War in Ukraine A Basement Diary from Kharkiv

War in Ukraine: Basement diary from Kharkiv
While shots are fired above ground, Ruslan finds shelter in a neighbourhood basement. He also brings in one of his cats at some point. | Photo (detail): © Ruslan Niyazov

Day Seven and Russia’s war of aggression has already starkly disfigured Kharkiv. The second-biggest city in the country, located in northeast Ukraine, Kharkiv is under constant fire. The centre around Freedom Square has already been largely destroyed. Residential neighbourhoods are also under daily attack. Dozens of people have been killed, and many more injured. Many people are trying to leave the city. Those who can’t or don’t want to leave are holing up in subways and basements. One of them is Ruslan Niyazov, who writes to stave off the constant danger and fear. In his messages and posts for friends on social networks, he describes everyday scenes, his hopes and worries, and sometimes shares photos and short live videos. 

Excerpts from Ruslan Niyazov’s digital war diary excerpted by Peggy Lohse for the German-Czech-Slovak online magazine Jádu.

Day One, 24 February 2022
Morning: The morning of the Russian attack – 04:16

People wake up, five in the morning, sound of rumbling. People dragging suitcases. At least the ones who have suitcases and know where to go.

My grandson is due any day now. Where will he be born? In a bomb shelter, in the woods. Damn! Take a deep breath, Ruslan, breathe.

I get hysterical at the suggestion that I turn my cats out into the street.

We’re lucky we’ve still got Internet.

Public transport is free now. Water’s already sold out at the shops and kiosks. There are little drinking fountains in the metro.

Called my son, they’re leaving. Good. Not clear where they’re going. Bad. The child in her womb is alive, they’re hanging on. They didn’t ask me, but I wouldn’t have gone anyway. I’ll stay with my animals... for as long as possible. How nice it is at home, I don’t want to go anywhere else. Windows taped up, I watch the cats. Heavy artillery and fire engines rumbling down the street. I’m still breathing.

Cats in front of secured windows Ruslan Niyazov lives in Kharkiv with seven cats. Here some of them are sitting at the windows. The windows are secured with crosses of adhesive tape to prevent them from splintering due to shock waves from impacts. | Photo: © Ruslan Niyazov

Midday: Sunshine and shelling – 12:19 

I leave the shop: sunshine and shelling. Not close yet. I start to panic. People are sitting in the metro station, wherever they can. I’m at home. I hear the neighbours, too. 

Practical question: How to sleep? Probably in the bathroom. Protect the windows with a mattress, too. No way for me to get away, and why should I anyway? I want to live in my home, my country, with my cats, under a peaceful sky. People don’t want war, they don’t want to kill. War is dehumanizing, it’s fascism! We’ve got to keep our sanity!

I want to live in my home, my country, with my cats, under a peaceful sky.

Afternoon: First tears – 16:05

Walked past neighbours’ entrance. They’re all in the basement. They won’t let strangers in, not even me. They told me to find somewhere else. Even now they don’t see me as a human being. Because I’m trans. They don’t like the way I look. That’s worse than the general misery. Then again, nothing new. Still, I thought that at least now... But of course not. Hell, I’ve been a shock to them for five years already.

Tears break through, dripping onto the phone. 

Night: First night in the basement – 20:17

I found someone to stay with after all, in my neighbourhood. I heard shelling. I ran over. My godparents let me into the basement. Alone in the dark, I realized my nerves aren’t as elastic as I’d thought. I locked the cats in the hallway.
 

People in ordinary basements Many people are hiding from the shelling in the ordinary basements of residential buildings. | Photo: © Ruslan Niyazov

Day Two, 25 February 2022
Morning: Better off not alone – 06:54

Alive. Quiet here. Good thing I decided not to be alone. Talking is reassuring. Falling asleep was difficult, to put it mildly.

I’m hanging in there. After all I’m used to being on my own. I look for positive sides and try to compliment myself. I was wrong about being able to cope on my own. Your support helped me a lot. 

Midday: Shots in the distance – 12:08

The calm has been broken for two hours now. I listen, make phone calls. Wanted to get some cash but didn’t make it to the machine because I heard gunfire. I’m sitting at my hosts’, ready to run down to the basement at a moment’s notice. Shots ring out in the distance. I’m helpless for the time being. A friend called and spoke to me. Immediately felt better.

The parents of the 16-year-old girl here don’t take her fear of the shelling seriously, they laugh at her, she goes into hysterics. I realize now I’m in the right place here in this basement, and what for.

Afternoon: Basement’s the right place to be – 15:02 

In the basement now. There’s a kettle, not so damp here after all. Got two layers of clothes on. I want to go home so badly. The cats don’t understand why they’re not allowed in the rooms, why I pop in, rush through the flat and then leave.

The parents of the 16-year-old girl here don’t take her fear of the shelling seriously, they laugh at her, she goes into hysterics. I realize now I’m in the right place here in this basement, and what for. Hard to explain to children why you need to stay in the basement. You don’t show them pictures either, so as not to traumatize them, but you have to keep them occupied somehow. The kid is hyperventilating, they go outside to get some air.

Evening: Thoughts on heroism – 20:09

The most heroic of those not bearing arms are the tram drivers. We’re in the shelter – and they’re driving around. Maybe there’s somebody at the stops after all. I admire this heroism. Planes flying around here. We’re back in the basement.
Sleeping bags in a niche in the basement A basement niche to survive in. | Photo: © Ruslan Niyazov

Day Three, 26 February 2022
Morning: Air raids and artillery fire – 06:49

Crawled out to spend a night back in the flat. Woken up by noise, we’ve already learned to dress in one minute flat. Morning of the third day. Normal, at least under the circumstances. Decided to have a cup of tea, wash, as long as it’s quiet. Went to see the pussycats. They’re alive. Had some food.

Danger! Air-raid warning! Artillery fire! Everyone take shelter! This is how we live. 

Midday: Psychological reflections – 12:17

On the second day, fear of closed doors. Must be post-traumatic stress disorder, I figured. On the third day, loud shelling outside, I sit and smoke. And the parents in the basement explain to their kids that war is bad! That you shouldn’t kill anyone. I’m proud of my people. We thought war was a thing of the past. We have to give our children a different mind-set, else it won’t stop.

Seems to me we’re holding firm not only on and in the air, but also in our hearts and minds. And you know what: I think we’re winning. I’m not for peace at any price. No. I’m for us winning and for righteous anger in response to this perfidious attack.

Crawled out for a smoke, planes are back. Already very close. Pray for Kharkiv, for our survival, fear for us. It won’t stop till it gets stopped. We’re waiting. Glory to the heroes!

Seems to me we’re holding firm not only on and in the air, but also in our hearts and minds. And you know what: I think we’re winning.

Afternoon: A sort of blogger – 16:40

When I read “I’m reading you”, I realized I’m a sort of blogger now. Because you have to keep yourself occupied in the basement whilst the heavy artillery is rumbling overhead.

Good thinking: went home to get sleeping mats because I shouldn’t fall ill. A basement’s a basement. But no question of getting any shuteye today. Our neighbourhood is a “hot spot”, eerie around here, though not in other parts of town.

Evening: Enough coffee till morning – 19:00

I have my favourite cup with some ground coffee in it, lid’s on tight, the cup is hanging by a carabiner from my rucksack. Enough coffee to last till morning. So I thought I’d post something bloggeresque – a picture of my cup, really been fond of it for years now.

Down here in the basement, I’m brave. But going up to the flat to eat, going to the bathroom – horrible. The struggle continues. I’m freezing cold in the basement. 

Kettles and charging cables Power sockets in the basement are much in demand – for kettles and charging cables. | Photo: © Ruslan Niyazov

Day Four, 27 February 2022
Morning: Children panic – 01:13

Snatches of sleep when it’s quiet. Cold.

I wrote that my psyche had adjusted by the third day and I have a grip on myself. It’s harder on the kids. Children with PTSD, with fear that’ll take a long time to go away. My godchild can’t fall asleep. It’s so distressing to see how a child’s psyche can change in just two days. But: survival comes first.

There’s a new tactic today: some heavy artillery has made it through and they’re shelling apartment buildings, even houses. They’re headed for the city centre. They get discovered, beaten back, there’s street fighting all over the city. Rocket fire, too, though not over our heads.

Four days and I’ve already forgotten when I last used money.

Afternoon: No getting used to it, just no energy left to muster fear – 14:51

Something struck very close by. Like in the next courtyard over. And we’re already so casual about it. But it’s still too early. When will it end? We’re not adjusting, we simply lack the energy to be afraid. There are more of us now. New kids have shown up, they manage to amuse themselves now. Good thing we’ve got electricity. Bad thing is all the sockets are occupied, of course. 

Hungry, eating dried fruit. Couldn’t cook today. Dangerous. Cats ate yesterday. I hope there’s still some food left and that I can go tomorrow.

Four days and I’ve already forgotten when I last used money.

  • Spätestens alle zwei Tage müssen die Katzen in der Wohnung gefüttert werden. Der Weg vom Keller um wenige Hausecken ist gefährlich. Foto: © Ruslan Niyazov
    Spätestens alle zwei Tage müssen die Katzen in der Wohnung gefüttert werden. Der Weg vom Keller um wenige Hausecken ist gefährlich.
  • Eine Katze kann später mit in den Schutzkeller kommen. Foto: © Ruslan Niyazov
    Eine Katze kann später mit in den Schutzkeller kommen.

Day Five, 28 February 2022

Wee hours of the morning: Denial as survival strategy – 03:27

No one in Ukraine knows today’s date anymore, but everyone knows for sure that today is the fifth.

Last night we decided there probably wouldn’t be any shelling during the negotiations and went to the flat for dinner. Cooked noodles. I was so tired and fell asleep. Woke up at 2.30 in the morning. Felt so great after sleeping… for two minutes, till my brain realized where I am and what’s going on here. 

If you stay in the basement all the time, you’re liable to get sick. I’m still holding out, just coughing, I’m surprised myself. Some people’s legs ache so badly they get cramps, chronic illnesses get worse. Talked yesterday about how suddenly everyone forgot about Covid.

Explosions again, everyone wakes up. We run. Godmother: “Well, if war breaks out, then, don’t know, we’ll probably have to move into the basement.” It’s Day Five and she still hasn’t realized the war’s already here, that a shell only flies for a few seconds. Psychological defence mechanism or just plain stupidity? No idea. A lot of people are like this. The psyche takes devious routes: in denial.

Strong men smoke and talk about their fear of the slightest rustle. None of them wanted to go home with me. Too frightening. They all have kids.

 

Morning: Negotiations and shelling – 07:40 

“I write, therefore I am” – a fine motto. When it’s quiet, I can write cleverly and in detail, but I’m nervous now. 

Made it back just in time. Shots were fired. Got thermos, flour, underwear and water. And pen and notebook to keep writing even if the power goes out.

Evening: Nervous wreck, two books in rucksack – 18:23

Going home was spooky. But I didn’t go yesterday so I had to go today. To feed the kitties. When I got there, I saw in the papers what’s going on these days in the city. 

There’s less food there, but still some left. No tea. Strong men smoke and talk about their fear of the slightest rustle. None of them wanted to go home with me. Too frightening. They all have kids.

I’m a nervous wreck. Tried to distract myself with simple, peaceful YouTube videos, but then I start panicking. Worried about the cats. Thinking it was all futile and they’re all going to die. The main question is when will this be over. To which there’s no answer.

Surprise, I thought I’d unpacked them – just happen to have two books in my backpack! Now everything’s all right.

  • Ruslan dressed warmly Photo: © Ruslan Niyazov
    In the unheated basement, you have to dress warmly to avoid getting sick as well.
  • Books from pre-war times Photo: © Ruslan Niyazov
    Surprise! There are still two books from pre-war times in the backpack: Erich Fromm's "To Have or To Be?" and Sarah Knight's "You do You".

 

Day Six, 1 March 2022
Morning: Freedom Square bombed out – 06:54

Good morning! Spring. I was in the bathroom. Could hear blasts in the distance. Power’s down in some parts of the city.

Oh God, every stone in the main square had historical value. My legs still remember how often I walked around there. It’s as though they’d run over my heart with a tank. 

Missiles from two sides. It’s a miracle we’re not in the thick of it. I’m not exaggerating, I’m experiencing the way it is, but can’t manage to think positive. How not to give in to despair. I just keep breathing.

We’ve survived the bombing. Air-raid alarm again. What I feel now for our main square, for my city, is the loss of a beloved. We had something to eat. The power is flickering. We’re still alive.

They’re shooting at people, buildings, everything I hold dear. My whole life is going up in flames. And for what, to what end?

 

Evening: I’ll never get used to today – 17:30

Evening. I spent half the day just lying there downcast. It’s all too much for me. Went back upstairs to the loo, just barely managed to wash and ran right out again. But still no better now.

Plane overhead. Damn, my nerves are utterly spent. People get used to everything, but I don’t think I’ll ever get used to today. They’re shooting at people, buildings, everything I hold dear. My whole life is going up in flames. And for what, to what end? The earth is quaking.

We’re alive. The plane’s gone. Taking deep breaths. The children have already forgotten about it and now they’re playing. I stand there, trembling, my heart aching. Adults have plenty of painful memories, and who knows what other painful memories lie in store for us.

  • Ruslan Niyazov - the blogger from the shelter. Photo: © Ruslan Niyazov
    Ruslan Niyazov - the blogger from the shelter.
  • Ruslans favourite cup Photo: © Ruslan Niyazov
    Important: favourite cup and enough coffee until the next morning.
  • Sleeping in the shelter Photo: © Ruslan Niyazov
    Sleeping in the shelter is often only possible during short periods of silence without being fired upon.

Day Seven, 2 March 2022
Morning: A week of war – 08:46

Still alive. It’s getting worse and worse to go back to the flat: explosion – I want to hide out in our basement with my cat. My neighbours said no cats. They’ve got a dog. Now back in the basement with reasonable folks. In a side street, not far away. Though getting here is still awfully dangerous.

It’s not me who’s saving the cat, it’s the cat who’s saving me. 

Midday: Food and cohesion – 11:23

There’s some food in the shops again. Not everything, of course, but eggs, flour, canned food. I’m not going. Can’t pay. I’m provided for, I won’t starve. I’ve given up my provisions, too. For the rest, we’ll see. I’m alive and with cat.

Multiple rocket launchers, not very close, but we’re all in the basement, fearing an attack. A fighter jet was flying over the city. 

Evening: Who’s saving whom – 19:33

It’s not me who’s saving the cat, it’s the cat who’s saving me. 



Ruslan has been on the move since 6 March. He wants to go to relatives in France.