Everyone would like to call and ask how their loved ones are doing. In vain, because usually after a few words the connection cuts out.
The Central Square looks like a hurricane has come through. Some buildings have their roofs torn off, and the ground is covered with rubble. It’s a wonder that most of the lampposts have survived unscathed. On the building housing the city council, shot up and windowless, there still hangs a poster: “We and Russia are one nation!” Behind the building, in front of a monument to the poet Taras Shevchenko, the body of a rocket is stuck into the ground.
Smoke rises over the other side of the city, separated from the center by the Oskil River. After the Ukrainian counter-offensive in early September, this river in the Kharkiv Oblast became the front line. But not here in Kupiansk, where the Ukrainians managed to break through to its other shore. Today—five days after Ukrainian forces entered the city—the situation on the other side of Oskil is still chaotic.
Now it is silent. Birds occasionally fly across the slightly cloudy sky.
A couple in their fifties is walking along the street adjacent to the central square. They approach Oleksiy, a soldier.
“Our daughter lives across the bridge. Can we cross?” the man asks.
“I don’t know if you’ll make it because right now both the others and our own are at work,” replies Oleksiy.
What is at work, shelling, is artillery.
“Please go, but be very, very careful,” adds Oleksiy.
Before they leave, a loud shot rings out. This—the man and woman say—is the best illustration of how they live here. They don’t sleep due to constant explosions and they do not have water or electricity. They also don’t have enough cell phone service to call their daughter on the other side of town. They have to take a chance to see if she’s doing well.
They have just started talking about their problems when more shots are heard, one after the other. Rockets roar like a fleet of jets. After a while there are more explosions, followed by a series of smaller ones.
These are cluster rockets that disintegrate into charges with a large blast radius. Civilians often fall victim to them. Many countries have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, but neither Russia nor Ukraine have done so.
The storm of explosions lasts almost half a minute. The soldier and the man lie glued to the ground, breathing heavily. The woman just crouches down, but her face is painted with a frown.
They did not see how close the rocket fell, the arrival of which could be seen with the naked eye. Nor that within a few hundred meters smoke began to rise in several places.
Oleksiy’s walkie-talkie rings.
“How are you?” asks Vasyl, a soldier from the same unit.
“Shitty… Shitty, Vasya.”
Vasyl does not answer.
“Are they ours?” asks Oleksiy, the man lying on the ground, hopefully.
“Damned if I know,” Oleksiy replies.
Vasyl’s voice is heard again: “Repeat.”
“Shitty, damn it!”
“Then we probably won’t go see our daughter,” says the man lying on the ground to his still crouching wife.
“We are walking towards the vehicles,” another voice says through the walkie-talkie.
“We’re running,” Oleksiy replies.
No one says goodbye or asks anything. They diverge, each in their own direction.
The mayor cooperated
When the invasion began on February 24, one of the targets of Russian attacks was the Kharkiv Oblast. From the first hours, Russian troops occupied territory here with great speed. Already on day one, they stood near Kharkiv. To slow down the attack, the Ukrainian army blew up the bridges in the oblast.
Despite this, two days later the Russian army was near Kupiansk. Even that night, the local authorities assured that everything was under control, but the next morning the Russians entered the city.
Mayor Hennadiy Mazehora was the first important official to join the advancing army. He claimed that there was no one around to defend the city, that there were no Ukrainian soldiers in it, and he cooperated to avoid destruction and casualties. The Ukrainian prosecutor’s office immediately opened proceedings against him, accusing him of treason. Mazehora’s fate is unknown.
Some of the inhabitants of Kupiansk went out to protest against the occupation authorities. In the central square, where rubble is now scattered, about a hundred people with blue and yellow flags shouted: “Kupiansk is Ukraine.” Russian soldiers shot into the air; they shouted for people to disperse.
During another demonstration, an armored personnel carrier and an armored vehicle blocked people’s way. In the video, a Russian soldier can be heard through a megaphone saying: “Dear citizens, leave your streets…” – then he corrected himself – “…leave the streets!”
“These are our streets! Our city!” the angry crowd shouted.
“These are your streets, this is your city,” the soldier tried to reassure them.
“Get out of here!”
We are afraid they will come back
It was here, in Kupiansk, that protesters rushed at one of the cars with the letter “Z” painted on it. Someone even jumped on the hood and tried to break the window with his foot. The Russian soldiers inside broke through the crowd and drove away in a hurry.
The organizer of the protests, Mykola Masliy, who was also a deputy of the city council and a veteran of the war in Donbas, was detained. His fate is unknown to this day.
Olena, a nurse in the surgical ward of the hospital in Kupiansk, also attended these protests. She shouted along with the others: “Get out!” They were defenseless and could not deal with the military on their own.
When she still had access to the Internet, Olena read that the inhabitants of Kupiansk were accused of sympathizing with the Russians. It upsets her to this day.
“I don’t think we’re traitors,” says Olena in a raised voice. “We’re afraid that all of this will return.” It was very difficult during the occupation.
“They treated us normally. Everything was fine, but they weren’t our people,” echoes a second nurse.
“This is our city, our land. We didn’t invite them here and we don’t want them.”
During the six month occupation, the hospital in Kupiansk was the main medical facility in the surrounding areas occupied by the Russians. Mostly civilians were brought there, occasionally also [Russian] soldiers, who were taken somewhere further as soon as their condition stabilized.
“We are obliged to help everyone,” admits the other nurse.
People can’t stand it
Kupiansk, where approximately 29,000 people lived until the Russian invasion of February 24, had the misfortune of in early September suddenly finding itself on the front line and becoming the object of heavy artillery fire. It can be said that this city was at the epicenter of Jünger’s “storm of steel.”
Heavy clashes took place on the fourth day of the counter-offensive. After Ukrainian troops broke through the defenses, the Russian army made a chaotic escape. They took up new positions just beyond the Oskil River. Ukrainian troops are trying to break through them to regain the last occupied territories of the Kharkiv Oblast and open the way to the Luhansk region. However, so far they have only managed to cross the river in Kupiansk and around Izium. Their counterattack has lost momentum.
It was when the front was stabilizing around the river that the city became the target of intense artillery fire.
“People started leaving here en masse for the first time at the very beginning of the invasion. Now that this current nightmare has started, a lot of people are leaving the city again.” Even the calm ones cannot stand such anxiety, admits Viktoria, also a nurse.
All the conversations I had during my short visit to Kupiansk were interrupted by the sounds of Russian and Ukrainian artillery. These were mainly explosions of rockets with cluster munitions, causing a terrible roar and, above all, consistently turning the city into ruin.
In low power mode
The walls of the hospital have provided security for the time being. Nothing has fallen on it, and the construction seems solid. Until February 24, about 900 people worked there, but now there are about 20. However, there are five times the amount of patients. Every day, about 25 people are hospitalized, most of them with shrapnel wounds.
“We operate without electricity or water and with a minimum number of staff,” admits Yuri Chepurko, deputy director of the hospital. The director appointed by the Russians
disappeared before the Ukrainian army appeared in the city.
Power is provided by a generator, but access to diesel fuel is limited. The hospital has only modest supplies brought in by volunteers. It would be enough to power the facility for an hour of normal operation. So they save it. They sit in the dark and turn on the generator only when they need it to save another wounded person.
After stabilizing the most seriously injured people, they transport them—thanks to the help of volunteer civilians or soldiers—to towns further from the front line. The biggest problem is with those who cannot sit. They usually can’t be evacuated.
“We work without permanent shifts. We sleep when we can because it all depends on when the patients arrive. Sometimes we sleep two or three hours a day,” says Chepurko.
Without saying goodbye
That day, all the hospital employees I spoke to said that they hadn’t gone home for eight or nine days. The exception is the surgeon who lives nearby.
Yuri Chepurko comes from the nearby Kivasharivka. On the day when he arrived for his shift, the front line shifted: Kupiansk found itself on the Ukrainian side, and Kivasharivka on the Russian side. He didn’t take his things with him or say goodbye to his family. Due to the lack of cell phone reception, he has not been able to contact them for over a week. He hopes only that they are well.
Everyone would like to call somewhere to ask how their relatives are, where they are, whether they managed to leave, or simply to say that they are still alive. Therefore, as soon as even a weak cell phone signal suddenly appears in the hospital, the staff who are not in the middle of any tasks immediately run outside and try to make a call. So far in vain, because usually after a few words the connection cuts out.
Kupiansk is shaken by explosions again. Doctors and nurses stand in front of the entrance, reactionless. They’ve learned when it’s really time to be scared. Despite their shattered nerves, they wait patiently for the front line to move away from their city and for their nightmare to end.