15,000 Are Sheltering in Kyiv’s Subway
KYIV, Ukraine — As the escalator glides down the final few yards into the subway stop deep in Kyiv’s normally immaculate mass transit system, a sprawl of foam mattresses, suitcases and plastic bags filled with food comes into view. The space is surprisingly quiet, almost silent, despite the 200 or so people camped there to escape the bombing and artillery fire above.
They sleep three or four to a single mattress. The children push toy cars over the gray granite slabs of the station floors, watching their mothers scroll endlessly on their cellphones, searching for news of the war.
Little hands and feet stick out from underneath blankets, though it is noticeably warmer in the station than above ground. Volunteers come and go, bringing food and other necessities of life. One mother sets up a tent, for a modicum of privacy.
“It’s not so comfortable,” admitted Ulyana, who is 9 and has been living in Dorohozhychi station with her mother and their cat for six days now. “But you see, this is the situation, and we just have to put up with it. It’s better to be here than to get into a situation outside.”
As many as 15,000 people, the city’s mayor said Wednesday, most of them women and children, have taken up residence in Kyiv’s subway system to escape the grim conditions in the city as Russian forces bear down.
And the subway is not the only subterranean refuge. Doctors at Maternity Hospital No. 5 in Kyiv, for example, have set up chambers in the basement to provide women a safe place to give birth. So far, five babies have been born in this way, said Dmytro Govseyev, the clinic’s director.
Six days into the conflict, the Kremlin’s war plans remain unclear. The movements of tanks, artillery guns, armored personnel carriers and other heavy weaponry toward Kyiv, with a population of about 2.8 million before the exodus of evacuees, is raising grave alarms about the potential onset of bloody street fighting.
But Russia might instead settle on a grinding siege punctuated with shelling and the cutting off of food supplies, water and ammunition in hopes of breaking the resistance without the destruction and killing of a frontal attack.
Either way, life underground in Kyiv, already difficult, is likely to get even harder.
Above ground, Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers who had been handed rifles just a few days ago were busy preparing for the Russians’ arrival.
Preparations were evident on nearly every street: concrete barriers blocked roadways, tires to set alight to form smoke screens lay everywhere and, in a new development Wednesday, signs warning of antitank mines dotted roads hastily closed to civilian cars.
A bullet-riddled S.U.V. lay abandoned on the side of a road near a checkpoint manned by civilian volunteers, apparently after having raised suspicions that it was carrying Russian saboteurs.
A cold, slushy snow fell, and the thud of explosions could be heard somewhere on the city’s outskirts.
Though most people in Kyiv remain in their apartments, thousands have chosen to hide from the dangers above by taking cover in the subway system. They have lived for days in cramped, communal conditions, women and children of all ages, along with men too old to join the fighting above.
Olha Kovalchuk, a veterinarian, 45, and her daughter, Oksana, 18, a university ecology student, have been taking turns sleeping on a coveted wooden bench in the Dorohozhychi stop. “This is our space,” Ms. Kovalchuk said.
Nearby, people crowded around a hastily improvised cellphone charging station. Fortunately, the subway system has well appointed public restrooms.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Things to Know
A city is captured. Russian troops gained control of Kherson, the first Ukrainian city to be overcome during the war. The overtaking of Kherson is significant as it allows the Russians to control more of Ukraine’s southern coastline and to push west toward the city of Odessa.
Military aid. Several countries are funneling arms into Ukraine, while NATO is moving military equipment and troops into member states bordering Russia and Belarus, amid rising fears that Russia might try to reclaim its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.
American airspace ban. President Biden announced that the U.S. will ban Russian aircraft from flying through American airspace. The ban follows similar moves by the E.U. and Canada to shut airspace to passenger flights from Russia and to planes used by Russian oligarchs.
Russian convoy. Satellite images show a Russian military convoy stretching 40 miles long on a roadway north of Kyiv, with a number of homes and buildings seen burning nearby. Experts fear the convoy could be used to encircle and cut off the capital or to launch a full-on assault.
The stop is deep in the system’s green line — the escalator ride to the station takes about a minute — and the stops ahead sound promising: the Palace of Sports, the Golden Gate, the Caves and Friendship of the Peoples. Yet, while trains do still run sporadically, nobody here was going anywhere.
“It’s bad for the children,” Ms. Kovalchuk said, surveying the scene. “I am just a veterinarian, not a doctor, but I can understand how bad this is for them. They are under stress. They cry at night.”
Ms. Kovalchuk said she had been under such stress that she hardly slept. And she was seething with anger at the man who started the war, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. “I don’t want to swear,” she said. “I just hate that man with all my soul. Look how much pain he brought us.”
Ukrainian officials have in recent days pleaded with Western nations to intervene by imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, a request that has been rebuffed, because it would risk sparking direct conflict between NATO and Russian forces. But Ms. Kovalchuk liked the idea.
“Please close the sky,” she said.
Warning signs of Russia’s intentions had been clear for years, not just during the military buildup that began last fall, she said. “I don’t understand why the world didn’t listen to Ukraine before.”
Estimates of civilian casualties are unreliable, easily manipulated by both sides in the information sector of the war. A Ukrainian government agency that oversees fire departments and rescue services said in a statement Wednesday that 2,000 people had died. But the agency later issued a correction, saying, in what may be the most reliable account, that it had no idea how many people had been killed. Earlier estimates were in the hundreds.
Lyudmyla Denisova, the human rights ombudsman in the Ukrainian Parliament, issued a statement saying that 21 children had been killed and another 55 injured.
In the subway stop, Yulia Gerasimenko, a lawyer who had worked in Kyiv’s now moribund real estate market, moved into the subway stop with her daughter, Ulyana, last Thursday evening, the first day of the war. By chance, her 6-year-old son had been staying with his grandmother outside Kyiv when the Russian incursion began. They made it out and are now in Germany. Her husband, a career military man, is fighting with the Ukrainian army.
She was glad her son was safe, she said. “But I wish I were near to him now.”