‘It’s a horror show’: Defiant Kharkiv residents return home despite new Russian offensive | Ukraine

When Tatyana Marchenko, 63, returned home to Kharkiv earlier this month, she entered a world of destruction.

Children’s clothes and toys were strewn on the paths between the burned buildings, many of which had massive holes where the shells had burst.

“I have lived all my life in the same neighborhood of Saltivka. And now it’s just gone, it’s a horror show.

Saltivka – a Soviet-era working-class development project originally intended for the city’s industrial workers and their families – was home to around 600,000 people before the war, making it one of the largest neighborhoods in Europe. Although cramped, he was full of energy, recalls Marchenko.

But since the start of the Russian invasion four months ago, Saltivka, which lies northeast of the city, has borne the brunt of Moscow’s relentless bombardment of Ukraine’s second-largest city. Now the neighborhood looks like a ghost town.

Marchenko, like many others, left Kharkiv – just 25 miles from the Russian border – with her husband early in the war as enemy tanks threatened to overrun the city.

Tatyana Marchenko in her apartment with broken windows in Saltivka. Photo: Pjotr ​​Sauer/The Observer

But she returned this month, encouraged by reports from friends and officials that the shelling was ending following a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive that drove Russian forces away from the city’s outskirts. Others emerged from nearby underground metro stations which were turned into shelters where they had spent weeks living.

Collectively, they are now trying to navigate their lives in Kharkiv’s most damaged neighborhood.

Many residents of Saltivka have no access to gas, electricity or running water, and Marchenko is now forced to carry large bottles of water to her apartment. “At least I’m staying fit, but that’s not how I imagined my retirement would be,” said Marchenko, who worked for 30 years at the local post office.

Still, she considers herself one of the lucky ones. Her apartment remained largely untouched except for small shrapnel that shattered her windows and remained strewn around her house when she returned.

Walking through Saltivka, the pure chance of the Russian strikes quickly becomes apparent – one block hit, the next left untouched, an apartment turned into ruins, the next untouched.

Just below Marchenko, on the ninth floor, a Russian MLR rocket destroyed the apartment of his neighbor and lifelong friend Nastia. “Look at this,” Marchenko said as she descended one floor to show a large round hole in what was once Nastia’s living room. “It’s where our children grew up together. All those memories are gone.

Some families have lost their homes or remain in hiding because they are still too afraid of Russian attacks.

At the Heroiv Pratsi (Hero of Labour) metro station north of Saltivka, around 100 people, mostly women and children, are still hiding, despite the reopening of the metro earlier this month. To make matters worse, the relative calm that prompted Marchenko and others to return was, ultimately, deceptive. Over the past week, Kharkiv has seen some of the worst Russian bombings it has seen to date, killing more than 15 people, as concerns grow in Kyiv that Russia is now staging another attack on the town.

Russian forces are only a few kilometers from Saltivka, and from his apartment, Marchenko could see Ukrainian troops reorganizing their positions in the forest that borders the neighborhood.

Victoria wears a princess dress as she celebrates her 10th birthday with others sheltering in the tube station.
Victoria wears a princess dress as she celebrates her 10th birthday with others sheltering in the tube station. Photography: Jelle Krings/The Observer

Throughout the day, sounds of explosions were audible in the background, but many in Saltivka simply shrug their shoulders, unimpressed and largely familiar with the threat of danger that no longer keeps them awake at night.

Somewhere on the front line was Marchenko’s son, she said, pointing to a small shrine she had made for him in her apartment. “My son was not a killer and had no intention of signing up to fight. But something changed in him after he saw the Russians bombing ordinary civilians,” she said. “I’m so glad he’s defending our country.”

Saltivka is arguably the most powerful testimony contradicting Russia’s repeated claims that its military does not target civilian infrastructure.

“At first we thought that Russia was just getting the wrong intelligence, thinking that our soldiers might be hiding in civilian buildings,” said Sergei Bolvinov, head of the Kharkiv region police investigation department. “But now we see that was always the plan – to target civilian infrastructure.”

In total, he said, around 2,000 high-rise buildings were badly damaged in the city, many of which will not be repaired. “Saltivka, especially its north, is completely destroyed.”

Not far from Marchenko’s house is the devastated market of Barabashova. Before the war, it was the largest market in Europe and one of the busiest. Some of the few shops that remain open on the abandoned, litter-infested passageway sell flowers there.

“There’s no romance here anymore, but we have funerals,” said Anastasia, who ran a flower shop of the same name.

Anastasia said that just the day before she launched her invasion of Russia, she placed a “massive” order for Dutch tulips in the Netherlands for March 8, International Women’s Day. Since the days of the Soviet Union, this day has been widely celebrated in Russia and Ukraine, with men often spending a fortune on flowers for their wives, mothers and sisters.

Now the tulips were mostly rotting. “Tulips are not for funerals. The families of fallen soldiers only want lilies.

Anastasia said she was “still kicking herself” for ordering tulips, adding that hardly anyone in the majority Russian-speaking city could have imagined her big neighbor would actually invade her country.

“I still think every day: should I have seen it coming? Should I have placed this order? »

Families living in Heroiv Pratsi resort.
Families living in Heroiv Pratsi resort. Photograph: Jelle Krings/Jelle Krings/The Observer

Proximity to the border meant that many Kharkiv residents, like Anastasia, whose uncle lived in Russia, had developed extensive cultural and family ties with their neighbor.

The war served as a decisive break between the city and Moscow. “Everything changed on February 24, and there is no going back,” said Bolvinov, the local police chief who now refuses to speak Russian at work.

On Wednesday, the largest university in Kharkiv announced that it was closing its department of Russian literature, reorganizing it into a department of Slavic philology. The city also plans to rename over 200 streets or squares that celebrate Russian artists, writers and historical figures.

For many in Saltivka, the token movements have made little difference in their daily struggle to survive and carry on. And most of them remained grimly pessimistic about the prospects for the imminent end of the war.

“Who knows how long this will last? And we can’t live like this any longer,” said Artyom Belousov, 45, who stayed in Saltivka throughout the war to care for his dementia-stricken mother.

The fighting in Ukraine has turned into a bloody war of attrition, with both sides making little strategic progress.

Western leaders have begun to warn that it could take years for the war to end. And local officials fear that even if Ukraine manages to push the invading army out of the country, Russia will still be able to fire rockets from the town of Belgorod, just across the border.

Belousov, dragging a cigarette, said he tried not to think about the difficult months ahead.

“What if winter came and we still had no heating? What will happen to us?”

Julio V. Miller