Garbage collectors in Kharkiv now wear bulletproof vests. Several of their trucks are riddled with holes from shrapnel fallen during their rounds. The garbage cans they empty are filled with the shattered and twisted remains of houses destroyed by explosions.
But still, every morning they go out to keep Kharkiv clean. Ukraine’s second-largest city is perhaps the country’s most heavily bombed target after the siege of Mariupol. Every day brings a rain of Grad rockets, cluster bombs, shells and missiles.
Hundreds dead, thousands injured. Morgues cannot afford the daily toll inflicted by Russia. At a downtown facility, dozens of bodies, wrapped only in plastic bags or blankets, are stacked in a yard. Yet the people of Kharkiv are determined that their city will survive, that life will go on among the ruins, even if for now it is a terrifying half-existence under the shadow of sudden death. And that means keeping the city clean.
“They can bomb us for as long as they want: we will resist it,” said Ihor Aponchuk, a driver whose tour now takes place in ghostly neighborhoods of empty playgrounds and a bombed-out school just next door. the front line.
Hours after Aponchuk emptied the first set of trash cans near the Heroes of Labor metro station in eastern Kharkiv, a rocket hit people queuing for help about 500 meters away, killing six people and leaving the sidewalk streaked with blood. The next day, the city’s main Barabashovo market was set on fire and four people died when a shell fell outside a clinic.
In the Ukrainian towns less directly affected – or less terribly ravaged – by the war, there is a cheerful mistrust. In Kharkiv, death is too close and too frequent for that.
Men and women who draw on extraordinary reserves of courage to live their lives openly admit that the situation is terrifying.
Yet they and hundreds of thousands of others chose to stay in their ‘heroic city’ – a title first awarded to Kharkiv for its resistance to Nazi troops during World War II, and awarded again by the President Volodymyr Zelenskiy this month for his courage standing up to the Russian invasion.
“We are scared, but we have to show people that the situation is under control and that every day we are getting closer to victory,” Governor Oleh Synyehubov said, speaking to the Observer while walking in a downtown park under light police guard.
Aponchuk, who has had a few near misses with Russian rockets, said: “I understand the fear.” But Kharkiv has a reputation for being a “clean city”, and he believes keeping it that way is vital for morale, as well as public hygiene.
So he and more than 250 others leave every day, risking their lives with a pragmatic devotion similar to that displayed by Londoners who maintained milk deliveries during the blitz of World War II.
“A driver was heavily shelled the other day, so he went back to base here, had a cup of tea, then drove off on another route,” said Oleksii Artikulenko, a city employee seconded there. a month to ensure the collection of waste. the war.
Less than 40 miles from the Russian border, Kharkiv is traditionally a Russian-speaking city, and Moscow apparently expected its forces to be welcomed there. Instead, they encountered heavy resistance.
Trapped to the north and east of the city, they began targeting civilians and the center, inflicting damage on everything from the zoo to the cathedral and the Holocaust memorial. A missile hollowed out the city hall of Kharkiv. Rockets punched holes in apartment buildings and destroyed smaller houses. “When it was clear they weren’t going to be able to take him, they launched a campaign of terror,” Synyehubov said.
“Kharkiv will be even more beautiful, with better buildings and infrastructure, I’m sure. What bothers me are the dead. It’s easy to restore things, but not to restore families.
Officials estimate that more than half of the city’s 1.4 million residents have left. The trains alone carried almost half of them, 600,000 people, west, and many more left by car. But that still leaves a city of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly living indoors or underground, who refused to go.
They want to keep the spirit of the city alive for themselves and support the soldiers on the nearby front lines, and they want to start rebuilding, or at least clearing the rubble from recent strikes, so that Kharkiv doesn’t feel abandoned.
Serhiy, a firefighter, celebrated his 29th birthday last Thursday by cleaning up the shattered remains of the imposing Soviet-era town hall: 30 bodies were pulled from the wreckage.
In the evening, he said, he would return to his duty to put out the fires: “I will celebrate my birthday with a cup of tea. We haven’t had a day off for a month. They offered us a break but we don’t want to take it.
Nearby, teams put sandbags on a 10-meter-tall statue of Ukrainian poet and hero Taras Shevchenko. “For me, the city was wonderful,” said Yevhen Yurgens, 56, as he helped fill the sandbags. “Look how the Russians destroyed it. We want to protect it as much as possible. »
The city feels like the end of the line for Ukraine’s war. The highway from the industrial center of Dnipro, which crosses rich agricultural land, is now practically empty. You can drive for miles without seeing a car or truck.
Reports of Russian ambush and shelling groups, even on the relatively safe southern approach to the city, are making the trip tense, and people arranging aid say they are struggling to recruit drivers to race.
Thus, although the city is not officially under siege, it lacks food and medicine. International organizations such as the UN and the Red Cross seem to be conspicuous mostly by their absence.
“We’ve been left to our own devices here basically,” says Synyehubov. “We receive 100 tons of humanitarian aid every day, but 40 tons are clothes, which we don’t need.” They need five times more food and medicine than they receive.
For now, the city’s most vulnerable residents are being kept alive largely by informal networks of volunteers like Tetiana Medveyeva, 33, and Stanislav Manilov, 28. The couple drove to the station on the first day of the war, planning to head west, but ended up staying.
“We saw so many people trying to get on the train with their pets and family,” Manilov said. “We looked each other in the eye and agreed that others had to go more than us. And at that time we decided not to go and be useful here.
They forged links with activists they knew from before the war and began preparing food parcels for the elderly and disabled who might find it difficult to leave their homes or buy food, paid for by private donations collected online.
“We’ve been doing this since February 26, and it feels like it’s been going on forever.” They spend their mornings buying and packing bags of food and the afternoons distributing them. With most jobs gone overnight and elderly people unable to collect their pensions in closed post offices, the scale of the need is terrifying.
When their van pulls up, people will come running to secure a bag containing pasta and a few cans of fish and meat. “In other regions, people are more desperate,” Medveyeva said. “They attack the van and yell at us if they don’t have food.”
A month ago, she was an administrator and he worked at an architectural design firm. Now they live off dwindling savings and, increasingly, the food parcels they prepare for other vulnerable residents. They are so accustomed to rolling under shelling that they do not flinch even when shells fall nearby.
“We no longer have a normal reaction,” Medveyeva said.