‘We weren’t afraid of them — but they were very afraid of us’ Meduza reports from Kharkiv, where Ukrainians are cleaning up the mess left by the city's failed invaders
On May 15, Western military experts declared that Ukraine had won the “battle for Kharkiv.” Analysts pointed to the retreat of Russian detachments around Kharkiv in the face of Ukrainian counterattacks. Russian troops had been fighting to take control of the city, which lies about 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the Russian border, since the beginning of the war. Residential areas on the city’s outskirts were torn apart, and on March 2, a missile strike hit the city’s central square. Thousands of civilians took cover in basements and in the city’s metro station. Now, Kharkivites are sorting through the rubble, repairing the public transport system, restoring the electricity and gas supply, and preparing their beauty salons and cafes to open up again. Larisa Kalik went to Kharkiv to talk to the residents bringing the city back to life.
As it approaches the Poltava region, the train from Kyiv to Kharkiv stops in the middle of a forest — the region is on air raid alert, and the train can’t enter until the alert lifted.
The train car is half empty — a soldier with a “For Ukraine” patch on his shoulder is asleep in his seat. Next to him, a woman is talking to her family on the phone, warning them about the train’s delay and smiling as she tells them not to hurry to meet her.
It’s only been a few days since the Russian army left Kharkiv definitively. On May 13, American analysts announced that the Russian army was retreating from the region. By May 16, Kharkiv Regional Governor Oleh Synehubov reported that 600 thousand people had returned to the city.
The train station is crowded. The sound of an air raid siren — the sixth one this morning — rings through the air, but nobody seems to notice. I’m met there by Viktor, a volunteer who transports food to doctors and soldiers and helps provide humanitarian support to the wounded.
“On February 23, I was staying with a friend in the village — he lives fairly close to the Russian border. At four in the morning, we heard rumbling and explosions — and I immediately realized a new phase of the war had begun,” Viktor says. “We quickly got in the car and went to Kharkiv. Russian military vehicles from Belgorod were literally advancing behind our car.”
Viktor says he wasn’t surprised by the assault. For him, the war started in 2014, and a full-scale invasion was only a matter of time. “When they started reporting that Russia was building up troops along our border, I was already preparing myself internally for the war,” he says.
The ride is smooth — Viktor drives nimbly around the checkpoint stations and the anti-tank obstacles left on the roads. Since the start of the fighting in Kharkiv, 138 kilometers (85 miles) of road have been restored as city workers have repaired the pavement and removed burned-out vehicles. The checkpoint stations, though, remain standing.
We’re on our way to a bar that was made into a volunteer headquarters after the war began. There are more buildings with broken windows in this region than in the previous one; in many of them, sandbags fill the window openings on the bottom floors. We take the stairs down into the basement and find ourselves in a room full of boxes of food. The volunteers here come from a variety of professional backgrounds: before the war, many of them were actors, builders, and business owners. These days, they’re united by a different job: helping their fellow countrymen. They spend each day cooking and then taking the food to doctors and wounded patients.
‘Do you realize our whole village is Russian now?’
Alexander, one of the volunteers, is standing in front of several giant buckets of vegetables and peeling carrots and onions.
“I live in the village of Zavhorodnie. My mom got sick with COVID-19 exactly ten days before the war. My younger brother brought her to stay with him in Kharkiv, and then she was put in intensive care. Early in the morning on February 24, I was going to go see her. I was standing at the bus stop in the village at 4:30 in the morning when I got a call: “They’re shelling Kharkiv.”
Alexander immediately called his brother to find out if he could hear the explosions; he said he could. Soon after, he called Alexander back to tell him that their mother had died just hours after the war began.
“I wanted to go pick her up so that we could bury her at home. But a convoy of Russian tanks had gone into Kharkiv — a long one, about ten kilometers (6 miles) long,” he says. “My family and I went down to the cellar and stayed there until the morning. We had our kids with us — 7, 12, and 18 years old — and an older woman, 90 years old. She survived the Holodomor and the Second World War. They started dropping bombs.”
That’s when Alexander decided they needed to get out. “If one lands close to us, we’ll be trapped in ruins,” he realized. So he removed the tint from the windows of his car, attached a white sheet as a flag to indicate they were civilians, and set off for the Russian checkpoint.
“They spent a long time checking us, but eventually they let us through. We got to the next village, where there was fighting going on, and we saw them showering our Zavhorodnie will Grad missiles,” says Alexander. The next morning, he and some other men formed a caravan of ten cars and went back to Zavhorodnie to get the others. “I went first,” Alexander recalled. “At the entrance to Zavhorodnie, this terrified gunner ran out to us. We weren’t afraid of them, but they were very afraid of us.”
After a document check, the convoy was allowed into the village. Soon, though, some Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) officers stopped the vehicles on a side street, forced everyone to get out, and had them place their faces on the ground. “They’d decided we must be spotters [for the Ukrainian military],” says Alexander.
“I tell them, ‘Do you realize that our entire village is Russian now? Do you know that everyone in the village is sitting in their cellars?’ And one of them answers, ‘How much do we have to pound you all before you fuck off?’ I’ll remember that Tatar for the rest of my life,” says Alexander.
The next day, they stopped allowing cars into the village. As a result, the people still in Zavhorodnie couldn’t be evacuated, and the Russian army began its “cleaning operation.” Alexander learned that a Zavhorodnie policeman had been killed. According to other locals he managed to get in touch with, the soldiers wrote on a school blackboard, “Crimea is ours, and you’re ours too.”
A week later, Russian troops were driven out of the village. Alexander believes that if the occupation had lasted longer, Zavhorodnie would have suffered the same fate as Bucha.
“I sent my family to the Czech Republic, and I stayed behind in Kharkiv. I’ve been volunteering since then. We now have a humanitarian catastrophe in the villages: no gas, no electricity, and no water. It’s not clear how people are surviving. We’re trying our best to reach them,” says Alexander.
Egor, another volunteer, leads me into the warehouse. It used to be a paint store, but now the shelves are filled with children’s food, medical supplies, and canned goods.
Until February 24, Egor worked in a construction company. In the early days of the war, he wanted to join the territorial defense forces, but there was a long line, so Egor and his friends were put on the waitlist and advised to find alternative ways to help the war effort. That’s when they began their volunteer work.
Most recently, Egor and his companions have been clearing the debris in the heaviest-hit areas of Kharkiv and transporting medicine and food to shelling victims. Humanitarian aid supplies are brought from other parts of Ukraine, and a lot of it is bought in Kharkiv with donated money.
Alexander, an architect, and Kirill, a musician, transport food to the nephrology unit of Hospital No. 17. The buckets they bring are full of hot porridge along with meat, salad, and bread. They can only bring the food as far as the entrance; nobody is allowed inside, because the unit needs to be kept sterile. The volunteers are met by a talled, rugged-looking doctor.
“The first weeks were the most brutal — we had to drive through shellfire, and gas was impossible to find. There were a lot of areas we simply couldn’t get to,” says Kirill. “But nonetheless, we made the food, took it to the hospital, and fed the territorial defense fighters.”
The gasoline shortage in Kharkiv is still ongoing — there are long lines at the gas stations, with drivers having to wait hours to get any. Soldiers and volunteers are allowed to skip the line. Luckily, the city’s trolleys and buses started working again on May 16, and the metro is scheduled to open back up soon, but for now, people are still hiding in the underground stations. When the city was being shelled, many locals slept and cooked there. Now, many are cautiously returning to their apartments.
‘It’s a vile thing they’ve done to us’
The volunteers also bring food to the Kharkiv regional hospital. A nurse from the cardiology unit says she hasn’t taken a day off since February 24.
“I’ve only been home three times since then. Look at me — I’ve gotten older,” she says with a sigh. “For a long time, public transport wasn’t working, so I couldn’t go home. And now I live here, at the hospital. We work constantly. My son is a soldier, he’s currently in Kyiv, and my granddaughter is serving in the war. Sometimes she calls and says, ‘Grandma, I’m scared.’ It’s a vile thing they’ve done to us. How can the Russians be our brothers now?”
She takes me up the stairs and through the hospital hallways — the windows are covered in tape and cardboard. Signs posted next to them say not to stand next to the openings. Most of the hospital’s patients are injured soldiers and civilians who came under shellfire.
The hospital is also home to dozens of pets — not just dogs and cats, but rabbits and turtles as well. During the war, many of the doctors who moved into their workplace took their animals with them.
Kharkiv Regional Health Department head Maksym Khaustov has also been working nonstop. He sleeps behind his desk in his office, where the walls are lined with boxes of medicine.
“On February 23, I was at a meeting in Kyiv,” he says. “That night, I got on the train. At five in the morning, I got out at the Kharkiv station. I was trying to order a taxi when I heard the first explosions.”
When he arrived home, Khaustov changed clothes and headed straight to work. Since then, the city’s medical system has been completely restructured. “Were we ready for this? Of course not. We weren’t ready. So in the first three days or so, a lot of doctors and medical personnel left Kharkiv — everybody was frightened, public transport stopped working, and people couldn’t get to work,” he says. “My main priority was to determine which hospitals could still operate and where the remaining workers were.”
According to Khaustov, things were complicated even more by the constant advance of Russian troops. In the initial weeks of the war, they occupied new areas every day. Communication between hospitals would be cut off, medical supply deliveries would be disrupted, and many hospital employees don’t know what to do.
“There’s no book on how to work during a modern war,” says Khaustov. “We spent four days trying to get medicine from a single pharmacy near the airport. The shelling subsided, the cars loaded up, and then they couldn’t get back. It wasn’t until several days later that the cars were able to get out and bring us the medication.”
The regional hospital became a hub for medicine. Humanitarian aid supplies were brought there before being distributed to other neighborhoods, volunteer associations, and hospitals.
At that point, Khaustov started getting in touch with his colleagues from the U.S., Italy, and France. “Help began to arrive — they brought in medication and ambulances. The first week had been even more painful for us, because the ambulance service station was bombed,” he says. “Many of the vehicles broke down, came under shelling, or were taken by Russians. In one week, we lost six vehicles.”
According to Khaustov, several hospitals were unable to get patients out of occupied areas.
“In the village of Strilecha, there’s a psychiatric hospital on the border with Russia that has 700 patients. They were left practically without food, without power. They’re still cooking over a fire to this day. Several hospitals had to evacuate everyone to other regions; they sent children and the injured to western Ukraine,” he says.
Khaustov believes that after the war, Ukraine will have to go through a difficult rebuilding period; a lot of people may suffer from PTSD. “After the Russians’ atrocities, we’re not going to forget who they are — what kind of neighbors they are — anytime soon,” he says.
“Even my plants won't surrender’
The district in Kharkiv hit hardest by the war was Saltivka. The entrance to northern Saltivka is still closed, and because the shelling ended so recently, journalists are asked to wear hard hats and body armor. Nine-story buildings, blackened by shelling, peek out from behind green trees and lilac flowers. Torn wires hang down from poles, and sharp, rusty shrapnel litters the ground. A now-crumbling school building sits next to the road.
Yana used to live in a building on Buchma Street. On March 5, she and her husband moved to her mother’s house in a nearby village. When the fighting in the city stopped, the family decided to return home.
“They bombed us so heavily — the building was wobbling from nearby strikes. We realized we couldn’t stay here anymore,” Yana says. “Now we’ve come back — and our apartment is gone,” she says, pointing at the fifth story. The wall has collapsed, and a refrigerator and a wardrobe are visible through the window. Nearby is the elevator shaft, its walls black. Underneath the building is a car that’s been crushed by concrete.
“My husband went up to get whatever things are still in one piece, and we’re waiting for him down here,” she says. Her parents first got the apartment in 1975.
“For us, Russians are worse than fascists now. Who could have imagined they would attack Kharkiv?” says Yana. “I remember February 23: it’s nighttime, and I see a helicopter from my window. It’s not ours — I know ours, because ever since 2014, they flight around here often. Then transport the wounded from the Donbas. Then my son calls from Kramatorsk at four in the morning and says, ‘They've started [attacking] us, too.” It was scary. My neighbor died — her body lay under the ruins for a month. They recently managed to find her and bury her. She was a good woman. There might still be someone in there right now — we don’t know. But we’re alive and healthy, and I’m thankful for that.” Yana wipes her tears and smiles.
Irina smokes a cigarette outside the building next door. She’s just recovered her plants from the apartment and she’s happy — almost all of them survived.
“Even my plants won’t surrender to the Russians. We left Kharkiv for a bit, and then they drove the Russians out, so my husband and I returned. We’re sorting everything out here. Let’s go, I’ll show you.” I follow Irina into her first-floor apartment.
“A missile hit the roof and damaged everything in the building. Water’s been leaking from the ninth floor down to us on the first,” she says, pointing to the waterlogged flooring. “It lifted up like a wave. Drops have been falling on my head from the ceiling. The wallpaper’s been peeling off the walls from dampness. Instead of glass in the windows, there’s cardboard.”
Irina says she can’t cry anymore. “We had no way to communicate for a long time, and when we learned about Bucha and Borodianka, I couldn’t calm down for so long. Now my husband and I just don’t know what to do.”
One of her neighbors comes down from the fifth floor. She’s brought us some muffins. “The water in my apartment was waist-high, I waded through it. We don’t have gas, power, or water. Have a cupcake.”
We can hear the Ukrainian military from afar — they’re firing howitzers and mortars. There’s still fighting in region — Ukrainian soldiers have successfully dislodged the self-proclaimed DNR forces in this direction. On May 16, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry reported that one of the units of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces had driven its opponents all the way to the Russian border.”
‘Like a rattlesnake flying overhead
Artillery fire is also audible in Gorizont, a district on the eastern outskirts of Kharkiv. At the district’s entrance, giant craters in the ground are filled with water. Next to the ruins of a nine-foot apartment building, Yury walks by. His own home was destroyed by a missile strike in late February.
“I was lying at home when I heard a missile strike and I sprang up. It hit the building next door, completely wiping out the top floors. I went down into the basement, and then my building got hit. I went back up to my apartment and found the chairs ripped up and the door destroyed. It was like a giant cat had come in and scratched everything. The window frames had been blown out. Let me tell you: missiles are scary. Scarier than planes. It feels like the earth is shaking and the buildings are trembling,” says Yury. “When the Russian plane went by, it bombed the shit out of us. The building next door got hit, the glass shattered, people were panicking, and some were crying. And then we got used to it.”
Yury can now identify different weapons from the sounds they make. “When the howitzers and the mortars start to fire, it’s like there’s a rattlesnake flying overhead,” he explains.
“I’ve been here the whole time — never left. I spent about a month and a half in the basement. Then, in April, we started going back up into the apartment. At first, we’d do five hours in the apartment and then go back to the basement. We’d go home at least to bathe. And in late April, we started spending days in the apartment and nights in the basement,” says Yury. “The front line is unstable — for a long time, you could hear Grads [multiple rocket launchers] being fired nearby. They were firing from Mala Rohan — you’d hear a 'zing' in the air, like a harp. That’s what a cruise missile sounds like.”
Yury jokes that he’s more sick of stray cats than of the shelling. “They’d come down into our basement and we’d feel bad for them, so we’d feed them whatever we could,” he says. “First they were shy, but before long, they became brazen. You’d be sleeping there at night, and all of the sudden you’d wake up to one meowing next to you, another lying on your feet, and a third one sleeping on top of you.”
Because of power and service outages, the people sleeping in the basements often found themselves with no access to information about the outside world.
“We had no radio, and my phone broke. Everyone around was talking about Bucha and Borodianka, and I’m over here like an idiot, thinking, ‘What happened in Bucha and Borodianka?’ I heard about it later on the radio — and my heart just sank,” says Yury. “My mom is an army medic. When everything started getting bombed, she came over for a bit, crying. I tried to comfort her — I said, ‘Everything’s going to be okay.’ She came to me and cried. Then she drank a bit of water and calmed down. Another mother almost cost me my liver [by elbowing me]. I’m standing outside the basement, and she’s walking down the street, her children not far behind her. Then a plane flies by and launches a strike, and I grab her, and she breaks away and runs. I cry out, ‘Where are you going? There’s glass flying everywhere!’ And she says, ‘My kids and my dog!’ And runs away. Everyone here has their story.”
‘I started my life with a war and I’ll finish it with one, too’
People are returning to the remnants of their homes. The clinking of broken glass comes from the upper floors of an apartment building as some cleans up; the plastic film covering the windows rustles in the wind. In Kharkiv and the suburbs that surround it, city officials are gradually turning the gas and electricity back on as utility workers repair the pipes. But there’s still a lot of work to be done, and every district has to wait its turn.
70-year-old Vadim is standing with a group of friends in the middle of Velyka Kiltseva Street, complaining loudly.
“In my building, we have electricity, but no gas and no hot water. The cold water comes out in a thin stream. The pipes are still broken!”
“Mine doesn’t even have cold water,” says a neighbor.
“And not a single store is working. It’s just ridiculous!” says another.
“I spent an hour looking around Rohan for my pension,” adds Vasily. Soon, though, he settles down and agrees to answer some questions.
“On February 24, they started shelling us with Grads and launching mines at us. It was scary. I didn’t go anywhere. We’d read the news and thought Russia would attack, but we didn’t truly believe it. American intelligence warned us, of course. But we were hoping for the best. Then they started shelling us. Russians are worse than fascists. I have a close family friend in Izium, and he’s told us some horrible things. They’re killing our children. And what did they do in Bucha? What is it? It’s a travesty. It just makes me want to cry.”
“I’m 86 years old,” says his friend, Vasily. “I started my life with a war and it looks like I’ll finish it with one, too.”
The center of Kharkiv glistens; the asphalt is covered in tiny shards of broken glass. They get stuck in the soles of your shoes. The bigger pieces have been removed — they’re cleaning the city — but many of the buildings have been destroyed, with nothing left but ruins. Some buildings’ windows and walls have been knocked out, and marks left by cluster bombs remain on the pavement and on the walls. The streaks look like sunsets, with rays emanating outward, so the locals call them “sunshines.”
On the city’s Freedom Square, which has already been cleared of trash and shrapnel, a young couple from the Ukrainian Armed Forces ask us to photograph them. On March 1, the Russian army hit the Kharkiv regional administration building with a missile. 24 people were buried beneath the wreckage and died. Behind the collapsed walls, you can still see filing cabinets and chairs in what used to be offices.
The street artist Hamlet has decorated on the building next door — on the piece of wood that covers the bombed-out structure, he drew a paper bag with the words “Our bag of possibilities” on it. Someone stops next to the building to take a picture.
“I came from Alekseyevka to the center in a minibus. They’re bringing the minibuses back gradually, but it’s not clear how they’re going to run without gas,” he says. “At one of the stops, an old man saw our minibus and crossed himself. I guess he’d forgotten what they look like. Two weeks ago, it was so quiet: I rode my bike around the city and there were almost no cars at all. Now there are even mothers with strollers out and about.” Indeed, a woman passes by with a stroller; the broken glass in the street makes a crunching sound under the wheels.
There are no lines in the stores or the pharmacies. The streets are half empty, but the cafes, restaurants, and beauty salons are gradually preparing to open back up. Outside a coffee shop, a man is painting a bench. Inside, several young women are cleaning up, wiping down the espresso machine and watering the flowers. They say if we come back in a few days, they’ll be sure to give us free coffee, but first they need the electricity to come back on.
On one of the city’s central streets, utility service workers reinforce a building with sandbags; they’re worried the shelling could start up again.
“Why don’t you pretend you’re talking to me — it’ll give me a legitimate reason to goof off for a while,” says Maxim, one of the employees, when I approach.
“A lot of people from Kharkiv have left, of course, and now they’re coming back. But I never left. Before the war, I was an electrician, so now I’m getting the city back in order,” he says. “I didn’t leave because I’m a patriot. There’s a lot of work here right now. A bomb hit the building next to this one and got stuck on the third floor. The guys and I immediately started going through the rubble. I recently went to my village and saw the corpses of Russian soldiers. They’ve almost completely decomposed.”
Maxim has to get back to work, so he puts out his cigarette and says goodbye.
During my three days in Kharkiv, I’ve heard over 20 air raid sirens. The last one is when I’m at the train station — a voice over a loudspeaker asks us to take cover. The waiting area is almost empty. Nobody reacts to the siren and nobody goes into the shelter. In the months since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, everyone in Kharkiv has gotten used to the sirens.
Translation by Sam Breazeale