'We Returned to the Basement in a Panic': Kharkiv Becomes a Battlefield as Fighting With Russia Intensifies

As Russian troops engage in heavy fighting with Ukrainian forces in Ukraine's second-largest city, its residents are caught in the middle

Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
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A Russian armed vehicle in flames in Kharkiv, Sunday.
A Russian armed vehicle in flames in Kharkiv, Sunday.Credit: SERGEY BOBOK - AFP
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky

Igor Dvorkin, of Kharkiv, Ukraine, has just spent two nights in a city subway station with his wife Antonina and their 7-year-old daughter Veronika. They ventured outside Saturday, but then quickly sought shelter in the basement of a friend’s house.

As Russian troops engage in heavy fighting with Ukrainian forces in Ukraine's second-largest city, its residents are caught in the middle. Some are hiding at home. Others, like Dvorkin and his family, found shelter in subway stations.

Antonina Dvorkin and her daughter Veronica at a subway station in Kharkiv, Ukraine.Credit: Antonina Dvorkin

Dvorkin, 39, painted an apocalyptic picture of Kharkiv. “They announced there were evacuation trains once a day for women and children, but we couldn’t physically get to the train,” he said. “To get there, you have to walk for 12 kilometers through the subway tunnel, and there’s no guarantee that the train will actually leave.”

“Hundreds of people are sitting in the subway stations, maybe thousands,” he said. “The trains are standing with their doors open so people can go in, but there’s no room in them and people are sitting or sleeping on the platforms.”

Russian forces entered Kharkiv Sunday morning, having blown up a gas pipeline in the city via airstrikes the night before. The local government has asked residents to refrain from being on the streets because of fighting there, so the only way to get anywhere is through the subway tunnels.

A Grad missile that hit a preschool in Kharkiv, Ukraine, last week.Credit: ARIS MESSINIS - AFP
Civilians in Kharkiv, Ukraine receive humanitarian aid.Credit: SERGEY BOBOK - AFP

Kharkiv’s subway workers, who in normal times maintain the stations and provide service to the passengers, have been saddled with responsibility for the many people now sheltering there.

“Subway employees are working in an orderly fashion. They aren’t panicking and they are helping everyone even though there aren’t many of them,” said Igor, another local resident. “There are young children there, pregnant women, people of all ages with dogs, cats and hamsters, and they help solve problems, including stopped-up toilets. They’re serving as role models for us all.”

Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this weekend, Kharkiv has been targeted by airstrikes and artillery amid Russian attempts to enter the city. Now that they’re in, Dvorkin said, the situation has worsened due to shooting in the streets. But he takes some comfort in the fact that at least now the Russians aren’t launching as many airstrikes.

“There are fewer attacks, but at night it’s very frightening,” he said. “We left the basement five or six times and returned in a panic because there was shelling. Now battles are happening throughout the city, even 500 meters away.”

The Kharkiv authorities have asked residents not to post pictures or videos of Ukrainian forces in WhatsApp groups or on social media so as not to reveal their location. But it’s not difficult to find pictures on local Telegram channels of abandoned Russian armored vehicles in the streets.

Some are burned completely. Others are wrecked. And next to some of them are bodies on the ground.

One video circulating among Kharkiv residents ostensibly shows Russian prisoners of war saying they never intended to fight in Ukraine – that they had been sent in on an “exercise.”

Yuri Radchenko, another Kharkiv resident, lives alone, so he is more mobile. On Saturday he mustered up the courage to take a stroll around the neighborhood.

“I saw a preschool that had been hit by a Grad missile that landed in the yard,” he said. “The windows of a multistory building next to the preschool had shattered. I saw Ukrainian trucks ferrying soldiers. Stores were open only in the morning, and there were limits on how much food you could buy.”

A Ukrainian soldier examines the husk of a Russian military vehicle in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Sunday.Credit: SERGEY BOBOK - AFP

Ludmilla Ladis, a refugee who fled to Kharkiv in 2014 from her home in Luhansk – a city in the disputed Donbas region of eastern Ukraine – until three days ago lived in a neighborhood of prefab homes on the outskirts of the city. Now, Ladis must once again find a new home, just as she did eight years ago.

“We were woken up at night by the loud noises,” she said. “We left our homes half-dressed, confused. In this kind of situation, it’s very dangerous to be in the sorts of buildings where we were living. Another woman who had fled Luhansk gave shelter to me and my 86-year-old mother.”

“I read that there are already protests around the world, that world leaders have already taken steps. But our enemy is a criminal,” she added. “His last name might not be 'Hitler,' but he’s dangerous. Action must be taken immediately. Persuasion won’t work.”

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