‘The war has begun.’ Ukrainians take refuge in subway stations

Thousands of residents of the capital, Kyiv, sought shelter from Russian air strikes, in scenes reminiscent of days long gone

Rusia Ucrania
Tamara, 80, and her husband Vladimir, 70, take shelter underground from Russia’s attacks on Kyiv.Luis de Vega

Wars have a way of refreshing our memory. They make us see that horror knows nothing of borders or historical eras. The endless escalators inside Kyiv’s subway system, which exudes an unmistakable Soviet air, on Thursday night led straight down to a scene that seemed taken from some faraway place in space and time: thousands of people seeking refuge under the stone arches of the underground railway system’s stations. Others huddled inside building basements. And it was all happening just 24 hours after Russia launched its military offensive against Ukraine.

Entire families, elderly couples, groups of young people, immigrants were camping out in the subway. Many had brought along their pets. “Look at what I’m going to show you,” said a young woman, opening up her backpack for the reporter. A little black-and-white cat poked her head out, like a bunny pulled out of the magician’s hat.

Kitsuna appeared to enjoy the caresses offered by Daria, a 22-year-old video editor for a television channel. “I have faith in my army,” she said several times. With her was her boyfriend Denis, 22, an employee at a store selling consumer electronics, and their roommate Roman, 23, who had knocked on their bedroom door at 5am to inform them that “the war has begun.”

Daria, 22, with her cat Kitsuna.
Daria, 22, with her cat Kitsuna.Luis de Vega

All three were whiling away the time, sitting on the ground at a station called Ploshcha Lva Tolstoho, so called in honor of the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace. All three could still remember the Maidan revolution of 2014, which ended with the overthrow of the Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovych. “We were still kids back then,” said Daria.

Dozens of Ukrainians take refuge underground at a station called Ploshcha Lva Tolstoho.
Dozens of Ukrainians take refuge underground at a station called Ploshcha Lva Tolstoho.Luis de Vega

Just a few meters from this little group, 80-year-old Tamara sat in her wheelchair with her legs covered in a red blanket. Her husband Vladimir, 70, sat next to her, alert to her needs. And an 18-month-old child, Artur, smiled broadly as he sat in his mother’s lap, blissfully unaware of the situation. “This is the second adventure in his life,” noted his mother Catarina, 35. “The first was being born during the pandemic.” Artur’s father, André, said he felt afraid for his baby, for his own parents, and for what could happen in the coming days.

“We are surrounded by fake news,” he noted, alluding to the “Russian propaganda.” The couple, who both work at the same packaging company, said they could see three possible scenarios: a peaceful agreement, confrontation or surrender by Ukrainian forces to prevent the war from escalating further.


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