Los Angeles Times

In Kharkiv’s worst-hit area, ‘victory’ is the only option

Residents are staying in the Ukrainian city’s Saltivka district, even under heavy shelling.

- By Nabih Bulos

KHARKIV, Ukraine — At some point, all shelling sites look the same. There’s the jagged-edge crater with a spray-pattern of divots gouged out by shrapnel; the gap-toothed hole where ordnance punched through a wall; the scorched remains of automobile­s that happened to be passing when a missile slammed into the road. You notice the dazed pedestrian­s, who barely believe they’re alive, looking at the corpses of the not-solucky, the blood pooling around them.

From the very first moments of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kharkiv has been a target, its name almost at the top of the list of cities wronged in this war. Every day brings a fresh pummeling, more names and addresses in the growing litany of casualties and destructio­n. So far, more than 530 civilians have been killed and many more wounded, according to the United Nations. The municipali­ty says about 2,100 buildings have been damaged.

But those terrible zoomed-out figures obscure a surprising close-up reality: namely, that the violence in

this northeaste­rn city is mostly localized, with some of the heaviest bombardmen­ts in Europe since World War II hitting one part of Kharkiv, a district called Saltivka, while just a few miles up the road people are out walking their dogs, lounging in the park or shopping.

As long as you’re not in that district, you stand a reasonably good chance of having a relatively normal day. In other words, if Kharkiv is the target, Saltivka is the bull’s-eye.

Saltivka sits on Kharkiv’s northeaste­rn flank, the area closest to Russian troops deployed only a few miles away. Designed as a bedroom district, it housed anywhere from 500,000 to 800,000 people at its height, more than one-third of the city’s population.

For those who remain, the constant back-andforth between the Russian army and the Ukrainian artillery hidden among the brutalist Soviet-era highrise towers has forced upon them a mostly subterrane­an existence, whose complicati­ons go well beyond bedding down in a shelter. Everyday life — tasks such as cooking, showering — now resembles a macabre, neverendin­g camping trip that an artillery round could end at any moment.

“It’s very hard to live here, but where would I go?” said Natasha, a 62-year-old pensioner who gave only her first name for reasons of safety.

She stood in a recessed corner outside her apartment building, wearing a dark gray coat and a white woolen cap and preparing lunch — rice and chicken — al fresco. A saucepan with no handle sat on the skeletal remains of an oven. A burning pile of wood she had culled from splintered window frames and shutters served in lieu of a gas flame.

For weeks there has been no water or electricit­y. Volunteers risk the shelling to deliver water bottles, food and power banks to charge up phones. Although she could sleep in the nearby subway station along with hundreds of others from the neighborho­od, Natasha has preferred to stay at home.

“The buildings here are the newest and strongest in the city,” she said, pointing out the entrance to the basement.

After another day of heavy shelling recently, however, she decided the time had come to pack up and go if possible.

Not so for 29-year-old Gennady Krasavtsev, a builder with the red eyes and breath of a heavy drinker, standing outside a nearby residentia­l tower whose front was entirely scorched.

“The roughly 300 people still here — they’re going nowhere,” he said as he sauntered back to a playground to watch a man silently stripping branches off a tree limb with a small ax.

As for why he won’t move to a safer area just a mile away, he exhibits the fatalism common in Saltivka.

“Everywhere is dangerous. First they shoot here. Then they shoot the next square,” he said. “It’s all the same.”

Others had quit their homes but not the neighborho­od. The last stop on Kharkiv’s northeaste­rn metro line, Heroiv Pratsi, now houses about 800 people on the edge of Saltivka. Within its bowels, day and night blend together. A few people venture up periodical­ly for a smoke, or to feed chunks of stale bread to pigeons by the station entrance, but they rush back inside the moment shelling resumes.

Sleeping arrangemen­ts are improvisat­ory and cover every spare space near the turnstiles, stairs, platforms and subway carriages. Some try for a level of privacy and bring tents, or set up bunk beds with covers draped over them, or fashion a cove in a subway carriage. There are fledgling attempts at creating a home: a few Lego and toys arrayed on a carriage window frame, a stuffed animal among flower-patterned pillows.

Then there are cats, such as Simba and Marek, who

‘The other day a rocket struck our neighbor’s garden and we had no idea until he told us. We wouldn’t have noticed even if it hit our garden. We’re too busy.’

— ANASTASIA DOLHOSHAPK­O, volunteer who assists with meal deliveries

prowled around Katya Talpa, a 35-year-old sales agent, occasional­ly scratching a piece of cardboard she had brought for that purpose.

She and her husband, Yura, 42, a builder, lived nearby, and their apartment — so far — was still in good condition. But the shelling was too intense, and they’ve been sleeping in the subway since the invasion began.

“We didn’t think we’d be here so long. But we’ll leave [eventually]. We believe in our victory,” Talpa said.

Up by the ticket concourse, 36-year-old Vladimir Kravitz gave a que-sera-sera smile when asked about his home.

“Eight times the building was hit, but my apartment is fine,” he said. So dangerous is his block that he doesn’t try to visit it. Instead, he seemed fully at ease with life in the metro, sitting with a gaggle of friends and eating helpings of chicken, kasha, soup and pickled shredded carrot.

The people here are wellserved, with volunteers delivering freshly cooked food three times a day from lessaffect­ed parts of Kharkiv, which have become staging grounds for a massive relief effort.

Alongside a highway approachin­g Kharkiv, around a half-constructe­d compound, Pastor Ilya Gerasim of the Holy Trinity Church oversees an aid operation that on that day was feeding upward of 2,000 people.

“They’re afraid, depressed, desperate,” Gerasim said. “And we understand it’s our duty to help them. And preach the Gospel.”

Inside the compound, volunteers prepared bags of rice, kasha, fruit and cleaning products in an assembly line and handed them out to waiting recipients, some of whom began standing in line at 4 a.m. Gerasim swung into action Feb. 24, amid the shock of a war he never expected would happen. He fielded calls from parishione­rs and fellow believers in Romania and elsewhere in the world seeking to help.

“We prayed, and I could see those people who know and need to do the job. I had a good team, so we prepared units for medicine, packaging, food and delivery,” Gerasim said.

Soon they were feeding well over 2,000 people three times a week. Since the beginning of the war, they’ve delivered tens of thousands of food packages, dispatched volunteers to cook meals in Saltivka (chefs wore flak jackets) and evacuated 11,000 people.

Another outfit is the World Central Kitchen, an aid group headed by Spanish celebrity chef José Andrés that works in 30 Ukrainian cities. In Kharkiv, its headquarte­rs are a bar, where Roxana “Roxy” Pavlenko, 44, manages a constantly shifting menu of dishes along with a cadre of cooks. Earlier in April, a shell landed one afternoon near the bar, injuring four of the staff, according to World Central Kitchen Chief Executive Nate Mook. Everyone still wanted to continue working there.

Among the volunteers bringing meals to warblighte­d areas are Roman Knaziev, a 33-year-old physics doctoral graduate, and Anastasia Dolhoshapk­o, 28, who works as a travel agent; together they form a sort of Batman and Batgirl of mealdelive­ry assistance.

One relatively quiet afternoon — shelling had eased right after Easter — Knaziev and Dolhoshapk­o ferried food and medicine around the city center. Some districts here showed battle scars caused by cruise missiles, their explosive strength capable of shearing the facade off an entire building, exposing the rooms inside like a life-size dollhouse. But Knaziev proudly pointed out the area’s relatively pristine condition under the circumstan­ces, with municipal workers landscapin­g a public park, collecting detritus in a truck or fixing a light damaged in the blast.

“We lost electricit­y here for one or two days, and that’s because the city workers repair everything, even under fire,” he said.

Such repairs wouldn’t have been done so quickly before the war, Dolhoshapk­o said. But the crucible-like conditions had left in Kharkiv only those who wanted to do something, to help.

Besides, she added, the shelling stopped registerin­g for most people.

“The other day a rocket struck our neighbor’s garden and we had no idea until he told us,” she said, smiling. “We wouldn’t have noticed even if it hit our garden. We’re too busy.”

Many people in Kharkiv have become unwilling experts on ordnance, like Lena Asachya, 59, and her husband, Oleh, 58, who live in Piatykhatk­y, a northern neighborho­od also near the front line.

“I can tell the difference between tanks, artillery, Grad [rocket launchers]. We’re all experts here,” Asachya said, as Knaziev and Dolhoshapk­o lugged boxes of supplies to her building’s backyard, where her husband was boiling water.

Asachya has become the caretaker for the abandoned pets on the block, feeding an assortment of cats, dogs and other animals that congregate­d in front of her when she fished out pet food from one of the boxes. A loud boom interrupte­d the conversati­on. Nobody flinched, not even the animals.

“We know from the sound where it’s going. That’s not close,” she said.

It isn’t just the animals that make her and Oleh stay. A few dozen other people continue to live on their block, and they all support one another. Oleh, who worked as a chef, is in charge of fashioning a proper meal from the donated goods. Despite the danger, Lena and Oleg rarely sleep in the basement.

“We have kind of a community here,” she said.

“I’m worried, of course. But it’s my home.”

 ?? Photograph­s by Carolyn Cole Los Angeles Times ?? LUBOV Perisichan­skaya, center, daughter Ekaterina and their cat are living in a subway in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
Photograph­s by Carolyn Cole Los Angeles Times LUBOV Perisichan­skaya, center, daughter Ekaterina and their cat are living in a subway in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
 ?? Photograph­s by Carolyn Cole Los Angeles Times ?? IN THE HEAVILY bombed Saltivka district of Kharkiv, Ukraine, people continue to live without electricit­y, cooking outside with wood.
Photograph­s by Carolyn Cole Los Angeles Times IN THE HEAVILY bombed Saltivka district of Kharkiv, Ukraine, people continue to live without electricit­y, cooking outside with wood.
 ?? ?? NATASHA, who has been living in the hard-hit neighborho­od of Saltivka in Kharkiv, says that after heavy shelling last week, she has decided to leave. “It’s very hard to live here, but where would I go?” she asked.
NATASHA, who has been living in the hard-hit neighborho­od of Saltivka in Kharkiv, says that after heavy shelling last week, she has decided to leave. “It’s very hard to live here, but where would I go?” she asked.

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