in Kharkiv, puppet shows and poetry soften daily life in shelters

In a metro station converted into a bomb shelter in Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine, two puppeteers make the puppets live a fairy tale, under the spellbound gaze of a dozen children and their parents.

An entire cast of puppets, including a king with a mustache and a herd of pigs, come to life under the expert hands of Oleksandra Shlykova and Anton Andriouchchenko to tell the story of “different” princesses. A way to make children and their parents forget the numerous Russian bombings on the second largest city in Ukraine.

Using their cell phones, the puppeteers elicit a few laughs and even gasps from their enthralled audience. At the end of the show, Oleksandra bows to this small crowd and invites the children to come play with the puppets.

“Performing live is always an emotion that is in the present moment”says Oleksandra Shlykova. “We exchanged our emotions and found our good humor. It’s hard to describe it, you have to feel it.”

In the crosshairs of Moscow since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he would withdraw his troops from the kyiv region to concentrate on eastern Ukraine, Kharkiv has been experiencing deadly attacks every day. The metro stations of this city located just 21 kilometers from the Russian border have been transformed into huge underground shelters.

On Saturday, two people were killed and 18 others wounded in a bombardment that targeted the city center, according to local authorities. And, from the same source, ten people died and another 35 were injured on Friday during a strike against an urbanization.

In subway stations, mattresses and blankets rub shoulders with clothes, toys, toiletries. The cars have been transformed into bedrooms.

For Oksana, 37, the puppet show was a welcome joy. “Truth and humor, it gives you a high (of energy) and makes you happy”, said this mother accompanied by her two daughters. They live in an underground shelter not far from there, but have made the trip to not miss the puppeteers. “When you go to this show, you remember the stories and then it changes the way you look at the world”she says.

Across town, another show, this time poetry, takes place in a white brick bunker, where makeshift beds are piled high. Serguiï Jadan reads some verses aloud, with a background melody, under purple neon. In front of him, a small assembly attentively follows the lyrical and surreal monologue, with enigmatic figures of animals.

This poem is a “brutal lullaby”, that it is inspired by a children’s book, says Serguiï Jadan, a celebrity on the literary scene in Ukraine, where poetry is a national sport.

“A person cannot live alone with war”he said. “It is very important (for Ukrainians) to hear a word, to be able to sing together, to express a certain emotion.”

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