KHARKIV, Ukraine — The trenchworks along the northern edge of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, have begun to erode and fill with refuse, and the soldiers who used them to defend the city from the Russian onslaught have now departed to other fronts. Today, only mannequins wearing military uniforms and one with a United Nations peacekeeping helmet are allowed to mann the fortifications.
All around, the blackened and pockmarked high-rise apartment buildings testify to the ferocity of the fighting that occurred here in Ukraine’s northeast in the early months of the war. However, there is now a quietness and the residents don’t know how to interpret this.
In a September blitz offensive that caught the attention of most of the world, the Ukrainian military drove the Russian military out of almost the entire region. This not only gave the Ukrainian war effort a new boost, but it also allowed Kharkiv some breathing time.
The Ukrainians may only be able to push their opponents so far. The border is located approximately 25 miles away from the city center and within reach of many Russian weaponry.
Kateryna Vnukova (19), a Kharkiv economics student, stated that she sometimes can see shelling in the distance from her apartment on the 12th floor in the city centre.
“I think now it’s all calm and quiet in Kharkiv, but it’s not calm and quiet,” Ms. Vnukova was on a twilight walking trip last weekend but was trying to return home before it was too late. “Normally when it gets dark, the devils come out, the ones there, over the border.”
There are now signs that Russian forces may be regrouping to launch a new offensive that could again threaten the city. On Monday, Vadym Skibitsky, the deputy head of Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, told a Ukrainian news outlet that а Russian tank division that had been deployed in Belarus had been diverted, possibly as part of a buildup of forces that could once again push into the Kharkiv region.
As Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine approaches its first anniversary, Kharkiv has become a showcase of Ukrainian military success, but also of its limitations. Residents have started to return to Kharkiv over the last four months. Power, heat and gas are back in most houses. There is traffic and people in the cafes and streets. However, many windows are still broken and boarded.
Kharkiv’s mayor, Ihor Terekhov, boasted that the city population had doubled since the first months of the war to about 1.1 million people (from a prewar population of 1.4 million) and that construction was underway to repair some of the 4,500 homes severely damaged in Russia’s failed effort to take the city. The mayor, Ihor Terekhov, is working with Norman Foster to develop a postwar development plan.
“We have to return Kharkiv residents to the city, but they can’t come back and find themselves in a broken shell,” He stated. “The general plan for the development of London in 1943 was done under bombardment by the Fascists.”
His development plan doesn’t envisage a rapid end to conflict or total peace for Kharkiv. One of its provisions requires that all new apartment blocks have underground parking lots that can double to be bomb shelters.
Although it is quieter here than ever since the invasion began it still feels like war to many residents. Ukrainian fighter planes thunder through the air patrolling, while air-raid sirens can be heard continuously. A group of burly men dressed in camouflage and balaclavas entered a Japanese restaurant recently to give draft notices to Ukrainian men. The waiters were forced into hiding.
A contingent of Ukrainian troops from Kharkiv took advantage of the quiet last weekend to practice their rifle skills as well as their combat maneuvers on a wooded training field just outside of the town.
“We have some time, and we’re not going to waste it,” Their instructor was a 22-year old lieutenant, calling himself Clover.
Russian rockets and artillery pound out remote villages in the region. As Russian forces continue to target critical infrastructure, such as power stations and power plants, heavier missiles frequently hit the city centre.
A large thermal power station was attacked multiple times with an Iranian-made Shahed explosive bomber drone. The roof was blasted through, all windows were broken, and heating was cut off for several days. Workers use large, gas-fed firepits to keep equipment warm and use plastic tarps to separate the enormous boiler room. The plant’s main boiler remains mangled and out of commission, but workers have managed to keep the plant churning out heat with auxiliary boilers.
Strikes have not resulted in any deaths of workers.
“Thankfully, God is protecting us,” said Yevhen Kaurkin, the plant’s technical director.
Saltivka, a northern suburb that was heavily ravaged by the fighting, is now even closer to war. It remains a difficult area to live in despite the efforts to improve the situation. Recenty, city workers dressed in fluorescent green vests were picking leaves in front an abandoned building. It looked like a crumbling tower of Jenga block blocks.
The city built reinforced concrete shelters to prevent people being shelled because so many people were killed waiting at bus stops. Every shelter has a monitor that displays a live stream of the street, so people know when the bus arrives.
Hundreds of people sheltered at Kharkiv Municipal Gymnasium No. 172. Though no one now shelters there full time, hundreds still come back daily for warm meals prepared in the school’s kitchen.
The school’s director, Oleksandra Utkina, who also teaches mathematics, said she was excited for the day when children could return, but acknowledged that would not happen anytime soon.
“We need for them to stop shooting first,” She said.
A few people were sitting nearby, in a large tent built by the army amid burnt-out apartments blocks. They were heating up and watching a soccer match on a large flat-screen TV. Svitlana kaminska, 62 years old, was heating up her dinner in the microwave. Ms. Kaminska, 62, hid in her corridor, despite the fact that most Saltivka residents fled the area during the worst fighting. She is the only person who survived the whole building.
She must walk over piles of debris in order to reach her front door. Some apartments in her building were destroyed by fire and others have no windows. Many of the interior walls have been smashed by successive blast waves, and the steel frames for the elevator doors have been ripped out.
Ms. Kaminska’s existence is grim. Ms. Kaminska has made a tiny space heater, a lamp, and an extension cord that plugs into the lowest working plug at the building. This has been able to heat her home to just a few degrees above the freezing point. Only her TV’s audio works.
These discomforts don’t bother her too much, she explained.
“For me, the most frightening thing is not the cold or the fact that I’m alone here, but heaven forbid the possibility of another attack,” She said. “Doesn’t anyone have influence over this Russia, to quiet them down a little?”
Natalia Yermak Contributed reporting