Residents of Ukrainian city of Kharkiv pause to catch their breath as Russian troops withdraw

Kharkiv is a city that can now breathe, but not necessarily relax.

Ukrainian forces have been pushing invading forces back toward the Russian border for the past week and a half, easing the deadly grip threatening the country’s second-largest city since the war’s early days.

The streets and sidewalks are lined with craters and ruined buildings, while some shops were simply destroyed by shellfire, especially in Saltivka, the now-devastated suburb in the city’s northeast corner.

Many still-traumatized residents struggle to find what normal will look like, and wonder if they will ever manage to find it.

“No one knew what the situation was, where to hide, where to run, because the shelling was all over the city,” said Ludmilla Ivanivna, the chief nurse in the adult surgery ward of Kharkiv City Clinical Hospital, known as the Meshkhaninov. †

She and her colleagues appeared physically and emotionally exhausted on Saturday as they recounted nearly three harrowing months of brutal warfare as Russian armored columns tried to force their way into the city.

Life in the hospital

Elsewhere in Ukraine, hospitals have been brutally attacked by Russian artillery and missiles, though Moscow denies any such policy. The Meshchaninov staff took no such risks and had stretchers lined up in the hallway ready to move patients away from windows that would have blown if hit.

Along those dimly lit corridors, you’ll find lives changed forever.

“L [have] lived in the hospital [for] 80 days. Two and a half months. From day one to this day,” said Dr. Oleksandr Dukhovsky, one of the hospital’s trauma surgeons and head of pediatrics.

Oleksandr Dukhovsky, one of the trauma surgeons and chief of pediatrics at Kharkiv City Clinical Hospital, known as the Meshchaninov, has been in the hospital for 80 days. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

Other staff and even patients have done the same – some out of a sense of duty, but in others because they have nowhere to go.

In March, when Russian shells hit civilians queuing for help in Kharkov, it was Dukhosky who treated them, sometimes under the most horrific conditions.

“It’s very emotional to talk about,” Dukhovsky said after a long pause.

Patients with nowhere to go

On March 6, at an apartment building a kilometer away from the hospital, a grenade almost hit the top of the building. The resulting explosion blew in the windows and sent the kitchen door flying in the direction of 18-year-old Diana Zinchenko.

Diana Zinchenko, 18, right, and her mother Viktoria at Kharkiv City Clinical Hospital. Diana was seriously injured in an artillery attack in Russia on March 6, which destroyed her apartment. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

The young woman’s face and head were smashed in. When she arrived at the hospital, Dukhosky struggled to save her through two surgeries and facial reconstruction.

She survived, although she lost her left eye and has a large scar on the side of her head. She’s still in the hospital.

Diana’s mother Viktoria was eager to show off photos of her daughter, a recent high school graduate with long flowing hair and a formal dress, from those happier, more innocent days.

“She’s so beautiful,” Viktoria said as her daughter sat on her hospital bed and flashed a shy smile, as if ashamed of all the attention being paid to her.

With their apartment in ruins, they have nowhere to go. They live in the hospital room, which they share with Diana’s grandfather, who seemed overwhelmed that his granddaughter was being interviewed, photographed and bent over.

‘Thank you. Thank you,’ he kept repeating in Russian.

On the other side of the city, there were more people who weren’t sure where to go or what to do in the relative safety of Kharkov.

Make a home out of a bomb shelter

On the other side of town, a former Soviet-era air raid shelter was home to as many as 150 people at the height of the fighting for the old town, which lies at the heart of intersecting rivers.

The old shelter, complete with framed photographs of long-dead Communist Party commissioners, is dim, damp, dusty and cramped. Residents have converted army stretchers into makeshift bedsteads. Some had brought some comforts from home, pictures they hung on the wall, favorite blankets, pillows and reading lamps.

Some areas between families were screened off with blankets and tarps. There was a children’s play area, where some drew on the concrete walls with crayons.

Valentina Turchina is one of the residents who has yet to leave a Soviet-era bunker in Kharkov, despite the city being declared safe. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

“BOOM,” wrote a child on the wall, the words surrounded by a cloud of smoke. The drawing was next to an assortment of drawn cartoon characters.

“When people first came here, the bombing was so intense that people were jumping here for three days, but then they realized they were very safe here,” said Valentina Turchina, one of the residents who has yet to build the bunker. leave.

Her adult son, with whom she lived, died a few weeks after the war. She said he committed suicide, but went no further.

Turchina said she doesn’t know if it’s safe to return to the surface.

She may have a point.

As night fell over the city, more aerial sirens and the sound of distant artillery—both incoming and outgoing—cut through the darkness.

It was a visceral reminder that Kharkov’s pain is far from over.

A former Soviet-era bomb shelter became home to 150 people in Kharkov. Families live here long after the city has been declared safe. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

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