Elderly Ukrainians are living in Soviet-era bunkers after shelling left them homeless

Donetsk, Ukraine

As shelling continues in eastern Ukraine, a few dozen civilians have fashioned homes out of an abandoned bunker near Donetsk.

Their homes destroyed by the conflict and their families unable to care for them, the area’s poorest residents have lived in the Soviet-era shelter for more than two years. “It’s impossible to get comfortable, but it almost feels like home now,” said Valentina Maronova, one of the bunker’s inhabitants. “We help each other like one big family because we’ve been together for so long.”

Just a few miles away on the front lines, Ukrainian forces remain locked in trench warfare with Russian-backed separatists, who established the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in effort to break away from the EU-leaning government in Kiev. Attempted ceasefires have so far failed, and shelling begins every night around sunset.

When fighting began here in 2014, more than 300 people initially crammed into the shelter. Most have since moved on, leaving behind the elderly and a few young people who say they have nowhere else to go. As winter approaches, inhabitants shared sentiments of feeling both stuck and forgotten in a conflict with no foreseeable end.

Eastern Ukraine Soviet Shelter
The entrance of the bunker, built during Soviet times for the local coal mine’s employees to take cover in case of war. Valentina Maronova says she has been living in the shelter since her home was destroyed by mortars in 2014. (Diego Cupolo)
Ukraine Soviet Bunker
Mariya Tkachenko, 85, prepares and eats her meal in the bunker’s kitchen area. (Diego Cupolo)
Andrei Dashkosky, 28, is one of the few younger inhabitants of the bunker. His real house is in an area deemed off-limits to civilians. He takes odd jobs landscaping when he can. (Diego Cupolo)
Ukraine Soviet Bunker
Valentina Maronova, center, stands in the main common area inside the bunker. She is concerned about the looming winter season and lack of heaters in the underground space. (Diego Cupolo)
Ukraine Soviet Bunker
Nadia Zelenova, 37, plays with a kitten in the room she shares with Andrei Dashkosky. The two met in the bunker back in 2014 and got married, but have been unable to gather enough money to leave. Zelenova works at a nearby restaurant, but said she hasn’t been paid in months. (Diego Cupolo)
Ukraine Soviet Bunker
Soviet-era paintings and slogans adorn the walls above makeshift beds and shelves that people have set up over the last two years. (Diego Cupolo)
Ukraine Soviet Bunker
The shelf where Andrei Dashkosky and Nadia Zelenova keep their food items. (Diego Cupolo)
Ukraine Soviet Bunker
A miniature model of the coal mine sits in one of the bunker’s rooms. Due to its vicinity to the front lines, the coal mine has long ceased production. (Diego Cupolo)
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