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Destruction in Ukraine's Kharkiv after Russian forces launched a bombing attack on May 25, 2024 (State Emergency Service of Ukraine via Wikimedia Commons)

In War-Rattled Kharkiv, Ukrainians Persevere Amid Russian Attacks

A dispatch from one of the deadliest weeks in months for Kharkiv.

Words: Joseph Roche
Pictures: State Emergency Service of Ukraine

One day in mid-May, at the corner of a residential neighborhood in Kharkiv’s Novobavarskyi district, a group of firefighters used shovels to clear the rubble of a destroyed apartment building. Earlier in the night, Russian forces, advancing from about 12 miles away since mid-May, launched a new bombing campaign on Kharkiv.

On the third floor of the building, an old man in pajamas smoked a cigarette, watching the firefighters, police, and volunteers bustling around in the courtyard. In front of his destroyed home, a little girl cried, “Where is my cat? I can’t find my cat.”

Next to her, two firefighters, their eyes empty with fatigue, rested on a bench. They tried to wipe the soot and sweat off their faces.

Heat, in the middle of May, was suffocating Kharkiv. A whirlwind of hot air mixed dust and powder with the acrid smell of burning flesh and decomposing bodies.

“We Only Found Half of His Body”

That week was the deadliest in months. Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine, located some 31 miles from the Russian border, had not experienced such bombing since the beginning of the war. In one month, fighting killed more than a hundred civilians — in broad daylight in a supermarket and in the middle of the night in their homes.

After almost 24 hours of searching, Sergei, one of the commanders of the Kharkiv fire brigade, declared that the situation was “disastrous and catastrophic, and no one could still be alive under the rubble.”

On the night of May 31, Russian troops carried out an attack on Kharkiv (State Emergency Service of Ukraine via Wikimedia Commons)
On the night of May 31, Russian troops carried out an attack on Kharkiv (State Emergency Service of Ukraine via Wikimedia Commons)

A little further away, the body of an old man turned up hidden beneath a bush. “He was thrown out of his window during the first impact,” explained Sergei. “We only found half of his body.”

At the moment, reports had already put the number of dead at nine, and more than a dozen injured were clinging to life in various hospitals around the city.


Under the footsteps of the volunteers, the broken glass from the windows glistened in the sun. A stand in front of the gutted building offered free meals and water to the residents.

Just in front, Ola, a 25-year-old psychologist, talked with a little girl holding a cat and tried to reassure her.

We only found half of his body.

– Sergei

Originally from Sumy, Ola wore a long blonde braid that fell to her hips. With tired eyes, she had spent the last 24 hours coordinating the psychological support team sent to the site.

“We are always sent with the firefighting teams. We provide psychological support to the victims and their families,” she explained. “Reactions can vary greatly. Some people cry, others are calm, and some become hysterical. For example, yesterday, an old man, after recognizing his wife’s body, became violent with the firefighters and medical staff. He was screaming. The police had to intervene to calm him down. Working with such cases is always very difficult.”

“Thank God We Are Still Alive”

Ola went on to explain that they work with children, especially when they have lost a parent. “We try to keep them occupied by talking to them and organizing games. For the adults, we just try to listen, stabilize them, and offer water and moral support. Sometimes we suggest breathing exercises.”

Next to Ola, a broken door of the small Soviet-era building led to the first floor. A little higher up live Olena, 45, and her husband Volodia, 56.

“The first impact did not hit us,” explained Olena. “It hit the neighboring building. We were not directly affected, and only our windows shattered. I went outside to see what had happened and tried to help. I didn’t know what to do, so I started picking up the glass shards. That’s when we were hit a second time. Thank God we are still alive.”

Struck by a double tap — an illegal tactic that involves targeting a location first and then hitting it again to maximize human casualties — Olena and Volodia’s apartment was hanging precariously.

Yet, Olena, a nurse in Kharkiv, didn’t see herself leaving her apartment or her city. “I don’t want to leave Kharkiv. This is my home. And where would I go? Besides, the people at the hospital need me. Many elderly people need my help. If I leave, who will take care of them? So we just pray it doesn’t strike the same place again.”

Hope Despite War

In two years, the city has adapted to Russian attacks and learned to live with the fear of bombings. For the past two years, the city hall has set up underground schools in metro stations. Marianna, 35, came to pick up Volodka, her seven-year-old son, who studies at the Peremoha station, the terminus, around 12 miles from the front line.

Marianna is from Saltivka, a residential area Russian forces bombed heavily early in the war. While fleeing, she and her son were injured. She spent more than six months in a coma.

A man sifts through belongings scattered after a Russian attack on a residential building in Kharkiv on May 31, 2024 (State Emergency Service of Ukraine via Wikimedia Commons)
A man sifts through belongings scattered after a Russian attack on a residential building in Kharkiv on May 31, 2024 (State Emergency Service of Ukraine via Wikimedia Commons)

She now lives in a center for internally displaced people. Marianna said she’s trying to return to life and, for the first time in two years, she took her son to school. “It fills me with joy to see him running, laughing, and playing with his new friends. He spent the first two years of the war either in the hospital or taking online classes.” Tears crawl down her cheeks. “I haven’t seen him laugh like this in years.”

Ella Nikolaevna, a teacher, explained that due to the beginning of the Russian counter-offensive in northern Kharkiv, classes had moved online in recent weeks. Since the situation on the front has improved, the school has been able to reopen its doors.

“Not Afraid Anymore”

Forty-year-old Lilia, the mother of five-year-old Vladislava said that she wouldn’t have been able to let her daughter go to school without knowing she was safe.

“I can go to work without being afraid that something will happen to her,” she explained. “When I hear there was an explosion in the city, I don’t have to wonder where the missile landed or if my daughter is safe. I know she’s at school in a bunker and nothing can happen to her. I almost feel safer when she’s at school than if she were with my mother at home.”

On the way back, Marianna checked her phone: a drone had fallen in the suburbs of the city. Without flinching, Marianna and Lilia let their two children play tag between the baroque columns of the Kharkiv metro. “I’m not afraid anymore,” Marianna finally said. “Not of the counter-offensive, not of the Russians, not even of the bombings. At first, I was afraid of everything. Now I can’t even feel fear anymore. Whatever happens, happens. And I believe in us, and I believe in victory.”

Joseph Roche

Joseph Roche is an independent journalist covering Ukraine and the Middle East. A former analyst at Oxford Analytica, he holds a master's degree in international relations from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

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