KYIV: When the children start crying, the adults start playing Ukrainian folk songs, or make up fairy tales to chase away the fear. Food and water are sometimes scarce. Everyone hopes for peace.
These are the vagaries of life in makeshift shelters around Ukraine, where families try to protect the young and old and make conditions bearable amid the distant clatter of bullets, missiles or shells outside.
Hundreds of thousands of citizens rushed to spend yet another night in Kyiv's subway network as air raid sirens howled Sunday. Among those taking refuge in shelters are some Associated Press journalists bearing witness to how Ukrainians are coping with the war tearing their country apart, like piano teacher Alla Rutsko.
“A terrible dream ... It seems to me that all this is not happening to me. The eyes see, but the mind refuses to believe,” said Rutsko, 37, sitting on an air mattress in Kyiv's Pecherskaya subway station.
“On the fourth night, I can even sleep and dream," she said. “But waking up is especially hard.”
She focused her thoughts on her grand piano and her fears of losing it – “an excellent instrument, inherited from my grandfather, survived the last war.”
The fighting is still raging in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, where Ukrainian forces have so far thwarted the Russian military from taking the strategic stronghold on the Azov Sea.
“God forbid that any rockets hit. That’s why we’ve gathered everyone here,” said local volunteer Ervand Tovmasyan, who helped organize a shelter in the basement of a city gym. His young son clung to him.
The workout equipment lining the walls contrasts sharply with the gym's revised purpose. The shelter has seen shortages in drinking water, food and gasoline for generators since the fighting began last week, so residents are bringing what they can to stock up.
Many at the shelter remembered shelling in 2014, when Russia-backed separatists briefly captured the city. Anna Delina survived that, and went on to have two children. Now she's doing the best she can to comfort them with soothing words and caresses as they cuddle under blankets on a cold gym floor.
“Now the same thing is happening, but now we’re with children,” she said.
Countless human moments shaped by war are playing out across Ukraine.
In Kramatorsk in the country's east, a couple embraces on a station platform before the woman boards a train heading west, hoping for safety. Refugees slump from exhaustion after crossing into Poland.
While Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, waits for the expected Russian onslaught, the platform at Kyiv's Pecherskaya subway station where residents sleep is lined with baby carriages interspersed with pet carriers.
At first, authorities barred pets, but then they turned a blind eye. Anxious cats and dogs now huddle alongside their owners.
Denis Shestakov, a 32-year-old architect, made up a fairy tale to ease his 5-year-old daughter Katya’s fears.
“But how can you explain it to a dog? He began to lose his fur from stress,” he said.
“You can get used to a nightmare,” he said, trying to shrug the pressure off. "And this is also a nightmare.”
Despite the shortages, the lack of privacy and all the challenges that come with life on an underground railway platform, complaining comes hard to families.
“It’s much harder for soldiers at the front. It’s embarrassing to complain about the icy floor, drafts and terrible toilets,” said 74-year-old Irina, who would not give her last name. Her grandson Anton is among those fighting in eastern Ukraine.
The internet mostly works and everyone reads the news. The potential participation of Belarus in the war on the side of Russia has become one of the most discussed topics.
“Oh, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians can hardly be called brothers now,” said Dmitro Skorobogaty, a 69-year-old engineer. Then he added, “though you can’t choose your relatives.”
Citizens are constantly warned about Russian saboteurs reportedly trying to provoke panic in Kyiv.
Police squads descend into the subway station, check documents, distribute water, and, among other things, advise people whether it's safe to step out.
Amid the din of parents singing folk songs to their children, foreign students from Africa joined some Ukrainians in singing the melodic national anthem: “Ukraine has not died yet, Glory to Ukraine!”
A flicker of hope is still nurtured by those taking shelter.
“There is hope (for negotiations) because everyone wants peace, and some kind of result so that civilians aren’t being killed,” said Delina, the mother of two small children.