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In war-ravaged Lyman, Ukrainians live underground months after liberation

A Russian attack that hit the Triangle, in Lyman, Ukraine, last spring created a huge crater. (Heidi Levine/for The Washington Post)


LYMAN, Ukraine – Before this town was occupied by Russian soldiers and buildings crumbled in a rain of steel and fire, life was good for residents in the mix of apartment buildings known under the name Triangle.

Grannies sat on benches and admired their grandchildren in the courtyard playground, and residents carried vegetables from the small but bountiful community garden, even as the Russians approached this small town of the eastern region of Donetsk.

That life was shattered last spring, April 25, when a missile or bomb fell from the sky and landed near the Jungle Gym, blowing out the windows and leaving a huge crater. A 7-year-old girl whose family fled to live with her grandmother had just arrived at the shelter when it struck. The girl and a small black dog she was holding were crushed when a wall collapsed, residents said. She died on the way to the hospital.

This moment and other bombings triggered a mass instinct decision: residents spent their nights and some of their days in the cramped, stuffy basements of Pryvokzalna Street, where the next bomb was unlikely to reach them. Nearly a year later, and months after Russian forces were driven out of Lyman last fall, life continues underground at the Triangle.

Children take online lessons in electric light. Adults watch all the news about Ukraine’s military operations on small televisions. The pets roam around in small cages, adapting like their owners to a hybrid life, largely in darkness. When a resident goes out, one ear listens for sounds from an emerging source, the other listens for signs that the Russians might be approaching again.

Since Russia began fomenting a separatist war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Lyman has changed hands four times, and despite his battlefield losses last year, President Vladimir Putin continues to insist that all of Donetsk now belongs to Russia. For the inhabitants of the Triangle, speaking in certain European capitals of reconstruction remains absurdly premature. Life, or what’s left of it, remains stuck in the limbo created by last April’s explosion.

“When we heard the noise, we froze in the hallway and immediately jumped out, just with the clothes on our backs,” Zoya, 68, said of the moment. “We couldn’t sleep at all for the first few days. Now I sleep well, but there are times when you hear shelling and it still scares me.

Zoya, a retired letter carrier, has since settled into new responsibilities, such as becoming the stable kitchen hand and serving hot bowls of borscht and meat patties. At night, she says, she retreats underground to her spartan storage closet-turned-bedroom, with enough space for a sleeping mat and a few moldy belongings.

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“Of course, we got used to it. It’s quieter for me to be in the basement,” Zoya said on Friday. She spoke on the condition that she be identified only by her first name as she said she was exhausted by reporters who passed and asked her to recount her experiences. She wears a necklace of jingling keys, some of her neighbors who she hopes will one day return, and members of her dear family.

“I miss my children and grandchildren,” she said, her gray eyes shining. They lived next door but have been in kyiv since March.

Residents of the Triangle said electricity was only recently restored, while a pump in the central courtyard is the only source of water. Lyman Mayor Oleksandr Zhuravlev said the population had dropped from around 6,000 to 22,000 before the Russian invasion, although no one is precisely sure of the remaining number. Just over 500 children remained in Lyman and surrounding villages. Most of the city has been destroyed, Zhuravlev said, but services are slowly returning.

“There is no one homeless anymore,” he said. “Each person was helped to find accommodation. Many people find new homes for themselves in the apartments of neighbors or family or friends.

Some residents dismissed Zhuravlev’s optimistic assessment of living conditions, saying little improvement had reached their corner of town. Although they are not totally homeless, their sunken, windowless apartment buildings house only their remaining belongings. They mainly return for clothes and other essentials while mostly living in basements.

“I haven’t seen him once in this whole war,” one woman said of the mayor.

In the absence of significant government assistance, residents here have banded together to survive. Neighbors became friends, forging bonds of kinship over kettles and cots. They cook together, clean together, talk to each other and comfort each other.

“We celebrate New Years together, holidays, birthdays,” said Nadya, 68, who lives with two generations of family in the basement and also spoke on the condition that she be identified only by her first name. . “It unites us… hard or not hard, we had to get used to it. We had nowhere to go. »

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Nadya sat sentry at the basement entrance at the edge of the building, making sure no one disturbed her 7-year-old granddaughter, taking lessons online, which seems to be one of the few ways to mark growth.

“There is a certain emptiness, a certain anger; there is no more happiness,” she said. “We are waiting for peace. We are waiting for the end of this. We trust our defenders.

While her granddaughter was studying, another 7-year-old girl, Anastasiya, a frantic ball of energy, emerged from the low building to ride around the Triangle on her pink bicycle.

“He’s a character,” her father, Kostyantyn, 38, said at a small table outside as she alternated between a swing and a run past their homemade obstacle course as they watched. from his mother, Iryna, 33. They spoke on the condition that their surname would not be used.

Kostyantyn was a security guard before the war, but like virtually all of his neighbors, his family has no money or means to move to safer and more stable conditions. Anastasiya fills her days with spelling and arithmetic lessons which she attends and sends back to her teacher. She is more focused on the lessons, which have been online since November, her father said, than on the war raging around them.

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Shelling could be heard faintly in the distance, and a small convoy of American-made M113 armored personnel carriers rumbled past. The soldiers standing in the hatches greeted passers-by. Anastasiya settled down on a bench, captivated by her mother’s phone.

Late afternoon brought relief to the Triangle when a military transport stopped to deliver food prepared and donated by civilians. Residents were ready for the drill, and within moments a table appeared to hold the day’s offerings: pots of homemade soups, cans of creamed turnips, diced potatoes and beans.

Stray dogs circled around the crowds stuffing plastic bags to take back to their shelters. Zoya’s necklace shook as another day soon passed without her neighbors asking her for their keys.

Even Anastasiya filled her little hands with jam and crackers. It was a significant bonus; her makeshift home is shared with a few chickens too stressed from the shelling to lay eggs, her father said. Anastasiya walked alongside her mother, near where a girl her age saw the world fall on her. The jungle gym near the crater was quiet all day.

Heidi Levine contributed to this report.

A year of Russian war in Ukraine

Portraits from Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion a year ago – in ways both big and small. They learned to survive and help each other in dire circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and crumbling markets. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of Attrition: Over the past year, the war has evolved from a multi-pronged invasion that included kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely focused on a swath of territory to the east and south. Follow the 600 mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and see where the fighting has been concentrated.

One year of separated life: The invasion of Russia, coupled with Ukrainian martial law preventing men of military age from leaving the country, has forced millions of Ukrainian families to make agonizing decisions about how to balance safety, duty and love, once intertwined lives have become unrecognizable. This is what a train station full of farewells looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but closer examination suggests the world is far from united on the issues raised by the war in Ukraine. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions have not stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.

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