Ukraine-Russia: ‘We are lucky, we have a nice bomb shelter’

When Yulia* finished work late on Wednesday evening, the main thing on her mind was stopping to buy some takeaway sushi on her way home.

"I really wanted some sushi, but I never got around to getting it," she says. "I really regret that now."

She returned to her family home in central Kharkiv and went to sleep.

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A few hours later, the family were forced to take refuge in an underground metro station platform as Russian forces launched attacks. They have been living there ever since.

People are sleeping on concrete platforms in the makeshift bomb shelter.
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An airport worker, Yulia, 35, was woken in the early hours of Thursday by a phone call about a passenger whose flight to Kyiv had been cancelled.

“I told him I didn't know [why], that we would check when the counter opened at eight o'clock and book him on another flight. We said goodbye and 20 minutes later, they started bombing the city.”

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Amid the sounds of heavy fire, she ran into her mother’s bedroom and woke her up.

“We looked on the internet and saw the Russian president’s interview,” she says. “He was talking about invasion, about invading in Ukraine. So we understood this was Russians.”

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The underground metro platform has become home for hundreds of people.

Kharkiv, in the east of Ukraine, just 25 miles from the border with Russia, was one of the first cities to come under attack.

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The family, including Yulia's brother and girlfriend, her mother and 82-year-old grandmother, are sleeping on a concrete platform, alongside hundreds of others. Posters on the walls advertise a sports club – and a Ukrainian Cup football match scheduled for March – which seem another world away from reality.

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The winter in Kharkiv is cold – it is snowing – and everyone is wrapped in thick coats and blankets.

People sheltering on the platform share food - and have access to water provided by the state, which ships in tankers every day. In some stations, Yulia has heard snacks, such as biscuits, are also dropped off by aid workers.

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"We usually leave for a short while early in the morning and go home to get food and water and recharge our phones,” she says. “One day, we had a problem getting a space when we came back, so today, my brother and I went and left some people here so we had a place to sleep.

"It is very quiet on the streets, they are empty. Sometimes there's a queue when the food shop is open, or the pharmacy, but they accept only cash - not credit cards, which is a problem because no-one uses cash here, we use credit cards like everywhere in Europe. Some people have their pets out in the morning, but mostly it's very, very quiet.”

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While it is cold in the shelter, Yulia is counting her blessings.

"It is not like the underground cark parks, which are freezing,” she says. “We are lucky, we have a nice bomb shelter.

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She laughs. “I never thought I would say that, it is a sign of the day – if you can say if your bomb shelter is nice or not.”

The rapid speed at which normal life has changed has left many residents stunned.

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“We're all in shock because we never thought it could happen to normal society,” says Yulia. “We are a normal civilised country where we are educated people, we never hurt anyone.

“I have friends around the world through a sport I compete in and everyone, from New Zealand to Mexico, has been getting in touch, to check how I am and offer help. But my Russian friends, they just say it is right what their government is doing, that we deserve it. These people know me personally and they think we are Nazis and fascists here. They are not friends now.”

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The Russian government has promoted a narrative that there is genocide against Russian speakers in Ukraine – accusing the Kyiv government of being run by Nazis – an accusation which Ukrainian authorities have fiercely denied.

In Kharkiv, around a quarter of citizens are Russian-speaking, according to the Ukrainian Centre for Independent Political Research. However, Yulia says although her first language is Ukrainian, she speaks Russian more often in her daily life.

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"I speak Russian in almost all of my life,” she says. “I freely speak both languages, but in normal life I use Russian language and I was never was punished for this in my 35 years. We are a civilised county, where you can be free in your language and your religion in the way you want to be. You are not persecuted for this.”

From their underground shelter, the family can hear the destruction going on above.

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She says: "Why should Russia come here and kill our civilians? They said to their people they should only shoot on military objects. But now there's houses in Kiev that have been blown up. People are underground, that's why not so many dead.”

"I live in the centre of the city and last night they started to put bombs,” says Yulia. “When it is close, we hear it somewhere upstairs, above the ground.”

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She has hope her city can return to peace and urges governments of the world to unite.

She says: “Of course, all we want is to come back to our flat and I dream to sleep on some mattress, not on the floor. I dream to have a shower and to sit in a warm flat, not in a bomb shelter. It’s just human thoughts and normal wishes to have a shower, to eat something hot.”

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She references old photographs of the Blitz during the second world war.

She says: “You can compare London, 1940 and Kharkiv, 2022. It is the same.”

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*Her name has been changed to protect her identity.

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