A home on a volcano. Life in Kharkiv?


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August 3, 2022

A home on a volcano. Life in Kharkiv?

  • Dispatches from Ukraine
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • war
Photo: Depositphotos

Despite pleas from their families, some people don’t want to leave the shelled city. Only when the war ends, or when they finally leave, will they feel what they lived through here.

The phone rings more than forty times within three quarters of an hour. In addition, twenty four year old Tetiana Holubova receives countless instant messages; All from people needing help.

Her number spread on the internet when a portal published it. The situation got out of hand. In Kharkiv, an eastern Ukrainian city with a population of one and a half million, and in areas around the city, the number of people in need is enormous. Although a large proportion of the inhabitants have left, subway stations and cellars are still full of people from neighborhoods under fire.

Tetiana decided to stay to help them, as well as the soldiers defending her city and country. She also has another reason: “My whole family stayed in Kharkiv. If something happens, God forbid, I wouldn’t be able to help them in any way,” she says.

She messages her sister every hour. When planes appear in the sky, she immediately asks her sister if everything is OK. She is most worried about her 69-year-old grandmother Kateryna and 73-year-old grandfather Leonid. They live in the Saltivka neighborhood in the northeastern part of the city, which is regularly reached by Russian artillery, destroying apartment buildings built in Soviet times and gradually turning it into ruin.

Tetiana would like them to be in a safer place, not necessarily far from Kharkiv. Despite this, Kateryna and Leonid Havryshov do not want to hear about leaving. “Where are we supposed to go? We are going to die here. If something happens, it’ll happen at home,” says Kateryna.

Although Tetiana complains about her grandparents’ decision, she herself refuses the pleas of her friends to leave.

Only plan for today

Since the Kremlin launched a full-scale offensive on February 24, Kharkiv, less than 40 kilometers from the Russian border, has been one of the main targets. On the very first day, tanks appeared on the city’s bypass, a few kilometers from the house of Tetiana’s grandparents. In the following days, Russian troops entered the city. Each time they were pushed out by the Ukrainian army. Artillery reached Kharkiv more and more often and Russian planes began to drop bombs on the city. Not only the outskirts but also the city center were incrementally destroyed.

Tetiana Holubova did not believe until the very end that something like this could happen. In 2014, the conflict between Ukraine and Russia along with Russian supported separatists began in Donbas,  claiming at least 13,000 lives. According to the data of the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, at the beginning of February this year, almost 40 percent of those interviewed considered a full-scale war with Russia very likely or even inevitable.

But it was hard to believe that cities like Kharkiv would become a battlefield. When friends asked Tetiana if she was leaving, if she had stocked up, she replied: “This is the 21st century, such a war is impossible.” On February 24, she stopped making forecasts. But she still hopes that it will all end soon. “I have no plans for the future. There is only today and it is necessary to solve current problems,” she says.

The same people, different tasks

Tetiana wondered whether to leave only on the first day of war. A friend told her that there was a spot in a car going to Lviv. She wavered but ultimately refused. She knew that she could not help anyone from afar. The first days were the hardest. There was chaos, information was lacking, it was not clear what was going to happen, or how to respond.

Tetiana spent the first several dozen hours of the war at home. From morning to night, she was immersed in messages that flashed endlessly on her phone. “I tried to do something, but I didn’t know what. When you’re alone and there’s nothing to do, it’s tough,” she admits.

Before the war, she ran two theaters. And it was with the people at work that they created a help desk. Part of the activity focuses on helping servicemen. Volunteers deliver to them equipment ordered in advance — drones, thermal imaging and bulletproof vests. They devote the rest of their attention to civilians. Volunteers primarily buy them food and medicine. These are difficult to access in many places because pharmacies and stores have either closed, do not have essentials, or are very risky to get to. It quickly became apparent that Tetiana no longer had time to read the news. She busied herself with coordinating the activities of the group and contact with people.

Eventually, there were only four people left of the 70-person theater collective in Kharkiv. Many of those who left their homes help from a distance — by sending money or organizing humanitarian aid to the city. It is thanks to this support that Tetiana and the rest of the group can work. The entire network sprang up in a short time.

“I am surrounded by the same people as before except now we don’t talk about performances but wonder what kind of bulletproof vests we need,” says Tetiana.

From six in the morning, when the curfew ends, they provide help, unpack the aid they receive, and coordinate activities with drivers & other volunteers so that their support reaches as many people as possible. They help about 4,000 people daily. The curfew begins again at six in the evening. Staff members then sum up the day and plan the next. Tetiana only has a moment in the evening to read information about subsequent unsuccessful Russian offensives, about shelling that destroys buildings, and about victims.

There is no time to contemplate

Tetiana has experienced fear twice so far. The first time came when they were sorting an aid delivery and a plane flew overhead. Someone in her group shouted, “Get down!” She obeyed and soon the roars of the engines faded but her hands shook for another quarter of an hour. The second time she felt a sense of fear was when a rocket or a fragment of it hit the neighboring building. The explosion was terrible. Even the earth shook.

Besides this she feels good, if one can even say such a thing during wartime. She endures the sound of artillery without a problem. Information about death or destruction depresses but does not paralyze her. “I can function and act here. Only when the war is over or I leave here will I feel what I have experienced,” says Tetiana.

This is what happened to some of her friends who left Kharkiv. As long as they were in the city, they got involved, they did not sit idle, they knew what was happening to their loved ones, and when they left, all of the emotions hit with a multiplied force and they were unable to do anything for several days. Some cried incessantly, while others simply fell into apathy. “I don’t have time to contemplate all of this yet,” admits Tetiana.

She manages to push away even tragic moments. Two drivers associated with their organization recently died in an artillery attack.

Tetiana: “One day you talk to someone, and the next he is gone. Even if they were military, it would be easier to come to terms with, because when you play such a role, the risk of death is high. They were civilians. In the evening I thought about it and asked myself when it would end. But in the morning it all passes.”

Better, but not very good

For a long time she persuaded Grandma Kateryna and Grandpa Leonid to leave for a safer place. They, however, consistently refused. For over a week they did not even want to leave their apartment on the eleventh, the top-most floor of the building, on the outskirts of the city under attack. Kateryna could barely take it.

“It’s like living on a volcano,” she admits. “And yet some neighbors on the same floor stayed. There was still someone living underneath us too.”

There was no question of sleeping through the night. She kept waking up because sometimes rockets flew by near her building. She heard gunshots, whooshing and explosions in turn. According to data from the municipal authorities, Russian attacks in Kharkiv have destroyed or damaged nearly 600 buildings since February 24. The State Emergency Service of Ukraine informs that more than 500 inhabitants of Kharkiv were killed as of March 16.

“Despite all this we’re not leaving. No matter how close the people with whom you are staying may be, it’s nevertheless not your home,” admits Kateryna.

Tetiana looked constantly for a safer place for her grandparents. One day a friend from a town near Kharkiv called her, said that he was going and leaving the keys. He wanted to open his home to people in need. Tetiana thought that she must try. She called grandma Kateryna and spent a long time persuading her. She firmly refused at first but finally, after talking with her husband, she agreed to move. Tetiana arranged everything for her grandparents. A car was supposed to pick them up and someone would be waiting for them with the keys. The owner of the house called Tetiana the day they left. He asked why her grandparents had not arrived. She called her grandmother who said, “We changed our mind. We’re not going anywhere.”

They finally moved to another apartment that a friend had provided them. It’s on the first floor, near their old home, and hence still in the danger zone. “Here it is calmer than our place, but it is not very good,” admits Kateryna.

You can hear artillery every now and then. It is mainly Ukrainians who shoot out of the city at the Russian army, but from time to time something will also hit the area. Soon after our conversation, explosions shook eastern Kharkiv again and five people died, including a 9-year-old boy.

Kateryna remembers one day when there was complete silence from evening until morning. Then at last she slept off the time when the war had not let her shut her eyes.

Lines amidst the cacophony

Kateryna and Leonid are not in a critical humanitarian situation. The situation varies a lot depending on the part of the city. In the most destroyed areas there is often no electricity or gas, help does not always come, and open shops and pharmacies are far away. In the quietest parts of Kharkiv around the city center, the sound of fighting hardly ever reaches the ears of inhabitants.

All media reach Kateryna and Leonid’s apartment. They also have enough to eat and can afford to buy groceries, but it is difficult to stock up properly. Most shops and pharmacies are closed. There are long lines every day in front of those that remain open. Some people decide to go shopping right after the curfew in order to get the necessary things as quickly as possible. Store shelves become increasingly picked-over and some products are hard to find.

Kateryna stood in line at the supermarket for at least three hours. There were booms, but neither she nor the others in the line flinched. Nobody wanted to go home empty-handed. Moreover, only in this supermarket chain is it possible to withdraw money at the checkout because ATMs and banks have been out of service. Kateryna had to buy medicine and she could only pay for it in cash aswas no electricity at the pharmacy that day.

Last week in Chernihiv, a city in the northern part of the country, the Russians shot at people standing in line for bread. At least 10 people were killed.

“I forgot to buy heart medication and this is now the most important. I will have to stand in line again,” says Kateryna. Every now and then, something reminds you of the danger, like a car burning out in the street after shelling. “These artillery booms are bearable, if only they weren’t falling from the sky,” she adds. For her, as for her granddaughter, the roar of engines and bombs dropped from airplanes are the most terrible.

Only if they come in

Tetiana did not give up for a long time. She urged grandma and grandpa to leave for a safer place. They always replied that no one waits for people their age. Finally, unable to do anything about it, Tetiana gave up.

“These are adult, aware people. They made this decision and I cannot take them by force,” she says. “I am aware that something may happen to them, but I do not have the strength to fight them, so I have come to terms with the situation.”

For the moment she doesn’t even have time to visit her grandparents. There is so much work to do that in three weeks she left the organization only once, and only because it was her sister’s birthday. Bombs and rockets fall on Kharkiv every night, taking a terrible toll.

Nevertheless, Tetiana, like her grandmother Kateryna, stubbornly refuses to leave. “I will only if, God forbid, the city is occupied by the Russians,” she says.

But she doesn’t believe it will ever come to that.

This text was originally published in Polish in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Translated from Polish by Lukasz ChelminskiThis piece is part of the DS collection: Dispatches from Ukraine.


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