‘They’ve turned it into hell’: Kharkiv locals shocked by Russian onslaught

Residents say mood in city has darkened as people hunker down for long struggle

Olga Markina says she can scarcely believe what is happening to her hometown, Kharkiv, a city in the heart of Europe subject to a brutal artillery bombardment that has left dozens dead.

“Every day there’s more destruction, every day more people are dying, and every day the terror grows,” the child psychologist said. “We thought we lived in paradise, and they’ve turned it into hell.”

Markina was speaking hours after a devastating missile strike on the main square of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, turned the regional government building into a massive fireball, killing seven people and injuring 24.

It was one of a number of rocket attacks that have spread terror and anguish through this city of 1.4 million people, forcing thousands to seek safety in air raid shelters and triggering an exodus of refugees.


In Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, president Volodymyr Zelenskiy denounced the strike as “outright, undisguised terror”.

"After this, Russia is a terrorist state," he said. "No one will forgive. No one will forget."

Russia's invasion began six days ago, when thousands of Russian troops swarmed across the border in what Russian president Vladimir Putin described as a "special operation" to "demilitarise" and "de-Nazify" Ukraine. Kharkiv has borne the brunt of the campaign.

Over the past two days the eastern city, which is close to the Russian border and mainly populated by Russian speakers, has endured a wave of indiscriminate shelling that has caused international outrage and western calls for restraint.

“It’s a near-constant cannonade,” said Dima, a Kharkiv resident who declined to give his second name. “And it serves no discernible purpose – they’re firing haphazardly at people queueing for water and food.”

Troops repelled

So far, despite flooding the country with troops and weaponry, Russia has failed to take a single large Ukrainian town. Kharkiv remains under Ukrainian control; Russian troops tried to break through into the city last weekend but were repelled by its defenders.

A senior US defence official said on Tuesday that Russia appeared to be facing logistical problems that seemed to be slowing the progress of its advance on Kyiv and complicating its prosecution of the campaign. Analysts worry Russia’s generals might be resorting to rocket attacks out of frustration at their lack of progress on the ground. Such a shift in tactics would entail much more collateral damage.

“The use of heavy artillery in densely populated urban areas greatly increases the risk of civilian casualties,” the British Ministry of Defence said in an intelligence update on Tuesday.

Igor, a doctor reached by phone in Kharkiv, who declined to give his second name, said the aim seemed to be to sow panic. “They want to create chaos, to demoralise us,” he said. “This isn’t war; this is murder of civilians.”

Kharkiv itself is a city in crisis. Hundreds of people have been camping out in metro stations that have been turned into makeshift bomb shelters. Locals say long queues are forming outside supermarkets. Many ATMs are out of cash, and much of the city’s public transport has stopped working. The worst-hit neighbourhoods now lack electricity.

Deafening boom

Olga Markina was out buying food on Monday when she heard a deafening boom. Together with dozens of other shoppers she ran for cover in a nearby underground car park. “Later I saw what had happened – a rocket had hit a residential block a short distance away, a direct hit,” she said.

Video footage posted on social media showed roads strewn with burnt-out cars and the facades of apartment blocks reduced to smouldering ruins. One post showed a group holding a Ukrainian yellow and blue flag standing in front of the bombed-out regional government building. Addressing a Russian audience, one man shouted “Look what you’ve f***ing done. Look how many people have died. Stop, leave, before it’s too late.”

Locals in Kharkiv said the mood in the city had darkened in recent days as people hunkered down for a long struggle. “Initially there was just shock, but we were sure the sides would quickly agree on a ceasefire,” said Dima. The first talks between Russian and Ukrainian officials on Monday failed to yield a breakthrough. “Now people realise this is going to drag on – with no end in sight.”

Igor said the Russian offensive in Ukraine had disturbing parallels with other wars from recent history. "I was never in Yugoslavia or Syria, " he said. "But this is exactly what Bashar al-Assad did to Syria and now Putin's doing it to Ukraine."

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022