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Kharkov cautiously revived from the flames of war

Russian forces have withdrawn from Kharkov, normal life has begun to return, but panic and anxiety still surround this northeastern Ukrainian city.

Air raid sirens still sounded daily and artillery shells echoed in the distance, but Kharkov, Ukraine’s second largest city, was now out of range, as the army Ukraine repel forces Russia after a fierce counterattack.

After nearly three months of sheltering underground, the residents of the city and surrounding villages were finally able to get out of the cellar and return home for the first time. What they found was only ruins, the remains of ruins, the result of intense air raids.

Mr. Yuri Emets outside his damaged house in Vilkhivka village.  Photo: NY Times.

Mr. Yuri Emets outside his partially destroyed house in Vilkhivka village. Image: NY Times.

Yuri Emets, 56, returned last week to find the second floor of her house in the village of Vilkhivka blown up by shells. The bodies of 7 Ukrainian soldiers were left behind in the garden shed. It seems that they were hiding in the basement of the house before being discovered by Russian forces during the fighting.

“My eldest son is in the army,” said Mr Emets, amid the sounds of artillery fire from Ukrainian artillery units from a nearby hill. “The people who have fallen here are like my son. I won’t be able to sleep tonight.”

He, his wife and children left the village in early March, two weeks after the conflict broke out. Russian forces advancing from across the border appear to have used his house as a fighting position, parking a tank at the entrance to the house.

His garden was filled with shell casings, shell craters, and countless traces of combat. Burned military vehicles blocked the road, and many bodies were scattered throughout the village.

In the nearby town of Velyka Danylivka, 69-year-old truck driver Ivan Petrovich Voytenko said he nearly collapsed in shock when he discovered his home was hit by so many shells. “But it’s still good as long as the walls are intact. Maybe we can fix it,” he said.

Voytenko and his family of six had been evacuated since February 24, the day Russia launched its military operation in Ukraine, because his home was located near a Ukrainian military base.

Debris and barricades lay on a road in the northern suburbs of Kharkov.  Photo: NY Times.

Obstacles lie sprawled on a road in the northern suburbs of Kharkov. Image: NY Times.

The family went to live with their sister’s house a few kilometers away, but it wasn’t much safer either. As they were taking shelter in the basement, the house was hit by a missile.

“At that time, we all panicked, children and women were screaming at each other,” Voytenko said. “We finally got out.”

Now, the atmosphere of relative peace had returned to Kharkov. Some restaurants and cafes are starting to open and bus service has resumed. But fighting is still raging just a few kilometers to the north, where Russian forces are shelling Ukrainian defensive positions near the border.

In the village of Pytomnyk, a Ukrainian mortar battery last weekend engaged Russian forces just over three kilometers away, aiming to push the enemy further back.

Ukrainian soldiers also inspected bombed factories and warehouses once occupied by Russian forces in the village of Tsyrkuny, northeast of Kharkov, while firefighters battled fires caused by the latest round of bombardment by Ukrainian forces. Russia in Derhachi, northwest of Kharkov.

In Saltivka, the neighborhood north of Kharkov that was most severely damaged in the war, people began returning to apartment blocks filled with bullet holes. On the street were a series of burned vehicles and obstacles. Hundreds of people line up every day around residential areas, hoping to receive food distributed by volunteers.

The markets in Saltivka were badly damaged, with many stalls scorched and metal poles twisted, apparently from the pressure of the explosions. However, some areas have reopened, including florist stalls. Olga Pavlienko, a local resident, last week went to the market and bought a variety of colorful flowers.

“These flowers heal our souls,” she said. “We have suffered a lot and I hope peace will be restored soon.”

But others in the city are still too scared to venture out. They patiently waited for information from the government that everything was safe. Hundreds of people remained sheltered in a crowded subway station, some wrapped in blankets sitting on the platform.

Outline of the battlefield in eastern Ukraine after more than 80 days of fighting.  Click to see details.

Outline of the battlefield in eastern Ukraine after more than 80 days of fighting. Click to see details.

But there are also people who have just boarded the train to return home or reunite with loved ones. Lesya Bondaletov is one of them. She had just returned to Kharkov from western Ukraine and was greeted by her husband, Anatoliy, 52, a Ukrainian soldier.

They have been separated since the conflict broke out. He was assigned to guard a government building in Kharkov early in the war, before it was hit by two rockets, killing more than 20 people.

But even as life slowly returns to normal, Kharkov remains under curfew. At night, all the lights go out under the curfew as a reminder of the conflict. Normal life recedes and the city is shrouded in darkness to avoid artillery fire from Russia. The only light came from rockets that shot up into the sky.

Vu Hoang (According to NY Times)

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