In war-ravaged Lyman, Ukrainians live underground months after liberation
March 28, 2023 Updated Tue., March 28, 2023 at 12:09 p.m.
A Russian attack that hit the Triangle apartment complex, in Lyman, Ukraine, in April left a massive crater. (Heidi Levine/For The Washington Post)
LYMAN, Ukraine - Before this city was occupied by Russian soldiers and the buildings crumbled to rubble and ash under a rain of steel and fire, life was good for residents in the medley of apartment buildings known as the Triangle.
Grannies sat on benches and admired their grandchildren on the courtyard playground, and residents hauled vegetables from the small but bountiful community garden, even as the Russians drew near to this small city in the eastern Donetsk region.
This life splintered apart last spring, on April 25, when a missile or bomb fell from the sky and landed by the jungle gym, blowing out windows and leaving a massive crater. A 7-year old girl whose family fled from another part of the city to live with her grandmother was just getting to the shelter when the strike occurred. The girl and a small black dog she held in her hands were crushed when a wall collapsed, residents said. She died on the way to a hospital.
That moment and other shelling triggered a mass instinctual decision: Residents would spend their nights and some of their days in the narrow, stuffy apartment basements on Pryvokzalna Street, where the next bomb probably could not reach them. Nearly a year later, and months after Russian forces were pushed out of Lyman last fall, life continues underground at the Triangle.
Children attend online classes by electric light. Adults catch every news update of Ukraine’s military operations on small TVs. Pets rummage around in small cages, adapting like their owners to a hybrid life, largely in darkness. When a resident steps out, one ear is tuned to the sounds of an emerging spring, the other listens for signs that Russians might again be drawing near.
Since Russia started fomenting separatist war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Lyman has changed hands four times, and despite his battlefield losses last year, President Vladimir Putin continues to insist that all of Donetsk now belongs to Russia. For residents of the Triangle, the talk in some European capitals of reconstruction remains absurdly premature. Life, or what’s left of it, remains stuck in the limbo created by the blast last April.
“When we heard the bang, we froze in the hallway and jumped out immediately, just with the clothes on our backs,” Zoya, 68, said of that moment. “We couldn’t sleep at all during the first days. Now I sleep all right, but there are moments when you hear shelling happening and it scares me again.”
Zoya, a retired mail carrier, has settled into new responsibilities since then, like becoming the steady kitchen hand and serving warm bowls of borscht and meat patties. At night, she said, she retires underground to her spartan storage closet turned bedroom, with enough space for a sleeping mat and a few musty belongings.
“Of course we’ve gotten used to it. It’s calmer for me to be in the basement,” Zoya said Friday. She spoke on the condition that she be identified only by her first name because she said she is exhausted by reporters coming by and asking her to recount her experiences. She wears a necklace of jingling keys, some from her neighbors who she hopes someday will return, along with her own dear family members.
“I miss my children, and grandchildren,” she said, her gray eyes welling. They used to live next door but have been in Kyiv since last March.
Residents of the Triangle said electrical power was only recently restored, while a pump in the center courtyard is the only source of water. Lyman’s mayor, Oleksandr Zhuravlev, said the population has winnowed to about 6,000 from 22,000 before Russia’s invasion, though no one is precisely sure of how many are left. Just over 500 children are left in Lyman and surrounding villages. Most of the city was destroyed, Zhuravlev said, but services are slowly coming back.
“There are no people left without homes,” he said. “Every person has been assisted in finding a place to live. A lot of people find new homes for themselves in the apartments of neighbors or family or friends.”
Some residents dismissed Zhuravlev’s optimistic assessment of the living conditions, saying few improvements had reached their corner of the city. While they are not totally homeless, their carved out, windowless apartment buildings shelter only their remaining belongings. They mostly just return for clothes and other essentials while living mainly in the basements.
“I haven’t seen him once during this entire war,” one woman said of the mayor.
Absent significant government assistance, residents here have banded together to survive. Neighbors have turned into friends, forging kinship around kettles and cots. They cook together, clean together, talk and console with one another.
“We celebrate New Year’s together, holidays, birthdays,” said Nadya, 68, who stays with two generations of family in the basement and also spoke on the condition that she be identified only by her first name. “It unifies us … hard or not hard, we had to get used to it. We had nowhere else to go.”
Nadya sat sentinel at the entrance to the basement on the edge of the building, ensuring no one disturbed her 7-year-old granddaughter, taking online school lessons, which feels like one of few ways to mark growth.
“There is a certain emptiness, a certain anger; there is no happiness anymore,” she said. “We’re waiting for peace. We’re waiting for the end of this. We trust our defenders.”
While her granddaughter was studying, another 7-year-old, Anastasiya, a ball of frenetic energy, emerged from the low-slung building to rocket around the Triangle on her pink bicycle.
“She is a character,” her father, Kostyantyn, 38, said at a small table outside as she alternated between a swing and running up and down the block past their homemade obstacle course as her mother, Iryna, 33, looked on. They spoke on the condition that their last name not be used.
Kostyantyn was a security guard before the war, but like virtually all of his neighbors, his family has no money or means to relocate to safer and more stable conditions. Anastasiya fills her days with spelling and counting lessons that she completes and sends back to her teacher. She is more focused on class, which has been online since November, her father said, than on the war raging around them.
Shelling could be heard faintly in the distance, and a small convoy of U.S.-made M113 armored personnel carriers rumbled past. The soldiers standing in the hatches waved at bystanders. Anastasiya settled onto a bench, captivated by her mother’s phone.
The late afternoon brought relief in the Triangle when a military transport stopped by to deliver food prepared and donated by civilians. The residents were ready for the drill, and in moments, a table appeared to hold the day’s offerings: jars of homemade soups, cans of creamed turnip, diced potatoes and beans.
Stray dogs circled around the crowd stuffing plastic bags to take back down to their shelters. Zoya’s necklace rattled as another day soon passed without her neighbors claiming their keys from her.
Even Anastasiya filled her small hands with jam and crackers. It was important bounty; her makeshift home is shared with a few chickens too stressed by the shelling to lay any eggs, her father said. Anastasiya walked alongside her mother, near where a girl her age saw the world come down on top of her. The jungle gym by the crater was quiet all day.
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