Cold War bunker a life saver in devastated Ukrainian village
By Rod Nickel
LUCH, Ukraine (Reuters) - For a Ukrainian village devastated by war, Cold War bunkers built to withstand a nuclear attack that never happened have proven a lifeline for residents who have spent much of the past year living in them.
Luch, a southern village, about 40 km (25 miles) northwest of Kherson, was hammered by Russian fire almost from the start of the war when it ended up close to the frontlines.
There, Svitlana Gynzhul is one of five people who reside in a concrete-and-turf bunker, accessed via a door on the side of a grassy mound that leads to a steep, dingy staircase underground.
Starting in March and through the autumn, she used the village's strategic location to organize spying on Russian troop movements when soldiers were as close as 2 km away.
Some younger villagers mounted a cell communications tower on the village's outskirts to train their binoculars on the Russians from a high vantage point. Gynzhul said she passed the reports to Ukrainian armed forces. Reuters could not independently verify her account.
Now she cares for the few neighbors who have remained in Luch.
The need to take shelter in a bunker built 70 years ago for a different threat underlines the desperate measures many Ukrainians have employed in the last year to stay alive.
In April, with their village caught between Russian and Ukrainian forces, Gynzhul, her husband Dmytro and their son moved into a warehouse basement, just before their second-storey apartment was shelled.
Then in August, they moved into one of Luch's two abandoned Soviet-era nuclear bomb shelters, built in the 1950s for soldiers who at the time trained in Luch.
The heavy metal doors, bunk beds and gas masks had long been stolen.
"Nobody thought it would be useful," said Gynzhul, 55.
Her group has made it their refuge, outlasting the Russian army's occupation of parts of Kherson region. Ukrainian soldiers pushed the Russians south away from Luch last autumn and by early November had recaptured Kherson city.
By that time, Luch was devastated and most homes destroyed, with roofs caved in, windows missing and rocket holes punched into walls.
The village, population 935 before the invasion, is now home to around 50 people. Up to 30 of them live underground in Luch's two nuclear shelters and a basement.
Gynzhul and the others in her bunker live off humanitarian aid and her 4,000 hryvnia ($109) per month salary from her administrative job in the village.
After the Russians retreated, the bunker's residents found an electrician to connect it to power lines. A wood stove heats the two-room bunker, furnished with a double bed and three single beds lined side-by-side.
A generator allows them to pump water. Rugs on the floor and colorful blankets pinned to the walls add comforting touches.
War has exacted a heavy price for some survivors.
Bunker resident Iryna Sichkar said her son was captured early in the war in Mariupol. She does not know if he is alive.
"I only pray my son will come home," she said, in tears.
A Russian strike killed two people in Luch and wounded eight, including Gynzhul, when shrapnel passed through her foot.
Her son is now preparing for deployment to Bakhmut, scene of some of the war's bloodiest battles.
Some families didn't feel safe underground, where shelling sent vibrations through the bunker.
Irina and Viktor Okhnal lived there from March until April, when they left with their two children to live with her parents in Chernivtsi region 800 km northwest of Luch.
The couple and son Slavik, 6, returned to Luch in November, where they are back among friends. Slavik is the only child left in the village.
(Additional reporting by Lisi Niesner; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Janet Lawrence)