The walls of the modest apartment rumbled loudly. The noise was brutal. And then a piece of the roof collapsed and the fire started. Nina Verloka had prepared dinner that day and her son and her sister were sitting at the kitchen table. Ready to go. Before Nina’s stunned and desperate eyes, the furious shelling, one of many that day in Kharkov, killed both of them and injured the 41-year-old woman. Also four other people from her building. In an instant, in the blink of an eye, Nina lost everything. Lying on a bed in hospital number 4 in Ukraine’s second largest city, she wrings her hands and shows on her cell phone a photograph of the very young family: a tall, smiling teenager and a 19-year-old girl with a sweet face and light, straight hair who smile at the camera.
Nina is furious. She is furious with Vladimir Putin, with the Russian troops, with the ability of a single man to bring catastrophe and destruction to her life and that of the whole of Ukraine. “We had a wonderful country, with good people. And now she says that he wants to free us, protect us? From what, from whom? Why do they do this to us. I don’t get it,” she exclaims. Like thunder, a rosary of explosions, forceful and followed, not too far away, accompanies her words. It is the soundtrack that accompanies it. The fire sounds near the hospital.
Kharkov, in eastern Ukraine, with a million and a half souls before the invasion and located about 40 kilometers from the border with Russia, was one of the first targets of the invasion of the troops sent by Putin. They entered the city with a few Tigr artillery vehicles, but were quickly eliminated or captured. Since then, they try to besiege it and the city is under constant and relentless fire. Night and day. The strategy became one of bombing and indiscriminate artillery fire on residential areas. Like Nina’s building. A practice of wear and tear, of scorched earth, that the Kremlin has applied in other Ukrainian cities. Today, Kharkov is the second city most affected by Russian attacks after Mariupol, say local authorities. Receives about 80 shell hits per day; from rockets to artillery.
About 10 people injured by the explosions arrive at hospital number 4 in Kharkov every day; by the shrapnel, like an old woman who has just entered, motionless and with her face covered in blood; or by multiple launch rockets, known as Grad, which in Russian means hail. A storm raging strongly against the city. Since Putin launched his “special military operation” to “denazify” and “demilitarize” Ukraine. There have been many adult deaths, says Olena Poleshuk, medical director of the health center, but three children have also died at hospital number 4 since the war began. “The number of people they bring is overwhelming. It’s emotionally devastating,” says Polashuk. They don’t stop arriving at the center donated food, drugs, clothes.
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Meanwhile, at the Central Forensic Institute they don’t have any body bags left. There, in the patio, they have placed the bodies in three rows: those sheathed in large black bags, those covered with plastic and a long column of piled corpses, wrapped in towels, sheets, or in the air. There are about a thousand bodies. As the last to arrive, a faceless man with his shirt unbuttoned. Everyone in sight is wearing civilian clothes. At least 300 people have been killed in the Kharkov region by attacks since the Kremlin launched the invasion, according to local authorities. But the figure is much higher, they acknowledge. And the armed conflict has not changed the patterns of life: people continue to die from all kinds of things, illnesses, accidents, comment two morgue workers, shrugging their shoulders. Not only war kills and they can’t cope. And this is just one of three morgues in the city.
The historic center of Kharkov, known as the intellectual capital of Ukraine, with a long educational tradition and home to jewels of Constructivism, is today practically pulverized. turned to rubble and
rubble. The art museum, with its collection of Russian painters like Ilia Repin and Ivan Shishkin, had no time to put its treasures to safety. The Korolenko Library, home to valuable manuscripts, has also been a victim of bombing.
There are hardly any people in the streets of the central almond, where the landscape of bombed-out buildings and burned-out cars repeats itself. The sound of alarms that never go off is constant. The pattern of attacks on civil infrastructure is repeated in many cities and is increasingly fierce, forceful and indiscriminate. In Dnipro, in the center of the country, this Tuesday an explosion has reached the central train station and has killed one person.
In Kharkiv, attacks have hit at least 400 high-rise apartment buildings, according to authorities. And many of those that are still whole no longer have basic supplies: water, gas, electricity. More than 700,000 people have left the city as they could. On trains, leaving their pets behind due to the impossibility of taking them with them the first few days. In long lines of cars.
Everything is closed. Only a few pharmacies and supermarkets serve the public, who hurry up the few things they offer and stand in constant queues. It is almost impossible to find meat. Some live in the subway, converted into a shelter. Or in other basements in the city. But every morning, many of the streets are swept clean, many bins have new bags. Life goes on. Even if you close your fists and bite your tongue, you end up getting used to everything. Also to the constant bombing.
Like the one that destroyed an overpriced downtown watch boutique. And an old apothecary. And a fashion store where decapitated mannequins rest on the floor, among the rubble. The first few days, looters surfaced and neighbors and militia groups tied them to posts and beat them. Now, the police continue to search for marauders and looters. On Monday they arrested one who had allegedly stolen medicine and was hiding in the subway. That, the looting, that people take a kind of Justice by his hand, has also happened in this war.
Dmitri Kravchenko was sitting at his guard post in a factory when he was hit by shrapnel from an attack. It was three days ago and he still doesn’t know if he will lose his eye. He wears it covered by an eyepatch. He has scars on his face and neck. “[Putin] You say we’re Nazis, you know? Also the children killed by the bombs…”, he says ironically, dressed in an ocher sweater that reads fun creation. In Kharkov, as in many other parts of Ukraine, especially in the east, the vast majority of the population is Russian-speaking, like the one the head of the Kremlin claims to protect. In 2014, after the protests that overthrew the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych and the Russian invasion of the Crimean peninsula -which the Kremlin ended up annexing in a referendum not recognized by the international community-, riots also broke out in Kharkiv, as in the regions from Donetsk and Lugansk. Moscow-backed protesters and even people from Russia proclaimed the “Kharkov People’s Republic” there and seized the regional government headquarters. The forces of the Executive recovered it soon.
Kharkov, once seen as a city with pro-Russian sympathies, changed with that. The reception of more than 100,000 IDPs from the Donetsk and Luhansk areas under Kremlin control by pro-Russian separatists also changed the landscape; and the city also consecrated its turn to the West, like the rest of Ukraine. Upon invading the country’s second largest city, Putin perhaps thought it would be a walk, that the citizens would open the doors to the Russian troops, with their disturbing white Z’s painted on the tanks.
He was wrong. In Kharkiv, too, language is not linked to identity. And the citizens who have remained resist under the hailKravchenko says. “They will not pass,” he exclaims in Spanish and with his fist raised. The anti-fascist cry of the Spanish Civil War, which became the motto of the 35,000 volunteers of the International Brigades who traveled to Spain from more than 80 countries to defend their legal government, is constantly repeated in Ukraine against Putin and the troops of he.
In hospital number 4, in Nina Verloka’s room, five other women wounded by bombings listen attentively to her, sometimes in broken, incoherent sentences, talking about her son, her sister, her house. Poleshuk, the medical director of the center, observes her: “The war is not a country, it is the story of each person. It is each one of us.”
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