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War in Ukraine: ‘These guys walked around expecting people to thank them as liberators’

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

Picture: Soldier Yevhenii Babchenko, 25, patrols in North Saltivka, Kharkiv, Ukraine. Photo: Phil Wilson

Almost three months into the Russian invasion, the people of Kharkiv are remaining stoic as they endure a seemingly endless barrage of artillery fire and bullets

Jeff Farrell

May 14, 2022

Business Post

The sound of artillery fire repeatedly echoed across Zolochiv on Tuesday, a sharp crack-crack ringing out in the small town in the Kharkiv region. Shakhov Serhii, a local taxi driver, stiffened his face, but after a moment grinned and announced: “That's us firing at the Russians.”

Zolochiv, sits in the region of Kharkiv in north-east Ukraine, around 10 kilometres from the frontline of the fighting as Ukrainian forces are inching the Kremlin's army back to Russia's border just another 15km to the north.

Just two months ago, scores of Russian armoured vehicles rumbled through the streets of the main city of Kharkiv, 40 kilometres south of here.

“These guys walked around expecting people to thank them as liberators. Throw flowers or something,” said. “They even asked a friend of mine for food, and went to the police to ask for fuel. That's what I heard.”

While these accounts cannot be confirmed, local media reported that the Ukrainian army fired at the few Russian armoured vehicles that breached the city and fierce fighting erupted.

The Russian “liberation” lasted just a few hours, and the soldiers who ambled into the city of Kharkiv met their end in a spray of bullets, soldiers told this journalist.

The fierce fighting in early March came amid weeks of Russian shelling that turned whole neighbourhoods in the area of North Saltivka into rubble. Last week in Zolochiv, Serhii parked his bright red taxi outside a squat building.

The streets were deserted on the grey, chilly May day and it was easy to see the extent of the shelling the place had endured: buildings with windows shattered, homes reduced to rubble, and railings twisted in the concrete.

Picture: Ukrainian soldier Ruslan patrols the scene at North Saltivka in the suburbs of Kharkiv. Photo: Jeff Farrell

A police car pulled up and three Politsiya piled out of the white vehicle, the upper half chequered yellow and blue in the colours of the Ukrainian flag. “Document,” one of the officers barked.

Serhii explained that I was a journalist from Ireland and the tension eased. The police chatted to Serhii, who translated.

“You have one hour to get out of town before the Russians start shelling. It happens every day, constantly after 5pm.” he relayed.

It was just after 3.30pm. Ninety minutes or so before bombs were due to rain down, four people raked the earth in their backyard, toiling the land.

One of them, a man in his 50s, heavyset and wearing a black woolly hat, rested his big hands on a wooden fence. He said his name was Andriy, and he recalled Russian troops shelling the area just days after the invasion began on February 24.

Andriy, who did not want us to use his surname, said: “They came 20 kilometres from here on the first day of the war, the fighters, and they were shooting [artillery] from that position to Kharkiv. We heard the explosions all over here from the tanks, and then they started to shoot directly to this place, and houses and buildings were broken.”

He said the Russians were now a few kilometres further back to the Russian border, but that the bombing still goes on. “We have a shelter under the house for the shelling,” he said.

Pointing back to the three women raking the land, he said: “We are growing our own food now. We don’t know what will happen with this war. The price of food is going up. The fuel is going up. Now we are living off the land again. The life is gone.”

Andriy shrugged off the idea of normality in Ukraine any time soon. “That idiot Putin will not stop by himself. The red line was crossed and now he has nothing to lose. Now he has to save his face against the world,” he said.

When Russian president Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, he absurdly billed the assault as a 'Special Military Operation' designed as a “denazification” of the country led by Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish.

Ministers in Moscow later shut down opposition media and social media platforms including Twitter and Facebook. Most in Russia merely have access to state TV, and so the “denazification” narrative appears to be working.

“Russia, we have relatives there. They say to us: ‘You will be liberated there [in Ukraine]’, and I say to them: ‘From what?’,” Andriy said with a laugh.

Picture: Jeff Farrell interviews Ukrainian soldier Ruslan in the suburb of North Saltivka, Kharkiv. Picture: Phil Wilson

Earlier in the day, as Serhii drove south towards Kharkiv, Russian shells pounded the landscape. Puffs of smoke rose from yellowed fields, and grey clouds lingered. Serhii hit the accelerator harder, dodging potholes like craters.

About a half hour on, photographer Olena Dolzhenko stood beside a burned-out armoured vehicle, wearing a military green flak jacket daubed with ‘Press’ and a helmet.

Dolzhenko volunteers with the organisation Hell’s Kitchen, which feeds soldiers. On the side, she snaps images of the aftermath of Russian attacks in Kharkiv.

“I take photographs firstly to get documentary proof of war crimes of Russian invaders here, and secondly to show to the Europeans here the damage made to our city and the nearby villages. We plan to organise several exhibitions across Europe, in Italy, US and Germany, Poland, and show our city before and after the invasion,” she said.

“We also want to show Europe that the war can go to their homes as well if Putin is not stopped.”

Fierce fighting

The devastation that Russian bombing wrought on one neighbourhood in Kharkiv is laid bare by the hollowed-out and blackened multi-storey residential buildings in the suburb of Saltivka. Much of the area is rubble.

One Ukrainian soldier, Ruslan, patrolled the scene last Wednesday wearing a black ski mask pulled up over his nose. He claimed that the Ukrainian troops pushed back the Russian forces from here recently after fierce fighting.

Ruslan, who refused to give his surname, said: “Four or five days ago you cannot stay here, because there were huge battles here, but now the situation is stabilised, we have pushed away the Russians and some of the people are already returning to this district.”

In a nearby building that was blackened but standing, an elderly couple on the fourth floor knocked out the remaining fragments of glass from a shattered window frame.

Evgeny Gusev, 36, was visiting the area to check if his flat was still intact. He stood near a sign spray painted in white on the walls that said in Russian: “People here.” The idea was to deter the Kremlin's army from shelling, but it didn't work.

“They are bombing peaceful citizens, children, old people,” Evgeny said, shaking his head. “What can I say – this is a war.”

Another soldier, Yevhenii Babchenko, stood nearby, pointing his gun to the ground. He is grateful to the West for shipping over weapons to help the Ukrainian army fight back Russia. The US has been the biggest donor, dispatching armaments including drones that can be turned into flying bombs and anti-aircraft weapons that can shoot down helicopters.

Video: Ukrainian soldier Yevhenii Babchenko thanks Britain for sending weapons

Other tools of war include the Javelin, a shoulder-held anti-tank weapon that shoots heat-seeking rockets at targets up to 4km away. Britain has funnelled over numerous artillery weapons, and late last month promised more.

In a nod to the West, Yevhenii, 25, said: “I can only say thank you. This is really good because we only had protective weapons, not weapons for attacking the Russian military. And with the help of Britain and the United States we can do anything.”

Stoic and proud

As we drove south towards the centre of Kharkiv, the showrooms of car garages, including Porsche and Mercedes Benz, sat empty behind shattered windows.

Further on, the Heroiv Pratsi metro station, which like many others was shelled by the Russians, is now serving as a shelter for people bombed out of their homes.

Dima, one of 480 people living in the metro station in Kharkiv. Picture: Phil Wilson

A young man named Dima stood inside the station by the doors that lead into the train tracks wearing a navy blue Adidas tracksuit with red stripes. He pointed to a luminous yellow band on his left arm and said he was a volunteer liaising with a local aid group. He said there were 480 people sheltering in the station.

Dima, who did not want to give his surname, said he had been holed up in the metro station since the day Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 and shelled Kharkiv. “My house is damaged, the windows blown in, and it was too cold to stay there,” he said.

Picture: Dima, one of 480 people living in the metro station in Kharkiv. Picture: Phil Wilson

A woman in a navy bib pushed past, nudging along an industrial floor cleaner, with the motor whining as a grey and white dog nosed the ground.

Dima said the metro station was not the worst place to be. “We have a toilet, a sink we can wash out of, and food. We have the normal behaviour,” he said.

Inside the metro station on Wednesday, a train painted bright blue and yellow was parked on each track. In front, people lay on the platforms including a woman in a light green jumper, in her 70s, below a blanket.

Others slept in tents and there was even a white bunk bed, a sign of how long people have been living below ground. The air was stale and thick with body odour, but the people looked stoic and proud.

Picture: The Heroiv Pratsi metro station in Kharkiv, which is serving as a shelter for people bombed out of their homes. Photo: Phil Wilson

Evgeny Ivanovich, 52, patted a stool and called me to sit down. Evgeny said he was a cook before the war, and that he came down here around six weeks ago when Russian troops shelled his home and he was forced to live out of a bunker below his house with his brother.

He has a daughter who lives in Germany, who told him to get out of the shelter below his house. “She said I would be totally under rubble if the ground collapsed. And the telephone wasn't working in the shelter. I had no connection. This is one of the reasons I am here,” he said. “I am alone here, sick of this place, and poor and tired.”

A man behind him with a heavy beard sat up in a sleeping bag, eating what looked like bread.

In a swipe at Putin, Evgeny said he was not confident the invasion would end soon. “This war will go on.” he said, adding that despite Putin’s actions, there was only kinship between the people of Russia and Ukraine.

“My uncle is in Moscow and my aunt too. We are not enemies of the people of Moscow,” he said, thumping his chest. “We are brothers – or we were brothers."

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