Underground in a Ukrainian City at War: How Kharkiv’s Metro System Offers Shelter


By Brian Dooley

Tucked in northeastern Ukraine, less than 25 miles from the Russian border, Kharkiv is a major target of Russia’s invasion.

It’s Ukraine’s second-biggest city, and for the last two months has been under almost constant bombardment. This morning in the city center there was the familiar thud thud thud sound of Russian missile attacks on the suburbs.

At least 500 civilians have been killed here since the Russian invasion began in February, and there continues to be large-scale fighting on Kharkiv’s northeastern outskirts. Many of the city’s 1.5 million residents have fled, but many remain, with hundreds taking refuge in some of Kharkiv’s 30 metro stops.

Stations are crammed with those forced to make the metro system their home. I visited two stations closest to the fighting, in neighborhoods partly devastated by missiles, and spoke to people who were bombed out of their apartments and taking refuge there.

In the stations, hundreds of people sleep on blow-up mattresses or blankets on wooden pallets. There are even a few metal bunkbeds. Some have tents, and others stay in the metro trains parked on either side of the platforms.

Makeshift beds are everywhere, not just on the platform but by the ticket machines and at the turnstiles; every available space is taken up. The air is thick and dank. Some people have been living here for weeks, and everywhere there are oddments retrieved from homes — family crockery, kettles, and cushions.

There are a few communal water taps piped up from under the platforms, and at times you can smell the coffee.

A few plastic crates of books serve as the station library. There are some family pets — I saw an assortment of dogs, cats, and a hamster.

Many children and older people are here. A few are in wheelchairs or on crutches, and although some of Kharkiv’s stations are relatively shallow, they all have a lot of steps.

There’s an impulse to bring some familiarity in this shock of adjustment. At one end of the platform kids sit at tables and write and draw. Two old guys sat playing checkers as a young man attempted to give himself a haircut with an electric razor.

The atmosphere inside the metro stations is calm, but clearly those here are facing enormous pressures to just access the basics of food and shelter. Privacy will have to wait for another time.

Above the stations, the largely-deserted streets are covered in glass from bombed-out buildings. There are few cars apart from police patrols. Most businesses are now boarded up, with only a few open for a couple of hours in the middle of the day. There are military checkpoints all over, and a strict night time curfew and blackout. White sand bags are piled everywhere near the steps down into the metro.

This is a bleak place, under constant threat of missiles. Several apartment blocks next to one station I visited were hit by missiles in the last couple of days, killing and injuring several people.

Local humanitarian workers are wary of “double-tap” attacks, a tactic used by Russia previously in Syria, where the same target is bombed moments apart in an attempt to kill rescue workers arriving to help people injured by the first hit.

Even under constant threat of attack, every morning volunteers make hot meals in the city center and bring them to the metro stations, where people line up with plastic Tupperware to get soup and bread rolls.

Kharkiv is clearly a city at war, much changed from when I was reporting from here in 2017 for Human Rights First.



  • Brian Dooley

Published on May 5, 2022


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