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Civilians under shelling in Ukraine: Ivan spent months in a school basement surviving the frontline battles

After nine months of living in a school basement and heavy injury from a mortar shell, 70-year-old Ivan* fled eastern Ukraine and moved close to his daughter in Kyiv Oblast. Ivan’s apartment, summer house and a garage with a car were destroyed in Vuhledar, a town currently at the frontline.

©DRC Ukraine, Kyiv Oblast, 2023, Anna Popsui.

Posted on 25 Jul 2023

Written by Volodymyr Malynka

Tall greyhead Ivan lives now in a one-bedroom apartment in Kriukivshchyna village, Kyiv Oblast. The flat is full of stuff he took from his home in Vuhledar and lots of medicine needed to treat his ears and leg injured by a shell explosion and shrapnel.

“We were on our way to a school basement from a grocery store when the shelling happened. My eardrums ruptured, my left leg was hit by shrapnel, and I lost consciousness. When I woke up, I saw my neighbours—a man and woman who later lived with me in the basement—were injured too. The shelling continued so we dashed to the nearest building. We also had to carry an injured woman there, but she died at my hands,” says Ivan.

The story he reveals is eye-opening. The basement he lived in was under a damaged school. It had four big rooms; previously, it was a gym, and people spread mattresses right between exercise machines. It was a place with no electricity or kitchen supplies so over 600 people who lived there to survive shelling, had to pay for fuel to have power via generator and cut wood to cook meals on fire. Ivan spent nine months there.

“There were horrible conditions—the school’s roof was damaged, so the basement ceiling leaked during rainy days. At night mice were running all over me but I lived there because my apartment was close and was not destroyed yet. I could visit home when it was relatively safe,” says Ivan.

During months in a basement, Ivan was injured twice. The first time, it was a light injury so his basement neighbours could tend to his wounds. After a mortar shelling, he had to leave Vuhledar to be treated in a hospital. Spending three weeks in the hospital, Ivan decided to move to Kyiv where his daughter Anastasiia*, 42, lived. "Living in a school basement on crutches would be incredibly difficult", he adds.

The last time Ivan was in his apartment, he took everything he could. The flat was almost ruined — a shell hit the neighbouring apartment, so it became a precipice.

“My apartment block was hit by shells several times but at the time I was there, it was not burnt. I recently saw new pictures of that place and noticed the walls of my flat were completely black already—there was a fire. Even at the end of 2022, when I fled the town, it was complicated to find any building that was not affected in town. Probably, now the whole town is ruined,” Ivan assumes. His summer house and a garage with a car are among those ruins too.

DRC Ukraine, Kyiv Oblast, 2023, Anna Popsui.

DRC Ukraine, Kyiv Oblast, 2023, Anna Popsui.

A dream to be back home

To relocate his stuff from Vuhledar, Ivan paid 49,600 UAH (€1,200). That was a huge sum for a pensioner who had not been working for years. Ivan retired 17 years ago because he worked 29 years in a coal mine building tunnels. Due to this hard job, he has a disability and lung dusting.

In Kyiv Oblast, he rents a flat in the same building with his daughter Anastasiia. She is a shop assistant in a local grocery store and looks after her father during his rehabilitation period. Ivan’s second daughter Olha is on maternity leave and lives in Ukraine’s south.

Ivan needs to pay 9,000 UAH (€220) for rent and 4,100 UAH (€100) for medicine every month so he had no money to buy hearing aids and addressed the Danish Refugee Council with a request for support.

“Ivan filled in an online form in response to a call that DRC launched several months ago. During the interview we realised that in addition to hearing aids, we were also able to provide funding for medication, leg braces and orthotic insoles”, says Dmytro, Victim Assistance Facilitator.

Such support is part of a project funded by the Ukraine Humanitarian Fund. Under the project, until the end of the year, DRC plans to provide aid to 100 persons affected by Explosive Ordnance to cover medical, educational and other needs.

Ivan says that people continue to live in the school basement he left. He heard from volunteers who provide support in Vuhledar that 70 persons live there.

Ivan’s injury still hurts—some shrapnel remains in his leg, and it is painful to walk for a long time.

When asked "Would he like to return to Vuhledar?" Ivan answers, "Of course! I would like to go home. If there was an opportunity, I would go to rebuild my home, but now, unfortunately, it is impossible".

Ukraine claims that the frontline is about 1500 kilometres long which is more than the distance between Paris and Madrid. There are thousands of villages and towns along the frontline that are like Vuhledar in the zone of active hostilities. From 24 February 2022 until July 2023, UN Human Rights Office recorded 25,671 civilian casualties in the country: 9,287 killed and 16,384 injured. Due to the vast size of the war zone, 10.6 million Ukrainians are in need of humanitarian mine action assistance. With a significant presence in Kyiv and Chernihiv Oblasts, DRC is actively expanding its teams across Ukraine to carry out clearance, risk education, and victim assistance activities.


DRC’s Victim Assistance Programme is possible thanks to funding from the Ukraine Humanitarian Fund and the USAID's Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance. It is supported as well through means donated by private foundations and individuals primarily in Denmark.  

*Names were changed for confidentiality purposes.

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