Published54 minutes ago
Russia’s war has transformed everything in Kharkiv, including childhood.
Missiles are fired on Ukraine’s second city from across the Russian border which is so close by that there are only seconds to stop them.
If they’re aimed at Kharkiv there’s every chance they’ll hit – and little chance of reaching shelter.
School and kindergarten buildings have been closed for almost two years for safety, and playgrounds stand empty.
Now, as the full-scale war heads towards its third year, parts of life in Kharkiv are moving underground.
Deep down in the metro, specially built classrooms run parallel to the platform at five stations.
The local authorities began offering school lessons beneath the city streets several months ago.
They’ve just added preschool classes on the weekends.
For six-year-old Nika Bondarenko, it’s a chance to mix with other children again.
After two years studying online, she skips to her local metro station in bright pink wellies.
Her route passes the bombed-out ruins of military offices destroyed at the start of the invasion, opposite her home. There’s more smashed glass and shrapnel-battered buildings all around.
But once Nika is on the train, heading for class, her mother can stop worrying.
“Parents can be confident nothing’s going to happen to their child and a child can continue their more-or-less normal life,” Olha Bondarenko explains.
“The enemy can’t get us here.”
She says Nika has missed kindergarten, badly.
“It’s so important. Otherwise, a child doesn’t get to see any other kids, because there are none out on the streets and air raid sirens all the time.”
Kharkiv now offers close to 700 kindergarten places underground, for children aged up to six. At least three times that number of children attend school classes in the same space.
Some have lost parents in the fighting, or lived in areas under heavy fire, and need extra support from the psychologists on hand alongside the teachers.
On the day we visit, there is music and movement and lots of laughter. One preschool group are dressed up as doctors and nurses; others are singing and building with plastic bricks.
Trying to be normal
The staff put everything into making things as normal as possible.
On the walls, beside brightly coloured pictures of flowers and giant caterpillars, there are posters about the danger of mines. But when the sirens go off warning of incoming missiles, no one needs to move.
The Bondarenko family fled town at the start of the war, as Russian troops were pushing to take Kharkiv and the shelling was constant.
Thousands of families were living in the metro then. In March 2022, I saw old ladies sleeping in train carriages and babies on the platforms with their parents.
When the Russian forces were pushed back that September, the city began to breathe more easily again and Olha and her children came home.
You just have to believe everything will be fine.
Her husband is in the military and being in Kharkiv meant staying close to him.
When I ask Nika’s sister whether she is scared of the air raids, Viktoria shakes her head.
“The siren means a missile might hit, or it might not. It’s 50-50. You just have to believe everything will be fine.”
She’s 11 years old.
Kharkiv’s biggest problem is its location, with the Russian border only 40km (25 miles) away.
“We need modern air-defence systems. If the missiles are hitting now, it means we don’t have enough,” Mayor Ihor Terekhov argues.
But even the most up-to-date Western systems would struggle at such close range.
The intensity of air attacks has increased since December and the metro school is filling up with children.
So the city has begun making more permanent underground arrangements.
In the Industrialny district, badly damaged by missile strikes, an entire new school is taking shape beneath a sports field.
The classrooms will be buried five metres below the surface with capacity for 900 students in two shifts.
For now, it’s an oblong shell with builders soldering, plastering and hammering, every way you turn.
The chief constructor tells me his firm built a fancy new zoo and redesigned a central park before the invasion. “Now we’re doing this,” he shrugs.
It reminds him of the nuclear bunkers built at Soviet factories during the Cold War.
“I really don’t want us to move underground. This is a forced safety measure,” the mayor explains, during a site inspection.
The school is due to be ready by the end of March, though that looks optimistic.
This war will end when we win. But in the meantime children have the right to study.
The mayor then plans a similar structure in every district. It’s a big investment.
“The missiles used most often to ruin our city take 40 seconds to fly here,” Mr Terekhov points out – not enough time to evacuate a normal school.
“This war will end when we win. But in the meantime children have the right to study. So we’re building such schools.”
Shortly before we travelled to Kharkiv, a barrage of missiles hit residential areas of the city.
Eleven people were killed.
One missile hit Maryna Ovcharenko’s apartment block, destroying the entire end section with all its flats.
The 18-year-old and her parents had left their home just two minutes earlier. Maryna says she saw the missile coming in. She was flung off her feet by the shock wave, but was unharmed.
The teenager still can’t believe she’s alive when so many of her neighbours were killed, including a child.
Searching through the ruins of their own flat, Maryna has been recovering personal possessions. She found her birth certificate. Her mother Anastasia found a suitcase containing evening dresses.
Somehow, the family are still smiling.
“We have each other, we’re alive – not injured!” Anastasia says, pulling her daughter close. “It’s a miracle.”
The day after the missile struck, Maryna’s father climbed up onto the ruins of the building and placed a Ukrainian flag on the roof.
“We are here and we go on, no matter what Russia does with us. They can kill us and murder, but we stand,” is how Maryna explains what he did. “We go on.”
Across town at the metro school, Olha Bondarenko talks a lot about defiance and resilience, too. They call this an unbreakable city.
“In Kharkiv, an airstrike hits, you stress a bit then wipe off your tears and carry on. That’s how everyone lives here,” the mother-of-two says.
But the difference between life and death can be a matter of moments or metres here.
Olha has nightmares about being trapped under the ruins of her house with her children.
“I am very scared of that. I have panic attacks about being under the rubble.”
The underground schools are about adapting – and about survival.
“Of course it’s strange, but what else can we do? We want our children to grow up in our country. In Ukraine,” Natalia Bilohryshchenko tells me.
She runs the preschool education department at the city council and says teachers were “flying with happiness” to be back at work.
“Their eyes were bright. They missed the children.”
Suddenly, Natalia starts to cry.
“When there is peace, come to visit and we will show you our normal kindergartens,” she tells me, through tears.
“It’s all so sad… But it’s OK. Everything will be OK.”
With extra research and reporting by Hanna Chornous, Paul Pradier and Anastasia Levchenko.