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Ukrainians lack access to bomb shelters

Anastasia Shepeleva
October 26, 2022

Russia keeps raining down rockets and drones on Ukraine's cities. Yet not all residents have access to air raid shelters. How is that possible? DW spoke to Ukrainian locals about the situation.

People shelter inside a subway station during a Russian missile attack in Kyiv
People shelter inside a subway station during a Russian missile attack in KyivImage: Viacheslav Ratynskyi/REUTERS

"Heavy explosions could be heard in Kyiv as I stood in front of a locked underground parking lot with my children," Viktoria Lohvynenko tells DW.

"They did not let us in; a resident claimed the parking lot had mistakenly been marked a shelter on the map, saying only cars were parked there."

It was October 10, and Russia had launched large-scale aerial bombings against the Ukrainian capital. Lohvynenko, locked out of the underground parking lot, called the police, asking for help. "The police were shocked," she recalls. Eventually, once police officers arrived on the scene, she and her children were allowed into the shelter.

This was not the only time Viktoria was refused entry to the underground site during Russian bombing raids.

"I had to call the police five times and write complaints; every time there was a row but eventually we were allowed inside," she says. "Now the police no longer come when I call and we are not allowed into the parking lot."

She says the shelter is the only one available in her neighborhood. The cellar in her residential block is not an option since a gas pipe runs through it. Other spaces designated as potential shelters are used hair salons, pet stores and an office, meaning they are locked up and inaccessible during air raids.

Families seek safety in a Kyiv subway station
Families seek safety in a Kyiv subway stationImage: VIACHESLAV RATYNSKYI/AA/picture alliance

Russia has launched rocket and drone strikes on many parts of Ukraine in recent weeks, targeted at civilian infrastructure. According to Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko, several inbound rockets were recently intercepted before they could hit their targets. He has repeatedly called on residents to seek safety when air raid sirens sound.

Kyiv has some 4,500 shelters today, up from just about 500 in 2014, says the city's emergency management chief Oleh Stovolos. These range from cellars, basements, subway stations, underground car parks to underpasses — all have been vetted by authorities. They have also issued a map detailing the location of these safe spaces. But although the capital has plenty of refuges, some residents say they are refused entry.

Ongoing court cases

Kyiv authorities say they are aware of these issues. Roman Tkatshuk, a Kyiv public administrator, says this applies mainly to privately owned buildings. "We have been regularly checking shelters since February, and have removed locks and will continue to do so," he tells DW. He says Kyiv residents who find shelters inaccessible should reach out to the capital's contact center.

Tkatshuk says that authorities will call on the public prosecutor if those responsible for respective properties do not budge. "Several court cases have been launched against property owners who refuse to comply with all civil protection measures this is currently classified as a misdemeanor, though I think breaching civil protection rules should be a criminal offense," says Tkatshuk.

Denied entry

Several people DW spoke to reported that privately owned buildings were not the only problem. During the first few months of the war, school shelters were heavily frequented by ordinary Ukrainians. Yet this changed when teaching resumed.

Marina Lypovezka was on her way to work when rockets began hitting Kyiv on October 10. "Rockets were coming down, I heard a whistling sound, saw and ran to a school, others following me," she recalls.

"A man opened the school door, but then immediately slammed it shut in front of us, saying only people with children were allowed inside, meaning we were stuck outside." She tells DW the shelter of another nearby school remains open to all locals.

A bomb shelter at a Kiyv school
A bomb shelter at a Kiyv schoolImage: Oleksandr Kunytskyi/DW

Kyiv authorities say once teaching resumed, shelters were specifically equipped for students and school staff. "There are benches, books and personal items belonging to the pupils, strangers cannot be allowed inside," says Roman Tkatshuk. He recommends that locals seek safety elsewhere. Yet he concedes that in some neighborhoods, schools are the only safe places available.

Complaints went unanswered

David Surnadshyan lives in one such neighborhood. Before the Russian invasion, he did consider taking refugee in the school across the road, should the need arise. Yet although the building is marked as a shelter, the school does not let everyone inside. This is because not all rooms are suitably equipped, it is argued. "The shelters have been equipped for school children, but in the six months prior to this we were not allowed inside either, says Surnadshyan. "Our complaints sent to the contact center have gone unanswered."

He says students only spend a few hours per day in schools and suggests locals from the neighborhood should be granted access to the building once they have left. "We are used to staying at home when the air raid siren rings out but many of us would rather be in a shelter," says Surnadshyan.

Kamikaze drones cause considerable damage in Ukraine

Emergency management chief Oleh Stovolos, meanwhile, warns against staying at home during air raids. "The two-wall rule [meaning two walls should separate you from the building's exterior wall] only applies if you are at home and an attack occurs suddenly," says Stovolos.

"Statistics show that many people could be rescued from cellars even though their buildings were hit; a recent example from Kyiv shows that the upper four floors were destroyed entirely. Five people died, they had all been inside their apartments."

This article was originally published in Russian.