Even after a Russian missile blew up Kharkiv’s city hall and the central square on March 1, Oleksandr Zuiev didn’t want to leave his hometown.
Zuiev, 46, didn’t believe Russian forces would target civilians and never expected his own apartment to come under fire.
“I was wrong,” he says now.
Zuiev was outside with his dog on March 18, when he saw a plane fly over his head and heard a powerful explosion blast into the courtyard.
A few seconds after, he saw a large mass of iron fall, followed by a large explosion destroying an institutional building approximately 300 meters away.
Zuiev sprinted to the ninth floor of his family’s apartment, where his wife and their one-year-old were at the moment of the attack.
“I'm bleeding!” he heard his wife shouting as he ran up the stairs.
He could barely see anything with all the dust from the explosion but spotted his wife holding their son, her face covered with blood. Miraculously, the child didn’t have a scratch despite sitting next to the window.
His wife had to get a total of 25 stitches on her face and her arms. The stitches have now been removed but left permanent scars.
“The war has left its mark on (our) whole life,” Zuiev told the Kyiv Independent.
There are countless stories like that happening in Kharkiv every day.
Located just 40 kilometers from the eastern border with Russia, Kharkiv was an early strategic target in Moscow’s advance.
The city has been battered by weeks of heavy Russian bombardment. Bombs, shells and rockets have smashed Kharkiv’s historic center and residential areas, killing hundreds of civilians in perhaps the most intense assaults outside the besieged southeastern port city of Mariupol.
Kharkiv, a regional capital in eastern Ukraine and the country’s second-largest metropolis with a pre-war population of 1.4 million people, is now largely emptied and littered with rubble, mangled cars and twisted steel.
“It’s still hard to believe that this is happening in the 21st century,” Zuiev said.
According to Kharkiv Oblast emergency service, at least 500 civilians have been killed as of March 16 but the true number is likely higher.
Indiscriminate shelling in heavily populated areas destroyed 2,055 buildings, most of which can’t be restored, according to Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov.
As Russia now concentrates its military force in eastern Ukraine, attacks on Kharkiv have intensified and their geography has broadened, Terekhov said.
Since the first days of Russia's war, thousands of people have been hiding in Kharkiv's metro stations from endless shelling and bombing.
Staying in isolation
Kharkiv resident Yevhen Ivanenko, 30, wanted to leave the city on Feb. 24, the first day of the war. But he kept postponing it.
As days passed by, Ivanenko felt like he needed to stay for some reason, though he still can’t pinpoint what it was. He hoped that he could be “useful” in Kharkiv but it could have also been that he didn’t want to leave again. He has lived in Kharkiv since fleeing his home in Crimea in 2014, after Russian occupation.
Until recently, he lived by himself, occasionally going to the bomb shelter when he feels lonely. The basement that served as bomb shelter was cold and dark, so he said it was difficult to stay there for many days, and despite the heavy shelling he gets out.
“I hear some shelling every hour,” he told the Kyiv Independent. “It feels like something is always happening.”
In early April, his residential area became more targeted and a neighboring building was hit and caught on fire. Though his apartment was not attacked, he began to have difficulty sleeping because of loud explosions that seemed to have occurred close by.
He has now moved into his friend’s apartment, in a quieter district of Kharkiv. He doesn’t intend on leaving the city anytime soon.
As his city stands in ruins, he’s trying to be “useful” by at least helping to clean up debris from sites of explosion.
It’s “very sad” to see familiar buildings get destroyed, Ivanenko said. But “the most important thing is for people to be alive.”
Keeping the city running
Kharkiv resident Oleksandr Khorosho, 38, started helping his community in the very first days of the war.
He transformed his spacious basement into a bomb shelter and took in as many people as he could, most of whom he met for the first time.
A total of about 1,000 people came on the first days, he says, but now it’s down to 60 because many fled the city.
He works with organizations providing humanitarian aid to distribute food and other needs among the residents of his bomb shelter. Many families who stayed in the shelter before going abroad are now helping him by sending warm clothes back to Kharkiv.
Although the basement is a bit cold and needs repairs, Khorosho says he tries to make it as comfortable as he can. After living together for more than a month, the shelter’s residents feel like relatives to him, he adds.
“It’s as if we live in a big dorm,” he told the Kyiv Independent.
Khorosho can still hear the sounds of explosions very well in the shelter. He remembers how he heard a series of loud explosions one day and the walls were trembling as if there was an earthquake. He said he ran down the stairs of the shelter thinking that they would crumble.
“I’m a grown-up man,” he said. “And I was very scared.”
Besides offering shelter to fellow residents, Khorosho also delivers food and other essentials to people in several Kharkiv districts and in the suburbs. To collect requests for help on one platfrom, he set up a Telegram channel. They often come from people who had to leave their elderly members of the family in Kharkiv, asking Khorosho to deliver critical medicines or just check in on them.
He said that many of the elderly people left in the neighborhoods live in fear, often alone by themselves. Many are also cut off from electricity and gas, so he brings them something warm, whether it be a home-cooked meal or tea.
“Despite the fear, I decided to help people, because I understand that they are probably more scared than me,” he said.
Cut off from electricity, the elderly often don’t know what’s happening in the country, he said.
In addition to delivering them the necessary goods and talking with them in-person so they feel less lonely, he also tries to look for some good news to share during his visits. It could be anything like the Ukrainian forces defeating a Russian column, he said.
“I never say ‘no’ to anyone, I like (helping people),” he explained. “It’s like I get a boost of energy from it, and it’s a difficult time.”
Khorosho initially wanted to join the Territorial Defense Force, a volunteer military formation, but there were too many volunteers and those with combat experience were prioritized. So he continues to help in the way he can.
“You still want to help the country, and the people here in Kharkiv,” he said. “My mind will go crazy if I sit in the bomb shelter all day. That’s why I want to help and I will help our people until our victory.”