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'Who are they fighting, children?' Family of 5 killed in devastating Russian attack on Kharkiv

by Daria Shulzhenko March 1, 2024 8:45 PM 7 min read
View of memorial flowers and teddy bears outside a house in Kharkiv, where a family of five were killed, including a 10-month-old baby, during a Russian attack on Feb. 9-10, 2024. During the drone attack, a petrol depot was hit in Kharkiv, causing a huge fire. (Ximena Borrazas/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
by Daria Shulzhenko March 1, 2024 8:45 PM 7 min read
This audio is created with AI assistance

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Editor’s Note:  This story contains descriptions of graphic scenes.

Yuliia Solomko couldn’t fall asleep late on the night of Feb. 9.

Kharkiv, her hometown, was under yet another heavy Russian attack. Worse, she could hear explosions coming from the neighborhood where her best friend and her family lived.

"It's very loud here," reads a text she received from her friend, Olha Putiatina. "But the kids are asleep," Putiatina wrote soon, reassuring Solomko that they were all right.

It was the very last time Solomko heard from her.

Just a couple of minutes later, a Russian drone attack struck a gas station, creating a huge, raging fire that engulfed 15 residential homes – including the one where Putiatina's family lived.

It killed seven people, including Putiatina's entire family of five, and injured 57 others.

The badly burnt bodies of 35-year-old Putiatina, her husband Hryhorii Putiatin, 38, and their three little children – Oleksii, 7, Mykhailo, 4, and 10-month-old Pavlo – were found inside the shattered and burnt remains of their home.

"Nobody could have survived there," says Solomko, who went to the site shortly after the curfew was over at 5 a.m.

Putiatina and her eldest and youngest sons were found in the bathroom, while the bodies of her husband and Mykhailo were in the corridor, according to Solomko.

"We assume that the mother held the children, hugging and pressing them to her chest," Serhii Bolvinov, the head of the investigative department of the regional police, reported shortly after the tragedy.

"The temperature of the blaze was such that the bones and body of the infant almost turned completely to ashes," Bolvinov wrote.

The deaths of the family in the Russian attack shocked Ukraine.

Firefighters extinguish a fire at an oil depot following a Russian kamikaze drones strike on Feb. 10, 2024, in Kharkiv, Ukraine. In the Nemyshlyanskyi district of Kharkiv, the Russian kamikaze drones hit a critical infrastructure facility. As a result of the impact, diesel fuel and gasoline were spilled and a massive fire broke out. The private sector caught fire, and 15 residential buildings were engulfed in flames. Search and rescue operations are ongoing. Seven people died, including three children aged seven and four and a baby about 7 months old. Three people were injured. (Viacheslav Mavrychev/Suspilne Ukraine/JSC "UA:PBC"/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

Ever since the first day of Russia’s full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, civilian areas in Kharkiv, as in other cities, have been relentlessly bombarded by Russian forces. Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, is located in the east of the country, just about 30 kilometers from the Russian border.

According to the latest report by the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU), At least 10,582 civilians have been killed and nearly 20,000 have been injured since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. The actual number of civilian casualties is believed to be significantly higher, since neither Ukraine nor international organizations have access to the Russian-occupied territories, where according to President Volodymyr Zelensky, thousands of civilians could have been killed since 2022.

The number of confirmed civilian casualties includes 587 children killed by the war.

"Who are they (Russian troops) fighting here – children, families, a mother of three, or a husband who spent all his time at work to earn something for his loved ones?" asks another friend of Putiatina, Oleksii Shuliak.

Happy family

Putiatina, Solomko, and Shuliak studied together at the Yaroslav Mudryi National Law University in Kharkiv. Solomko and Shuliak describe Putiatina as a very reliable and responsible person.

In late 2012, Putiatina became an intern prosecutor at the District Prosecutor's Office in Chuhuiv, a city in Kharkiv Oblast, alongside Shuliak. After 10 months, she was promoted to a prosecutor's position.

"She loved her job a lot," Shuliak recalls.

However, Putiatina worked as a prosecutor only until 2015, when she went on maternity leave after giving birth to her first son with Hryhorii.

Solomko says Putiatina and her husband-to-be met accidentally: "She got a flat tire and asked a nearby young man to help her change it." The young man was Hryhorii, Solomko says.

Shortly after they married, Putiatina moved from her apartment in the Saltivka neighborhood – in the northeast of the city, closest to the Russian border, and now heavily damaged by Russian attacks – to Hryhorii's one-floor house. They began building a family home there.

Hryhorii operated a small business specializing in installing windows and gates, according to Solomko.

"They were an ordinary happy family," she says. "They loved their children very much."

Solomko says the couple's oldest, Oleksii, had already started school and recently joined an aviation modeling club, which he greatly enjoyed. Mykhailo loved playing with toy cars, and little Pavlo recently had his first three teeth come in.

Solomko was godmother to all three of Putiatina's kids – proving their close ties and trust in one another.

"There wasn’t a single day when we didn't call and say good morning," Solomko says.

Smoke and ashes

Due to its proximity to the border with Russia, Kharkiv Oblast and the regional capital have been under attack almost daily since the start of the full-scale invasion. Part of the region was also occupied in early February 2022, but then liberated in early September.

Solomko says Putiatina and the kids relocated to her mother’s home in Cherkasy, a regional capital in central Ukraine, shortly after Feb. 24, 2022. There, she gave birth to Pavlo. Soon, however, the family decided to return to Kharkiv, where Hryhorii had stayed the whole time.

As a father of three children, Hryhorii could legally leave Ukraine along with the family during martial law, which bans men of draft age from leaving the country, with several exemptions. "But they stayed in Kharkiv as they loved Ukraine," Shuliak says.

According to Shuliak, the family had a little basement at home, but hiding there might not have saved their lives from the terrible fire overnight on Feb. 9-10.

The funeral of Olha Putiatina, Hryhorii Putiatin and their three children who were killed in the fire caused by a Russian drone attack on an oil depot at night on Feb. 10, 2024, in Kharkiv. (Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy / Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov reported a Russian drone attack on the city at 11 p.m. Solomko contacted Putiatina immediately after the attack started. In her worst nightmares, she could not imagine it would be their last conversation.

As the attack raged on, Solomko spent the night reaching out to Putiatina and her neighbors. She could not go to the site of the drone strike before 5 a.m. due to the curfew limitations. What she saw there in the morning, when she finally arrived at what used to be her friend's house, shocked her to the core.

The entire street was covered in ashes and smoke, with numerous houses destroyed by the fire. Later, after the attack, Bolvinov said the leakage of fuel from the gas station had contaminated over 10,000 square meters of land there.

KHARKIV, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 12: The graves of the Putiatin family that perished because of the Russian drone kamikaze attacks on February 12, 2024 in Kharkiv, Ukraine. On February 9, the Russian army launched drone kamikaze attacks of the ‘Shahed’ type on Kharkiv. The shelling resulted in the death of 7 people. In one of the residential houses, the charred bodies of the Putiatin family - husband, wife, and their three children (10-month-old Pavlo, 4-year-old Mykhailo and 7-year-old Oleksii) - were found. (Vika Mankovska for Gwara Media/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

Solomko’s voice trembles when she recalls that morning. In the charred ruins of the house, she saw the badly burnt bodies of Putiatina, her three little sons, and her husband.  

"I saw everything…" Solomko whispers.

Numerous people gathered at one of Kharkiv's cemeteries to say goodbye to the family on Feb. 12, many in tears. Shuliak says the entire Kharkiv Oblast Prosecutor’s Office team came to pay their respects to Putiatina and her loved ones.

"It's very difficult... It's a terrible loss when an entire family is gone. How can life go on after this?" he says.

"We should never forget them."

"But we should also remember what kind of neighbor we have (in Russia), and what evil they have done to us."

Note from the author:

Hi! Daria Shulzhenko here. I wrote this piece for you. Since the first day of Russia's all-out war, I have been working almost non-stop to tell the stories of those affected by Russia’s brutal aggression. By telling all those painful stories, we are helping to keep the world informed about the reality of Russia’s war against Ukraine. By becoming the Kyiv Independent's member, you can help us continue telling the world the truth about this war.

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