Childhood Underground

Life out of sight in Ukraine

A girl blows a bubble as she stands at a metro station in Kharkiv.

The war changed everything for Ukraine’s children. Hopes and dreams dashed. Families torn apart. Children robbed of stability, safety, their friends.

A child walks down the stairs from the street into a metro station in Kharkiv.
A child walks down the stairs from the street into a metro station in Kharkiv.

As the fighting moved closer to civilian populations – to homes, to schools, to hospitals – life for many children moved underground.

Relatively protected from the physical horrors unfolding above their heads, children who sought shelter below struggled to piece together some semblance of normalcy.

A child does his homework by the light of a lamp in a subway station.
A girl sitting on the floor of a subway train car looks up toward a window.
Two girls smile as they sit on a bench in a subway station.
A child does his homework by the light of a lamp in a subway station.
A girl sitting on the floor of a subway train car looks up toward a window.
Two girls smile as they sit on a bench in a subway station.

Trying to study, as air raid sirens ring out.

Searching for a phone signal, and word from friends on the outside.

Playing games with friends, as shells pound the ground above.

These are the stories of five children whose lives have been upended by the war.

Who have sought shelter and safety in subways, basements and other makeshift bomb shelters around the city of Kharkiv.

Stepan, 14

This year, Stepan spent his fourteenth birthday in the basement, hiding with his family from an air attack. He watched from a window as flames licked at the walls of his school.

“Success in learning, success in life” – the motto inscribed above the building’s entrance – is now charred. All the windows have been blown out, and the grand, three-story façade is pockmarked from explosions.

Stepan sits on some blankets in his family's basement.

“Our school was bombed for 12 hours,” Stepan says. “I was feeling extremely sad.”

In the dusty, cold basement, he tries to pass the time by reading, watching movies and doing homework. But the war has made internet connections unstable, and it’s difficult to keep in touch with teachers.

“I’d very much like to go to this school again,” says Yaroslav, one of Stepan’s classmates who is also staying in the basement. “I have a lot of memories, a lot of funny stories about it...We had great teachers and friends there.”

Education can be the difference between hope and despair for children on the frontlines of conflict.

In Kharkiv’s subway stations, where thousands of children have been forced to shelter, volunteers set up makeshift schools staffed by teachers and psychologists.

Viktoriia, 9

“In the daytime, we have classes here, so I’m either doing that or playing with the cats or my friends,” says Viktoriia, who is sheltering with her family in one of the stations.

Viktoriia participates in an English language class in a subway station.

“It gets really cold at night, so I need to cuddle up with my mother and grandma and the cats.

“I don’t really feel safe here. The subway protects us against shelling and shrapnel, but if there’s a bomb, it won’t be able to protect us.”

“My cats, Caramel and Masya, are under huge stress too. When we brought them here, they were breathing loudly and meowing all the time. They wouldn’t come out of their crate. They only started coming out recently.”

Living underground can have a serious effect on children’s mental health. Cut off from the world. The loss of sunlight and fresh air. All of this can lead to regular nightmares and panic attacks.

Polina, 13

In the depths of a subway station in Kharkiv, Polina wonders how children like her will recover from the experience.

“I’m really interested in how people react to things, in their mind and their actions,” she says. “Like, now, what are the consequences for people of this war? There’s so much fear, fear in people’s eyes. They need help.”
Polina wants to be a psychologist when she grows up.

Polina stands on the platform in a subway station in Kharkiv.

With a group of children, she plays a game of Uno. It’s a welcome distraction from the upheaval surrounding her.

The simple chance to play can help children cope with the trauma of conflict – with the sights and sounds of their world being torn apart.

Here, thanks to UNICEF-supported volunteers, Polina and her friends can take part in language and art classes, games and other activities. Safe places for children to simply imagine can help overwhelmed parents cope with unbearable stress, too.

Alina and Artem, 9

Alina and Artem have been sheltering from the explosions overhead in an underground parking lot. “In the first days of the war, I didn't understand anything...I was trembling,” Artem says.

Alina and Artem stand side by side in an underground car park that is serving as a bomb shelter.

The two children miss playing games outside. “We can’t run or play hide and seek here, because it’s very dusty,” Artem says. “We breathe in the dust if we run.”

Living below ground – whether in a subway station, basement or parking lot – brings cramped, damp and unsanitary conditions.

Alina tries to focus on studying. But the internet connection is unreliable, so she has to risk trips upstairs to her family’s apartment. Her lessons are frequently interrupted by air raid sirens.

“I want to see my classmates in reality, not just virtually,” Alina says.

Nearly two thirds of Ukraine’s children have been displaced by the war. They have been forced to leave families, homes, friends and treasured belongings. They face an unthinkably uncertain future.
Every day this war continues compounds the devastating impact on children – in Ukraine, and across the world.

UNICEF is working to reach Ukrainian children and their families with essential services – including health, education, water and sanitation – as well as life-saving supplies.

Mobile child protection teams are on the move across Ukraine, while hubs have been established in places where people transit to provide safe spaces for children to play, learn and receive emotional support. Early childhood development kits, hygiene items, clothes and blankets have also been distributed to shelters.

For more on UNICEF’s work for Ukraine’s children, visit or UNICEF Ukraine. To donate to UNICEF’s work, click here.


UNICEF works in the world’s toughest places to reach the most disadvantaged children and adolescents – and to protect the rights of every child, everywhere. Across more than 190 countries and territories, we do whatever it takes to help children survive, thrive and fulfill their potential, from early childhood through adolescence. 


Photography by: Aleksey Filippov, Ashley Gilbertson VII Photo, Kristina Pashinka*

Videography: Dmytro Frantsev and Kyrylo Honchar

Video coordinator: Andrii Perevodchyk

Content coordinator: Oleksandra Burynska

Writer: Kate Bond

Editor and producer: Jason Miks

* The images in this series were taken over the course of three months, beginning in March 2022, in Kharkiv, northeast Ukraine. ‘Moving’ and ‘Learning’ by Gilbertson, ‘Sheltering’ by Pashinka, ‘Living’ by Filippov.