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Barrage continues for the sleepless souls in bombed-out Kharkiv

Monday 01/August/2022 - 05:52 PM
The Reference

It was 2am when Russian missiles slammed into a college in Kharkiv, jolting residents of this war-ravaged Ukrainian city from their uneasy sleep. The charred remains of the building were still smouldering the following morning.

For the people of Kharkiv, an industrial city whose northern outskirts are only 20 miles from the Russian border, indiscriminate missile attacks are woven into the fabric of daily life, a constant, often deadly reminder of President Putin’s war.

“Russia is doing this to try and intimidate us. Every night, everyone worries about where the next missile is going to fall,” said Dmytro, a firefighter, as he took a break from extinguishing the blaze at the college.

The building, which was empty at the time of the attack, was struck by powerful S-300 missiles, said Igor Terekhov, the city’s mayor. It was unclear whether the college was deliberately targeted. No casualties were reported.

S-300s are designed as anti-aircraft missiles but Russia has reconfigured them to hit targets on the ground, said Ukrainian officials.

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-biggest city, faced a relentless barrage of Russian missiles in the early weeks of the war before a counteroffensive forced the Kremlin’s troops to retreat towards the border. Almost 1,000 civilians have been killed, including 48 children, according to Oleh Sinegubov, the regional governor. The youngest was just seven months old, he said.

The front line is now about 5 miles from Saltivka, a vast Soviet-built housing estate where more than 100 people continue to eke out a desperate existence amid the bombed-out ruins of tower blocks. The sound of shelling echoes through streets scarred by bombs. Many of the buildings appear to be on the verge of collapse.

Volodymyr Proskuryn, 83, lives on the ninth floor of a charred apartment block, its unlit staircase strewn with rubble and shattered glass. His neighbours have fled, but he said he has nowhere to go. His flat, which overlooks the front line, has had electricity since last month, but there is no running water and he relies on volunteers to bring him supplies. “It’s so lonely and awful here,” he said, fighting back tears. “I just don’t want to live any more.”

As he spoke, missiles struck a building about half a mile away and a plume of white smoke rose slowly into the air.

 “This is our reality now,” said Iryna Dontsova, who helps organise aid for Saltivka’s residents. “I can tell the difference instantly between incoming and outgoing missiles just by the sound.”

On the street outside a half-destroyed building, local women prepared borscht at a makeshift camp kitchen, stirring beetroot and potatoes into a bubbling broth. “We get water for cooking from a dripping pipe in the basement,” said Klavida, 65.

Officials are scrambling to try and restore heating to the buildings before the winter, when temperatures in Kharkiv can drop to as low as minus 20C.

Amnesty International has accused Russia of war crimes in Kharkiv, including the use of banned cluster munitions. “People have been killed in their homes and in the streets, in playgrounds and in cemeteries, while queueing for humanitarian aid or shopping for food and medicine,” the international rights group said.

Moscow has dismissed reports that its troops have killed civilians as western and Ukrainian disinformation.

More than 4,000 buildings, including schools and apartment blocks, have been damaged or destroyed in Kharkiv, officials said. Around half of the city’s pre-war population of 1.4 million is thought to have left. “They want to try and break us,” said Oleksandr Galanov, whose house in central Kharkiv was hit by a Russian missile. Luckily, no one was at home when it struck. His other flat, in Saltivka, was also badly damaged and he is now living with a friend.

Russia’s invasion has not only destroyed lives and infrastructure, it has also disrupted the city’s sleep patterns. “They bomb every night as if they have a schedule,” said Valentin Turansky, 35, who stayed in Saltivka to help provide humanitarian aid.

 “They start at 2am, you try to fall asleep, then at 3am, another blast. Then at 4am, and so on. I get around an hour and a half of sleep a night. I sleep with my windows open because I’m worried about glass shattering if there is an explosion nearby. Once, the sound waves from a blast threw my blanket off my bed.”

Despite the ever-present threat of missiles, many of Kharkiv’s residents are surprisingly upbeat. On Friday, locals danced at a jazz concert that was staged in a basement near the ruins of the City Hall, which was hit by a missile early on in the war. “Fly me to the moon,” crooned the singer, as people ate pizza provided by a charity from Tennessee. “As awful as it sounds, people can get used to anything,” said a police officer. “Even this war.”

Kharkiv is a Russian-speaking city and there were close cross-border ties before the Kremlin annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Many people stopped speaking to Russian family members when they parroted Kremlin propaganda about a “special military operation” to “liberate” Ukraine. The feeling of betrayal is palpable and the hatred is raw.

“Our relatives in Russia tell us that we are killing our own children,” said Margarita, a middle-aged woman. “I don’t want anything to do with this nation any more. I wish I could forget I ever spoke Russian.”

  • President Zelensky has ordered the evacuation of about 200,000 civilians, including 50,000 children, from Ukrainian-controlled areas of the Donetsk region.

“The sooner it is done, the more people leave the Donetsk region now, the fewer people the Russian army will have time to kill,” he said. “Today, one of the most brutal shellings of Mykolaiv and the region over the entire period of the full-scale war took place. Dozens of missiles and rockets.”

The shelling of the southern city yesterday killed the Ukrainian agricultural magnate Oleksiy Vadatursky and his wife Raisa when a missile struck their house. Zelensky offered condolences and paid tribute to Vadatursky, 74, in an address.

Zelensky’s evacuation order came as Putin said that the Russian navy would receive new hypersonic Zircon cruise missiles in the coming months.