“These are objects we come across in our daily lives,” Julia Gorlenko, from the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, explains. “They’re bright and colorful. But they can also be dangerous.”
She points at a replica model of a small plastic munition that a child might easily mistake as a toy. “This one can rip off your head, your hand or your leg.”
As Russia continues its weeks-long bombardment of Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv’s children are getting a harsh lesson in the realities of war.
Gorlenko is teaching them how to identify Russian explosives. The children are given coloring-in exercises that show them the difference between a grenade and a small football, or a gift box and a stick of dynamite.
“We used to play with all the toys in the sandpit,” says one of the children, 6-year-old Semen, “but now I will be afraid to take them. If you take a toy out of the sandpit, (something) might explode.”
Gorlenko’s lessons take place in a Soviet-era underground station, where thousands of terrified families have sought refuge since Russia’s invasion began on February 24.
Zeena Petukhova, 36, and her husband were celebrating their daughter’s first birthday when their fifth-floor apartment was struck by a mortar four weeks ago. “We were eating cake when we heard a very unusual sound and we knew we had seconds to run to the corridor,” she says.
Zeena shielded her daughter, Alysa, and her husband lay over them both, “like a small pyramid. This is the only reason we survived,” she recalls. The windows were blown out by the explosion and the family has slept in this corner of the metro system ever since.
Some leave the shelter during the day but life above ground can be dangerous. On Sunday, seven people died and 34 were wounded — including three children — after an attack in the Slobidskyi district in the south of the city. Residents told CNN people were sitting on a park bench when a mortar landed nearby.
The attacks in Kharkiv have left this once vibrant city a ghost town.
A third of Kharkiv’s 1.4 million population are thought to have fled the city, officials say. Most shops, offices and places to eat are closed and there are few people or cars on the streets. After the night-time curfew, the city is pitch black, the silence punctuated by the sound of artillery fire and air raid sirens.
Below ground, the sounds of war are still within earshot.
Babushka Liuda, 69, moved her family of 12 down to the subway on the first day of the war. “We heard so many bombs that we didn’t know where to run or how to save ourselves,” she says. “At night there is still such a barrage … I wish I could live my old age in peace.”