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'This Is Meant to Be My Childhood': Life Inside One of Donetsk's Claustrophobic Underground Bomb Shelters

VICE News spent time with the inhabitants of an overcrowded makeshift bomb shelter in rebel-held eastern Ukraine, where people are sleeping four to a bed and privacy is a luxury.

by Harriet Salem
Feb 9 2015, 4:40pm

Photo by Harriet Salem

An imposing yellow-brick building in the middle of a large cultural center in Donetsk's Petrovsky district was once the pride of the local community. It regularly hosted choir performances, theater shows, and even pop bands from Russia. Now, as war rages across eastern Ukraine's Donbas region, it is home to more than 200 people seeking refuge from a near-daily barrage of artillery and rocket fire in the maze of passageways and underground rooms beneath the main stage.

As weeks of conflict have dragged into months the basement's inhabitants have slowly turned the network of cellars into a semi-permanent residence; sectioning off sleeping areas with curtains made from sheets, setting up tents and constructing makeshift beds from scrap materials left behind after building work. Many have now lived underground for more than seven months. With the latest round of diplomatic negotiations to resolve the crisis crumbling and hopes of peace fading further, the number of new arrivals is only increasing.

A stage prop of the Kremlin clock with its hands just before midnight. The backdrop, which was once used in theatrical performances, is now being used to partition makeshift dwellings in a maze of underground rooms inhabited by people displaced from their homes in Donetsk's Petrovsky district by heavy shelling. All photos by Harriet Salem.

Local residents first used the basement as a makeshift bomb shelter on August 2,2014, when the rebel-held district was reportedly shelled from an aircraft, killing six people and hitting several buildings including the local school.

Luba Pavlova, 56, first came to the cultural center's basement that day. "It was sunny, very quiet, it felt normal," she told VICE News. "Then we heard a jet and the massive explosions started." Pavlova's face crumpled into tears as she told the story. As she and her daughter ran for their lives, Vita, 36, collapsed from a massive heart attack. There was nothing Luba could do to revive her. She had to run.

Since then, the sprawling suburb to the southwest of Donetsk, that had a pre-war population of more than 85,000, has become a buffer zone on the frontline of fighting between government troops and the pro-Russia forces that control large swathes of territory in Ukraine's east.

Around 40 people sleep and live in this cramped underground room crammed with makeshift beds. Most spend less an hour or so a day above ground. All photos by Harriet Salem.

Outside the shelter, shrapnel-splattered tarmac and shattered windows are testimony to the district's heavy bombardment. Locals say that the district has been hit on a near-daily basis by mortars and rockets since last summer.

In the cramped conditions, there is little privacy or personal space on offer; families, friends, and neighbors sleep side-by-side with up to four people sharing one bed.

Luba Voyevchik, 52, lives with her son Anton, 32, and adopted son Aton, 4, in a small alcove partitioned from the main room by an old blanket. Their shared sleeping space is less than two yards long and one yard wide. A flashlight hanging from the ceiling illuminates a poster for the local football team and one of young Aton's drawings tacked to the wall. When they need to shower the family roll up the mattresses and blankets, heat a pot of water in the kitchen, and pull down the curtain to bathe in some privacy.

"It might not be much, but at least we have our space. That is more than most people have here," Luba told VICE News.

A woman takes an afternoon nap in the Petrovsky shelter's main sleeping and living quarters. Up to 40 people share the space, often taking turns to sleep in shifts. All photos by Harriet Salem.
Red spray paint on the wall marks this as "Apartment 4." Storage cupboards in the Petrovsky cultural center have been turned into makeshift sleeping quarters affording slightly more privacy than the main sleeping hall. All photos by Harriet Salem.

Katiya Dynia, 22, has also lived in the cultural center basement with her two children since August. Her 1-year-old daughter, Miroslava, has spent nearly a quarter of her life in the darkness. At night, when the shells fall, her 6-year-old son cries and shakes with fear.

A mother sits on a makeshift bed to bottle-feed her baby. At night the curtains are closed to allow some precious privacy. The bed is usually shared by between two and four people. All photos by Harriet Salem.

Children, women, pensioners, and the disabled make up the vast majority of people living in the Petrovsky shelter. Many already lived in impoverished conditions before the war and lack the resources to flee the rebel-held territories to either Ukraine or Russia. Some are simply reluctant to leave behind what they have worked their whole lives for.

With social welfare payments cut off to the Donbas region several months ago, the center's residents are mostly dependent on humanitarian aid, support from relatives, and charitable packages delivered by strangers.

Olga Berestovasa sat on the bed next to her sleeping son. "He used to be a miner like my husband," she told VICE News. "But what will he do after the war? The mines are being destroyed." Olga used to work as a ticket conductor on a bus line running into Donetsk city but the route stopped running in December after shells hit a bus and killed the driver. So now she also has no work. "I've sold all the jewelry my dead husband gave to me, gifts from my wedding and birthdays. Now all I have left is hope."

At night and first thing in the morning she reads from a prayer book that used to belong to her mother. "It helps me sleep," she said. "Before I used to go to church but I was never a big believer. I couldn't understand all these prayers, but now I do."

The residents of Petrovsky bomb shelter gather in the makeshift kitchen to prepare a communal evening meal. Cooking facilities are limited and food supplies short. Vegetables and meat are a luxury. All photos by Harriet Salem.

With little natural light filtering through to the basement, day and night blur into one in the underground world and there is little to do to fill the time other than play cards, talk politics, and eat semechki (sunflower seeds).

In the kitchen, gaps between the sandbags covering the windows allow a rare glimpse of natural light. Here residents gather to prepare communal meals and watch Russian movies and news on an ancient television set; Ukrainian channels were taken off the airwaves in rebel-held territories several months ago.

When they hear incoming fire, the shelter's residents run for cover behind a supporting wall as shattering glass from the windows could prove lethal. When shells land close, the external metal door and the wooden steps leading into the cellar shake with the force of the explosions. Nonetheless the people living here say they feel much safer here than they do at home.

The residents of Petrovsky bomb shelter watch Russian news and movies on an ancient television set. There is little to do in the underground world where days easily blend into nights. All photos by Harriet Salem.

Natasha Ausheva moved to the cultural center with her 20-year-old son two months ago. "I tried to stay in my home as long as possible but in the end it was too much for my nerves," she told VICE News.

Even when the shelling stopped for a few days during a brief September ceasefire Ausheva still moved around her apartment by the walls. "I was too afraid to move across the room in case it started again. It was then I decided to send my younger son away to his father," she said. "During the shelling I used to cover him with my body and I could feel his heart pounding against mine."

Up to 40 children under the age of 12 now live in the cultural center's basement and as the bombardment of Donetsk continues their number grows. When shelling is heavy they don't venture outside for several days at a time. Their parents say that living in such overcrowded and stressful conditions is causing their children to show signs of psychological trauma.

Ira Holkin is just 15 but she already knows she wants to be a doctor. "I'll be the first medic in my family," she said proudly. But schools have now been closed for several months because of the fighting and studying in the overcrowded space is tough. Ira now thinks she'll have to repeat a year. "It's difficult because you have this dream and it's being taken away from you. This is meant to be my childhood. I'm hoping that the war will end soon but I don't think it will," she told VICE News.

Schools in Petrovsky district have been largely closed since August, opening only for a few weeks in September at the beginning of a so-called ceasefire. Some children try to continue their studies in the bomb shelter but say studying with a tutor in the cramped rooms is hard. All photos by Harriet Salem.

Two children play in the darkness of Petrovsky bomb shelter. With little opportunity to venture outside and little space inside many are showing signs of psychological trauma from the cramped living conditions. All photos by Harriet Salem.

According to a recent report by UNICEF, more than 1,000 children are regularly seeking refuge in makeshift bomb shelters in Donetsk, without access to enough water, food, and basic hygiene. Since the conflict started in mid-April 2014 more than 5,300 civilians have been killed in the fighting and a further 1.2 million displaced from their homes.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem