Day they laid waste to Freedom Square, heart of a nation’s release from tyranny
Published by The Daily Mail (2nd March, 2022)
Two hideous explosions bookended the day in Kharkiv. The first saw a giant fireball erupt after a cruise missile struck an imposing Soviet-era structure at 8.02am yesterday – engulfing local government offices and devastating a nearby opera house, concert hall and university buildings.
The second, after a horrifying barrage of missiles had rained down for much of the day on the city, saw a massive mushroom of fire detonate last night at a tank training school that contained an ammunition dump.
The shocking morning attack – condemned by Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky as a ‘war crime’ – killed at least ten people and injured 20 more as ceilings collapsed while all the windows were blown out on to the second-largest city square in Europe.
It left a large crater in this celebrated Kharkiv landmark – where just a few weeks ago I watched children happily skating as I spoke to people in a cafe about the threat of war.
Amid the dust, the debris and the devastation lay the dead. Two bodies were side by side on the cobblestones near an abandoned car. One was barefoot; the other, clad in military-style clothing, had a clenched fist.
This latest strike on Ukraine’s former capital, which is being battered by a bombardment from Russian forces that have poured over the border less than 30 miles away, was laden with the most grotesque symbolism.
For this city centre plaza, where the country’s biggest statue of Lenin once stood, was renamed Freedom Square 31 years ago when the nation shook off the shackles of Kremlin rule following the collapse of the Soviet empire.
Now the city’s 1.4million population are suffering daily atrocities inflicted by another dictatorial regime in Moscow as Russia ratchets up an assault that yesterday also saw a hospital, school and residential areas shelled.
‘This is terror against Ukraine. There were no military targets in the square – nor are they in those residential districts of Kharkiv which come under rocket artillery fire,’ said Zelensky.
The Russian-speaking city in eastern Ukraine has suffered six days of bombardment.
After Russian special forces were repelled from an attempt to take the city on Sunday, there are fears their infuriated commanders have resorted to using cluster bombs on residential buildings to spread panic.
‘It looks like a horror movie,’ said Dmytro Kuzubov, 33, a website editor. ‘The Russian occupiers are destroying my hometown, killing civilians. They bring destruction, misery and pain. People hiding in basements and subways have almost forgotten what the sky looks like.’
Remarkably, a tent encampment on the square filled with volunteers collecting aid for fighters emerged unscathed.
‘There were ten people in the tent just a couple of metres from the spot where the missile hit the square. It’s a pure miracle they survived,’ said Marina Polyakova, who runs the charity.
Olena Znatkova, who fled Luhansk eight years ago with her daughter after Putin stirred up separatists in the area, said food and water supplies were running out fast in the city.
‘The bread factory is working but who would deliver the bread? People are hiding in basements so we can’t just go out to the store when there are constant shellings,’ she said.
‘Students are sitting, trapped, in the dormitories without food and water and medical supplies.’
The intensity of the attack demolishes Putin’s pretence that he is trying to save his fellow Slavs and brother nation.
‘This is not a military operation, but a war that is meant to kill the Ukrainian people,’ said Ihor Terekhov, Kharkiv’s mayor.
One attack earlier this week killed two parents with their three children after they were burned alive in their car. Another assault slaughtered a family of four who had left their homes in search of water, said the city mayor.
‘Kharkiv never experienced such devastating destruction in its modern history – this is horrible,’ he said.
Emergency services put out at least 24 fires in and around the city caused by shelling yesterday – including at a hospital in the New Bavaria district named after German migrants who moved there in the 19th century.
There were eight deaths and eight injuries in the area, amid claims that one Russian aircraft was shot down during the attacks on Kharkiv that left 25 confirmed dead yesterday.
City authorities said more than 87 residential buildings were hit.
Other footage from the district showed burning homes. ‘The shellings are more intense every day,’ said Maksym Bilyk, 26, whom I met weeks ago in a cafe by the square.
A computer expert, he is now spending much of his time in shelters engaged in anti-Russia cyber-warfare efforts.
Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu has denied targeting civilians and said his forces ‘take all measures’ to spare lives – despite abundant evidence of attacks on residential buildings, kindergartens, schools and hospitals.
In 2014, when Russia last invaded Ukraine, there was an attempt by pro-Moscow rebels to take over Kharkiv in similar style to Donetsk and Luhansk, by occupying government buildings.
But they were repulsed by forces loyal to Kyiv. Speaking damningly about those who had been pro-Moscow, human rights activist Nataliya Zubar said: ‘They have now seen anger and hatred towards Russia rise as if from hell.’
Her family has lived in Kharkiv for six generations and she says the city will survive. ‘They can destroy the buildings. They can kill all the people. But Kharkiv survived the Second World War; it has survived the great famine; it has survived Stalin’s repression. It will survive in memory even if it is destroyed in full now.’
As darkness fell last night, the sky was lit up by another constant barrage. Some families have spent five days in basements and bomb shelters – reduced to living like troglodytes as they hide for hours in a mixture of boredom and fear.
‘We’re stuck here – we don’t know what to do,’ said Natasha, who heard yesterday’s attack on Freedom Square before rushing to a shelter. ‘It’s a disaster. We thought it was going to be all sorted out diplomatically.’
Although many have fled, she said it felt dangerous to escape with her family. ‘There are trains but you have to reach the station. We are afraid of the alternative, going by car, because we risk being bombarded.’
One who escaped early was Ekaterina Pereverzeva, 27. It took her four days to get to the other side of Ukraine to find safety.
But she finds it impossible to escape the trauma, saying: ‘I tried to stay calm but then I looked at the map of the Kharkiv shellings last night and I just lost it. There is at least one person I know living on each street that was shelled and I don’t know if they are dead or alive.’
Ekaterina, who was born in Russia, said she feels fury against the murderous Moscow regime. ‘I hate, simply hate, all the Russians that are killing my friends, bombing my city, destroying everything I love,’ she said.