Dispatch From Ukraine: Both the dead and alive are underground

(Joti Heir/Special to Black Press Media)(Joti Heir/Special to Black Press Media)
(Joti Heir/Special to Black Press Media)(Joti Heir/Special to Black Press Media)

By Joti Heir

The cement floor of Kyiv’s subway system is designed for moving feet, not tired backs, but Iryna Pastoschchuk has been sleeping on it for more than three weeks now.

Pastoschchuk was a copywriter living in a cozy apartment near the cafe-lined boulevards of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. On Feb. 24 she woke to the wailing of air raid sirens and raced to the nearest bomb shelter as Russian attacks pounded the country from the north, south and east.

“I didn’t know, I don’t know how [it] feel[s],” she says as she huddles on her fleece blanket next to the underground railway tracks.

When the explosions are close they sound like thunder dropped. The vibrations seem to shake your heart first and then the windows.

Some three million people have already made it to neighboring countries; another seven million are displaced internally. That’s close to a quarter of Canada’s population.

The millions that have stayed like Pastoschchuk now live in a perpetual night in the halls of subway stations, bomb shelters and basements across the country.

“Our army will protect us and kill Russian soldiers,” says Pastoschchuk.

She shares her corner of the subway station with Julia and Timothy, Julia’s hedgehog. Three weeks ago, Julia and Pastoschchuk didn’t know the other existed. Now they go to sleep together, wake up together and disbelieve together.

READ MORE: Ukraine retakes key Kyiv suburb; battle for Mariupol rages

While the metro works for part of the day, the main function of Kyiv’s subway now is as a 24-hour bomb shelter. At its deepest, it is 346 feet below the surface – about the same as stadiums like BC Place are high.

“I’m not worried about myself, I am worried about my family. They live in the south,” says Julia.

The south has been beaten, mauled, and choked. Russia is deeply invested in taking control of the area and its waterways. Russian and Ukrainian exports like grain and fertilizers ship through the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. Ukraine exports close to 27 million metric tonnes of corn and 20 million metric tonnes of wheat annually. Now farmers who should be fertilizing fall wheat and start spring planting are using tractors to haul captured Russian tanks.

The port city of Mariupol in the Sea of Azov has been ravaged. It is bombarded daily, families drop their dead into shallow graves and make haste to get back indoors. Mariupol residents who try to evacuate are forced onto buses by Russian forces and driven over the border into Russia.

Julia says her family is still alive. Across from Pastoschchuk and Julia is Hlab. The video game programmer shares his space with his mother, father, little sister and a stranger they met in the underground.

For a little privacy, they’ve hung blue garbage bags like the plastic strips in a car wash in front of their piece of the subway platform. Behind the strips are five sets of thin blankets, sheets and a few cushions. In front of the plastic, they’ve set up a table and two chairs. On the table sit canned food, crackers, cookies, water, juice, pop and an electric kettle.

“The first day we were not sure we would be able to get some food so we bought a lot of food. A lot of canned food, bread, vegetables, candies,” says Hlab.

Just before the invasion, Hlab was excited about being promoted to a more senior position at video game developer Ubisoft. Now, he doesn’t know what the future will hold. He tries to fill his days.

“At night we are here, in the day we go up and do some volunteer work. Like for example, two days ago I did some humanitarian work for the Territorial Defense, ” says Hlab.

READ MORE: Russian living in B.C. fears for her country as Putin’s war wages on

Going up is getting increasingly dangerous in Kyiv. Russian forces sit a 20-minute drive outside of the city center. Shelling now takes place almost every night and while the Russians say they are not targeting civilians, the buildings hit are almost always residential.

While Western countries have placed sanctions on Russian companies, organizations and oligarchs, Russia continues with its attacks across the country, most recently close to Ukraine’s border with Poland.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky frequently posts video messages online aimed at boosting morale within the country. It appears to be working.

“This is my home, my city and I don’t think Russians will be able to take it over,” says Hlab.

The capital city is a fortress now with checkpoints and blockades on every access road into the city center. Civilians armed with rifles patrol the streets alongside the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

If Kyiv falls, the country falls.

“I think one way or another we are going to win this war,” Hlab says.

Joti Heir is reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine

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