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‘We know Ukraine will win — but will we survive?’ Russian troops have been shelling Kharkiv for 25 days. Meduza spoke to the civilians who still live there.
Russian troops have been shelling Kharkiv nonstop for over three weeks now. The city’s residential areas and historic center are completely destroyed, and necessities like food and medicines are difficult to come by. More than 100 civilians have been killed, while hundreds of thousands of others have fled the city. Meduza spoke to some of the people who remain about what life is like in Kharkiv and what’s motivating them to stay.
Business owner, 53 years old
My lifestyle is completely different now. If I leave my home, I take a backpack with a change of clothes and some cans of food with me. Everyone carries their documents with them — you want to be easy to identify if you get blown up. On one hand, we knew this war was possible. At about six in the morning [on February 24], a friend called us and said, “Get up, it’s started.” That was it — there was no need to explain what had started. My arms and legs were shaking, trembling, everything was shaking. Then we heard that kaboom, kaboom — when you first hear it, you’re certain that the next “kaboom” will be the one that hits you. We’ve been at war since 2014, and a lot of people have signed up to volunteer since then — it put a big strain on them when everything started in the Donbas. Back then, our army was very weak, but people didn’t give up. We've basically maintained our own army. People bought underwear, socks, and toothbrushes. Businesses donated.
I started trying to sign up on the first day [February 24]. I called and wrote to all of the volunteers I knew. Everyone was busy with something, so there was no good way to get involved. Just a bunch of forms: “If you want to be a volunteer, fill out this form.” I filled it out five times.
A friend called me to ask, “Do you want to do some work for the Health Ministry’s hotline? They need someone to sort through applications [for medicine], make calls, and update the system.” I said, “Sure, send over the list [of people who called the hotline to ask for help obtaining medicine].” I didn’t realize the list would contain three thousand people.
People were cut off from pharmacies and doctors. Some of them (insulin-deficient or HIV-positive people) were able to get free medicine and some of them bought it in the pharmacy. But there are only a fraction of the number of pharmacies there were before, and you have to stand in line for three hours just to find out if they have what you need. The worse a district has been hit, the fewer stores and pharmacies it has. Not to mention the people who are afraid to leave their homes at all.
I’ve now gathered a team of six people. But that’s still small — we need at least three times or so more than that. I’m now trying to figure out who’s going to buy the medicine — and with what money. The [Health] Ministry is willing to finance it, but that’s a government ministry, which means that for each individual person, we’d have to submit a letter — basically, it would take too long. The state is an unwieldy machine. In situations like this, people are a little faster. Though we couldn’t manage without the government’s help.
The Health Ministry gave me the phone number of the head of the Kharkiv State Medicine Services. I thought he would be able to help me, but he turned out to be the one who needed help. He asked me to help him purchase sanitary products for the metro. There are a lot of people down there, and they’re constantly having to disinfect the war. He gave me the contact information for a firm that sells them at cost, I called my friend, and he paid. From what I understand, there are people who never come out of the metro.
A lot of people can’t take it, psychologically. Some of them don’t leave their houses. I’m scared, too, to be honest. We’ve tried not to leave our district, but it looks like we’ll eventually have to.
Old people are really suffering. They don’t want to leave, so people abandon them. Then, three days later, we start getting calls: “My mom ran out of something, help her find it, we need all of the medicine we have.” So many old people. They used to get help from their neighbors, but now everyone has left. Very often, you call them and they say, “There’s nobody here except me and another grandma.”
Yesterday, I dealt with a woman who is 89 years old and has been lying in her apartment for three days, excuse me, but [in her own waste]. She’s completely there mentally, but she’s running out of strength. At the request of one of her family members, I asked someone to go check on her — he went, opened the door, looked, then called me back and said, “I’m not prepared for this right now.”
Almost nobody in the city is working. The only exceptions are the people we’ve always complained about: the public utilities worker — they’re on the front lines. We always grumbled about them: the plumbing system was too old, the communications infrastructure was too old. But now, when people are fixing things under gunfire, when the firefighters are putting out fires while bombs go off around them — it speaks for itself.
As for us, we haven’t left Kharkiv. We’ve thought about it several times, but we haven’t left. Our son, his girlfriend, and her mother are all here with us. We brought our son here from the district near the airport — we decided it was too dangerous there right now. It’s a lot easier if everybody sticks together. We have a three-room apartment, so there’s plenty of space for everybody. Our part of the apartment is very friendly — all of the neighbors support each other.
We have a car — two, actually, but one needs repairs. It wouldn’t be a difficult job, but unfortunately, the shop where we wanted to get it fixed was bombed.
We can leave, but we have four cats, and there are five of us. We have friends we can stay the night with in Lviv, but getting there wouldn’t be easy: it would take at least four days. Right now, it’s full of checkpoints and traffic. Meanwhile, back here, you’re at home, you have a bed, Internet, some measure of comfort. We had a working shower until today. We Russians hit the water supply, there’s serious damage. Now the water’s back, but only for a couple hours — from seven to nine pm.
But we do have a basement. And not the worst basement. At first, we were going down there several times a day, then we stopped — now we hide out in the hallway. But we spent one night in the basement, because when two airplanes got shot down over us, it was so loud that we all knew we wouldn’t be sleeping that night. The guys here explained to me that if there’s an airstrike, not even the basement will be safe, but who knows — maybe we’d get lucky.
In the areas that get bombed a lot, there’s no light, no gas, not even heat. A person might have to walk, say, 25 minutes to get to the nearest store. Some people are scared, and some can’t even make it.
The thing I’m most afraid of is realizing we need to leave and no longer being able to. But we have hope, because Kharkiv is a really big city, and capturing it would require a lot of strength. And after all, someone needs to stay behind and fight, if it comes to that.
There’s no huge looting problem, of course. I see much more mutual aid and support, but I’m a lucky person, I have those kinds of people around me. Wherever you look, everyone’s helping others in some way. Sharing food. In our group chat with our neighbors, as soon as information appears about a water shortage, somebody writes, “Guys, I’m going to get some water right now. Everyone come down with your bottles in half an hour.” That happens all the time.
Yesterday, we celebrated a holiday with our neighbors, and the men decided to barbecue, because we haven’t been able to lately. Ten minutes before curfew, I decided to go out for a walk. I go down, and there’s smoke everywhere: people are pouring vodka and eating meat.
Putin brought our families together. When have we ever talked to each other this much? We met our neighbors. We’ve gotten more exercise, because they turned the elevator off on the first day. I don’t think the people on the 16th floor have gone to the basement even once.
The hardest part is not knowing when this is going to end. We’ve never doubted for even a minute that we’re going to win. But will we be alive when it happens?
Manicurist, 34 years old
Before the war, I was a manicurist. Now, my clients sometimes come to my house so I can remove their polish, because nobody has time for manicures. The city is frozen. Nothing is open except for pharmacies and grocery stores. A lot of people are volunteering, helping others, doing whatever they can. Or they just wander from store to store, looking for something they need. When I walk around the city, if I don’t have anything else to do, I can find eggs in some stories, a little bit of meat in some, bread in some. I saved some longer-lasting foods during the first week [of the war], when there was still food in the supermarkets. There isn’t any cereal or pasta in the stores, no flour, practically no milk. There are huge lines for humanitarian assistance, so I prefer to find groceries myself while we still have the finances. Overall, the food situation is better than it was a few weeks ago. They sometimes bring bread and chicken into the courtyard and give it out for free. All of my friends are alive. Some have gotten injured, and a lot of them evacuated. Quite a few of them left, actually. I’m still in the city, with my husband and our relatives — we have a bed-ridden grandfather and a lot of pets. The city center, the square, part of the zoo, and Gorky Park are all destroyed. The historical buildings downtown are damaged. My house and my apartment are still in one piece. When the heavy shelling starts, we hide in the basement. The bombs fall constantly, every single day, and in the last two days, it’s been especially bad in our district. The air-raid siren consistently goes off once every couple of hours. The bombs used to be further away, but the fighter jets would still fly [over us] and make a lot of noise.
The shelling is constant, not from the air, but from the Grads [tanks] near Kharkiv. We’re very tired. Our old way of life has collapsed. I constantly want to sleep; they drop bombs all night, so we sleep in fits and starts. Some people sleep at home, like us, and some people sleep in bomb shelters or in the metro station. The mood fluctuates from “Hooray, we survived and we can keep going!” in the morning to “I don’t have the strength, I don’t want anything, how much can they bomb one city” in the evening. We have a curfew from 6:00 pm to 6:00 am, and mandatory blackouts — meaning we’re not allowed to turn on the lights when it’s dark outside. Neighbors keep track of each other to make sure nobody forgets about the lights. And we look out for suspicious people, because [Russian] saboteurs have started to penetrate the city. And they’re getting caught. Sometimes you can hear machine gun fire or pistol shots outside. A lot of my male friends have joined the territorial defense force or become volunteers. But I can’t talk about that, because I know Russian soldiers sometimes shoot the volunteers. My husband is currently unemployed, so sometimes he helps the local district volunteers – he’s helped them unload humanitarian supplies a couple times. He doesn’t have a car, and his vision is -6.5, so he’s one of the last people they would recruit, but if they do, he’s ready. Not everyone is fighting; some people have continued to work, for example, in residential buildings. They patch up leaks, repair the pipes, fix the substations. They often get injured by missile strikes. They repair as much of the city as they can, but it’s impossible to fix everything while there’s a war going on. For example, we won’t have hot water in the city until the end of the water. A lot of homes don’t have heat, because the pipes have been severely damaged.
We have light and heat, but the heaters aren’t very warm. Right now, there’s neither cold nor hot water — the plumbing got damaged somewhere yesterday. We managed to fill some bucket switch water [before it was cut off]. We’ve learned.
30 years old, Teacher at a school for children with developmental disabilities
In 2014, I found myself in Donetsk. When the war began, I was forced to move away to Kharkiv. I didn’t think anything like this could happen. On February 24, my husband and I woke up at 4:59 am, when the shelling and the explosions began. At first, I didn’t believe my ears. I messaged my friend, who also left Donetsk in 2014: “Is it just me, or is this real?” She knew exactly what I meant: “No, it’s not just you.” We live practically on the outskirts of the city. We can see the Rogansky neighborhood from our window — some scary things happened there [Note: A number of residential high-rises and private homes were damaged by Russian strikes in this district, resulting in deaths and injuries]. Nearby, on the first day, the 24th, a missile was shot down. Our apartment is on the eighth story — you could see the flashes from the window.
Right now, we’re living in a shelter in a school. It has a basement. [The conditions], thank God, are such that we’ll be able to stay here for a long time. There’s a bathroom and buckets and bottles full of water, in case anything happens. We sleep on the ground with mattresses, but the room isn’t damp, it’s dry enough.
Right now, there are about 50 people [in the shelter], whereas before there were 170. A lot of people evacuated. Some went abroad, some went to other parts of Ukraine. A lot of people had small children, old people, parents. There are people with little kids here, too. There’s a girl younger than two, a boy who’s about four, and some older kids and teenagers.
My husband’s here and our dog is here. And the kids come up to the dog, but their parents try to distract them with things — phones, of course, paint, cartoons. For some reason, nobody here seems really depressed. Maybe not everybody’s displaying their full emotions. But overall, I would even say people are feeling positive.
I have a lot of fear. I haven’t got any further than the school gates yet, I’m just too scared. I don’t know how much I’ll need to work on myself. Everything is scary — outside, you could get caught under fire, but if you’re in your apartment, the shelling starts, and there are always bombs flying somewhere. My husband has gone out, and he said the people in the city are doing all they can to make the people who haven’t been able to leave feel comfortable — they’re repairing everything, sorting through the ruins. Our school is a transit point for humanitarian supplies. We help sort it, then some cars come and take the groceries and medical products to those who need it in the hospital; sometimes it’s the territorial defense, sometimes the military. They also bring us groceries to cook with, and then they take the meals where they need to go. The education department knows that there are employees and refugees from other parts of the city here. Enough supplies get sent to the city’s businesses: the fast food plant, the meat processing facility, the poultry farm. Unfortunately, there are some [pro-Russian] minded people in Kharkiv. They hide in the shelters and eat the humanitarian aid that comes from Europe and is distributed by Ukraine. And they still sympathize with Russia — it’s just delusional, if you ask me. I know [these kinds of people personally], of course. They think Ukraine is bombing itself.
I’m friends with some of my relatives from Crimea on [Russian social media site] Odnoklassniki. It’s my dad’s sisters and their children. I wrote: “We don’t need to be saved from anyone. We live on our own land and we want to live in Ukraine. Please get out of here.” Then came a barrage of negative comments. “It was different in the Soviet Union,” “You’re Nazis,” “You worship Bandera.” “I want to get in a tank myself and come greet you all.” And those are my relatives. So we cut them off. I’m not going to talk to them anymore. I don’t see the point.
My dad is currently in Crimea serving in the army; his wife and his wife’s son are there with him. I messaged him, “Did they send you to ‘save’ Ukraine, too?”
“Yes,” he responded.
“You don’t need to save us from anybody,” I wrote.
“You don’t understand anything," he wrote back. "People want us to save them from the Nazis."
Translation by Sam Breazeale
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