‘This city is invincible’: Kharkiv breathes again after repelling Russian forces

People begin to return to formerly vibrant city disfigured by scarred buildings and shell craters

In the otherwise eerily empty centre of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second city, a colourful crowd of activists, intellectuals and armed soldiers chats in the spring sunshine before an unusual concert.

It would take place in a bomb-proof bunker on the 80th day of Russia’s all-out war against the country, a mere 25km from where Ukrainian troops were driving the invaders out of occupied villages and back towards the border.

Posters for Saturday's mini-festival, called Music of Resistance, captured something of the spirit of the event and of these times in Ukraine: the logo combined a Kalashnikov with a traditional musical pipe, and details were sparse for security reasons: "When: This week. Where: In a safe place. What time: At the right time."

The eclectic audience, meanwhile, was drawn from several sections of society that helped Kharkiv endure 11 weeks of bombardment that terrorised and blew holes in a university city of 1.4 million people.

Now the boom of shelling is receding, fear is easing, and some people who fled the invasion are returning to Kharkiv, making this underground gig a sort of celebration – even though thousands are still living in the metro stations and cellars that became their refuge from Russian bombs.

"Plenty of people in Kharkiv's culture scene stayed here. They are volunteering, and when they have time they are playing concerts and organising events like this. In fact, the cultural life of Kharkiv is super-busy right now," says Natalia Kurdiukova, a co-founder of the city's independent Nakipelo media group.

She came home in mid-March with a consignment of medical supplies for her city, after dropping off her children in the relative safety of Kyiv and Lviv, further west.

“The very next morning my building was hit. By some miracle I stopped outside to talk to a neighbour and the building protected us from the blast wave,” she recalls.

“Kharkiv has surprised me and many others in a really good way,” she says of the city during wartime.

“What amazes me most is the level of self-organisation here... We are used to complaining about bad public services, the irresponsibility of our people and how it’s impossible to get things done. But it turns out that when we really need to, we can organise things perfectly and help each other out – and now Kharkiv is like a huge, precisely functioning machine.”

In a city where politics and business are often murky and corrupt, and links to Russia are strong, many feared that senior officials and other influential figures – and even security service staff – could switch sides or simply flee Kharkiv rather than fight Moscow's forces.

In the event, however, an unprecedented level of co-operation emerged between officials and citizens, ensuring that Kharkiv kept functioning and its vulnerable people were cared for, even as the military and other security forces first stopped and then repelled the Russian army.

This weekend, city workers swept the near-empty streets and repaired overhead electricity cables for the planned relaunch of several public transport routes on Monday; several of their colleagues have been killed and injured during the war while fixing damage caused by shelling to power lines, water pipes and other vital civilian infrastructure.

Nikolai Zhurba (29) and Sergei Sklyar (26) sold life insurance before the war, and now volunteer with many others at the Kharkiv Aid Office, receiving donated food, medicines and other items and redirecting or delivering them to civilians or the military.

One recent afternoon, at a restaurant that is now a logistics hub, Zhurba loaded meals into his car for delivery to people living in cellars in still-dangerous districts of Kharkiv, while Sklyar and girlfriend Tatyana Podchernina (25) handed over a donated British ambulance to volunteer territorial defence fighters serving on the front line.

“Lots of people, especially young ones, decided to come back to or stay in Kharkiv, because it’s their hometown and they could be useful here, even if it’s not the safest place to be,” says Podchernina, a fitness instructor at a gym that was hit by shelling last month.

“People are living underneath this building, where we are now,” adds Sklyar.

“Lots of people are still in cellars and the metro because their flats have been damaged, or they are scared to go home.”

Zhurba drives through a formerly vibrant city now disfigured by scarred and windowless buildings, shell craters and roadblocks of concrete slabs and tyres; some supermarkets and pharmacies are open, but otherwise the city is closed and boarded up, cars and pedestrians are few, and air-raid sirens often drone through the unsettling quiet. Still, Zhurba says, people and signs of life are returning to the city every day, though he fears that many are coming back not because they feel safe in Kharkiv now, but because they can no longer afford to rent accommodation elsewhere.

On the day he brings food to Piatykhatky, a district on the northeastern edge of Kharkiv just 25km from Russia, shelling nearer the border is still loud and frequent, and security is tight; soldiers refuse to let him in until a local resident comes out to escort him, and they warn that the photos on his phone will be checked when he leaves.

“This is home. I’ve got nowhere else to go,” says Nina, who has lived for much of the past 11 weeks beneath her apartment block in Piatykhatky, with dozens of others who sleep on mattresses that cover the floor of several cold and dank subterranean chambers.

Nina describes the system they have devised for who sleeps where, and points out places where they charge their phones and plug in lamps to light the gloom; she is worried about damp spreading through the area where they get water from iron taps, noting the flitting mosquitoes that she fears will become a swarm by summertime.

“We’re getting by, just about, but it used to be so nice here,” she says, returning above ground to the dusty courtyard of her apartment block, where the wind moans and rattles through broken windows and punctured roofs, and shelling booms in the distance.

“It was green and peaceful and we lived quietly together. Now I feel sorriest for the poor pets left behind,” she says, as a cluster of cats plays in the courtyard.

“No shops are open here now so we rely on the volunteers. But hopefully we can rebuild things once peace comes.”

Nina was born 300km away in the Russian city of Voronezh, where she says friends and relatives do not believe her when she describes what is happening in places such as Piatykhatky: "They don't want to know, and they say we are bombing ourselves."

This is Ketevan Gamisonia's second war. When she was three years old, her parents fled with their young family from fighting in Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia. Now she is an anaesthesiologist and intensive care doctor in the cardiac surgery department of Kharkiv's Zaitsev institute of general and emergency surgery, and was in charge of her ward in the early hours of February 24th, when Russia invaded Ukraine. "When shells landed nearby, we took patients down to the bottom floor with their oxygen and everything," she says.

“But it’s not a proper basement and in a direct hit we could have been buried there. And it’s cold and damp, so the patients asked to stay on the ward, in the corridors away from the windows.”

Soon patients, staff members, their relatives and even their pets were staying in various parts of the hospital, because many of Gamisonia’s colleagues live in Saltivka, one of the most badly damaged districts of the city.

“For the first few weeks of the war we looked after our post-operative patients but didn’t do any surgery. The ambulances weren’t bringing anyone, and it was dangerous to be in the operating theatre,” she recalls. “After a while we started contacting colleagues and it was like: ‘Are you alive?’ ‘Yes, I’m alive.’ ‘Are you in Kharkiv?’ ‘Yes, I’m in Kharkiv.’ ‘Cool, so let’s start working.’”

Gamisonia (33) says she and her colleague Olga relaunched surgery barely a fortnight after the war began: “It was scary at first,” she says of the shelling. “But then you get used to it, somehow. We turned up the stereo in the operating theatre and kept going.”

The hospital was spared a direct hit, but many shells landed in the vicinity and a plane was shot down nearby. Now Kharkiv’s healthcare system is operating about 90 per cent of normal capacity, Gamisonia says, and every day she sees more signs of life returning to the city.

“There are more people here now, workers are planting flowers and cleaning the streets, there are more cars – I never thought I would ever be happy to see a little traffic jam, but it’s so much better than tanks on the street,” she says.

“When some of my colleagues were going home to Saltivka one day to get their things, they saw a bin lorry coming towards them,” she recalls with a laugh. “They couldn’t believe their eyes – there was shelling, bombing going on in the district, and the workers were out collecting the rubbish. That’s how you know this city is invincible.”

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