Saturday, December 9

‘When will it all end?’: Kharkiv counts the cost as Russians pull back | Ukraine

yestanding atop the damaged roof of his house on the main road north from Kharkiv going to villages occupied by Russian forces until a few days ago, Konstantin Kharlamov, 53, had just two hours earlier watched black smoke billow in the distance.

His friend Vitaliy, 41, the smell of heavy liquor on his breath, said he also saw the explosion, perhaps just two miles away up Lesya Serdyuka Street in the direction of his home village, Strilecha. The departure of the Russians had three days ago given him the chance to move to a safer district of Kharkiv after two and a half months living under occupation. But he was now cut off because of renewed fighting.

Vitaliy cries inside Kharlamov’s damaged house. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

The constant background thuds and irregular thunder cracks that filled the air and the jumpy Ukrainian soldiers at the checkpoints amid the burnt-out trees, cars and scattered military detritus offered support to the two men’s testimony of unfinished business in Ukraine’s second city. Four people were said to have been wounded in strikes around the Shevchenkivskyi region of Kharkiv on Monday and one person was confirmed to have been killed in the liberated northern village of Tsyrkuny.

Vladimir Putin’s forces are being pushed back, and it may prove to be the case that the Battle of Kharkiv joins the Battle of Kyiv in being a triumphant victory for Ukraine. The US Institute for the Study of War on Friday described it as effectively over and Ukrainian soldiers posted a video on Sunday night of them erecting a new border post at the nearby Russian border as an indication of their growing strength and confidence. “Mr President, we made it!”, they wrote in a Facebook post.

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But there is also ample evidence in Kharkiv’s suburbs that the Russians intend to fight hard to keep some offensive positions around this north-eastern Ukrainian stronghold; their forces remain sufficiently close to pepper the outskirts of the city with artillery fire. The Ukrainian military urged calm when a fertilizer plant was hit on Monday, bellowing out red fumes, which the authorities said were not dangerous to health.

People walk past destroyed apartment block
People walk past a destroyed building in northern Kharkiv. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

Officials from Ukraine’s general staff said on Monday that the Russians were focused on “maintaining positions and preventing the advance of our troops toward the border”. If it is a withdrawal by Russia, it is a fighting one, as the people who have suffered so mightily in Kharkiv are well aware.

Vitaliy pointed to the rocket-shaped hole in three walls inside his friend’s shattered two-storey home and simply asked, with tears in his eyes: “When will it all end?”

“Only when Putin is dead,” responded Kharlamov, who moved back into his home three days ago with his wife, Olga, 48. They sleep downstairs amid dust and broken glass.

They had been on the roof trying to rainproof it as the weather turned. “The rocket hit on the 50th day of war, but we had left by then because it was so horrific here,” he said. “I went to the supermarket one day and a rocket destroyed a house right in front of me. It was hell.”

Their home is still without heat, electricity or running water. “We came back to try to save the rooms from the rain,” Kharlamov said. “Just look at what they have done to us.”

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