Residents of the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv pause for breath as Russian forces push back

Kharkiv is a city that can now breathe, but not necessarily relax.

Ukrainian forces have pushed invading forces back toward the Russian border for the past week and a half, loosening a deadly grip that has threatened the country’s second-largest city since the first days of the war.

Streets and sidewalks are pockmarked with craters and dilapidated buildings, while some shops have simply been smashed by shells, especially in Saltivka, the now-ravaged suburb in the northeastern corner of the city.

Many still-traumatized residents struggle to find what normalcy will look like and wonder if they will ever find it.

“No one knew what the situation was, where to hide, where to run, because the shelling was all over the city,” said Ludmilla Ivanivna, head nurse in the adult surgery wing of the Kharkiv City Clinical Hospital, known as Meshchaninov. .

She and her colleagues seemed physically and emotionally drained Saturday as they recounted nearly three harrowing months of relentless warfare as Russian armored columns tried to force their way into the city.

hospital life

Elsewhere in Ukraine, hospitals have been targeted by Russian artillery and missiles, although Moscow denies having such a policy. Meshchaninov’s staff were taking no chances, and he had gurneys lined up in the corridor ready to move patients away from windows that would have been blown out if they had been hit.

Along those dimly lit corridors, you find lives altered forever.

“I [have] lived in the hospital [for] 80 days Two and a half months. From day one to this day,” said Dr. Oleksandr Dukhovsky, one of the hospital’s trauma surgeons and chief of pediatrics.

Oleksandr Dukhovsky, one of the trauma surgeons and head of pediatrics at the Kharkiv City Clinical Hospital, known as Meshchaninov, has been living in the hospital for 80 days. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

Other staff members and even patients have done the same, some out of a sense of duty, but in others because they have nowhere else to go.

When Russian shells hit civilians lining up for aid in Kharkiv in March, it was Dukhosky who treated them, and sometimes in the most horrific conditions.

“It’s very emotional to talk about it,” Dukhovsky said after a long pause.

Patients with nowhere to go

On March 6, in an apartment block a kilometer from the hospital road, a shell landed almost on top of the building. The resulting explosion blew out windows and sent the kitchen door flying toward 18-year-old Diana Zinchenko.

Diana Zinchenko, 18, right, and her mother Viktoria at the Kharkiv City Clinical Hospital. Diana was seriously injured in a Russian artillery attack on March 6, which left her apartment in ruins. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

The young woman’s face and head were shattered. When she arrived at the hospital, Dukhosky fought to save her through two operations and facial reconstruction.

He survived, although he lost his left eye and has a large scar on the side of his head. She is still in the hospital.

Diana’s mother, Viktoria, was eager to show photos of her daughter, a recent high school graduate with long flowing hair and a formal dress, from those happier, more innocent days.

“She’s so beautiful,” Viktoria said as her daughter sat up in her hospital bed and flashed a shy smile, as if embarrassed by all the attention being paid to her.

With their apartment in ruins, they have nowhere to go. They live in the hospital room, which they share with Diana’s grandfather, who seemed overwhelmed that his granddaughter was being interviewed, photographed and fawned over.

“Thank you. Thank you,” he kept repeating in Russian.

Across the city, more people were unsure where to go or what to do in the relative safety of Kharkiv.

Turn a bomb shelter into a home

Across town, a former Soviet-era bomb shelter had been home to some 150 people at the height of the fighting for the ancient city, which lies in the heart of the intersecting rivers.

The old haunt, complete with framed photos of long-dead Communist Party commissars, is dark, damp, dusty and cramped. Residents have converted army stretchers into makeshift cots. Some brought a few comforts from home, photos they have hung on the wall, blankets, pillows, and favorite reading lamps.

Some areas between families were protected with blankets and tarps. There was a play area for the children, where some of them drew on the concrete walls with crayons.

Valentina Turchina is one of the residents who has yet to emerge from a Soviet-era bunker in Kharkiv, despite the city being declared safe. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

“BOOM” a boy wrote on the wall, surrounding the words with a cloud of smoke. The drawing was situated alongside a variety of sketched cartoon characters.

“When people first came here, the shelling was so intense that people were jumping here for three days, but then they realized that they were very safe here,” said Valentina Turchina, one of the residents who has not yet out of the bunker.

His adult son, with whom he lived, died a few weeks into the war. She said he took his own life, but did not elaborate.

Turchina said he doesn’t know if it’s safe to return to the surface.

She may have a point.

As night fell over the city, more aerial sirens and the sound of distant artillery, both incoming and outgoing, pierced the darkness.

It was a visceral reminder that Kharkiv’s agony is far from over.

A former Soviet-era bomb shelter has become home to 150 people in Kharkiv. Families continue to live here long after the city was declared safe. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

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