Ihor remains on watch. Correspondence from Kharkiv


Thank you, your comment will be visible after it has been approved.


February 10, 2023

Ihor remains on watch. Correspondence from Kharkiv

  • Dispatches from Ukraine
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • war

The inhabitants of the most damaged housing estate in the city are trying to breathe new life into it.

Photo: State Emergency Service of Ukraine

There is still a terrible silence in Northern Saltivka. It is occasionally interrupted by the cooing of pigeons, the rustling of branches, the creaking of doors, or by a passing car crushing glass and rubble; more often the rumble of artillery, less often footsteps or conversation.

Among the deserted blocks of flats, the slightest murmur creeps into the ears of those who have returned or never left.

“Someone says something far away, and you think he’s in your apartment. There are no windows, so you can hear everything. You look at the yard, and there is no one there,” says 57-year-old Ihor.

Ihor and Inna, his wife and three years his junior, were the only ones to return to the eight-story concrete block of flats where several hundred people had previously lived. It is hardly surprising that no one is in a hurry to return except for them. A rocket hit the building. In addition to a large hole that looks as if someone gutted the entire block, you can see the black soot from the fire—flames ruined those apartments that the explosion did not reach. It was on fire for at least two days, reducing to ashes the worldly possessions of many families. No one came to put out the fire, because in those days, appearing in Northern Saltivka risked death.

Several months of heavy Russian artillery shelling left this neighborhood in a deplorable state. There are mangled or partially collapsed buildings which are uninhabitable. Rarely does an apartment have an intact window, and in some of them not even four walls remain. There is no water, electricity or gas in the estate. Only the cell phone network functions well.

Nature has already begun to fight for dominance over man: plants gradually take over abandoned areas. Thick grasses absorb playgrounds where children have not set foot for a long time and growing trees & bushes cut off paths.

However, Ihor decided not to give up. He looks after his neighbors’ apartments and keeps things tidy, so that in due time life in his building can be vibrant as it used to be.

So that we don’t take it easy

Ihor cleaned up the yard. He also removed the leftover garbage that had already begun to decompose. He and his wife are tidying up the stairwell. They are trying to clear away rubble, glass, remnants left behind by residents and the soldiers who had been stationed in the area.

Recently, Ihor was trimming bushes in front of the house. Only in one place did he not dare, because pieces of concrete, window frames, balconies and glass keep falling from above. Artillery was booming as he trimmed, but he didn’t even slouch. He already knows well when, as he says, “ours” or “not ours” are firing. He also does not have the strength to constantly think about the danger.

“I can’t help it if it falls next to me,” says Ihor.

Even so, the situation has calmed down significantly compared to the first months of full-scale war. Then the rockets fell by the dozen, now only solitary ones. In recent days, they have destroyed a newsstand and hit several buildings. Ihor does not understand at all the purpose of shelling an already devastated housing estate.

“It’s probably so we don’t take it too easy,” he jokes.

Still, he appreciates that the situation has calmed down a bit. After the failed offensive on Kharkiv, which had a population of 1.5 million before February 24, the Russian army gradually moved away from the city, withdrawing its forces, forced to do so by advancing Ukrainian soldiers. The fighting has moved to the north of Kharkiv, and its reverberations are regularly heard across Northern Saltivka.

“Compared to how they [projectiles] used to fly in before, now we feel like we are in paradise. You walk down the street calmly and don’t even flinch,” he says.

“Not ours,” i.e. the Russian army, are responsible for the destruction of Northern Saltivka, as well as other parts of Kharkiv. Since the Kremlin launched its full-scale offensive on February 24, Kharkiv, less than 40 kilometers from the Russian border, became one of the main targets. On the very first day, Russian tanks appeared on the city’s ring road. Fierce fighting took place on the access roads, and Northern Saltivka found itself on the front line. It is part of Saltivka—the largest housing estate in Ukraine. More than 400,000 people lived there—more than in many oblast capitals, such as Kherson, Chernihiv or Poltava.

In the days following, Russian troops entered the city, but each time they were driven back by the Ukrainian army. Artillery reached Kharkiv more and more often, and Russian planes dropped bombs on the city. Not only the outskirts, but also its center were gradually destroyed.

Red down jacket

However, Northern Saltivka was hit the hardest. Its inhabitants quickly had to learn how to live in wartime conditions.

Today, Ihor and Inna recall one of the first bombardments with laughter, but they were not happy then. They were searching in vain for a shop where they could get bread. Walking along one of the wide streets that cut through the estate, Inna was saying something to her husband. That’s when the rocket hissed—hissed, that’s how they remember it—and then exploded with a shrill bang. Inna continued as if nothing had happened. But Ihor had disappeared. She turned around and it took her a moment to notice that her husband was lying on the ground.

“Get down!” He shouted.

Inna squatted.

“Why are you sitting?!” He shouted further, flattened on the pavement.

“I have a new jacket,” answered Inna in her red down jacket.

Back then, they still had no idea what was going on around them. Every minute brought something new. The falling rockets surprised them as much as the sudden aggression from Russia. They couldn’t believe that all of this was happening in their neighborhood.

Ihor describes it as exemplary. He moved into this building immediately after it was put into use, in December 1989. Even though neighbors in blocks of flats often don’t know each other, in his stairwell most of them kept in touch, and not just for one generation. Ihor’s son grew up here, and later lived next door, so that Ihor’s grandson could visit him. In turn, 72-year-old aunt Tania, who lives in the same staircase, always greeted him with a joke or a kind word. They had known each other for three decades, and he felt lighthearted after such conversations.

“It was a great neighborhood. Quiet and peaceful like a resort. We didn’t have to go anywhere, everything was right under our noses,” says Ihor.

People used to go to the nearby pond. Some to fish, others to swim. Or they gathered with their families or in a circle of friends and fried skewers on the grill.

Inna used to live at the intersection near the bazaar and the subway station, where, she says, the traffic was like an anthill at times. When she moved to Northern Saltivka, she was amazed for a long time that there was such peace among these tall blocks of flats and that the estate is mostly set apart from the hustle and bustle of the city.

The heart couldn’t take it

The new wartime conditions forced absolute compliance. Inna no longer cared about the new jacket. Together with Ihor, they learned to react in a flash. When they heard an alarming sound, they immediately threw themselves to the ground and covered their ears. They clung to it until the threat passed.

“When one rocket flies in, explodes and the earth shakes, it’s already terrible. And here there were twenty or thirty of them a day. Not to mention the smaller projectiles, says Ihor.

There were times when rockets exploded quite close to them. To this day, Ihor is surprised that they came out unscathed.

When hard times came, the neighbors became even closer. They got to know each other better. Everyone helped as much as they could. Someone had excess food, another had a blanket. Aunt Tania, as Ihor called her, was ill and could barely walk, so her neighbors brought her water from a spring and food. She had no family, so they made sure she wasn’t left to face the war alone.

But finally that moment came. The military ordered residents to leave their homes, because it was a military operations area and they had to be stationed there. For several weeks, Ihor and Inna lived in the basement of one of the schools in Saltivka. Aunt Tania said that she would not leave the apartment because she wasn’t healthy enough to do it. She stayed.

It was then that the shelling was most intense and turned Saltivka into rubble. A rocket also hit Ihor’s building. It quickly caught fire, the smoke was terrible and suffocating. One of the neighbors jumped from the fourth floor in desperation and died on the spot. The soldiers abandoned the building after the attack.

Before the inhabitants returned, looters appeared—they took what they could from the open apartments. Mostly metal for sale, as not much else survived the fire.

Neighbors found Aunt Tania in the toilet. Her heart stopped—it probably couldn’t take it anymore.

These are the two victims that Ihor knows about. It is possible that he has not heard of all of them. It is also possible that someone is still under the rubble, which no one has yet touched. However, Ihor consoles himself by thinking that since there is no stench of decomposing corpses in the air, there is probably no one there.

With a crowbar for repair

Ihor’s apartment burned to the ground, but he wanted to come back right away. There were blackened walls, lots of ashes and charred remains of things from the recent past. Fortunately, he keeps an expensive carbon fiber bicycle in a warehouse in another part of town.

For years, Ihor was a cyclist, he joined the national team of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Then he took up the sport as an amateur and over the next few years he and his friends trained, took part in competitions for seniors, and even rebuilt one of the velodromes. He only parted with this passion three years ago. He started to care for a plot of land, started smoking, and—he says—if he doesn’t ride 2-3,000 kilometers a year, he has no chance of maintaining his form.

For some time he slept with Inna on the balcony, where they arranged mattresses. In the stairwell, he wrote “People live here. July 7, 2022.” He got the date of their return wrong, because they returned in June, but he left it that way.

After telephone consultations with neighbors, Ihor and Inna moved to Aunt Tania’s apartment. They didn’t change anything there. They even left her photos because they don’t want to forget her.

Although the blast wave shattered the windows, Tania’s apartment was untouched by fire, and it is a good vantage point. As soon as a car pulls up, Ihor leans out the window if he’s at home. Looters come around here a lot. They think that there is no one left in the stairwell, so they come in as if they own the place.

Once he caught two men getting out of their cars with a crowbar and an axe. He knew that if it came to violence, he had no chance.

“Where are you going?” Ihor asked.

“To do renovations,” one of them replied.

It was hard to believe, because this dilapidated part of their building is about to be demolished. And anyway, who undertakes such work armed with an axe and a crowbar? He said he’d go get the phone to check with the landlord. At that time, the men got into the car and drove away, tires squealing.

At night, from time to time someone bangs on the stairwell door. Ihor locks it before going to bed.

When the war ends

After they returned to their block, Ihor and Inna were almost alone. Only a few residents remained in the surrounding buildings.

“We were alone as if in a graveyard. Now it’s not bad…,” says Ihor as two shots are heard, “… because people are slowly coming back,” he continues. “Within two months, ten people returned to one building and seventeen to another.”

They have been receiving humanitarian aid regularly for at least a month, so they have food and other necessities.

They go to a spring for water.

However, Ihor ask for nothing. Volunteers have to prod him to get him to admit that he needs something.

He’s always doing something. Together with Inna, they cleaned the building and the yard. Although he complains that no matter how tidy he makes it, when he washes up using a bowl in the evening, the water is black.

He put bricks in front of the staircase, making a hearth to cook food. They dream of a bottle of gas so that they can cook in better conditions. In their building there is neither electricity, water nor gas. Representatives of the municipal authorities who came to inspect the building said that no utilities would appear by the end of the year.

That’s why Ihor and Inna are already thinking about the coming winter. He puts glass in the windows as materials allow in order to insulate the building before the autumn dampness and rain, then snow. He collects wood so that they have something to burn. He could use a flashlight because the nights are getting longer, and when darkness falls all they can do is sit in the dark.

“It is most important to be active. Nobody pays me for this work, but it’s better than staring at the ceiling. You can do that for a week or two, after which the immobility is mentally exhausting,” he explains.

Therefore, if the war ended and the inhabitants wanted to return, he would call them and they would immediately get to work. Even without money from the city, they would rebuild their apartment block at their own expense.

For now, these dreams are interrupted by artillery, which still reaches Northern Saltivka.

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.


Leave a reaction with this article