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Amid Daily Shelling, Ukraine Residents Forced To Live Underground


By definition, news is something that changes. And maybe that's why we don't pay enough attention to the war in Ukraine. Day after day, that war doesn't change much. Night after night, Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists fire artillery at each other, and civilians have to take shelter. From the disputed city of Donetsk, NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports just how some people survive.


SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Three elderly Ukrainians chat on a recent afternoon outside a rusty shed here in the war-ravaged Petrovsky district. The bullets and shrapnel lying around suggest this may not be the safest place to congregate. There are gunshots in the distance, which a passerby counts out.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.

NELSON: But the women appear unphased. One even uses a howitzer shell casing as a stool.

GALINA BURIAK: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Her name is Galina Buriak, and she is 74. She says she and the other women live below the metal shed, which leads to an underground bunker built in 1974, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union.

She takes me on a tour of the dimly-lit fallout shelter, where a total of 14 people currently live. Buriak says she's slept here every night since the spring of 2014. It hardly seems possible given how chilly and damp the bunker is even on this spring day.

BURIAK: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Buriak says she's used to it. She dresses in layers and curls beneath a wool blanket on her bed. A little warmth is also cast by portable electric heaters, although Buriak says the bunker's antiquated wiring only allows for one or two to be on at the same time.

BURIAK: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: She and the others share this run-down bathroom as well as a rusty spigot providing water for drinking, bathing and cooking soup or pasta on hot plates.

BURIAK: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: At night, the residents gather around an old TV Buriak says was a present from the separatist mayor. There's no signal here within the thick concrete walls, so they watch Russian-language DVDs. Two resident cats take care of the rats and mice.

BURIAK: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Part of what makes the group living situation work is the bunker's strict rules, Buriak says. The key ones are clean up after yourself, don't smoke and don't drink vodka. On this day, a few of the men are breaking the last rule because it's Easter. One is 35-year-old Ruslan Timofeeva.

RUSLAN TIMOFEEVA: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: He complains that the leader of the Russian-backed separatists has done nothing to rebuild their neighborhood or move bunker residents to better quarters. Instead, he plants roses, Timofeeva says. Buriak looks scared by her bunker mate's tirade. She tears up when asked why she doesn't move elsewhere like scores of other bunker dwellers have done.

BURIAK: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: The elderly woman says she has no choice but to stay, given her damaged home is in constant danger of being shelled. Buriak says the only thing she likes about this bunker are the Communist-era murals on the walls around her bed. They depict Soviet servicemembers, military aircraft, vehicles and weapons systems.

BURIAK: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Buriak tells me she misses the Soviet era, adding, there was hardship, but life was still much better then and more certain. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine.


Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
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