Ukraine’s second city wakes to war, Daniel McLaughlin reports from Kharkiv

Kharkiv’s 1.4 million people decide whether to stay or go as Russia launches missile strikes

Just hours after Russian president Vladimir Putin declared war on Ukraine, and his first missiles struck military and strategic sites across this county of 41 million people, Liliya, Stanislav and their son Yarik were ready to leave their home town of Kharkiv.

“It was really scary to be woken by explosions at 5am. I can understand why people are panicking a bit now,” Liliya says as the family waits for a bus arranged by Stanislav’s employer to take them 1,000km west to Lviv, near Ukraine’s border with Poland.

“As for Yarik, he’s confused of course – he asked why there was thunder but no lightning.”

The dull rumble of explosions occasionally rolled over Kharkiv as this university city near the Russian border woke to the reality of an all-out, nationwide attack from Moscow’s fearsome missile arsenal, air force, tanks, artillery, ground troops and navy.

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Repeating unfounded claims about the treatment of Russian-speakers under Kyiv’s western-backed government, Putin said “the goal is to protect people who have been subjected to bullying and genocide . . . for the last eight years. And for this we will strive for the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine.”

It sounded like a justification for “regime change” in Ukraine, but Stanislav says he and his family do not intend to be away from Kharkiv for long.

“We’re taking hardly anything with us,” he says. “We hope this is resolved soon and we can come home.”

Tiredness and uncertainty

Nearby, Larisa and daughter Yelena sat to rest for a while on a bench in the centre of this university city. They were weighed down with tiredness and uncertainty, but few belongings: one suitcase, a small rucksack and a cat called Chanel.

“The windows started shaking at 5am and I could see and smell smoke in the distance. We live on the north side of the city so the Russian border is only about 30km away,” Larisa says of the first Russian salvos to strike Ukraine’s second city, home to 1.4 million people.

“We packed our things in 30 minutes. Now we’re trying to leave and head west but we’re not sure how or where we’ll go. We don’t have a car or relatives over there.”

“The whole building shook,” Yelena recalls of the pre-dawn air strikes, which Russian president Vladimir Putin unleashed across Ukraine to try to cripple its military’s ability and willingness to resist his forces.

“Now we want to go because the most important thing is to survive. But whatever happens now, I’m sure we will win in the end. Putin has already lost Ukraine, politically and culturally and in other ways.”

After the explosions shook some Kharkivites from their sleep, and calls and messages from friends and family woke others, queues quickly formed at bank machines, in supermarkets and at petrol stations as people sought essential items for a quick departure or to hunker down at home and watch developments.

“We were woken by the blasts about 5am, checked the news and saw what was going on, and we spoke to our parents to tell them we’re fine,” says Liza Grigorenko, who works in IT with boyfriend Felix Yevichev.

“Now we’re on our way to buy essential groceries, then we’ll pack a bag just in case and we’ll stay at home. We’re hoping for the best, that all this will soon be over,” he says.

“We have no plans to leave at the moment,” Liza adds.

Freedom Square

Close to Kharkiv's vast Freedom Square, where Ukrainians toppled a towering statue of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin after their pro-western 2014 revolution, workers boarded up the windows of a restaurant amid fears that shells or missiles could hit the city centre, sending glass and shrapnel flying.

“We feel terrible about this,” says Albina, as she walks with her friend Margarita along Kharkiv’s central Sumska street, which was almost empty of cars at what would normally be rush hour.

“I heard something at about 5am. It seemed like something had fallen in the street or the yard, but it must have been an explosion. But we’re not going anywhere, we’re staying.”

As the streets of Kharkiv emptied, its labyrinth of subterranean tunnels began to fill up.

“We’ve been here for almost two hours now, after we heard a series of explosions. We were told this is the safest place to be,” says Puja, as she sits with friends Jasmine and Swati against the wall of a metro station deep beneath the city centre.

They are among thousands of Indian students in Kharkiv – and more than 10,000 in Ukraine – who are waiting for news on their government’s possible evacuation plans.

“It’s crazy. We just never imagined anything like this could happen,” explains Swati.

“And our relatives back home are very scared, they’re panicking, they’re calling to check on us every half an hour,” adds Jasmine.

Nirish, a medical student, had a ticket to fly to his parents’ home in Nigeria on Friday, and was up early on Thursday to take a pre-travel Covid test.

“I left my flat at 7am and heard explosions. And then later, I had to go out again to get some essentials, and as soon as I locked my door I heard three more explosions – that’s why I came down into the station,” he says.

‘Fearless’

“But the people here are fearless – even a couple of hours after the shelling started, I saw them going to work as if everything was normal,” he adds, now resigned to waiting out the fighting in Kharkiv after all Ukraine’s airports were closed by Russia’s missile barrage

Thousands of Kharkivites – including the elderly, disabled and people carrying small children and pets – took refuge in metro stations, while many others vowed to stick as closely as possible to their normal routines: walking the dog, going into the office if possible, visiting relatives.

Zhanna Zvereva and Nadezhda Mukhoyan did not open their travel agency on Thursday, but instead met, as they often do, in a city centre park to meditate.

“We come here every day, and today we’re meditating for peace,” says Zvereva.

“What Putin is doing is terrible, but we’re not afraid and Ukraine is not afraid. This is the end for him, his final agony, and after this he will be swept away,” adds Mukhoyan.

“Of course he will not go without a fight,” Zvereva says. “But we will win, and the world should know that.”