Drawing monsters in the basement: last child in Ukrainian village in ruin

·5 min read

Fewer than 50 residents have stayed in Kutuzivka since Russian forces invaded. But even when Ukrainian soldiers took it back, some in the village had nowhere to go but underground


Tymofiy Seidov is the only child left in his village near the city of Kharkiv, in north east Ukraine.

The eight-year-old spends much of his time drawing at a little table, dimly illuminated from above by a tiny LED light, in the corner of the otherwise almost completely dark 40-by-five-metre basement that he shares with 23 others including his mum, aunt and grandmother.

Tanks feature a lot in his pictures. But today, in the gloom, he is working on some Dalek-like monsters that he says he remembers from a cartoon he watched on YouTube before the war.

He also draws happier scenes, sometimes, of houses under the sun and rainbows in the sky. But the world outside this underground flea market, full of jumble, mattresses, chairs, washing lines, giant jars of pickled vegetables, dusty marked duvets, plastic bags full of clothes and framed icons proudly on display atop overturned boxes, has been out of bounds to him for months.

There is a Spiderman figure, a few packs of cards, a Mike the Knight board game and a collection of felt-tip pens and pencils in his corner, but Tymofiy has not seen another child since 30 April, when most of the basement was evacuated.

This quiet, polite boy and his family have been living here below the ruins of a two-storey kindergarten and medical centre in the village of Kutuzivka, 12 miles east of Kharkiv, since the war in Ukraine began on 24 February.

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The fighting around Kutuzivka has been bitter. Closer to Russia than any other large Ukrainian city, Kharkiv was a key target for Vladimir Putin and this territory was the way through. Before the war, the population of Kutuzivka was 1,500-strong. Today it is less than 50.

The Russians took the village on 18 March before losing it to Ukrainian forces about two weeks ago. The abandoned protective vests, helmets, wound dressings and half-eaten plates of polenta strewn across what was the Russian headquarters in the village’s community centre suggest it was a hasty departure.

But if the Russians can leave in a flash after many weeks of occupation, the exhausted and tearful people in Tymofiy’s basement know that they could just as quickly return – or at least the artillery can.

Much of the damage in their village and to their homes above has been done since the Ukrainian soldiers arrived, which was when the Russians started to batter their positions – and anything else that got in the way.

Eight Ukrainain soldiers were killed nearby that very morning. While there appears to be little more to hit apart from crumbling buildings and torn metal, the sound of shelling remains constant – often very loud and close.

Speaking as another thud of artillery fire sounds, Tymofiy’s mum, Rita, 32, says she never thinks about tomorrow. “I just think about surviving,” she says.

A painter before the war, Rita has not put brush to paper since 24 February. “I want to forget, to never think of it – I don’t have the materials here anyway but I don’t want to paint about it,” she says. “Tymofiy is calm today but during the heavy fighting he would become hysterical.”

The basement has four doorless rooms. There is a calendar on display in each of them with the days of the month passed crossed off. It is, they say, important to remember how long they have been down here and to know that it will not last for ever.

A small calendar above where Timofiy is working, stuck up on the wall between sketches of two Ukrainian flags, was drawn by a 15-year-old boy after he dreamed that the Ukrainians would liberate the village on 27 April.

When that prophecy came true, the boy left with his parents, as did most of the 150 people, including 40 children, who had been living in the basement. But Timofiy and his family had nowhere to go.

The basement residents do, however, have each other.

Alla Lisnenko, 59, is the cook. With a torch attached to her head with elastic, she is chopping aubergine for tonight’s dinner. When everyone came underground on 24 February they brought the contents of their larders, but fresh food has been at a premium. It was a relief when some of the men dug shallow wells to get drinking water, but everyone soon became sick because the acrid smoke from burned-out homes had polluted them.

That is where Natalya Leus, 40, a nurse who had worked in the medical centre above, came in. She used what medicines she could to try to keep the children in particular hydrated when they struggled to keep water and food down.

Alla’s husband, Alexander, is a particular favourite. He had built a wood-burning stove for someone before the war and three weeks after the Russians invaded, he brought it into the freezing basement, and has been regularly feeding it with logs. He also sourced the four LED lights wired to an old truck battery that offer at least some illumination to their underground home.

Nadiya Ryzkova, 75, whose house was recently destroyed, provides an ample supply of milk. She sneaks out in the early in the morning to milk the goats herself. “We drink it every day,” she says, flourishing a large bottle of it. “We can certainly share,” she laughs.

With some western analysts suggesting that the Battle for Kharkiv is all but over, everyone hopes that the arrival of the Ukrainian forces is the beginning of the end. It was Alla, the cook, who spotted the friendly faces first during a dart back to her house for supplies and brought the news to the basement. “I heard some tanks moving by I saw Ukrainian soldiers”, she says.

“I was blowing them kisses but they signalled for me to get down. ‘Get down granny’,” she laughs. “I shouted glory Ukraine.”

Did they celebrate? “Not yet,” says Rita. “We don’t know what is coming next”.

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