too sick to go down the floors, while all the elevators are out of order.


Olga’s husband is “paralyzed on the right side” since a stroke, their son “lost his mind after an accident”, he must be watched constantly, because he risks escaping. Both stay all day long in their apartment on 6and floor, without water or electricity.

The building’s windows were smashed, but at least the building held up. The husband greets the visitor with a slow step, but with a quiet smile: “No, I’m not afraid, anyway I can’t come down quickly, so…”

“I bring them up to eat morning and evening,” continues the courageous Olga. “We are counting the days, the nights… and we are grateful for each day that remains alive”.

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