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“Wounded, tired, yet not defeated”: The people of Kharkiv remain resilient

Article and Photos By Richard Wright

A sound from the sky could almost be mistaken for thunder, but the blood-curdling thuds confirm that Russian artillery is not far away from Saltivka – a northern district of Kharkiv, a once thriving university city that continues to feel the cruelty of Russian aggression.

“Салют,” says an older gentleman, shrugging his shoulders. It is a Russian word meaning “firework”, pronounced like the Spanish word for health, ‘Salud’. A bitter play on words.

Residents gathered outside apartment block

Waiting for a routine daily delivery of aid, residents gather under twisted metal and the blistering afternoon sun at the entrance of an apartment block. Women in flowing flowery dresses and men in plaid shirts help volunteers unload and stack containers filled with grilled chicken and vegetables to be distributed around to homes that are still occupied. Many homes are burnt out or boarded up from the projectiles that have randomly ripped through this bedroom community.

Organising aid

Others chat with Olga Brovchenko, a mother of two and logistics coordinator with 4.5.0. Kharkivyany Razom, a local humanitarian aid delivery service. After relocating her children, Olga remained in Kharkiv as full-scale war broke out almost seven months ago to help with the humanitarian effort. She recalls ferocious street fights; from her window she saw a Russian military vehicle fired upon and its occupants killed.

Dozens of volunteers at 4.5.0. Kharkivyany Razom have been working since March, in partnership with World Central Kitchen, an international NGO founded by celebrity chef José Andrés, to feed over 12,000 people every day.

Attacks have cut off the gas and power supplies to districts in the city, so people cannot cook their own food and rely heavily on what aid organisations can provide. Kharkiv was home to 1.4 million pre-February but now around half have fled either abroad or to safer regions of the country. But relocating takes resources, which some are not so fortunate to have.

Victoria, speaking with raspy exhaustion, lives without gas or electricity in her mother-in-law’s flat. She now sits quietly on a bench with her daughter, Diana, who teases their energetic pet cat with a pink ribbon.

Victoria and Diana initially moved to a village outside of the city to escape the bombing, but without government assistance and with five people living off the income of one person, Victoria was forced to move back to Saltivka to receive aid – “food, at least”. Diana’s childish spirit is seemingly unbroken by war, but her mother admits that they can only live every day as it comes, without any anticipation of the future.

Victoria and Diana sit outside their apartment

In a city where there are sometimes double figure death tolls in a single week, living each day as it comes is the epitome of life since Vladimir Putin launched his so-called “special military operation”.

Victoria’s story is not uncommon in today’s Ukraine. People are returning to the city, not because it is safe, but because they cannot afford to live beyond the reach of humanitarian aid, says Oleksiy Lomsky, a restaurant owner turned soldier and co-founder of Myrne Nebo – or Peaceful Sky – a charity fund that operates four kitchens and two bakeries in the city, feeding 9,500 people with hot lunches every day.

“At the beginning of the war, since February 27, we have been providing assistance to a large number of people in this city,” said Oleksiy. At the Myrne Nebo operations office there is cake, vodka and the air is thick with hustle and bustle. One of the employees got married, but work never stops. The duality of war.

Myrne Nebo co-founder, Sergey Chubukov, explains that in the early days of the war the daily demand for food packages surpassed 3,000 quite quickly. To keep up with demand it was necessary to found an organisation to collaborate with international funds and organisations and to receive charitable donations.

Inside one of the Myrne Nebo restaurant

Conscious of the number of people without basic resources and living in damaged homes, Myrne Nebo is working with local and national authorities to transform unused student accommodation into temporary accommodation for people whose homes have been damaged by the war. Some of the dormitories only have cosmetic damage, such as broken windows, and are easily repairable.

Oleksiy stands beside a Myrne Nebo van

Overall there are 38 higher education institutions in Kharkiv, and Myrne Nebo has identified at least ten that could be used as temporary accommodation.

“The program will be from one to three years [after active fighting stops] because our government would be able to repair and renew [damaged properties beyond that period],” said Sergey.

The 35 degree heat is convenient for staying warm and cooking food outdoors, but in the coming months, as the days get shorter and the vibrant summer colours are replaced with a dull grey, Kharkiv will become a more bleak place to call home. Last January the temperature reached a piercing -17 degrees, and Oleksiy said Russia will make it no easier for civilians who are facing further catastrophe.

“Seeing how the Russian army works, I understand that with the onset of the first cold weather, our heating systems will be destroyed,” he said. “If we talk about artillery, … I think the situation will … get worse [in winter].”

A willingness to intentionally target these infrastructures was proven on Sunday as the city entered a complete blackout. But within the darkness is a glimmer of brightness: the strike was in retaliation for a sweeping surprise offensive that has pushed Russia from Kharkiv Oblast. In a matter of days, Kyiv has undone what took Moscow weeks. Myrne Nebo hopes that people will return as they develop social projects that facilitate the gradual return to normal life.

Oleksiy in an aid distribution center

“The main mission of [Myrne Nebo], is to return people here because about 10 million people left Ukraine [since February] …and we have a fear that people would want to stay in Europe because … the quality of life is higher there,” said Sergey.

Despite the gains, returning to Kharkiv is still at a risk. While according to the Ukrainian General Staff that the “Russian artillery attacks on Kharkiv City has decreased significantly” since the counteroffensive, the center of the city is roughly 50 kilometers from the Russian border, still well within range of missiles. One person was killed on Monday after a missile hit the city.

As a precaution, some people, including the most vulnerable, continue to live full-time below ground in damp, dark, and cold shelters. Vera and Yuriy, an older couple in Saltivka have lived in the basement of an apartment block on thin mattresses, surrounded by dusty cups and old political posters, since April 4th.

“A short term project [we are working on] is to make shelters comfortable for living,” said Sergey. “As it stands we have access to 1,214 shelters and we would like to have electricity and internet in them so that they would be liveable.”

Vera and Yuriy in a shelter in Saltivka

After an attack on a dormitory housing deaf people killed 21 civilians last month, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Kharkiv was “wounded, tired, yet not defeated. It stands strong and fights. And it once again proves to the enemies that they cannot break or defeat our people and our cities.”

Civilian volunteers play an integral part in ensuring that Kharkiv remains unbroken and undefeated — either by rebuilding the physical damage, preparing aid, or boosting morale in spite of the Kremlin’s looming brutality. Working 24 hours a day, seven days a week volunteers at 4.5.0. prepare food even as shelling knocks out their power – which had happened the previous day.

“[It is] my mission for my city, my country, and my people,” said Pavlo Gnedych, a musician and sound producer from Kharkiv who now volunteers in the 4.5.0. kitchen. The food from 4.5.0. is loaded onto vans to be distributed across the city, where drivers risk the shelling to reach civilians, all of whom have stories of how they managed to survive.

Loading aid onto the van

In a part of the city away from the high-rise flats, more closely resembling a countryside village, two farmers, Oleksandr and Oksana, candidly tell how their house was destroyed by a SMERCH rocket while they spent a week living with 14 other people in a damp underground shelter barely ten foot by ten foot, and less than six feet tall.

But even after relocating to a somewhat more comfortable shelter – the loft of a nearby property – the group came under fire. The room littered with splinters of wood, a gaping hole in the ceiling from where a projectile had landed, and a golf ball sized hole in the window. Thankfully, nobody was hurt.

Behind Oleksandr’s vegetable-filled garden, he found another SMERCH rocket that had destroyed his neighbour’s house – an elderly woman – who escaped beforehand.

Oleksandr beside the rocket

The level of destruction is immense. Approaching another set of apartment blocks in Saltivka, Olga weaves her Lexus through a road peppered with craters, some still decorated with projectile fragments.

Klavdyia and Marina, residents of a damaged apartment block, organise their aid in an encampment adorned with religious icons, a shower and an ad hoc barbeque made with scrap metal. Despite living in a metro station for two-and-a-half-months, they are adamant that they will stay in the city – a common sentiment, especially amongst the older population who have built their entire lives and buried their loved ones here.

Klavdyia and Marina organise their aid delivery

“Walls here are native, damaged, but still native,” said Klavdyia.

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Richard Wright | The Colloquium

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