Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, has been severely affected by the Russian offensive. While many of the 1.8 million people who lived in Kharkiv before the war broke out have fled, some 350,000 who were unwilling or unable to leave remain in the city, according to local authorities.
Many have taken refuge in underground subway stations to escape the incessant bombing. Trapped underground, they are cut off from essential services, including health care. From children who are too afraid to fall asleep to people who feel like they can’t breathe to patients with high blood pressure at risk of stroke, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) mobile clinics working in several stations on three of Kharkiv’s subway lines are treating a wide range of health conditions, both pre-existing and related to or exacerbated by the conflict.
Here, MSF doctor Lisa Searle describes her experiences caring for patients sheltering below the city.
The public transport system has completely collapsed here, and the network of underground subway stations have become refuges for people whose homes have been destroyed by airstrikes and shelling, or who are too scared to stay at home above the surface. Being on the surface now feels so strange, eerie. A few people hurrying down the streets in ones or twos clutching bags of supplies. Trying to get to safety before the next air raid alarm sounds, which is often, at least four or five times a day. And after only a few days here, the sound of outgoing and incoming shelling has become background noise. It's just too exhausting to spend too much time thinking about what it means whenever we hear that sound. Another building destroyed, more lives lost and homes destroyed. Today during one of my too-brief visits to the surface, I could see smoke rising from a building that had just been hit, in a part of the city that is already destroyed and suffering more damage every day. The hits from above force the buildings' contents to spew out onto the streets. Books, clothes, shredded insulation, bricks, curtains, and cooking pots trailing out of the buildings and down to the ground, like intestines hanging out of a disemboweled body.
The whole country is in a state of emergency. The few remaining inhabitants of this city are huddled underground, crammed into the subways or makeshift basement shelters. Trying to survive. Most people who had the means have left, leaving behind the elderly, the disabled, those with chronic mental health conditions. The most vulnerable. During the day some people venture out, squinting against the bright lights and shuffling down the streets, terrified and waiting for the next impact. Some people are too scared to surface at all and have been underground for weeks.