Thursday, March 23

“Before we thought of fire, now of bombs”

The firefighter Oleh Alenik he finds himself on the rooftop of a nine-story building along with his unit of seven subordinates. They have entered a window slightly larger than a person’s body, and now they are removing the debris who has left a recent attack. The terrace walls look like Gruyère cheese, a gift from the artillery, but the biggest danger is some pieces of cornice that are coming loose and are in danger of collapsing at any moment. Men work on it fast under the sun, on the edge of the void. But suddenly, the sound of a huge explosion interrupts the scene. A few kilometers away, they are shelling, gray smoke stains the sky, and it is no longer safe to continue working. It will continue tomorrow.

The war has radically transformed the work of firefighters of Kharkov, a city half a hundred kilometers from the border with Russia where bombs have been falling daily for almost three months. Alenik’s team from the Kharkiv Industrial District knows this well. Since the conflict broke out, the number of troops of these brigades have been decimated for those who have made the decision to leave the city and, with the war going on, those who remain must double shifts. For this reason, they operate 24 hours a day, two days in a row; Before the war, rest came after a day’s work.

“The difference with what we did before is enormous. We work five times more. Now we have to fight the fire, rescue people and we also have to fix the buildings that have been bombed,” explains Alenik. “Also, the resources we have are stretched thin,” he adds. “We lived well, we had a good job and a good family. Now, our families are far away. Before when a call came you thought about the fire, now we think about the bombs,” Yuri, another firefighter, interrupts. “Every day there are people who die and houses that are destroyed”Add.

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Coordination with the military force

Still, they are always the first – along with the paramedics – to arrive after an attack, and the last to leave. “We know it’s our job, and we have to do it,” says Alenik impassively, explaining that the first call almost always comes from civilians and the authorities, as in times of peace, although now, immediately afterwards, it is complemented with a communication with the military command. “It’s a coordination job”Add.

This was especially the case in the beginning. When the alarm came from a attack on Gorizont neighborhood, one of Kharkiv’s many dormitory quarters, the Industrial District fire brigade didn’t have much time to think. It was four in the afternoon on February 28, four days after the start of the Russian war in Ukraine, and the calls to the telephone switchboard did not stop coming. The flames, caused by the impact, were eating everything away. A piece of concrete had even dislodged from a ledge, killing a woman who was in a car. Another man had died in the street. And a dozen more were wounded.

As you walk through the charred block of buildings, at the end of a working day, Alenik tells it in detail; other witnesses, relatives and friends of the victims, also remember it. “That day we had several calls at the same time,” he says, specifying that those days and what came in the weeks immediately following have been, so far, the worst of the war conflict in Kharkiv. It was also then that he understood that the war had really begun.

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Since then, the industrial district unit has been risking its life. But one of the greatest dangers has been the feared double tapa military technique that consists of hitting the same target with short temporary distances, which also puts the rescue services. “It has happened that sometimes when we were fighting the fire they bombed again, there have been tragic moments, some of my team died like that. In this area I have witnessed 15 cases of double shots at the same target in a very short time,” says Alenik, who he is 44 years old.

In the firefighters’ headquarters, a building in which they have had to settle now -after the Army occupied the one they previously had-, they have not been spared from the rockets, which have left their marks on the ground. There the circumspect Alla, the person in charge of the telephone switchboard, who enjoys a good reputation among the firefighters, also says that they now receive three times more calls. But she, too, becomes more distressed every day. “The worst thing is when they say there might be people under there,” she says.

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