This piece originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
“It's the best alarm clock you can imagine, but not the most joyous one,” says George, 24, of the bombs that wake him up every morning. George lives in Kharkiv, a city of 1.5 million people in northeastern Ukraine. He sounds calm over the phone, speaking to me from a makeshift shelter in the basement of a bakery. So calm, in fact, it’s almost as if his hometown hasn’t been transformed into a battlefield by Russian troops and fighter jets.
George shares the shelter with around 14 other people. Before the war, he used to work in the bakery, which sits underneath a cafe. “It was a very nice place. People came to drink coffee, eat sandwiches, read, work, play board games,” George remembers. Very little of that coziness remains.
Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second largest city after Kyiv. It lies just 32 kilometres from the border with Russia and has been hit hard by the invasion. The streets have become a battleground, with Russian forces attacking both strategic targets and civilian buildings alike. Footage of Kharkiv, broadcast around the world, shows its devastated buildings, debris-laden squares and underground metro stations full of displaced locals.
The basement of the bakery offers relative safety to George and the other people sleeping in there. He’s only left the building once over the past few days, when he headed out to freshen up at an acquaintance’s house (the shelter doesn’t have a full bathroom). For now, his life is largely limited to this underground space. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than staying in the apartment blocks above ground – there’s less of a risk of being shelled.
“Most people didn’t know how to bake a loaf or biscuits or cake [before coming to the shelter],” says Oksana, 19, who worked at a different bakery for a few months before the war. After ending up under the same roof as George, she decided to teach them baking. Today, thanks to ingredients donated by friends and volunteers, the bakery produces around 110 loaves of bread a day for Ukrainian soldiers fighting off the Russian offence.
“Once we stop hearing missiles and planes, we move on to baking bread,” Oksana explains. “I just think of it as working in a bakery with a very good, friendly team. We all get along well, help each other out and are happy we ended up in such company.”
Her heart aches for the friends and family who aren't in a safe space like this. “Of course the situation in Kharkiv scares me, we jump up with every explosion we hear,” she says. “We try to support each other during this difficult time and to not forget our most important mission: to help everyone we can.”
Since the attack on Kharkiv was launched on the 24th of February, nothing but bad news has come out of the city. “If you think about it constantly, you can go crazy,” George says. “The bakery is my way of focusing my energy on something good. It’s all I can do to distract myself and not panic.”
The bakery is assisted by volunteers who deliver the bread around the city. Denis, 32, is one of them. Born and raised in Kharkiv, he is furious that his city is being destroyed. Having escorted his own family out of town at the beginning of the war, Denis wanted to make himself useful. So he searched online for groups looking for volunteers and saw that people needed delivery drivers.
Driving around a city means facing dangers from all sides, including from Ukrainian soldiers. “They’re nervous and a little paranoid,” Denis says, using George as a translator. “They’re all very much on their guard, exhausted and anxious.”
Denis, too, is torn between overwhelming and conflicting emotions. At times he feels brave and just wants to get out there and do his job. In other moments, he's scared and longs to be somewhere safe. "Sometimes it's a combination of both," he admits.
George says he feels lucky to have found the bakery in this time of distress. “You’re not alone here. We’ve got board games, food, drinks, people to talk to. You can rest when you’re exhausted or upset,” he explains. “Everyone knows how to deal with the situation in their own way. As long as we’ve got water to drink and food to eat, it is OK.”
But with the city almost entirely surrounded by invading forces, those resources are getting scarer by the day, and the escape routes more and more dangerous, too. George doesn’t want to leave yet. He’s still hopeful reinforcements may come in. “I’ve thought about leaving but the situation isn’t critical enough,” he says. “If the Russian invasion intensifies, we will have to think more about it.”
According to Lili, 25, who co-owns the cafe above the bakery, George is in the minority. “There are people who can’t leave, but most of them are trying to get out,” she explains.
Lili fled Kharkiv on the first day of the war to a safer area in the west of Ukraine, in late February, and says she feels like she’s living through some kind of absurd nightmare. “My mind is blocked and I still can’t realise this is really happening,” she tells me. “All I worry about now is whether my family and friends are still alive. I have to check in on that five times a day because there are constant bombings. I have no idea if my house is still standing, I don't know if I can ever reopen the cafe, but I'm really not thinking about that right now."
Three days after our last conversation, which took place on the 3rd of March, I text George to see how things were going. He says the situation had worsened and he and his family had made plans to leave twice, but couldn’t follow through. “My family has not yet been able to decide what to do,” he sighs. “No one wants to leave their homes by force and drive to a distant city. By staying here we can put ourselves in even more danger, but leaving is also difficult. So we're waiting to see which way things go."
The interviewees’ surname and the location of the bakery and cafe are known to the editors, but are not mentioned in the article to protect their safety.
Correction: This story originally stated that Lili fled to a safer area in the east of Ukraine. She fled to the west. We regret the error.