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Life returns to shelled-out district of Kharkiv

January 6, 2023

Saltivka is a northern district in the Ukrainian metropolis of Kharkiv. The suburban area was hit harder by Russian shelling than any other area in the country. Yet, despite the ongoing war, many people are returning.

A women with a blue knit cap
Irina Petrenko distributes groceries in northern SaltivkaImage: Hanna Sokolova/DW

On February 24, 2022, the first Russian bombs struck the Saltivka district of Kharkiv. It's the city's largest residential area, and, before the war began, more than 300,000 people lived there. The spacious streets are full of gray high-rise buildings.  

More than 4,000 buildings were damaged in Kharkiv. Almost one-third of them were hit directly. Those numbers are from Yevhen Pasenov, Deputy Director of the city's Regional Development, Construction, Housing and Communal Ministry of  Service.  

In May, after the first Ukrainian counteroffensive to liberate the suburbs, municipal officials set to work repairing homes — focusing on windows and roofs. "We want to preserve peoples' property so they can return at some point in the future," Pasenov said.  

Windows of houses on Pivnichna Saltivka covered with plywood
Nord Saltivka was hit harder by Russian shelling than any other area in UkraineImage: Hanna Sokolova/DW

Widespread destruction 

About 1 million people currently live in Kharkiv. Before the war, the city was home to approximately 1.5 million residents. Now, businesses are reopening, and more cars are on the roads again.  

North Saltivka district has few remaining inhabitants because almost all residential buildings there were damaged. The housing blocks with destroyed windows and black walls resemble scorched beehives; many windows are boarded up. 

"We can tell how many people live here by the distribution of humanitarian aid," Saltivka resident Irina Petrenko said with a smile. She was standing in a courtyard, surrounded on all sides by nine-story buildings.   

She said about 200 people lived in the four residential blocks, which now have heating, water and electricity again. Petrenko distributes bags of groceries that volunteers brought for the residents.    

"This is where I got married and gave birth to a daughter," Petrenko said. "She studied here." She added: "The kindergarten my granddaughter attended is here, too. This is where we'd take her for walks in the park. We'd sit on the benches and eat corn on the cob."  

Queue for humanitarian aid in the yard on Pivnichna Saltivka
Residents are coming home, but people in North Saltivka still need humanitarian aidImage: Hanna Sokolova/DW

Sheltering in hallways 

Petrenko is a seamstress, and her husband works in a furniture factory. Her daughter, son-in-law and 8-year-old granddaughter left Kharkiv in the early days of the war, but  Petrenko and her husband stayed behind.  

When air raid sirens rang out, they sought refuge in the hallway of their apartment and took turns sleeping. At nighttime, Petrenko watched from her window as Russian rockets were being launched. From here, it's not far to the Russian border. During the day, she went and fed her daughter's cat, in spite of the shelling.   

In March, northern Saltivka was subject to massive Russian shelling. "There were severe air raids. We sat in two chairs, in the hallway, by candlelight. My husband and I had already said our final goodbyes; we had told each other 'I love you,'"  Petrenko said. 

After this experience, the couple decided to move to another part of the city — at least temporarily. Before Petrenko left her apartment, she cleaned the floor. "My husband told me it was pointless," Petrenko said, laughing. Fortunately, their housing block wasn't damaged.  

"The shelling was ongoing as we drove out," Petrenko said. "The building next to ours was on fire. Power lines were dangling, and rubble was all over the road, so we had to drive around it. As we drove, we saw destroyed houses, a wounded taxi driver and his dead passenger, an old man   

The couple stayed with a friend who was committed to defending Ukrainian territory. Petrenko cooked for him and his comrades, which lent her a sense of motivation. "But by May, I had slipped into a depression," she said. "I was ready to go home."  

Windows of houses on Pivnichna Saltivka covered with plywood
Wood has replaced windows on apartment buildings in North SaltivkaImage: Hanna Sokolova/DW

Kharkiv residents return 

Raisa Lobanova is a retiree who was left all alone in a nine-story residential block. She told  Petrenko where she could find water and humanitarian aid. The two spent days cleaning the courtyard, which was covered with broken glass and window frames.    

In the courtyard, which is located near a sport field, there are bricks covered with ashes. This is where people would cook when they had no gas or electricity in their homes. Russians bombed Kharkiv repeatedly throughout the entire summer. 

Before relocating, Petrenko hadn't even known all of the people who lived on the same floor as her. She now even knows people from the neighboring apartment buildings. By the time she returned home, she was an active volunteer. She found out what people in her neighborhood needed and compiled lists, and then distributed humanitarian aid.  

In September, after areas of the Kharkiv region and Lyptsi, a village 25 kilometres from Kharkiv, were liberated, former residents started returning to North Saltivka. "The number of attacks had decreased substantially because the Russians had lost ground," Petrenko said. People even returned to apartment buildings that appeared uninhabitable.  

Now there are construction cranes between the buildings. According to city officials, two dozen houses are being repaired. The work should be done soon; some of the houses are already completed.  

Here and there, new windows can be spotted. Playgrounds and sports fields that were destroyed by Russian grenades aren't a priority for the time being, because there are hardly any children in the area.  

Lobanova, a resident of Pivnichna Saltivka, smiles in front of a shelled building facade
Raisa Lobanova is the only person who stayed in her housing blockImage: Hanna Sokolova/DW

'Their own risk'

Petrenko stood in front of the apartment building where he daughter's family used to live and gazed at a stuffed toy that belongs to her granddaughter: a big, gray dog. The entrance to the building was dark and cold. Heating, water and electricity still aren't available everywhere.  

Her daughter's apartment was also cold and dark. The wallpaper is moist and has peeled down to the floor. The windows had to be nailed shut many times due to the heavy firing in the area.    

By spring, officials should be able to estimate how many houses in North Saltivka can no longer be restored. "The assessment report will show how much the repair work is expected to cost. Then we can compare that price to the price per square meter of constructing a new apartment building. It might cost the same amount, or even be more expensive, " said Yevhen Pasenov from the city of Kharkiv.  

Damaged houses in Pivnichna Saltivka
Residents are trying to restore their homes to habitabilityImage: Hanna Sokolova/DW

That's why there are still no plans to rebuild North Saltivka. "International aid organizations wouldn't be able to finance it because the war is still ongoing," Pasenov said. "It wouldn't make sense to carry out extensive construction work just 40 kilometers from Russia." Legally, he said, houses destroyed in war are only allowed to be rebuilt 90 days after active battle has ceased. "The work people have done here was done at their own risk," he said.  

But, as it turns out, the majority of the returning residents have come back to restored houses. "Now it's a least a bit more cheerful here," Petrenko said while peering through the boards on her nailed-up window.   

She remembers her long-awaited return. "It was springtime. It was quiet outside, and the birds were chirping. Window frames and curtains were hanging in the trees. When I walked past them, I got to glimpse into the lives of other people." 

Fighting continues despite Russia's proposed truce

This article was originally written in Russian.