As Russia celebrated May 9 with pomp and parades, Ukrainians began reclaiming a ruined city
By DANNY GOLD
May 16, 2022
It’s fine, don’t worry about mines,” says Anatoly, our military escort, as he leads us around trenches and fortifications that were occupied by Russian soldiers only days ago. It’s not a reassuring statement with the sound of heavy artillery and tank shells being exchanged a little more than a mile away. All around is the detritus of war—crumpled water bottles, twisted shrapnel and spent shells, abandoned clothing, ammunition boxes, food tins and gas masks all litter the ground, a single Russian book lying next to a dug-out mound of dirt that provided shelter from blasts. A few burned Russian military vehicles, one a tank and the other an armored personnel carrier, are poorly hidden in a thin growth of trees.
“They stayed here from the 24th of February,” the very first day of the Russian invasion, says Anatoly of the Russian soldiers. “They came here without any fighting but now we’ve pushed them already in this direction to the border.” For months, positions like these were used to relentlessly shell Ukraine’s second biggest city of Kharkiv with heavy artillery, rockets, and all manner of explosives that rained down death indiscriminately from above. It is hard to describe the amount of destruction that has been visited on the northern and eastern neighborhoods of this city that once held 1.5 million people, and one can only wonder what the point was of obliterating so many residential buildings and shops.
In the first weeks of the war, it even seemed as if the Russian forces would lay siege to the city as desperate civilians fled or hunkered down in underground metro stations and basements. But in recent days, the Russian lines, like the one we’re gingerly stepping around, have broken as Ukrainian forces have liberated village after village, in some instances pushing Russian forces all the way back to the border located approximately 20 miles away. The city of Kharkiv is no longer being shelled so badly that no one can sleep, and life has slowly started to return to its streets.
It’s May 8, the day before Russia’s Victory Day celebration meant to commemorate the Soviet Union’s victory over the Nazis, when we set out through northeast Kharkiv with Anatoly to the front. At the base where we meet him in the Derhachi district, a stack of border posts is being painted to replace those steamrolled by the Russians. We follow Anatoly’s car as it turns off onto a dirt road, the sides of the path pocked with the occasional hole from a mortar blast.
Along the right of the road is a wide-open field, and to the left a wooded area where we pull over and park. Walking through the trees, we come upon a group of 20 or so Ukrainian soldiers digging out hooches in the dirt, chopping down small trees and stringing up black tarps. These are tired men, grizzled and dirty, having just rotated out from the front a few positions away to
get some sleep while not under fire. I ask some of the men how they feel about Russia’s Victory Day celebration tomorrow, and they just laugh.
It’s been hard, hard fighting, they say. “Two days ago, there were [Russian] tanks burning up there 800 meters,” Anatoly says, as we head back to the car to the next position, the men not in the mood for questions. We drive for a few minutes before he stops to let us get out and take a look at the former Russian positions, where he assuages my fear of mines and improvised explosive devices, a holdover from days spent reporting in Iraq and Syria. The ridgeline we’re standing on is high terrain, across what seem like incredibly long fields east of the village of Rus’ka Lozova, liberated only a day or two before. The next village up north is Pytomnyk, where fighting continues and we’re hearing the heavy exchange of fire (it will be liberated a few days later). Though my first impression is that we are exposed in a flat no man’s land, not exactly a great place to dawdle, Anatoly and his men don’t seem that concerned. He later explains that we are on terrain where the Russians can’t see us, and besides, they’re being kept busy.
When a city is threatened with a siege, when a more powerful, better armed, larger army surrounds and threatens to engulf, there is something inside those who have elected to stay and fight, however subconscious, that is willing to accept death. I’ve seen it before in Kobane, the Syrian Kurdish city that was only able to repel a rampaging Islamic State force at the last second with the help of strikes from coalition aircraft. People talk about a “thousand-yard stare,” the blank gaze of someone who has seen too much of war, but that’s a cliche. The giveaway is just as often in a smile. Those who have already envisioned their defeat, almost accepted it as inevitable, and yet continue to fight, will often offer a knowing smirk. The message is a simple one, really, and you find it all over Ukraine: “We’re still here.” They came as hard as they possibly could, and no one thought we could withstand it, and yet here we are.
We walk up ahead to some more entrenched Russian positions that have now become Ukrainian positions. There’s a plethora of burned-out Russian vehicles, including tanks with their turrets popped off like bottle caps. I meet Dennis, a tall, lanky fighter who speaks a bit of English. He’s from Kharkiv, but he had to send his wife, son, and daughter to Lviv. He hasn’t seen them since February. He’s been fighting since the beginning of the war, and I ask him how it feels to liberate his home town. “It was a very unusual feeling,” he says. “It wasn’t any fury or fear. It was just unusual.”
Dennis fought in the east of the country for four years during the initial Russian push into Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014. He finished his military service in 2018, then went to work as an auto parts trader. When the full-scale Russian invasion started this year, he knew he wouldn’t have a choice.
Like many in this region, Dennis is a Russian speaker. The Russian border is only a 20-minute drive from where we are, and the relationship between people here and their neighbors to the north is a bit complex. Many have family on both sides of the border, and some consider themselves ethnic Russians. But that’s as far as any camaraderie goes these days. “This is my
homeland, this is my motherland,” Dennis says of Ukraine. “We are all Russian speakers here, we have a lot of relatives in Russia. But we don’t have any friends anymore from there.”
He thinks he’ll tell his family to come back home to Kharkiv soon, and he’s anxiously waiting for the day he gets to return to his previous life. As for Russia’s Victory Day, “They’re not in time for the date, they’re rolling back,” he adds. “Victory Day is not for the Russians, they just steal it from the common victory, like everything else.”
We walk back to the car with Anatoly, gazing into the impossibly green fields with rockets poking out of them at odd angles. “A lot of agriculture was here, and they spoiled it,” Anatoly says, lamenting the corn and sunflower fields that now can’t be harvested. After retiring from the military two years ago at age 40, he launched a successful farming operation. He’s had to rejoin the military in the wake of the war effort, but he’s more motivated than ever. His farm is in Russian occupied territory. “I had a 3 million-hryvnia farm,” he says, equal to about $100,000. “So we need to take it back.” Then he laughs.
Though Kharkiv is mostly free from shelling for the moment, and some are ready to try to bring it back to life, checkpoints dot the city, and you can still hear the thumps of artillery on occasion while soldiers zoom around in civilian cars at breakneck speeds. Shops and restaurants are still mostly closed, their windows boarded up or shattered. Driving around in the center of the city, things can look perfectly fine for a moment before you come upon a residential block pockmarked with blackened holes, or a completely leveled building, a mess of concrete and tangled rebar.
It is the outskirts, though, that have borne the brunt of the battle. A few days later we head to Saltivka, a neighborhood of huge apartment blocks in the northeast of Kharkiv, that has seen some of the fiercest shelling of anywhere in the war. The Russians seemed intent on leveling it, and have only recently been pushed far enough that it’s mostly safe to be here. In previous days, the documentary filmmaker I’m working with, Olivier Sarbil, a highly experienced war correspondent, had spent time hiding in a basement in one of these apartment blocks with Ukrainian troops trying to advance as Russian shells tore through the neighborhood every few minutes.
Massive firepower was directed here, a residential neighborhood, fired indiscriminately, overkill for the sake of overkill. Everywhere is destruction, giant holes blown into 20-story residential towers, obliterated strips of shops, tangled metal in parking lots littered with scattered pieces of concrete. Ukrainian soldiers in deeply dug trenches still sit in front of the buildings, a few mannequins acting as decoys, and are tense at checkpoints. At one, I see a man with a suitcase talking to a soldier with a balaclava. He’s come to return, to what is unclear.
Already, though, there are traces of cleanup and construction crews digging out the debris. This is possible because the Ukrainians have finally managed to push the Russians out of the villages just north of here—Tsyrkuny, Cherkas’ki Tyshky, and Rus’ki Tyshky—only within the last week. But they’re still susceptible to shelling, and we see a smoking crater in a house as we push forward.
All along the road connecting these villages are burned out tanks, APC’s, military transport trucks, and civilian cars. Demining crews are still working through the area, popping in and out of houses and yards with their contraptions. These villages are made up mostly of simple one- and two-story houses, nice tidy yards with gardens and fences, and big agricultural fields where the streets end.
A couple of civilians sit by the side of the road in front of their homes and we stop to talk to them. Victor tells us the Russians were there until May 5, and that he and his wife spent weeks living in the basement. “When you’re 60, everything is scary,” he says. “We still don’t know whether we can go or not, we are just waiting for something.”
Then he says he doesn’t feel well, that he doesn’t want to talk anymore. His wife thinks it’s too dangerous to stay and says they barely lived through the previous night because of the intensity of the shelling. She wants to leave, by foot if they have to. She sits on the ground next to their bags, crying, as a demining team of soldiers emerge from the house.
Up the road a bit more in Cherkas’ki Tyshky we meet Vasily, a 67-year-old man who is chatting with a soldier standing in front of his house. He tells us all that the most intense shelling was on this 1.5-mile stretch of road. “There was a Russian checkpoint here,” he says. “They are barbarians. They didn’t even target, they just hit everything.”
He stayed throughout the duration of the battle, and says he was saved by the fact that he had solar power in his house. He’s one of the few people I meet that says he knew a war was coming. “I was feeling this for 30 years. It’s not about NATO,” he says. “Russians didn’t want us to live better than them, that’s the only reason.”
Vasily tells us the Russians came to everyone’s home looking for alcohol, and looted the homes that were abandoned. He also says the Russians took his elderly parents to Russia. Though the Russian military has been accused of forced population transfers involving hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, Vasily says he was happy they went, because they were unable to get their medications during the fighting. “I can’t say that it was a bad attitude toward us from the Russians. It’s quite good because they gave them somewhere to live,” he says. “We wanted them to be taken to Moscow where they have relatives, but they want to live here.”
Before I can make sense of the situation, a Ukrainian military transport vehicle with a massive piece of artillery drives up and parks down the road. A frantic soldier emerges and screams at us to leave, threatening to shoot the tires of our vehicle if we don’t, which generally isn’t the best course of action if you want someone to leave. The Ukrainian military has been paranoid about journalists posting photos of their active positions.
Driving back towards Saltivka, we pass passenger vans and minibuses heading the other direction. Our fixer tells us they’re heading to pick up the dozens of civilians we saw standing by the side of the road with their bags. Later that afternoon, Tsyrkuny will be shelled again.
Another day we go in a press convoy of five vehicles to the southeast of Kharkiv, arranged by the military press office. The small village of Mala Rohan, population 2,500, was cleared more than a month ago, though a few civilians have started to move back. It still lies fairly empty,
dozens of houses torn apart from shelling, with bright spring flowers popping up through the rubble. Every village in Ukraine, no matter how small or war scarred, seems to have yards with bright flowers blooming everywhere.
These press convoys can feel like a weird tourist jaunt, a Disneyland ride of destruction, as the press officer leads a dozen journalists to shoot footage of shattered houses, burned-out tanks now rusting behind sheds, and even some dead Russian soldiers who seem like they might have been left there to ease the jobs of photojournalists.
At the nearby village of Biskvitne, there’s a blown-up Russian helicopter in a field with Z painted on the tail and the smell of dead bodies at the entrance, but we don’t go looking for the source. I meet Vladimir, a 39-year-old tractor driver in a Guns N’ Roses T-shirt, and his wife, Svetlana, a baker. They’re standing in front of their house on a dirt road, taking stock of the damage.
“The Russians came to us on the 26th of February and said we came to liberate you, we came to save you,” says Svetlana. “Save us from who?”
“I thought we were going to be killed,” adds Vladimir. “It was all very sudden. All the people here came into the street, and a column of soldiers was coming and one of the tanks. They said don’t be afraid, we will defend you.”
They’ve been hiding in a basement of one of their neighbors’ houses with 30 other people for most of the last two months. Vladimir says he never thought war would come to the village; the thought didn’t even cross his mind. Anyone in the village with money left as soon as they could, but he and Svetlana were unable to. “We saw everything,” he adds. “It was terrifying.”
They can’t live in their house at the moment and are currently staying with Svetlana’s sister, where they’ve left their 5-year-old daughter today. Svetlana says she doesn’t know where they’ll live, but they’re already cleaning up the house and making repairs. They don’t have any other option.
As the week drags on, Kharkiv continues to reopen. We see long lines of people waiting for food donations and supplies, but others are walking their dogs, riding bikes, going to the supermarket. Every day there’s more and more people in the street, more cleanup crews, more shops open. The center of Kharkiv starts to see something it hasn’t seen since the early weeks of the war: traffic. A photographer who has been here nearly two months tells me he’s amazed that the city is coming back to life. After so much time spent in basements and bomb shelters, he says he finds it disorienting that we can now go into a hipster cafe and order a risotto.
Our days develop a familiar rhythm. In the morning, we check open-source information pages and various Telegram and Viber updates to see what villages may have been liberated or what may have been found, and message other reporters while our fixer calls various military and territorial defense contacts to ask where we might be able to go. We head to the outskirts in the
north and east, only to get denied at checkpoints we breezed through the day before. Then we bypass them by taking side streets through empty villages, where every fourth house has a giant hole in the roof or wall.
Civilians line some roads with suitcases and whatever they can carry, looking for rides out of their devastated villages. In recently liberated or cleared villages, civilians are also seen clutching suitcases, but they’re going back to their homes, hoping against the odds that their previous lives will be salvageable.
The civilians we speak to all have similar stories, each devastating in its own way. They never thought war would come; they spent weeks or months in the basements hiding from shelling—little food, no power, no heat. The lucky ones have homes that are still inhabitable. The others all ask, “Where will I go now?” No one has answers for them.
Sometimes we go to the recently reopened hipster cafe and get pancakes or spaghetti carbonara. At night, everything is closed and curfew prevents us from moving around, so we look for updates on troop movements and areas that have been shelled. One evening, the corpses of nearly a dozen Russian soldiers are found. Two nights later, the corpses of nearly a dozen Ukrainian soldiers are found.
As Ukrainian forces mop up villages and push the Russians closer and closer to the border, barring a counteroffensive, the war in Kharkiv and the surrounding areas seems to be reaching its end. In the morning we’ll try to go see the dead and those lucky to be alive—the recently homeless, childless, and parentless.
Danny Gold (@dgisserious) is a journalist and documentary filmmaker who covers conflict and crime.