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Russia's war in Ukraine: Life in heavily bombarded Kharkiv

Roman Goncharenko in Kharkiv
June 12, 2024

Russian missile attacks are a near-daily occurence in Ukraine's northeastern city of Kharkiv. As many of the city's buildings lay in ruins, a spirit of defiance has taken hold among the roughly one million inhabitants.

Cars and a tram on a street in Kharkiv with a line of anti-tank obstacles in the foreground
While life continues in Kharkiv, signs of war are readily apparent in Ukraine's second-cityImage: Roman Goncharenko/DW

The first thing that catches the eye in Kharkiv is the sheer number of Ukrainian flags lining the streets — there are more here than in Kyiv, the nation's capital. Cars pass by, and old, dusty streetcars rattle along their tracks in Ukraine's second-largest city.

But the calm, peaceful first impression does not last long. First-time visitors soon become aware of the many checkpoints, anti-tank obstacles and demolished buildings — reminders of Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine, now in its third year, and Kharkiv's place as a city on the frontline.

Daily Russian air attacks

In mid-2024, the city of Kharkiv is like an open wound that Russia continues to pummel with missiles, drones and bombs on a near-daily basis. The cityscape is full of boarded-up windows and destruction, and main streets are lined with houses that are missing at least parts, if not all, of their upper floors.

Nearby, one seriously damaged and burned-out home still holds a remnant of what life must have been like before the war: A friendly sign that reads, "Come in for coffee."

Most of the destruction seen today took place during the first year of the war when Russian armed forces first advanced on Kharkiv's outskirts before being forced to retreat. The ruins of a school there offering advanced German lessons are scars of early 2022 when Russian special units were driven back with heavy machinery. A sign in German and Ukrainian still hangs above the school's former entrance: "Success in learning, success in life."

It's one of the many schools in Kharkiv have been destroyed.

Kharkiv opens underground school to escape Russian bombs

Shelling 'according to plan'

Many of the city's shops, cafes and bars have reopened, though visitors remain rare. Many buildings have signs indicating they are for sale or to rent. The streets empty out as night falls. The metro only runs until 9:30 p.m., and curfew begins at 11 p.m. — one hour earlier than in the capital.

Russian shelling usually begins around midnight. Citizens say their city is being attacked systematically and "according to plan."

However, since early June, the shelling has dropped considerably. Most here believe this is due to the fact that the United States and other Western allies  permitted Ukraine to fire the weapons they supply at military targets on Russian soil near Ukraine's border.

Western media reported that Ukraine has already done so in the Russian city of Belgorod, where it struck a Russian S-300 air defense battery. Such systems are frequently used to launch missiles.

View into a Kharkiv building with its front wall missing and doors and interior rooms exposed
Countless buildings in Kharkiv like this one have been partially or fully destroyed by Russian missile attacksImage: Roman Goncharenko/DW

'Cemetery of Russian rockets'

The remains of these systems can be found at what’s known as the cemetery of Russian rockets. Kharkiv hosts the largest such rocket cemetery in Ukraine with debris from over 1,000 missiles, and it’s garnered international attention. Visitors can see cylinders from Russia’s Smerch (Tornado) and Uragan (Hurricane) multiple rocket launching systems, the S-300 and Iskander missile systems and other weapons Russia employed against the wider Kharkiv region.

Guards keep watch over the grassy repository, allowing entrance only to those accompanied by a representative of the regional district attorney. The estimated 1,000 shells collected here are meant to serve as evidence for Russian atrocities in trials in Ukraine and abroad.

Metal tubes from many rockets in a field
Officials hope the missile debris will help criminal cases against Russian leadersImage: Roman Goncharenko/DW

"All rockets here, including the cruise missiles, cost millions of dollars," Dmytro Chubenko, a spokesperson for Kharkiv’s regional prosecutor’s office, told DW.

He explained that markings and abbreviations found on rocket shells and internal parts could help demonstrate Russia’s hand in constructing and firing the weapons. Chubenko added that these markings also contained encoded information on the model, production plant and military unit where they originated.

Kyiv accuses Russia of targeting civilians in Kharkiv region

Why stay in Kharkiv?

Russia has almost entirely destroyed Kharkiv’s energy infrastructure, prompting people in the city and the surrounding region to rely on diesel generators.

A handful of people, including a few children, are out on the streets, along with some students, apparently preparing to enroll for the upcoming semester. It’s hard to believe the city is home to over a million people, including long-term residents and internally displaced people from the surrounding war zone.

An old woman holding flowers stands with two young women on a sidewalk next to a street with cars in it in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
Life continues in Kharkiv, Ukraine, despite frequent and heavy Russian bombardmentImage: Hanna Sokolova-Stekh/DW

As many of Kharkiv’s men fight on the frontline, the city needs workers. A sign hanging by the entrance to a metro station advertises for train drivers for local transportation. Future employees are enticed by assurances of not being drafted into Ukraine’s armed forces — even though nobody can really make that promise.

Residents of Kharkiv say they have grown accustomed to the aerial attacks, the shelling and the constant threats to their lives. Not many believe Russia’s most recent offensive in the region, which has secured two positions along the frontline for Russian armed forces, will be successful. But they do admit that Ukraine's defensive lines were caught unprepared.

Some say they will stay in Kharkiv to tend to their elderly parents. Others refuse to leave their homes and all the personal effects they’ve gathered over the years. Still, others want to stay and help the Ukrainian armed forces in the region.

One man says he just recently moved to Kharkiv for work.

"I like the people in Kharkiv," he added, "they're special."

At the same time, he admitted that, given the constant Russian bombardment, he wondered if all his colleagues would show up to work each morning.

The woman accompanying him said she had returned to Kharkiv after having fled in 2022. In her view, the largest obstacle that people struggled with these days was mental exhaustion after three years of war.

A US envoy to the United Nations said recent Russian attacks on Kharkiv displaced more than 18,000 and caused at least 400 civilian casualties. A UN monitoring agency in late May said it verified 45 civilian deaths and 189 injuries since Russian armed forces launched a ground offensive into the Kharkiv region on May 10.

A teacher and pupils are seen in a classroom during a first lesson at the first heavily fortified underground school in Kharkiv
Many refuse to leave Kharkiv, including the families of these children going to an underground school in a bunker.Image: Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/REUTERS

Kharkiv's spirit of defiance

Many in Kharkiv will freely admit the city is gripped with fear. But they also say a spirit of defiance keeps people from leaving.

A saleswoman points to the rubble of a demolished building and a nearby street: "We close at 3:30 p.m., and a few days ago, a missile struck there at 4:00 p.m."

Kharkiv’s resistance can be found in its manicured parks and clean squares, or on the intricately painted boards on home windows and signs that read "We're at work."

Wherever you look, Kharkiv’s residents have shown they will not give up their city.

"When a missile strikes, we get down, shake off the dust, and keep going," the saleswoman said.

Her store sells sweets, including boxes of chocolates printed with a panorama of the city, the Ukrainian flag, and the words "Kharkiv — city of heroes."

This article was originally written in Russian.