“Nothing justifies that”: On the front lines in Kharkiv, a city devastated by Putin’s war

AA Russian attack attempt was repelled, the barrage of rockets and artillery shells fell silent: Captain Aleksandr Osadchy felt fleeting optimism – then his brother’s phone call came, as he had feared.

Her 85-year-old mother Maria was killed in the bombing of the village of Kamianka, where the family had lived for generations and which she had refused to leave for a safer area even as fighting escalated.

“She was a very determined woman and she wouldn’t change her mind,” says Captain Osadchy. “Like so many people of this generation, she had a hard life, it’s such a shame that it ended so sadly and needlessly.”

Captain Osadchy of the 226th volunteer “Cossack Battalion” told me about the high number of civilian casualties in Kharkiv as violence continued in Ukraine’s second largest city, just 40 km from the Russian border. Then he paused at one point and quietly added that he had only learned of his mother’s death 24 hours before.

“In fact, she had died a few days ago. My brother and others have tried to reach me but communication is very difficult now as you can imagine. I’m still trying to process that in my mind. But we have so much to do, it’s probably not that bad, it’s best to keep busy,” he reflects.

Captain Osadchy’s brother Andrei, a former soldier, had stayed at home to take care of their mother.

“The day after he buried our mother, he went to Sloviansk [in the Donbas] and joined the army. We defend our country, our people, our families, our community, we also avenge those who were killed,” says Aleksandr. “We hear talk of negotiations, but we will continue to fight the invaders until we have real peace with the invaders leaving the country.”

The fire brigade is fighting a major fire in the city

(Aleksandr Osadchy)

The concept in these parts “the family, the community, the people” is undergoing a painful re-evaluation.

Vladimir Putin has repeatedly set out the narrative leading up to the invasion that Ukraine was a founding bloc of the Russian home: that the war was intended to liberate ethnic Russians in Ukraine oppressed by fascists and neo-Nazis: that it was a historic wrong done to them correct.

Around 74 percent of Kharkiv’s 1.4 million inhabitants speak Russian. President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy claimed before the start of the conflict that Moscow might try to take the city under the pretext of “protecting” these people – an act that “will be the beginning of a full-scale war”.

Kharkiv is also the home base of politicians seen as pro-Moscow, such as Yevhen Murayev, a former Ukrainian MP who was appointed Putin’s chosen leader of a puppet regime by the British government after the invasion and occupation. This particular claim was far-fetched, but there has long been a deep mistrust of a “fifth column”.

There were at least some Russian speakers who had declared that they would never take up arms against Russia.

One of them angrily told me when I visited the city a month before the war: “It is unthinkable that me and my friends would take up a gun and start fighting the Russians. We’ve lived our whole lives together and now there are people who are trying to make enemies of us and cause a bloodbath.”

Kiril Semenov, a 48-year-old electrical engineer, accused the US and West of using Ukraine as a proxy against Russia. “And when the fighting starts, will NATO come here to fight the Russians? Of course not, they already said they wouldn’t.”

Mr Semenov has not picked up a gun, but he is now part of a civic group that distributes food to Ukrainian forces and those in need and cleans up after rocket and artillery strikes.

An unexploded missile wedged in an apartment building in the city

(Kim Sengupta)

“I was right when I said that NATO will not come to fight alongside Ukraine? We Ukrainians have to help ourselves. I still think the war could have been avoided,” says Semenov.

“But nothing justifies this kind of bombing, killing ordinary people like those who lived in this building,” he says, pointing to the rubble of a 10-story apartment block in Nemyschlianskyi, the district where he lives. Eight people died in the attack.

The fighting in and around Kharkiv has not stopped for a single day. One of the first of the seven Russian generals killed in that war, Major General Vitaly Gerasimov, died near here earlier this month. Around 220 artillery and mortar shells were fired over 24 hours last weekend, Ukrainians say, and some hit the neutron source nuclear facility at the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology.

Three of the districts we passed through — Saltivka, Oleksiyivka and Pyatyhatky — saw non-stop shelling Monday, with targets ranging from the premises of an aluminum company to residential areas.

In a block of flats in Saltivka that is 90 percent vacant and most apartments have fled, Yevgeny Afonin was at a loss as to why the 11-story building, where he is one of only four occupants, continued to come under regular fire.

“Four people from one family were killed in the first week of the bombing. Then we had a few dead and injured and almost everyone left,” he says.

“But the shelling continues day and night. Sometimes they have a break for a few hours. But then they start again, I hear.”

“The shelling continues day and night”

(Aleksandr Osadchy)

Further along the same stretch of road, Valentin Melnyk walked on crutches. His left leg had been hit by shrapnel when a grenade landed in the road as he was driving home.

He describes what happened: “I was trying to get home before curfew. Suddenly there was an explosion in front of me and some parked cars caught fire. Metal came through the car door and through my legs. I had an operation. The doctors say I need two more, but even then they don’t know if I’ll be able to walk again.”

It is one of the tragic ironies of President Putin’s “liberation war” that two mostly Russian-speaking cities – Mariupol and Kharkiv – were hit the hardest. The result, according to local residents, is that Russian forces have not been welcomed, but met with defiant resistance.

Ihor Telekhov, the mayor of Kharkiv, lists the destruction since the beginning of the war: 1,177 blocks of flats demolished, plus 15 hospitals, 69 schools and 53 kindergartens. According to the Emergency Medical Service of Ukraine, around 520 people were killed in the fighting.

“The Russian army, the aggressor’s army, is targeting residential areas. It’s not just individual households that have been hit, but entire neighborhoods,” says Telekhov.

The mayor admits that “before the start of the war, almost every fourth person had contact with relatives, acquaintances and many friends in Russia. Kharkiv has always been considered more or less loyal to Russia. Today the attitude towards Russia, the aggressor, has changed dramatically, each of us is ready to defend the city to the end.”

“The Russian army is targeting residential areas”

(Aleksandr Osadchy)

Oleg Posohov, the Cossack battalion’s sergeant-major, comments: “The Russians create their version of history and then get angry when it doesn’t match reality. The people of Kharkiv would never stand by and let Putin’s troops invade.

“I would say about 30 percent of the population here were Russian sympathizers, 25 percent of them are now committed to Ukraine,” says Sergeant Posohov. “Among the remaining five percent are some spies and saboteurs; We caught some of them, they passed information and photos to the Russians to help them bomb and also try to get into the city.”

Russian troops entering Kharkiv were pushed back. Anti-tank weapons, javelins, the NLAWs provided by the US and UK, have been extremely effective in hand-to-hand combat, according to Ukrainian armed forces. A recently destroyed Russian armored personnel carrier (APC) lying smoking on the eastbound road is an example, a soldier points out.

“But we don’t really have enough anti-tank weapons,” adds Sergeant Posohov. “If the Javelins and NLAWs are too expensive, give us some RPG-7s. They will be good at close range, Ukrainians have always been good at fighting.”

Many members of Battalion 226 claim to have Cossack blood in them, hence the name given to it.

Metal came through the car door and through my legs. I had an operation. The doctors say I need two more, but even then they don’t know if I’ll be able to walk again.

Valentin Melnyk, resident of Kharkiv

“One of my ancestors was a Cossack military chief, quite a few of us have a connection to the Cossacks. But we are Ukrainian Cossacks, not Russian. Mikhailo Koteivets, our battalion commander, is a Cossack, he fought in the Soviet Army in Afghanistan, so he knows the weaknesses of the Russians.”

At the underground headquarters of one of Ukraine’s most capable and experienced units in Kharkiv, the soldiers ate a hasty lunch before leaving on their mission. Oleg Supareka, who assembles a combat team, also has experience serving in Soviet forces, having served in the first Nagorno-Karabakh War in the mid-1990s.

“Judging by their poor performance in this war, not much has changed, there is a lot of corruption and inefficiency. I kept in touch with the Russian military for a while, and they spent more time on ceremonial duties than on combat drills,” says Commander Supareka.

Like many others on the front lines, he was not optimistic that the current round of negotiations would lead to peace breaking out in the near future.

“These talks have been going on for a long time, we will see what happens. They talk, but meanwhile the Russians keep attacking this city.”

A group of residents cleared a large amount of debris in front of a large building that was hit by a rocket attack.

Aleksandr Osadchy and his mother

(Aleksandr Osadchy)

“This is a building with an interesting past,” says one of the volunteer cleaners, Denis Zhuravlov, associate history professor at Karazin University in Kharkiv.

“It was the headquarters of the Red Army in 1919, then it became the headquarters of the counter-revolutionary White Guard under General [Anton] Denikin. Then, until this attack, it was a well-known courthouse.

“One cannot help feeling that this is just another example of the Russians trying to erase our history.”

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