Kyiv, Ukraine — As the escalator slides the final few meters down to the subway station deep within Kiev’s normally immaculate mass transit system, a conglomeration of foam mattresses, suitcases and plastic bags filled with groceries comes into view. The room is surprisingly quiet, almost silent, despite the 200 or so people camped there to escape the bombardment and artillery fire overhead.
You sleep three or four on a single mattress. The children push toy cars across the gray granite slabs of the train station floors and watch as their mothers scroll endlessly on their phones, searching for war news.
Little hands and feet stick out from under blankets, although it’s noticeably warmer inside the station than above ground. Volunteers come and go, bringing food and other necessities. A mother puts up a tent to have some privacy.
“It’s not so convenient,” admitted Ulyana, who is 9 years old and has been living in the Dorohozhychi ward with her mother and cat for the past six days. “But look, this is the situation and we have to deal with it. It is better to be here than to get into a situation outside.”
As many as 15,000 people, the city’s mayor said on Wednesday, most of them women and children, have settled into Kiev’s subway to escape the grim conditions in the city while Russian forces descend.
And the subway isn’t the only subterranean sanctuary. The doctors at Maternity Hospital No. 5 in Kyiv, for example, set up chambers in the basement to provide women with a safe place to give birth. So far, five babies have been born this way, said Dmytro Govseyev, the director of the clinic.
Six days into the conflict, the Kremlin’s war plans remain unclear. The movement of tanks, artillery pieces, armored personnel carriers and other heavy weapons towards Kyiv, with a population of about 2.8 million, ahead of the exodus of evacuees raises serious concerns about the possible start of bloody street fighting.
But Russia could instead agree to a grueling siege, punctuated by shelling and cutting off food supplies, water and ammunition, hoping to crush the resistance without the destruction and killing of a frontal attack.
However, the already difficult underground life in Kyiv is likely to become even more difficult.
Above ground, Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers, who had been handed guns just a few days earlier, were busy preparing for the arrival of the Russians.
Preparations could be seen on almost every street: concrete barriers blocked lanes, tires meant to be set on fire to form smoke screens lay everywhere and, in a new development Wednesday, signs warning of anti-tank mines were littered streets hastily marked for Civilian vehicles were blocked.
A bullet-riddled SUV lay abandoned by the side of the road near a checkpoint manned by civilian volunteers, apparently after raising suspicions that it was transporting Russian saboteurs.
Cold, slushy snow was falling and explosions could be heard somewhere on the outskirts of town.
Although most people in Kyiv remain in their apartments, thousands have chosen to hide from the dangers above by taking cover in the subway. They have lived for days in cramped, communal quarters, women and children of all ages, along with men too old to join the fighting above.
Olha Kovalchuk, a veterinarian, 45, and her daughter Oksana, 18, an ecology student, take turns sleeping on a coveted wooden bench at the Dorohozhychi station. “This is our room,” Ms. Kovalchuk said.
Nearby, people crowded around a hastily improvised cell phone charging station. Fortunately, the subway system has well-equipped public toilets.
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The stop is deep in the green line of the system – the escalator ride to the station takes about a minute – and the stops in front of it sound promising: the Palace of Sports, the Golden Gate, the Caves and the Friendship of Peoples. But while trains still ran sporadically, nobody went anywhere here.
“It’s bad for the children,” Ms. Kovalchuk said while watching the scene. “I’m only a vet, not a doctor, but I can understand how bad this is for her. You are under stress. They cry at night.”
Ms Kovalchuk said she was under such stress that she hardly slept. And she seethed at the man who started the war, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. “I don’t want to swear,” she said. “I just hate this man with all my heart. Look how much pain he has brought us.”
Ukrainian officials in recent days have asked Western nations to intervene by imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, a request that was rejected because it would risk sparking direct conflict between NATO and Russian forces. But Ms. Kovalchuk liked the idea.
“Please close the sky,” she said.
Warning signs of Russia’s intentions have been clear for years, not just during the military buildup that began last fall, she said. “I don’t understand why the world didn’t listen to Ukraine sooner.”
Estimates of civilian casualties are unreliable and easily manipulated by either side in the information sector of the war. A Ukrainian government agency that oversees fire and emergency services said in a statement Wednesday that 2,000 people had died. But the agency later issued a corrigendum, saying in what is perhaps its most reliable account, it had no idea how many people had been killed. Previous estimates were in the hundreds.
Lyudmyla Denisova, the human rights ombudsman in Ukraine’s parliament, issued a statement saying 21 children had been killed and another 55 injured.
Last Thursday evening, the first day of the war, Julia Gerasimenko, a lawyer who had worked in Kiev’s now ailing real estate market, moved into the subway station with her daughter Ulyana. Her 6-year-old son happened to be staying with his grandmother outside of Kyiv when the Russian invasion began. You made it and are now in Germany. Her husband, a professional soldier, is fighting in the Ukrainian army.
She is glad her son is safe, she said. “But I wish I was near him now.”