When the Russians occupied the Ukrainian city of Izium in March 2022, Andriy Pleshan took refuge in the basement of his house, where he welcomed up to 60 people, including Nyka, a two-month-old baby whose memory he keeps alive.
However, after the liberation in September, Pleshan decided to continue living underground, sharing the 70m2 basement with her cats and dogs.
“I’ll only tell you if you have a drink with me,” says the jolly, burly man in his 60s, filling small glasses with some sort of homemade whiskey and cutting slices of cheese.
Izium, in eastern Ukraine, population 45,000 before the war, was recaptured by Ukrainian forces in mid-September and has lived quietly ever since, unlike other places closer to the front.
The 19th-century basement was used as a shelter during World War II, says Pleshan, a former employee of a produce company.
Pleshan decorated it with religious icons, paintings and a portrait of the national poet Taras Shevchenkov. In a corner he also has some weights and a punching bag.
And she still keeps baby products, on the shelf next to her bed, that were meant for Nyka, who arrived at the shelter with her parents just days after the war started.
The baby was the smallest of the sixty people who took refuge there, some of whom stayed throughout the occupation.
“I became her godfather,” Andriy says proudly, recalling that he was once the only one who could calm her down and put her to sleep when explosions echoed through the neighborhood.
– ‘Suffering brought us together’ –
For the first month, the refugees barely came out of the basement, it was too dangerous. They heated the bottle with their bodies and used candles for light.
The shelter’s inhabitants lived in terror of searches by Russian soldiers, who checked the identity of the men and stripped them naked to see if they had nationalist tattoos on their bodies.
“They could kill us at any moment. The suffering we went through together brought us together,” recalls Andriy.
Now there is no one left. The basement refugees have spread all over Ukraine and some are abroad, he explains.
Nyka and her parents stayed in the basement for two months. “But the parents feared for the girl’s health, that she never saw the light of day. They managed to leave to join her relatives in Kursk,” a Russian city near the Ukrainian border.
Since Izium’s release, Andriy has spoken to them on the phone. “I told them I wanted to see them again soon, they promised to come back in the spring,” he says.
Like all areas to the east conquered by the Russians and then taken over by the Ukrainians, Izium is a devastated city, with half-destroyed buildings and facades riddled with shrapnel or blackened by smoke.
The name of the town is also synonymous with the atrocities attributed to the Russian army. After retaking the city, Ukrainian troops discovered torture chambers and, in a nearby forest, more than 440 graves and a mass grave.
All remains have been exhumed for identification and to determine the cause of death. The Ukrainian authorities suspect that they are war crimes.
Andriy’s smiling face darkens. “We used to live well in Izium. It was a nice town, we used to hunt, fish, go mushrooming. Now, as soon as there is an unexpected noise, we wonder what is going on. Men, children, animals, we are all afraid.”