Last Holdouts: The Basement Lives Of Ukrainians Who Refuse To Flee Frontline Towns
Russian shells hit frontline cities Siversk and Lyman every day, but some people are refusing to abandon their homes. Life has gone underground. A year since the beginning of the Russian invasion, a reporter from Ukrainska Pravda meets people surviving in basements — their towns destroyed, but still alive.
LYMAN — The Lyman railway station was once the second largest in Ukraine, with 136 tracks spread over half a kilometer in the middle of the city. Now, the station lies ruined by the war. A destroyed pedestrian bridge has collapsed onto cars, bridges across the Siverskyi Donets river have been blown up and transportation through the area is at a standstill.
Lyman came under daily artillery and rocket bombardment when Russian forces attacked the city in May 2022. Ukrainian forces took the city back five months ago. Houses are still in ruins, but streets and sidewalks have been cleared. Lyman is like a time capsule, with sidewalks for tourists still visible among the ruins — but there are no excursions, no souvenir shops.
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The city is deserted, quiet. In the middle of the day, you can stand for several minutes on the corner of the once-busy streets before anyone passes by.
For the most part, feral cats are all that remain of the local community. Of 51,000 residents, only about 7,000 have remained. In residential areas, courtyards are an endless gallery of examples of human ingenuity, which flourishes in the absence of gas and water.
At the entrance to each, you can see a bungalow made of boards, plastic, film, oilcloth, iron, window frames, drawers and old chairs and tables — a public canteen for cooking.
A deserted Lyman
In these bungalows, the most important item is a wood-burning stove, made quickly from a few bricks and a piece of iron on top. Electricity has been restored in Lyman, and the apartment kitchens have "woken up." But people are in no hurry to get rid of the bungalows.
Volodya and Iryna are among the residents of Lyman who do not want to flee. To leave would be like pulling themselves up by the roots.
We were lying there, praying that the cans wouldn't fall on us.
"When the shelling started in April, the city lost electricity, gas and water. We moved to the shed in the yard, where my father built a basement. We cooked on the fire nearby," Volodya says. "We would pile down into the basement immediately when the shelling started. The four of us slept on the floor — Ira, my son and my mother. There were shelves with canned food on the walls above us. The shelling made everything shake. We were lying there, praying that the cans wouldn't fall on us. Between shelling, we ran home — 30 steps to the entrance and up the stairs to the third floor. We lived in the yard for a month."
A shell hit the sheds during one of the bombardments, setting them on fire. Volodymyr's family ran to the basement of a neighboring five-story building, where they slept underground, surrounded by others sheltering from the artillery.
The inscription "People" means that local residents live in the basement. Two chimneys show that the basement is heated.
Underground for 10 months
"There were a lot of us here — a full basement," says Oleksandr Serhiyovych, a resident of one of the high-rise apartment buildings. "Now, there are only my wife and son and a couple of other women. The shelling is less intense than it was last spring. But it still continues. When someone dies somewhere, the basement is full of people again."
Oleksandr Serhiyovych's apartment on the third floor survived, but it isn't easy to return to it. An explosion tore through the stairs in the entrance, and the way to the apartment is a quest with elements of mountaineering.
The apartment is accessible through the neighboring entrance: from balcony to balcony, crossing two other apartments, then the remains of the stairs — holding the wall to avoid falling — then moving to the door and opening it with half a foot.
"My son is young — he is 52 years old — so he walks like this every day. I'm 74, and it's hard. My wife is bedridden, so we haven't left the basement for 10 months," Serhiyovych says.
Sashko lives on the fourth floor of another building. He is the last tenant, and he feels like both a watchman and a landlord.
He just fixed a new lock in the basement because, at night, looters broke down the door and stole axes, chainsaw oil and two liters of gasoline.
Sashko reflects on the value of these items in his ruined city: the axes are useful tools, and the bicycle is now the most common means of transportation here. And, of course, firewood.
Inside one of the basements.
"It turns out you don't need much to live."
We talked to Lyuba at the entrance to the basement of her five-storey house. During the intense shelling, it was "densely populated." In addition to Lyuba, it is home to the church sexton, Yurii, a pensioner who used to be a blacksmith in railway workshops.
"The basements in the houses are different," says Lyuba. "Some are unfenced, where people sleep like in a gym. But in our basement, there are rooms for each apartment. Now, everyone has personal bomb shelters."
We go to Lyubov's room. It looks like a train compartment: two makeshift beds with a table between them. The walls are covered with what Lyuba jokes are "Persian carpets" — really just corrugated cardboard from a refrigerator box. It's warmer that way.
And it's quiet. No sounds from outside are heard. Every morning, Lyuba goes into the yard, says hello to the neighboring basement, and asks if anyone has arrived or anything has been destroyed in the city. This is how she satisfies her primary need for local news.
Lyuba does not want to return to her apartment. She says it's no longer structurally sound after the intense shelling.
"I took the things I needed to the basement," she says. "It turns out that you don't need much to live. Nowhere was it as peaceful as in this basement."
Siversk was never occupied, but now, unlike Lyman, it is much closer to the frontline, and the city is shelled by Russian forces every day.
Siversk's economy used to depend almost entirely on a plant that processed dolomite, a mineral used in metallurgy. But the plant closed in 2008, and since then, residents have mostly worked in agriculture or commuted to nearby Lysychansk, Sievierodonetsk and Bakhmut.
The war put an end to labor migration. Most people became refugees. Now, there are just 1,550 people in Siversk, including children. One resident said their New Year's gift list included 76 children.
Two men are smoking at the entrance of a five-storey building.
"We would like peace — quiet and peace. Everything else is trivial. Like the Old Believers, we've lived without electricity, water or anything for a year. Let it be so! But we want peace and tranquility. We'll make it until spring, and then the gardens will grow — greens and potatoes. Humanitarian aid is good, but we still want some tomatoes and onions. We have no money to buy them. The wealthiest people here are pensioners. My wife and I have yet to reach retirement age. And we have no job," one of the men says.
The wealthiest people here are pensioners. It sounds like an exquisite absurdity, an alternate reality. Pensioner tycoons, aristocrats in damp basements.
The military administration of Siversk distributes individual hygiene kits to each person every month: towels, soap and razors, underwear, diapers, pads, creams and a loaf of bread per person every week.
Generators have been distributed — one for every two or three basements, and gasoline for generators is free, as is drinking water and food. Volunteers are available to help, and police, firefighters and a first aid station are still on duty.
At the same time, officials from the military administration are constantly trying to convince people to leave because of the daily shelling. But people stay in the basements.
"There is nowhere to go."
It's the military communism of the twenty-first century. Ask any local why they haven't left, and you will hear three options: "There is nowhere to go," "There is no reason to go," or "No one needs us anywhere."
Oleksiy Vorobyov, the head of Siversk's military administration, explains that people cannot be made to evacuate without their consent. And practice shows that there will always be a percentage who will not consent, even under the threat of death.
They were the salt of the earth.
It is a paradox. In peacetime, we used to elevate those who felt deeply rooted and could not think of themselves outside their "small homeland" to the status of heroes. They were the salt of the earth, and why Ukrainian villages and small towns were still alive.
But in wartime, the picture is different. I want to ask such a person: If you love your town or village so much, should you not save yourself for the sake of this love? You will return after the war, rebuild and create a new life. But I'm asking the wrong question.
When someone lives in a house, it is "alive," but when the last person leaves, it begins to collapse. It could be the same with towns and villages: as long as some residents remain, the city has protection. Not the protection provided by soldiers, but protection of a different dimension. Bombs destroy buildings, but the town lives on.
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