Russia’s war forced these Donetsk Ukrainians to live in underground communes

VELYKA NOVOSILKA—Residents who remained in the small village of Velyka Novosilka in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, live in an underground commune and are refusing to leave despite appeals from police.

According to Olya Semibratova, one of the volunteers who regularly deliver relief supplies to the communities, the village was once home to around 4,700 Ukrainians. But Russia’s attacks have turned it into a ghost town, where the remaining 304 citizens risk death if they set foot outside. In the early days of the invasion, those who remained in the village were looking for a place to hold out while they waited for the war to end. But it became apparent early on that – unlike in 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in just a few days – there would be no quick end.

So some took refuge in underground sanctuaries, and over time two communes developed. Initially, they were filled with about 150 people, including many elderly citizens who didn’t want to leave their homes. Now only 80 people are left in a place that was never intended to be an emergency shelter, with no electricity, heating or running water.

“We’re constantly offering evacuations,” Oleksandr Marteniuk, an officer with Ukraine’s special forces who is providing aid to the community from a bulletproof van, told The Daily Beast. “Everyone says, ‘We don’t want to leave our hometown, leave our homes haphazardly’ to abandon their homes to fate. I’m not saying you should go forever, just for a while until the situation is more or less stable, the shelling stops and everyone can go home and get on with their lives.”

Marteniuk addressed the first congregation visited by The Daily Beast. The roar of explosions fills the air, but the dogs cared for by the commune lick up water and beg for attention, unaware that they are at the heart of Vladimir Putin’s war. The dogs are a welcome distraction against a backdrop of burnt-out cars and rubble.

On the ground floor of the commune, the residents cooked on a wood stove and sat together while eating. But the sighting of a Russian drone at one point forced everyone into basement sleeping quarters, which were dark and damp and filled with rows of twin mattresses. When asked how secure the basement was in case of attacks on the building, Marteniuk sighed and shook his head. “For mortar arrivals from MLRS Grad [rocket]for example it would [withstand]. God forbid, if there’s going to be an airstrike – it’s not going to happen.”

“Everything burned down”

When the drone threat subsided, Marteniuk drove to the second community, a few minutes away. It was cold and sunny outside. According to The Daily Beast, this is the ideal time for Russia to attack, as the clear skies improve the target’s visibility. In the case of Velyka Novosilka, there are enemy attacks every day. Marteniuk said he had no way of knowing exactly how many, only that they were constant and deadly. The day before, a man and a woman were killed in a shrapnel attack. “They walked down the street after the arrival of a priest,” volunteer Olya Semibratova said.

The second commune’s designated sleeping area was a large room filled with mattresses. A few personal items were spread out on wooden tables that locals brought as reminders of their past lives, and sheets were hung to divide the space into individual “rooms.”

Speaking to The Daily Beast from her designated sleeping quarters, Svitlana said she and her husband lived in their house in the village until April 2022, when it “was also destroyed, there were hits, everything burned down”.

In the second community, a man and woman have just been killed in a shrapnel attack.

Anna Konkling

After moving to Kiev to live with their daughter, Svitlana and her husband returned and have been living in the accommodation ever since. She says they returned to Velyka Novosilka “because we thought it was all over. We hoped and came back.” But the reality of the once peaceful village is terror and death. “It’s very scary to even go into the store, you have to run,” she said.

When asked if they could go, Svitlana said, “We have nowhere to go. We are at home here and winter is already over. Spring has begun. Thank god we didn’t suffer from the cold. We installed ovens and slowly heated them up.”

“Let it be hard now. We just want it all back. I really want Ukraine to win because I have a daughter in Kiev who gave birth a month ago. And I really want to be able to meet her in peace, and so does my granddaughter,” she added.

Fighting in Ukraine’s Donbass region has been relentless for the past few weeks as the fate of Bakhmut – the town less than 200 miles from Velyka Novosilka – grows grimmer by the day. Should Bakhmut fall, it would be Russia’s first victory in six months.

“If there is an occupation, only those who bow their heads to the Russians will survive,” Semibratova said when asked what would happen to the bunker’s residents if Russia extended its terror line to the village. “The rest can be mocked, tortured and killed for the words ‘Honour of Ukraine’.”

Every day in the communities brings fears about the future – but it also strengthens relationships. “Here are our grandparents and parents,” Yuri Altabar told The Daily Beast as he sat at a table and held up some of the countless family photos he and his wife, Olena, of 50 years, took with them when they moved to the commune July. The room is dark, lit by a few battery-powered lamps, but Yuri Altabar smiled when Olena handed him more photos to show.


Yuri Altabar holds up a picture of him as a young man.

Anna Konkling

“They are important, very important. We didn’t take everything with us, but what we needed in our lives. This is just a reminder. I was 25 and she was 20, and today I’m 74 years old.” The couple met in the city of Donetsk, which has been occupied by Russian troops since 2014.

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Olena and Yuri Altabar built a life for themselves in Velyka Novosilka, raising their son and buying a property that they still own. They witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union together in 1991 and watched Ukraine emerge as an independent country over the past 32 years. Her family was torn apart by the 2014 invasion when soldiers occupied Donetsk, where her son lives. In September 2022, Putin illegally annexed the city and made it part of Russia. Now the parents have again been separated from their son, this time without the opportunity to see him.

Through the myriad trials and heartbreak of Vladimir Putin, the partners lean on each other. “I didn’t love her as much as I do now. Now I don’t know how I could be without her, as much as I think she does too. I kissed her maybe once a month then, but now every day,” Yuri said.

But Olena said they were paralyzed by fear of leaving their city, which has caused her to miss doctor’s appointments in neighboring Dnipro because of an illness that she has been holding back but described as “very serious” … many people were sick [with] this disease [and it] ended very badly for them.” Yuri Altabar also has diabetes, and his wife helps him manage the pain, cook his meals, massage his feet, and act as a caretaker along with an emotional backbone during his life in the Donbass.


Olena Altabar cooks on a makeshift gas stove.

Anna Konkling

But the fear goes deeper than just never being able to return to the village where they made a life for themselves. Both of her parents are buried in the local cemetery, and Olena Altabar said if they left: “Then who will fix the grave in the cemetery? Nobody will go to the cemetery.”

She also didn’t want to leave her two dogs and five cats who lived in her house above ground. Every day Olena Altabar takes a risk by returning to take care of her animals – the only family they left in the village.

“I run to feed these animals. The ones that are left,” she said. “You understand? We are their only hope. We will not leave these animals behind.” Russia’s war forced these Donetsk Ukrainians to live in underground communes

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