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Beneath Kharkiv in Ukraine, survival has created a sense of community

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For more than 50 days now, Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkiv, has endured heavy shelling. Above ground, the city has come to a standstill. But underground, survival has created a sense of community, as NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Marina Vorontsova hurries us inside her apartment building. It's not safe to stay outside for too long because, all day and all night, shells fall in this part of the city. Vorontsova looks exhausted. Last night was bad.

MARINA VORONTSOVA: (Through interpreter) It is shaking. It's, like, trembling. Yesterday, it was trembling - our building was trembling really bad 'cause there is a 16-story building across, and it was a direct hit there. Yesterday, it was terrifying there, yeah. Yesterday, it was actually terrifying.

PERALTA: Hundreds of people used to live in this building. Now only about 40 remain. Marina says when the windows shake and the floor trembles, she moves to the hallway with her elderly mom.

Your mom can't move? You can't take your mom out of here?

VORONTSOVA: (Through interpreter) No, no, I can move her. It's not a problem, and she actually wants to move. But there's other people that we need to stay there for. We're staying mostly for them.

PERALTA: There are old people who can't move, who need someone to feed them. They need help, so she can't leave. She has to ride this out. That's terrifying, I tell her.

VORONTSOVA: (Through interpreter) It is, but you're used to everything. Human creatures are used to everything.

PERALTA: We drive out into the rain. The smell of gunpowder hangs in the air. The apartment building right next door has a huge hole, its edges blackened by smoke. The whole city is in ruins. There are no cars, few people. It's mostly birds.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMB EXPLODING)

PERALTA: Birds and explosions. We drive to a nearby subway station, and it's packed with people - kids hanging on to their mothers, grandmothers watching over pots of food. Natasha Horlova has been living down here with her husband and three kids since the war started. She says when her 5-year-old heard the explosions for the first time, she asked if they were all going to die.

NATASHA HORLOVA: (Through interpreter) The first day, she was terrified. But here, it's okay.

PERALTA: Down here, the concrete buffers the sound of the bombing. Down here, she can be a little girl. Horlova walks over to her husband and their dog.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There's Bora.

PERALTA: Her husband is disabled. He can't walk, so he's lying down in the train car that is now their home. It's nearly impossible to evacuate as a family, says Horlova, so they're staying together, hoping this war ends soon, hoping they can emerge from the subway.

(Non-English language spoken). I'm Eyder.

The governor of Kharkiv meets us in front of a bombed-out government building.

OLEH SYNYEHUBOV: (Through interpreter) At this stage, we have around 700 civilian casualties - 40 of them are children. But still, we don't have accurate numbers because in those areas, it's a constant shelling.

PERALTA: Oleh Synyehubov says about 2,000 buildings have been destroyed. What's more, there are Russian troops to the north of the city, and a huge convoy is moving just to its east.

SYNYEHUBOV: (Through interpreter) We still don't leave this idea that Putin may have thoughts of taking this city. And even right now, I have no absolute assurance that some rocket, some missile or even shelling won't hit here.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBS EXPLODING)

PERALTA: Indeed, just as we finish talking, a sudden salvo of rockets flares in the distance. People here try to make sense of this. They say Russians don't shell when it rains, that there's a lunch break at noon. It's not true. But what is true is that, at night, the city goes almost completely dark and silent, except for the explosions.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBS EXPLODING)

PERALTA: After dark, life happens underground. When the sun goes down, we join neighbors in a basement. There's borscht, cognac and toasts. There's laughter.

(LAUGHTER)

PERALTA: No one here knew each other before the war. Now they don't break bread until everyone is in the basement for the night. This shelter initially housed more than 100 people. Now they're down to a little more than a dozen, relying on each other to survive. This basement shows that humanity always finds a way, even when it's clear that no one should have to live this way.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Kharkiv, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF VILLAIN ACCELERATE'S "REVISIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.