The Russian missile turned Vera Kosolopenko’s small home into a burning pyre that consumed the Bible and all the other precious memories she cherished of her late husband.
“I lost everything that connected me to him,” she cried on Saturday in front of the smoking remains of the house destroyed by the missile the day before. “All I have left is the portrait engraved on his tombstone.”
The 67-year-old widow, who lives in the northeast village of Bezruky, is lucky to be alive.
She and two friends were drinking tea inside the house when the missile hit the roof.
“It was so quick,” she said. “It was terrifying.”
Villagers said the missile was one of five that quickly hit the leafy hamlet 26 kilometers north of Kharkiv, near where Ukrainian troops chased away Russian forces who tried to invade the second largest city in the country when Moscow was invaded on February 24.
Village hit by shellfire but not occupied
The Russians did not occupy Bezruky, located only 17 kilometers from the Russian border. But they occasionally sent vehicles to patrol its narrow dirt tracks before their forces were pushed back by the nearly two-week-old Ukrainian counteroffensive, villagers said.
Since the beginning of the war, Bezruky has suffered almost constant shelling which has destroyed or damaged many houses. Rocket and bomb craters dot its alleys and the rutted gravel road to the village, the occasional trench and bunker visible in the trees lining its edges.
The two armies were engaged in artillery duels when Reuters visited. Loud, hoarse explosions came from nearby Ukrainian guns; thuds marked distant Russian positions which sent several southbound shells whistling directly overhead.
Countless Ukrainian villages such as Bezruky have been wiped out by the invasion that Russia, armed with nuclear weapons, claims it was forced to launch to eradicate a threat Ukraine posed to its security.
Ukraine and its foreign supporters say thousands have died in the Kremlin’s unprovoked war of aggression that uprooted millions more and left towns and villages in ruins.
Kosolopenko, a mother of five from the northeastern city of Sumy, moved in 2001 with her late husband to the village, where he had relatives. He died two years ago.
There has been no electricity or bottled gas since the war broke out. She mainly lived on humanitarian aid and eggs provided by a few hens, which she cooks in her garden on a fire lit under a makeshift oven made of several bricks and sheets.
The missile, Kosolopenko said, fell at 9 a.m. Friday. It set his roof on fire in a shower of flaming shrapnel that ignited a wooden warehouse in his cramped backyard.
“We heard a huge explosion when it landed and all the windows shattered,” she said.
When a second rocket hit nearby, she and her friends fled into a brick-lined cellar carved into the side of her house.
Kosolopenko “took her tea with her, and I grabbed a plastic bag with a book in it, and we ran to the cellar,” said her friend, Alla Bazarnaya, 40, from Kharkiv.
Bazarnaya said she moved in with Kosolopenko in January after the pair befriended at a Kharkiv hospital where she was being treated for a stroke.
“The most important thing is that I felt spared by God and that we had to retreat to the cellar,” Bazarnaya said.
The roof, second floor and storage room were on fire when the couple came out.
Neighbors tried to put out the fire with buckets of water
Kosolopenko said she called a nearby fire department as neighbors wielding buckets full of water and other containers rushed to her home. They were unable to extinguish the flames.
“The firefighters responded that there was shelling and they couldn’t get here,” she said. “They didn’t arrive until six hours later. If they had arrived sooner, they could have put out the fire on the second floor and saved the ground floor.”
The flames reduced his house and storage room to fire-blackened shells, leaving the backyard carpeted in charred rubble and ash. Only the cinder block and brick walls remained standing.
Kosolopenko said she lost everything, including family photographs and the Bible that had belonged to her husband’s father.
“It’s so painful for me,” she cried. “I don’t know how I’m going to rebuild this house. I loved this place.”