December 7, 2022

‘Dancing, not war’: Signs of normality in Ukraine’s shattered Kharkiv

Iana's husband entered through the roof, lowering himself down with a rope


Iana’s husband entered through the roof, lowering himself down with a rope – Copyright AFP Dimitar DILKOFF

Patrick FORT

Three women plant flowers on a roundabout in central Kharkiv, while not far away men fill sandbags for a defensive barrier on the north of the city, the side closest to Russia.

It is a stark illustration of how people in the war-battered city in the north east are attempting to recapture some essence of normal life, even though Russian aggression lurks not far away.

Kharkiv, the regional capital, has been battered by the conflict, enduring an assault by Moscow’s forces lasting several days and fighting in its suburbs, before weathering regular salvoes of shelling.

But the noose around Ukraine’s second-largest city has been loosening in recent days, even as the war rages elsewhere.

However, much local infrastructure has been ruined and many residents have yet to return.  

“We are trying to keep the city alive,” a city hall spokeswoman told AFP.

The city of 1.5 million people in peacetime “is huge and some people can’t move or go to work without buses”, she said, explaining that some routes had restarted. 

The spokeswoman said the mayor had neither encouraged nor dissuaded residents from returning.

“The situation is different in every district,” she said. 

At Kharkiv’s railway station, many people who fled in February at the start of Russia’s invasion are returning.

Some areas have been hard hit. 

In the northeastern Saltivka district, towering apartment blocks were shelled by Russian troops who came from Belgorod, a Russian town on the other side of the border. 

– ‘State of shock’ –

Cashier Iana, 49, and her husband contemplate the damage to their flat that now overlooks a void since the facade was blasted away. 

Iana’s husband entered through the roof, lowering himself down with a rope. 

“He got in and it was horrible,” she said. 

“Even the rescue services told us that it will be demolished. When rescue workers climbed up to eighth floor, they said that the floor and the walls were shaking.”  

“I don’t want to leave Kharkiv. I was born here and my son grew up here…  Our parents received this house in 1975. 

“Obviously we can’t leave it to our children. We must overcome this ordeal and continue to live. What else can we do?”

Oleksandr Vendland, a 45-year-old widower, visits his ravaged apartment, including the bedroom of his two daughters aged eight and 14.

A pink bag, a large stuffed toy and child’s drawings now speckle the rubble.

Vendland, who sent his daughters to family in Germany, said it would now be “impossible” for children to live in the city. 

“They need food, education. There is nothing here. No medicine. It is very hard to find it,” he said, calling for outside aid to ensure the city’s survival.

He complained that only volunteers were visible in Kharkiv, demanding to know where government support was.

– ‘Symbol of Kharkiv’ –

Sporadic gunfire continues to hit the area, causing unease among the returned residents, Vendland said.

Water leaks from pipes shattered by explosions. Electricity, gas and water technicians work around the clock to restore utilities.

“No holidays in times of war!” said Sergei Oleshko, an electrical engineer working on fallen power lines.

“We’re not soldiers but here we are! We’re a bit scared with the shelling continuing.”  

In the city centre, helmeted architects and experts sporting bullet-proof vests are already assessing the local government headquarters, blueprints and hammers in hand.

Located on the central Freedom Square, the monumental 1950s building was struck by a missile on March 1. The video of the powerful strike was seen worldwide. 

“We were evacuated before, thank God,” said Konstantin Isayev, 46, a manager as he visited his former office while workers cleared rubble nearby.

Isayev said he has resumed work elsewhere but that he hoped to return to the ravaged site soon. 

“For now, we only do expert evaluations,” said Anatoliy Butenko.

“We look for all the damage. I think we will not be able to restore it in one year. I think it will take up to two… It’s the symbol of Kharkiv.”

Before a night-time curfew comes into force, music-lovers gather at a cultural centre for a concert — the first in the city in months.

“We want to dance every day. We want to come back to slow dancing, not war,” said Yevgen, a guitarist in a local ska band.