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Russia's new Kharkiv offensive pushes Vovchansk to the brink of annihilation

by Francis Farrell May 12, 2024 10:04 PM 8 min read
Vovchansk police chief Oleksii Kharkivskyi and local resident Serhii Kotsar in Vovchansk, Kharkiv Oblast, on May 11, 2024. (Francis Farrell/The Kyiv Independent)
by Francis Farrell May 12, 2024 10:04 PM 8 min read
This audio is created with AI assistance

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VOVCHANSK, KHARKIV OBLAST – The glide bombs arrive in groups of three.

Their flight can be heard from far away, but only in the last second before impact is it clear where it will hit.

The explosions, orders of magnitude more powerful than regular artillery shells, shake the ground where the two police officers lay prone.

Getting back on his feet, Oleksii Kharkivskyi, the boisterous young police chief of the border town of Vovchansk in Kharkiv Oblast, climbed onto a pile of rubble and pointed to the plumes of dark grey smoke rising in the distance, the nearest less than half a kilometer away.

“I see one, I see a second, and the third is just behind this house,” he said.

“If you don’t want to die, I suggest you gather your things and follow me.”

A local resident looks for a dog over the fence of a house destroyed by a Russian bomb in Vovchansk, Kharkiv Oblast, on May 11, 2024. (Francis Farrell/The Kyiv Independent)

Vovchansk is ground zero of Russia’s new offensive into Kharkiv Oblast, the first time a serious push has been made to take territory across the border since the area was liberated from Russian occupation in Ukraine’s lightning counteroffensive in September 2022.

Now, the town is on the brink of becoming the first major settlement to be occupied by Russia for a second time once already liberated.

The prospect of a new, large-scale offensive on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, had loomed for months, and now comes at a time when overstretched Ukrainian forces are steadily losing ground in several hotspots further southeast in Donetsk Oblast.

The Kyiv Independent visited Vovchansk on May 11, one day after the first incursions were made into Ukrainian territory in two sectors of the border.

Further west, Russian forces have reportedly taken several Ukrainian villages, bringing them around 25 kilometers from the outskirts of Kharkiv itself.

The second axis is aimed at Vovchansk.

Map of Russia's offensive in Kharkiv Oblast as of May 12, 2024. (Lisa Kukharska / The Kyiv Independent)

By the time of publication, Russian forces had reached the outskirts of the town, according to a Facebook post by Denys Yaroslavskyi, a Ukrainian reconnaissance commander serving in the area, as well as police officers cited by Associated Press journalists on May 10.

The road to Vovchansk is clouded in parts by thick smoke: large tracts of pine forest across the area are in flames, though it’s unclear if due to the very dry spring or Russian bombing.

Inside the town, the atmosphere is eerie: no Ukrainian soldiers could be seen out in the open, only the occasional civilian, usually sitting outside, oblivious to the battles being waged around them.

Above, the ominous buzz of Russian drones can often be heard in the clear skies, always on the lookout for potential targets.

A former hospital building damaged by Russian shelling in Vovchansk, Kharkiv Oblast, on May 11, 2024. (Francis Farrell/The Kyiv Independent)

Local police teams and volunteer organizations are racing against time to evacuate as many civilians from Vovchansk and the surrounding villages.

Operating out of a central hub in a nearby village, police cars fan across the town, heading to addresses where people have called in with requests to be pulled out.

Since the offensive began, hundreds of those remaining in Vovchansk, which had a pre-war population of around 17,000, are being evacuated each day, Kharkivskyi told the Kyiv Independent.

As of the afternoon on May 12, around 500 people were left in the town, according to Kharkiv Oblast Governor Oleh Syniehubov.

In the midst of the wholesale destruction of their city, some residents insist on staying put no matter what.

As is the case in front-line settlements across Ukraine, residents often remain stubbornly out of attachment to their homes and other belongings.

The police car takes a turn onto a nondescript street of houses outside the town center.

A stocky, curly-haired man wanders aimlessly out onto the road. His hands, face, and clothes are caked in dark grey soot, while his wrist is adorned with a fresh foam and bandage dressing.

For 65-year-old retired railway worker Serhii Kotsar, as of the previous day, there is almost nothing left to remain attached to.

The house behind him, where he was born and grew up, took a direct hit from a Russian gliding bomb around 2 p.m.

Smoke still rises from the rubble, with very little left of the interior that hasn’t been buried or burnt beyond recognition.

“That’s where I was with her (his wife), we were just having lunch,” he said, looking to the last intact walls of what used to be his house, “and this is what happened,” turning to point towards the rest of the ruins.

Suffering major head and rib injuries, his wife was immediately evacuated to hospital in Kharkiv, but Kotsar himself, despite everything, chooses to stay put.

Police officer Oleksii Kharkivskyi looks at smoke rising from a Russian glide bomb impact site in Vovchansk, Kharkiv Oblast, on May 11, 2024. (Francis Farrell/The Kyiv Independent)

In a rusty shack behind the house, singed and shaken, lies the reason why.

Kotsar’s goats, three adults and two kids, cry out as he strokes their heads gently.

To one side, a small tabby cat, badly burnt but still alive, meows softly.

“I can’t bring myself to kill them with my own hands,” he said, holding back tears.

With police and volunteers usually refusing to evacuate livestock, these animals create another reason for people like Kotsar to stay.

In these conditions of wholesale destruction, the idea of a second Russian occupation often takes a back seat in the psyches of locals.

“I know perfectly well that things won't get better,” Kotsar said.

“Of course we thought about a second occupation, but we had nowhere to go. We are both pensioners with just a few hryvnias to our name.”

A bicycle destroyed by a Russian bomb in Vovchansk, Kharkiv Oblast, on May 11, 2024. (Francis Farrell/The Kyiv Independent)

Approaching on her bicycle, 48-year-old neighbor Oksana makes her own attempt to convince Kotsar, pleading for him to reunite with his wife.  

“He doesn't have documents or anything, he needs to leave but doesn't want to,” she said to the Kyiv Independent.

Oksana, who declined to give her last name out of fear, works tirelessly to coordinate humanitarian aid for the residents, but still refuses to leave herself.  

“I believe in our guys, that they won't let them into our city,” she said.

“We had them once (the Russians) and nothing good came out of it. They took my son away, to the cellar, and they tried to take my brother too.”

The conversation is interrupted by more glide bombs; Oksana crouches down behind a tree and flips forward the hood of her coat.

If the bomb falls anywhere nearby, neither are likely to offer much protection.

A destroyed minivan on the streets of Vovchansk, Kharkiv Oblast, on May 11, 2024. (Francis Farrell/The Kyiv Independent)

Over the next half hour, Kharkivskyi and his deputy check several more streets, but none of the residents are willing to evacuate.

One theme that arises regularly among the residents of Vovchansk as a reason not to leave is the need to help one’s neighbors.

Delivering a power bank to a family next door, Olha Khodaiko speaks with a soft, high-pitched voice, doing everything to hold back tears.

“I have my dogs, I have my cats, I have my birds, my neighbors... I will not abandon them,” she said. “If I am needed here, may God protect me, and if I am needed there, let him take me, just please let it be without pain.”

“I won't be here under a second occupation,” she added. “I think they will kill us all.”

“You hear a lot of 'Nobody needs us out there, I want to die in my own house, let them kill me then;' there are millions of phrases people use to justify staying here,” Kharkivskyi said laconically.  

A police officer listens for Russian drones as shrapnel from aerial bombs lie on a table in Vovchansk, Kharkiv Oblast, on May 11, 2024. (Francis Farrell/The Kyiv Independent)

Finally, the police team reaches an address where a resident is sticking to his plan to evacuate.

With his bags packed already, 65-year-old Oleksandr bangs on a neighbor’s door in a last-ditch attempt to convince them to leave with him.

Failing in his attempt, he crosses himself three times in front of his proud brick home, breaking into tears as he makes his last goodbye.

Oleksandr’s departure is cut off by yet another glide bomb attack: the fifth set of three bombs released on the town in the space of less than two hours.

Bundling him into their car, the police officers speed out of the city.

Back at the evacuation hub, more and more civilians, including families with children, flow in from Vovchansk and neighboring villages.

After being given a warm meal and having their documents checked, the residents board buses and cars heading to Kharkiv.

The lucky ones are heading to friends and family elsewhere in Ukraine or abroad, but those without support networks of their own, like Oleksandr, will have to search for programs to complement the meager financial support received from the state.

As much as Russia’s first six-month occupation of Vovchansk was a nightmare defined by torture and fear, the second time will likely be much worse, said Kharkivskyi.

“That occupation was nothing like what it could be this time;” he said, “back then the Russians rolled in without even waking most people up and by noon they were already fighting on the outskirts of Kharkiv.”

“This time, when they come in, they first wipe everything off the face of the earth. Nothing will be left here.”

A few hours before publication on May 12, Oleksii Kharkivskyi, the police chief, told the Kyiv Independent that Serhii Kotsar had been evacuated. His animals were released to fend for themselves.

Olena Zashko contributed reporting. Watch the video version of this story here:

Note from the author:

Hi, this is Francis Farrell, cheers for reading this article. I hope that news about Russia making gains across the front line hasn't come as a surprise to you. Things are moving fast, and not in the direction we would like, but whatever happens, we are dedicated to continue being Ukraine's voice to the world, no matter how dangerous and dark this war gets. Please consider supporting our reporting.

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