15,000 people take refuge in the Kiev metro

KYIV, Ukraine – As the escalator glides the last few meters of the metro station in the heart of Kyiv’s normally immaculate public transport system, a multitude of foam mattresses, suitcases and plastic bags full of food appear . The space is surprisingly quiet, almost silent, despite the roughly 200 people who have camped there to escape bombardment and artillery fire above.

They sleep three or four on a single mattress. Children push toy cars across the gray granite slabs of the station floors, watching their mothers scroll endlessly on their cellphones, searching for news of the war.

Tiny hands and feet protrude from the blankets, though it’s noticeably warmer in the station than above ground. Volunteers come and go, bringing food and other necessities of life. A mother sets up a tent, for a minimum of privacy.

“It’s not that comfortable,” admitted Ulyana, who is 9 and has been living at Dorohozhychi station with her mother and their cat for six days now. “But you see, that’s the situation, and we just have to accept it. It’s better to be here than to be in a situation away.

As many as 15,000 people, the city’s mayor said on Wednesday, mostly women and children, have taken up residence in Kiev’s metro to escape the dire conditions in the city as Russian forces descend.

And the metro is not the only underground refuge. Doctors at Kiev No. 5 Maternity Hospital, for example, have set up rooms in the basement to provide women with a safe place to give birth. So far, five babies have been born this way, said Dmytro Govseyev, director of the clinic.

Six days after the start of the conflict, the Kremlin’s war plans remain unclear. The movement of tanks, artillery guns, armored personnel carriers and other heavy weapons towards Kiev, with a population of around 2.8 million before the exodus of evacuees, is causing serious concerns about the potential outbreak of bloody street fights.

But Russia could instead settle for a crushing siege punctuated by bombardment and cuts to food, water and ammunition in hopes of breaking resistance without the destruction and death of a frontal attack.

Either way, underground life in Kiev, already difficult, is likely to become even more difficult.

Above ground, Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers who had received guns a few days earlier were busy preparing for the arrival of the Russians.

Preparations were evident on almost every street: concrete barriers blocked roads, tires to be set on fire to form smoke screens lay everywhere and, in a new development on Wednesday, signs warning of anti-tank mines dotted the roads closed to the look forward to civilian cars.

A bullet-riddled SUV lay abandoned on the side of a road near a checkpoint manned by civilian volunteers, apparently after raising suspicions that it was carrying Russian saboteurs.

Cold, slush snow was falling, and the thud of explosions could be heard somewhere on the outskirts of town.

Although most Kyiv residents remain in their apartments, thousands have chosen to hide from the above dangers by taking shelter in the metro. They lived for days in cramped communal conditions, women and children of all ages, and men too old to join the fights above.

Olha Kovalchuk, 45, a veterinarian, and her daughter Oksana, 18, a university ecology student, take turns sleeping on a coveted wooden bench at the Dorohozhychi stop. “This is our space,” Ms. Kovalchuk said.

Nearby, people crowded around a hastily improvised cellphone charging station. Fortunately, the metro system has well-appointed public restrooms.

The stop is at the bottom of the system’s green line – the escalator ride to the station takes about a minute – and the stops ahead look promising: the Sports Palace, the Golden Gate, the Cellars and the Friendship of Peoples. Yet, although the trains still ran sporadically, no one here was going anywhere.

“It’s bad for the kids,” Ms. Kovalchuk said as she surveyed the scene. “I’m only a vet, not a doctor, but I can understand how bad it is for them. They are stressed. They cry at night.

Ms Kovalchuk said she had been under such stress that she barely slept. And she was seething with anger at the man who had started the war, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. “I don’t want to swear,” she said. “I hate this man with all my soul. Look how much pain he brought us.

In recent days, Ukrainian officials have pleaded with Western countries to intervene by imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, a request that has been rebuffed because it would risk sparking a direct conflict between NATO and Russian forces. But Ms. Kovalchuk liked the idea.

“Please close the sky,” she said.

The warning signs of Russian intentions had been clear for years, and 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 war. A Ukrainian government agency that oversees fire and rescue services said in a statement on Wednesday that 2,000 people had died. But the agency later issued a correction, saying, in what is perhaps the most reliable account, that it had no idea how many people were killed. Early estimates numbered in the hundreds.

Lyudmyla Denisova, the human rights ombudsperson in the Ukrainian parliament, released a statement saying 21 children had been killed and 55 others injured.

In the metro station, Yulia Gerasimenko, a lawyer who had worked in Kiev’s now moribund real estate market, moved into the metro station with her daughter, Ulyana, last Thursday evening, the first day of the war. Luckily, her 6-year-old son was staying with his grandmother outside Kiev when the Russian incursion began. They got away with it and are now in Germany. Her husband, a career soldier, fights in the Ukrainian army.

She was happy her son was safe, she said. “But I would like to be near him now.”

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