The sweet smell of liberation as Ukraine pushes back and people emerge from bunkers

Published by The Mail on Sunday (22nd May, 2022)

Tamara was sitting on a bench outside, warming herself in the sun after a cold night sleeping in a flat with blown-out windows while waiting for a volunteer to fix plastic over the gaping holes.

A window frame blasted out in an explosion hung in a nearby tree like a weird piece of conceptual art. Some flats in Tamara’s 16-storey block were blackened from fire, others had huge holes in the walls from missile strikes, while all had lost their glass.

Shards glistened everywhere on the ground alongside piles of rubble, twisted metal and the debris from destroyed homes.

‘Can you hear: someone is clearing up their glass,’ she said. ‘Yesterday, I took so much of it out from my own home.’

It was the day before Tamara’s 70th birthday – but her plans for celebration, like her windows and her life, had been shattered by the horrors of war.

‘People are scared there will be more bombing, more fighting,’ she said. ‘People don’t know where to hide and how to continue with their lives. There are no jobs, there is no money, there is no food. People don’t even know if there is any hope.’

We met in Saltivka on the outskirts of Kharkiv. Tamara is among the residents tentatively returning to their homes after Ukraine pushed back Russian forces who unleashed hell on the country’s second city for 12 weeks.

Sounds of war thundered in the distance as the pensioner told me how she spent weeks sheltering in a nearby underground railway station alongside other fearful Kharkiv residents after fleeing a freezing basement.

In Heroiv Pratsi subway station, beneath the mangled stalls of a senselessly destroyed market, I found hundreds of people still living a troglodyte existence.

Men, women and children lined platforms and lay on stairs, crammed together on nests of blankets and makeshift beds. Some slept, squeezed in by ticket barriers with a bag of clothes. Others ate or stared at phones, a brightly painted train parked beside them.

Volunteers ladled soup from plastic buckets. Children’s paintings were pasted on a wall; the top one had ‘Dad, I miss you’ scrawled above a colourful drawing of Ukrainian aircraft firing missiles at a tank bearing Russia’s flag.

Yulia, 36, deputy head of a middle school, said she arrived with her 11-year-old son after a ‘nervous breakdown’ from relentless shelling that had pounded their block of flats since February. ‘It’s safer here – you can’t hear the sounds of fighting,’ she said.

Before they abandoned their flat, they slept fully clothed and wearing shoes, ready to sprint downstairs to a safer area. ‘We were just waiting for it to end,’ Yulia said. ‘There was no electricity. We would sit in the darkness and pray. The shelling was so intense that at times we did not know if we would live until morning.’

Yulia admitted that life in an underground station was a struggle. ‘It is cold, crowded, the toilets are not good, there are no showers – but there are many kind people willing to help and we’ve met new friends here.’

Her son Damir, who sleeps in the parked train, said to a smile from his weary mother that it was more fun than home. ‘It’s calm, quiet and cosy here – but I miss my cat,’ he added. Remarkably, Yulia said her school continued with online lessons throughout Vladimir Putin’s assault that destroyed almost a third of residential buildings and forced many to flee.

‘We’re doing our best to ensure the kids at least don’t forget what they knew,’ she said. ‘The most important thing is for the war to stop, for them to survive this emotionally difficult time – they can all catch up afterwards.’

As I left, this single mother said wistfully that she never imagined such a conflict could take place in the 21st Century – or that her son might be a ‘child of war’.

Like many others, even city officials in this largely Russian-speaking city less than 30 miles from the border, she had dismissed the threat of invasion.

Now, Kharkiv’s regional administration headquarters lies in ruins. I walked around the hollow shell of the imposing Soviet-era building, seeing the huge hole from a cruise missile plunging through several floors. A single pink high-heel shoe lay in the wrecked offices, incongruous amid the desolation after an attack that killed seven.

This shattered structure sits symbolically beside Freedom Square, where Ukraine’s biggest statue of Lenin stood until the nation shook off Kremlin rule 31 years ago following the collapse of the Soviet empire.

The streets surrounding the square seemed largely deserted, lined by cafes, offices and shops with locked doors but broken windows. Familiar global brands such as Max Mara and Tommy Hilfiger, windows boarded up with piles of glass swept up neatly on the pavement, serve as painful reminders of peaceful times.

In areas such as Saltivka that saw the heaviest fighting, trolley-bus cables lay across roads pockmarked with missile craters and fringed with blackened buildings; even traffic lights were smashed into pieces.

Kharkiv’s hospitals were also targeted. At Ukraine’s biggest children’s hospital, doctors showed me the damage from three attacks – one with cluster bombs – that blew out 400 windows and shredded a building used for treating young cancer patients.

A massive crater beside a wing that held premature babies bore witness to Russian depravity. Thankfully, there was only one injury – though doctors who moved in with their families have stopped offering paediatric services and switched to general practice.

‘Perhaps the first shelling was a mistake or it was an old missile or something, but the building was hit three times, and twice the children were inside the hospital, so it seems we were targeted,’ said Oleksiy Savvo, deputy director of the Children’s Regional Hospital.

At another city hospital, a trauma surgeon told me they had performed three amputations in total before the invasion – but his unit alone had since severed 15 limbs, with many more amputations carried out in other departments.

About one in five medical facilities in the Kharkiv region have been destroyed by fighting; others have been stripped of electricity sockets and light switches by Russian looting, while 30 of the region’s 200 ambulances are damaged.

Maksym Khaustov, the region’s director of health, showed me two ambulances holed by shrapnel – one with three holes in a seat where a female paramedic was badly wounded. Britain is among the nations to have donated replacement vehicles.

Yet there are signs this battered city, home to 1.5 million before the war, is returning to life.

Teams of people were painting street furniture and planting flowers, the heavily shelled central park has been tidied up. The mayor has told people to leave the subway by Tuesday as he restarts public transport services, offering student dormitories for families whose homes are destroyed.

British architect Sir Norman Foster has met city officials and promised to ‘assemble the best planning, architectural, design, and engineering skills in the world’ to assist with the rebuilding. The scars of this cruel war, however, will take generations to heal.

Ukraine hopes it has repelled Putin’s attempted annexation of Kharkiv for the second time in recent years. In 2014, a separatist putsch backed by the Kremlin was routed. Now, Russian troops have been driven about 24 miles from Kharkiv – although loud explosions could be heard repeatedly from my city-centre flat.

Officials remain cautious. ‘While there is war, not a single city is safe,’ said Roman Semenukha, deputy head of the Kharkiv Regional Administration, when we met in a secret office used after the bombing of their headquarters.

He said they faced many problems when Putin’s forces attacked. ‘How do you feed all the people, get weapons to the right people, find bags for all the bodies, keep communication intact, organise humanitarian aid?’

Mr Semenukha, who was inspired by a biography of Sir Winston Churchill that he read shortly before the invasion, admitted they felt ‘fear – real fear’ at the start. ‘War is horrible,’ he said. ‘But at the same time, it is when good people do good things.’

His words were underscored when I met Marina Polyakova, whose charity offers food handouts in central Kharkiv. A team of volunteers served free soup, rice and fish prepared by staff of a restaurant chain to about 100 people.

Sergey, 43, a builder, joined the team delivering food even as shells fell and Russian tanks entered the city. ‘When I see young boys at checkpoints, I’ve no right to feel fear. I am a grown man and I know it is much harder for the soldiers.’

Among those collecting lunch was Eugenia, 86. She told me how she was evicted by the Nazis from her home during the Second World War – then moved into a nearby apartment block in late 1943 after the Soviet army recaptured Kharkiv.

She had hidden in the basement under the pounding of German bombs – and now families have been hiding again in the same place in her building under relentless Russian attack, which is based on Putin’s spurious claims of ‘de-Nazifying’ Ukraine.

‘When this war started, my heart was breaking for the little children who have to go through all the horrors like I did during the Second World War,’ Eugenia said. ‘Seeing a child shaking with fear from bombardment is scary.’

Russian attacks on the city continue. Last week, Putin’s forces targeted Saltivka every day, sparking a fire at a market and hitting a medical facility. ‘I heard a very loud explosion not far from my home,’ Eugenia said. ‘It’s very scary. But I’m tired of being afraid.’

Little wonder that this city – despite being predominantly Russian-speaking – is suffused with hatred for its neighbour.

‘These people came to kill our children and grandchildren,’ said Nikolai, 62, a retired engineer wearing a yellow ‘Ukraine’ baseball cap. ‘When I retired, I thought I’d be staying at home, enjoying life. Then those bastards came. I hate them.’

He pointed towards a brightly coloured playground where children had once played among wild flowers. But there were no children on the slides and swings, no shrieks of joy from innocent voices.

Later I talked with a construction worker named Aleksei who helped build the now bombed and burned apartment blocks three decades ago. As we talked, an elderly neighbour carried out two buckets filled with broken glass.

‘The damage is so horrible. Some guy sitting 30km away does not see that he’s killing a child or old woman. There were no soldiers on my balcony, no troops stationed in our yard, yet now it is all destroyed.’

He paused after seeing a small child nearby. ‘Oh look, the children are here. This is the first child I see, so the war must be over soon.’

Let us hope he is right.

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