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Ukrainian forces have retaken an eastern region from Russia’s invasion force, but in its largest city, fears remain

Natalya Afanasenko, 44, has spent more than 200 days living in this school basement in Kharkiv, the eastern Ukrainian city whose region is now all but completely liberated from Russian invaders.Photography by Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Natalya Afanasenko is thrilled that Ukrainian forces have freed almost all of her native Kharkiv region from Russian occupation over the past week, pushing the front lines of the war hundreds of kilometres away from her home in a suburb of the regional capital. But after more than 200 days of living in a school basement with some of her neighbours, she’s not ready to return to life above ground just yet.

“When they tell us that the war is over, then we can go home. Right now, it’s still not secure. We don’t know about our homes. There’s still shooting up there,” Ms. Afanasenko says, standing in the makeshift kitchen where the 44-year-old prepares meals for the seven other people who live beneath School No. 172.

“At least down here we have some security. But we do hope this will be over sooner or later.”

Since launching a surprise counterattack on Sept. 6, Ukrainian troops have liberated town after town around Kharkiv, retaking thousands of square kilometres.

On Wednesday, President Volodymyr Zelensky paid a surprise visit to the city of Izyum, which until last week was a major Russian military hub, to officially raise the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag once more over the city centre.

“It is probably possible to temporarily occupy the territory of our state. But it is definitely impossible to occupy our people, the Ukrainian people,” Mr. Zelensky said, after posing for photos with troops. “Today we, and especially the people in the temporarily occupied territories, looking up, are looking for only one thing – the flag of our state. This means the heroes are here. This means the enemy is gone, they have fled.”

But the war continues, with Russia still in control of a fifth of Ukrainian territory. Its forces are regrouping in the southeastern Donbas region, and it continues to fire missiles on a daily basis at targets across Ukraine.

For the people who still live in this war-battered region, the trauma is also far from over. Ukrainian prosecutors have been travelling across previously occupied territories this week, collecting evidence of suspected war crimes carried out during the six months of Russian rule.

And in the city of Kharkiv, which has been under steady attack since the first hours of the invasion on Feb. 24, there are many like Ms. Afanasenko who say they won’t come out of their shelters until the war is over.

The recent Ukrainian territorial gains have pushed Russian forces out of artillery range of the city, which had a prewar population of 1.4 million. Since losing the territory, Russia has retaliated by repeatedly targeting Kharkiv’s power stations and other critical infrastructure with missile attacks.

A woman walks out from a subway station in Kharkiv, where residents have been taking shelter each night since early in the war.

A sign warns that the subways are closed during the day.

The city was without electricity for most of Monday and Tuesday, a situation that was particularly harsh for the hundreds of residents who still sleep in subway stations every night, as they have since the early days of the war.

“I will stay here until there’s peace in all of Ukraine, until they pull the last troops out,” said Olha Dmitrievna, a 54-year-old who has been living underground with her elderly mother in the Heroes of Labour subway station since May. Station staff said about 100 people sleep there, with another 100 in the nearby Studentska station.

At one point, there were thousands. The majority have either left Kharkiv or decided it was safe enough to return to their homes in the city.

Those who remain underground say they just aren’t ready to leave the stations, which have become small cities of tents and mattresses laid out on the platforms, between parked trains. Humanitarian organizations deliver food and other supplies to the residents, while a police officer is always on duty to provide security.

Some of the subway dwellers go outside during the day. Others say they don’t feel comfortable taking even that risk. Residents acknowledge that their anxiety levels are high – and emotions sometimes boil over.

“It changes people. Within even a week of being here, people start to behave differently. You speak to them once and then you speak to them again and they’re different,” said Serhiy Mikhailovych, a 57-year-old gas worker. He goes to work during the day but comes back to the Heroes of Labour station each evening so he can get a good night’s sleep – or at least better than he would get in his apartment. “I can’t do my job after a bad sleep, so I stay here.”

Natalya Afanasenko watches TV in the school basement.'The day we win will be the biggest party,' says Ms. Afanasenko, who cooks for the group.

A medical kit in the basement lies ready to treat people's injuries.

Back in the basement of School No. 172, Yevhen Kryvoruchko was passing his 203rd day underground by studying online for a computer programming degree at Kharkiv National University. All classes have been online since the campus was badly damaged in March by Russian shelling. Mr. Kryvoruchko’s pet hamster, Slavik, wandered about his cage Wednesday as his 19-year-old owner perfected his coding.

Life underground is cold, damp and monotonous. But Mr. Kryvoruchko says things have gotten dramatically better since July, when electricity was restored to the basement after four months in the dark. That has allowed him to return to his studies and his social media networks.

One website he visits every day is an online map illustrating the progress of the war for Ukraine. On his laptop, he gleefully demonstrates how the front line, which once ran through the Saltivka neighbourhood where School No. 172 sits, had changed dramatically over just the past week. “Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, they are waiting to be de-occupied,” he said, referring to three regions where the fighting continues now that the Battle of Kharkiv appears to be over. “A lot of people are now saying Ukraine will win.”

That optimism is shared by the others who live beneath School No. 172. Ms. Afanasenko, the group’s cook, had only pasta soup and buckwheat to offer the others for lunch and dinner on Wednesday. But the group always has a special meal to celebrate birthdays and major holidays. “The day we win will be the biggest party,” Ms. Afanasenko said.

She acknowledged that day was likely still a long way off. But she does have plans for whenever the war finally does end: “I will go home and take a bath and sleep on clean sheets.”

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