Kharkiv Got Some Breathing Space, but Still Doesn’t Breathe Easily

KHARKIV, Ukraine — The trenches along the northern edge of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, have begun to erode and fill with garbage, and soldiers use them to protect the city from encroachment. The Russian onslaught has now moved to other fronts. Today, the fortifications are manned only by mannequins in military uniforms, including one, perhaps too optimistic, wearing a blue UN peacekeeping helmet.

All around, the black and holed high-rise apartment buildings testify to the ferocity of the fighting that took place here in northeastern Ukraine during the early months of the war. But now there is a stillness and people are not sure how to interpret it.

Ukrainian forces drove Russian troops out of almost the entire region in a flash attack in September that took many around the world by surprise. Not only did it reinvigorate the Ukrainian war effort, but it also gave Kharkiv some breathing room.

But the Ukrainians can only push their enemies so far. The border is about 25 miles from the city center, within range of many Russian weapons.

Kateryna Vnukova, 19, an economics student in Kharkiv, said that from her 12th-floor apartment in the city center, she could sometimes see shelling in the distance.

“I think in Kharkiv now it is completely quiet and quiet, but it is not quiet and quiet,” said Vnukova, who went out for a walk at sunset last weekend, but is trying to get home first. when sunset. “Usually when it’s dark, the demons appear, the ones there, across the border.”

Now, there are signs that Russian forces are regrouping in preparation for a new offensive that could threaten the city once again. On Monday, Vadym Skibitsky, deputy director of Ukraine’s military intelligence service, told a Ukrainian news agency that a Russian tank division that had been deployed in Belarus was diverted, possibly as part of the construction build up forces that can once again push into the Kharkiv region.

As Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine approaches its first anniversary, Kharkiv has become a showcase for Ukraine’s military success, but it also has its limitations. Over the past four months, residents have gradually returned to the city; electricity, heat and gas have been restored to most homes; There are vehicles on the streets and patrons in restaurants and cafes, although many of their windows are still broken and sealed.

The mayor of Kharkiv, Ihor Terekhov, boasted that the city’s population had doubled since the first months of the war to about 1.1 million (compared to a pre-war population of 1.4 million) and Construction is underway to repair some of the 4,500 severely damaged homes in Russia. failed attempt to capture the city. Though noting that the war is far from over, the mayor is working with renowned architect Norman Foster on a postwar development plan.

“We had to bring the residents of Kharkiv back to the city, but they couldn’t come back and find themselves in a broken shell,” he said. “The general plan for the development of London in 1943 was carried out under the bombardment of the Nazis.”

But his development plan does not envision a quick end to the conflict, or a complete respite for Kharkiv. Among its provisions was a requirement that all newly built apartment complexes include underground parking lots that could double as bomb shelters.

Although Kharkiv is quieter than it has been since the invasion began, for the people, war doesn’t seem far away. Air raid sirens sounded continuously and Ukrainian warplanes roared in the air as they patrolled. On a recent night, several burly men in camouflage uniforms and headscarves entered an upscale Japanese restaurant to issue draft notices to Ukrainian men, prompting the waiters to hide.

Last weekend, a Ukrainian contingent from the Kharkiv region used the relatively quiet time to hone their rifle skills and practice combat in a wooded training ground just outside town.

“We have a little bit of time and we’re not going to waste it,” said their guide, a 22-year-old lieutenant with a Clover sign.

Russian artillery and rockets hit remote villages in the region, and heavier rockets regularly strike downtown as Russian forces continue to target critical infrastructure. as important as a power plant.

A huge thermal power plant has been attacked several times, including by Iranian-made Shahed explosives drones. The attacks punctured a large hole through the roof, broke all the windows and knocked out the city’s heating system for several days. Inside, workers kept the equipment from freezing with large, gas-powered fire pits and plastic tarps to divide the massive boiler room into more easily heated zones. The plant’s main boiler is still damaged and not working, but workers have managed to keep the plant cool with auxiliary boilers.

No workers were killed in the strikes.

“Thankfully, God is protecting us,” said Yevhen Kaurkin, the plant’s technical director.

War is still closer in the northern vicinity of Saltivka, which has been ravaged by fighting and remains a difficult place to live despite efforts to improve conditions. On a recent day, city workers in fluorescent green vests were raking leaves in front of a bombed-out building that looked like a wobbly tower of Jenga blocks.

Because so many people died waiting at bus stops, the city installed fortified concrete bunkers designed to protect residents from shelling. Each has a screen inside that shows a live feed of the street so people can see when the bus is coming.

During the worst phase of the fighting, hundreds of people took shelter in the musky basement of the Kharkiv Municipal Gymnasium No. 172. Although no one is currently taking shelter there full-time, thousands Hundreds of people still return daily to eat hot meals prepared in the school kitchen.

The school’s superintendent, Oleksandra Utkina, who also teaches math, said she’s excited about the day students can return, but admits it won’t happen anytime soon.

“We need them to stop firing first,” she said.

Nearby, in a large army tent set up among burned apartment blocks, some locals warmed up and watched a football game on a large flat-screen television. Svitlana Kaminska, 62, is heating her dinner in the microwave. Although most of Saltivka’s residents had left the vicinity during the heaviest fighting, Kaminska remained, taking shelter in her windowless hallway as rockets hit the apartment building. her from time to time. In the entire building, she was the only one left.

To get to the front door, she had to crawl through rubble and avoid falling into a large hole in the sidewalk where a shell fell in August. Several apartments in her building were destroyed by fire. burned down and none of the apartments had windows. The successive blasts rammed some of the interior walls and broke the steel frames of the elevator doors.

Miss Kaminska’s existence was grim. She fitted a small space heater and a lamp to a thin white extension cord that was plugged into the only working outlet in the building, at the foot of the stairs, and managed to warm the house. My house is a few degrees above freezing. Only the sound on her television is working.

But these discomforts don’t bother her much, she said.

“For me, the scariest thing is not the cold or me being here alone, but heaven forbid the possibility of another attack,” she said. “Isn’t anyone influential in this Russia, to quiet them down a bit?”

Natalya Yermak contribution report.


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