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Billboards on the road from Slovyansk to Kharkiv show photos of fallen Ukrainian soldiers, with descriptions such as “he gave everything for your freedom” or “he gave his life, so you could live”.
The sounds of shelling can be heard faintly in the distance and the roadside is littered with decimated and abandoned houses. It is one of the most haunting sights in Ukraine.
In Kamyanka, a village in Kharkiv oblast with a pre-war population of 1,000 people, has shrunk to perhaps a dozen. Here we met 59-year-old Serhei. He and his wife were living in a shed in their backyard – they had two daughters, one living in Poland, the other in western Ukraine.
Their house had been damaged by artillery fire twice – first by the Russians when they took the town, and the second time by the Ukrainians, who were trying to dislodge a Russian platoon that had taken up residence in his basement. “The orcs were down there,” he pointed out, “and then GRAD rockets hit the house”.
They received no support from the Ukrainian authorities, he said, only a power generator provided by a volunteer organisation. He said they hadn’t been visited yet by de-mining teams and he had cleared his house of spent rocket shells by hand.
A friend told me that her grandfather, a farmer from a nearby town, had blown the front wheel off his car trying to remove detritus from his field.
As Serhei showed me the remains of his house, one object stood out: a dust-covered suit jacket that belonged to his grandfather. Pinned to the lapels were several medals for gallantry, received for fighting the Red Army as it liberated the territory from the Nazis. Three generations later, the invaders are their former comrades.
It has been just over a year since Ukraine liberated a swathe of cities in the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions.
Olya Kartasheva, from the town of Sviatohirk, recalled the horrors of occupation. “A shell hit the basement we were staying in, but we miraculously survived… all our relatives were looking for us and when we got out, I read on Facebook that I had died in the hit,” she said.
Her family had no time to celebrate her survival – Russian troops moved into the city a few days later. The 48-year-old former bank worker remembers the first two weeks of the Russian occupation of Sviatohirsk last year as the worst time of her life.
“The hell started on 1 June… whole streets were burning,” she said. “We spent almost two weeks sitting in the basement not going out.”
She wanted to leave for the safer city of Kramatorsk, but her 72-year-old grandmother refused to go. She spoke from a humanitarian hub where she works delivering aid to the remaining civilians.
Before the war, the town had around 4,000 inhabitants, as well as those who have trickled back after the city’s liberation. As she tells it, it was her near-death experience that awoke her desire to help others. “After that, I realised that if God left me alive, then I was still needed for something,” she said.
Inside the city of Kharkiv, a sense of normality has returned, although people remain tense. While Kharkiv was never captured, it was subjected to intense bombardment for months. After Ukraine liberated the territory, it also pushed Russian forces far enough from the city that they could no longer attack it. More than half the original population of 1.5 million fled the city when it was besieged and nearly encircled by the Russians in the early days of the war. Now the city has around 1.2 million inhabitants, bolstered by those who have returned and others who have fled from battlegrounds further east.
“We hear the sirens about a minute after the explosions,” said Anastasia Siryk, a local NGO worker, “just like normal in Kharkiv”. For this reason, most schooling is either online or done in basements.
Rockets can reach from neighbouring Belgorod in around a minute, meaning people do not have time to reach a shelter before impact. Because of its precarious security situation, Kharkiv lacks the vibrance or energy of Kyiv. The capital, with beach parties and an extensive bar scene, is a hub for journalists, aid workers, and visiting foreign politicians looking for a photo op.
Siryk works for Mission Kharkiv, which has been providing humanitarian aid for civilians in the region for more than a year. They described how, over the years since the region’s liberation, the needs of the population have changed. Their organisation has gone from providing humanitarian supplies to those immediately in need because of lack of food, essential medicines or shelter, to what they call the “third order” victims of the conflict.
The war severely strained Kharkiv’s already fragile medical system. Last year alone, there were more than 700 attacks on healthcare facilities throughout Ukraine. Many doctors went to the frontline, hospitals were overwhelmed with both military and civilian casualties, and the medical and logistics supply chain was severely affected.
Olena Koskova said she was diagnosed with breast cancer last June, but was unable to receive any treatment until the end of the year, until Mission Kharkiv donated a large amount of cancer medications to one of Kharkiv’s biggest hospitals. In total, it has collected and distributed nearly $12 million worth of donated medicines since the invasion began.
Another patient whose medicines the organisation provided, Halyna Erikovna, was diagnosed 12 years ago, but her illness had been in remission until last December. She believed it had returned because of the intense stress of the war.
Even if the city is no longer in danger of being captured, the impact of the invasion on education, healthcare, and other essential services will linger for years to come.
Further east, in the town of Kupiansk, the war has returned to full intensity.
Several men are repairing the main square that had been bombed the previous Sunday morning. I was taken around the back to see the roof, where I was told a Russian rocket had made a direct hit. On the other side of the square were the burnt-out remains of the town hall, which was annihilated by an airstrike during earlier fighting over the town.
For the remaining inhabitants, their lives and freedoms are again in jeopardy, as Russia has thrown tens of thousands of troops into a desperate attempt to recapture the territories it lost. It is also now regularly shelling civilian areas in these territories, forcing Ukraine to order the evacuation of large parts of the Kupiansk region.
Yaroslav and Maxim, two young soldiers, were sat on a bench smoking cigarettes in Kupiansk city square, overlooking the eastern part of the city on the opposite bank of the Oskil river. In the distance, smoke was rising from Ukrainian shelling of Russian positions, which they said were about seven kilometres from the city.
“We’ve been here too long,” they said, explaining that they were originally from Kyiv but had been stationed in the region since last year’s counter-offensive. They had expected Ukraine to keep pushing into the eastern Luhansk region and liberate more territory. But the Russians were able to stabilise their lines, assisted by the Kremlin’s decision to launch a partial mobilisation.
“It is quite quiet today,” they said – in contrast to the fierce shelling they had endured the previous week. They said the lines had stabilised “more or less” after the Russians initially regained a few kilometres earlier in August.
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It was a notable contrast with the city of Kharkiv itself. Ukraine’s second-biggest city has notably sprung back to life.
The northern district of Saltivka, which was shelled remorselessly during the first months of the war, is now full of cranes and construction workers repairing damaged buildings.
Many of the city’s cafés and restaurants are back in business, and the once omnipresent sound of artillery has completely disappeared.
Hundreds of civilians were evacuated from Kupiansk in recent weeks, but more than 10,000 people remain in the area. Those who are willing to leave are offered a stipend of barely £50 a month, a pittance even here, so many take their chances staying in their homes. Others, quietly, are waiting for Russian forces to return.
But it’s not just nearby Russian forces that haunt these towns. When they were under occupation, it is well-documented that they dealt with significant numbers of collaborators. A police chief in the city of Shevchenkove said this reputation is unfair- – “90% here are with Ukraine, 10% still opposed”. Other reports, such as one in the Kyiv Independent, had local authority figures reporting estimates as high as 50% being pro-Russian (although it is an impossible topic to find reliable figures on).
The police chief admitted there were large numbers of officers in Kupyansk who turned to working with the Russians. “Under occupation, both collaborators and police officers remained to work with the police in Russia – they betrayed their homeland and, after de-occupation, between 80-90% of them left for Russia,” he said. “If anyone remains here, we will act in accordance with the law.” The police station in the city turned into a notorious torture chamber for anyone accused of harbouring pro-Ukrainian views.
After a few hours in Kupyansk, the quiet gave way to the familiar sounds of war – the calming birdsong drowned out by heavy machine gun fire. Ducking down a small side street for cover, I glimpsed a haunting piece of street art: a Ukrainian soldier embraced a woman wearing a blue and yellow Ukrainian outfit, and a white dove flew above them – with the words next to the drawing: “In the world of love we will multiply, and for this we will win.”
The wall the drawing was on was pockmarked full of shrapnel. And on the lawn in front of it was a shell crater.