For the last three months, 600 people have slept in the Heroiv Pratsi metro station in Kharkiv, north-east Ucraina. The city lies just 40km (25 miglia) from the Russian border and has been heavily shelled since the first day of the invasion. La settimana scorsa, the mayor of Kharkiv urged the temporary residents of Heroiv Pratsi to return to their homes. I first visited Heroiv Pratsi in mid-March, and recently returned to the metro station a few days before the mayor’s announcement. I was amazed by how well-maintained people’s temporary sleeping areas had become since my previous visit. Bouquets of lilac and daffodils had been placed next to almost every mattress.
Nina Maksymivna, an 80-year-old woman who had been staying in Heroiv Pratsi on my last visit, was still sleeping by the stairs in the same place where I had met her in March. Aside from very brief forays outside, she had barely left the underground in two months. It’s still possible to hear sounds of distant explosions in the area. For her, they were too close to feel safe. The Ukrainian army pushed the Russians back from Kharkiv’s outskirts in early May, but local fighting continues.
At 3am during my night in Kharkiv city centre, I was awoken by a loud bang. Ancora, I’m told this was nothing compared to how the city felt weeks ago. In Saltivka, the most damaged neighbourhood of Kharkiv, which had been inaccessible for some time, all that remains are empty buildings and burnt-out blocks. Russian troops are still stationed less than a mile away. On my recent visit, I met residents returning to check whether any of their belongings had survived. Men and women were cleaning the streets, some obviously shocked to see what remained. A local shipping company was helping people to move fridges and TV sets. “Long live Saltivka,” one of their guys, who was loading a lorry, shouted to me as I passed.
Almost two million people were living in Kharkiv at the start of the war. There are still more than a million left, and many more are now returning. The Kyiv to Kharkiv express trains are now packed. For Ukrainians, the decision to return is rational, but only if two conditions are met: primo, if your house survived the shelling, and your water and electricity supply are fixed. Secondo, if there’s still a chance of getting a job. After three months of war, people’s savings are depleted. Many working-age adults are returning home to Kharkiv, leaving family members and friends to look after kids and elderly relatives in safer towns. But it’s especially hard for families where relatives have joined the army.
Compared to Kharkiv, my native Kyiv feels strangely normal, despite the curfew, the not yet fully operational public transport, and the occasional air-raid siren. Yet the war still goes on. The major battles are being fought in Donbas, in the south of Ukraine. In the newly occupied area around the southern city of Kherson, people are being kidnapped and tortured. I covered the Russian invasion of Donbas and Crimea in 2014. My biggest fear now is that Ukrainians in Kyiv and the west of the country will get used to the distant battles unfolding hundreds of kilometres away, and ignore the war. Last time, the unresolved conflicts in Donbas and Crimea became a pretext for the Kremlin’s full-scale attack.
Ancora, finding myself recently at a small party in Kyiv, I know this time it’s different: there is nobody in the country untouched by the war. At the party, I spoke to one of Ukraine’s most famous travel bloggers, who is now making stories not from exotic far-flung locations, but from liberated Ukrainian towns. He is originally from occupied Luhansk, in the east. Every one of us at the party had a friend who had been killed, lost a house, became a refugee or is fighting on the frontline.
As a conflict reporter I know that wars cause societies to disintegrate. But from what I’ve seen, Ukrainians, and in particular Kyiv residents (who were previously known for their briskness and focus on work), have become kinder and warmer. The discussions that prevail are about rebuilding the country for the better. Professionals who helped with the logistics during the first months of the military invasion are now figuring out how their skills might be useful in a new environment. My cousin, an architect, recently called to tell me how his university mates have been united in developing a plan for rebuilding the country’s demolished infrastructure.
I find it hardest to interact with foreign experts and analysts. One veteran reporter from the Balkans recently told me that the longer the war lasted, the less she could understand its goal. Perplexed, I responded that Ukrainians saw the goal even more clearly now than before: to defend cities from invasion while ensuring the fewest possible casualties and to liberate the occupied territories, where the atrocities have been greatest.
Despite the many positive surprises we have seen during the war – including the strength of the Ukrainian army, which has shown itself to be more efficient compared to Russia’s poorly organised troops – for Ukrainians, it is going on exactly as we imagined. We knew that if we were attacked, it would last a long time. I’ve head many times that Ukrainians should manage their expectations, and that “compassion fatigue” is inevitable from the west. But Ukrainians aren’t asking for compassion: we’re asking for solidarity. We’re fighters, not powerless victims.
Yes – Ukrainians are adjusting to the war, and trying to make daily life more bearable, as the people who put flowers near their beds in the Kharkiv metro attest. But this doesn’t mean we have to normalise the conflict. Discussions about rebuilding the country and victory come not from naivety: they are rooted in the knowledge that we can’t afford to waste energy and time explaining why things are impossible. We need to preserve our strength to prove the opposite is true.
In Kyiv, I recently passed by a bookstore that was still open. It sold funny socks with infamous phrases such as “Russian ship, go fuck yourself”. On the label of one pair was written: “Made of 92% cotton, 8% Lycra, e 100% trust in Ukraine”.