Residents of the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv pause for breath as Russian forces retreat

Kharkiv is a city that can now breathe, but not necessarily relax.

Ukrainian forces have pushed invading forces back towards the Russian border over the past week and a half, loosening a deadly grip that has threatened the country’s second-largest city since the early days of the war.

Streets and sidewalks are lined with craters and crumbling buildings, while some shops have simply been shredded by shellfire, particularly in Saltivka, the now devastated suburb at the city’s northeast corner.

Many residents still traumatized are struggling to figure out what normalcy will look like and wonder if they will ever find it.

“Nobody knew what the situation was, where to hide, where to run, because the shelling was all over the city,” said Ludmilla Ivanivna, the head nurse of the adult surgery wing of the clinical hospital in the city of Kharkiv, known as Meshchaninov. .

She and her colleagues appeared physically and emotionally drained on Saturday as they recounted the nearly three harrowing months of relentless warfare as Russian armored columns tried to force their way through the city.

life in the hospital

Elsewhere in Ukraine, hospitals have been targeted with abandon by Russian artillery and missiles, although Moscow denies having such a policy. Meshchaninov staff took no such risks and lined up stretchers in the hallway ready to pull patients away from windows that would have exploded if hit.

Throughout these dimly lit corridors you find lives forever changed.

“I [have] lived in hospital [for] 80 days. Two and a half months. From day one to date,” said Dr. Oleksandr Dukhovsky, one of the hospital’s trauma surgeons and chief of pediatrics.

Oleksandr Dukhovsky, one of the trauma surgeons and head of pediatrics at Kharkiv City Clinical Hospital, known as Meshchaninov, has been living in the hospital for 80 days. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

Other staff and even patients have done the same – some out of a sense of duty, but in other cases because they have nowhere to go.

When Russian shells hit civilians queuing for help in Kharkiv in March, it was Dukhosky who treated them, and sometimes in the most horrific of conditions.

“It’s very moving to talk about it,” Dukhovsky said after a long pause.

Patients with nowhere to go

On March 6, in a building one kilometer from the hospital, a shell landed almost at the top of the building. The resulting explosion blew through windows and sent the kitchen door flying towards 18-year-old Diana Zinchenko.

Diana Zinchenko, 18, right, and her mother Viktoria at Kharkiv Clinical Hospital. Diana was seriously injured in a Russian artillery strike on March 6, which destroyed her apartment. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

The young woman’s face and head were smashed. Upon arrival at the hospital, Dukhosky struggled to save her with two surgeries and facial reconstruction.

She survived, although she lost her left eye and had a significant scar on the side of her head. She is still in the hospital.

Diana’s mother, Viktoria, was eager to show off photos of her daughter, a recent high school graduate with long, flowing hair and a formal dress, from those happier, more innocent days.

“She’s so beautiful,” Viktoria said as her daughter sat up in her hospital bed and gave her a shy smile, as if embarrassed by all the attention she was getting.

With their apartment in ruins, they have nowhere to go. They live in the hospital room, which they share with Diana’s grandfather, who seemed upset that his granddaughter was being interviewed, photographed and adored.

” Thank you. Thank you,” he repeated in Russian.

Throughout the city, there were more people unsure where to go or what to do in the relative safety of Kharkiv.

Turn an air raid shelter into a house

Across town, a former Soviet-era bomb shelter housed up to 150 people at the height of the fighting for the ancient city, which sits in the heart of intersecting rivers.

The old shelter, with framed photos of long-dead Communist Party commissars, is dark, damp, dusty and cramped. Residents have converted army stretchers into makeshift beds. Some brought home comforts, pictures they hung on the wall, favorite blankets, pillows and reading lamps.

Some areas between families were protected with blankets and tarps. There was a play area for the kids, where some of them were drawing on the concrete walls with crayons.

Valentina Turchina is among the residents who have yet to leave a Soviet-era bunker in Kharkiv, despite the city being declared safe. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

“BOOM” a child wrote on the wall, surrounding the words with a cloud of smoke. The design was located alongside an assortment of sketched cartoon characters.

“When people first came here, the shelling was so intense that they felt like jumping here for three days, but then they realized they were very safe here,” said Valentina Turchina, l one of the residents who hasn’t left the bunker yet.

Her adult son, with whom she lived, died a few weeks after the start of the war. She said he committed suicide, but did not elaborate.

Turchina said she didn’t know if it was safe to return to the surface.

She may be right.

As night fell over the city, more and more aerial sirens and the sound of distant artillery – both incoming and outgoing – cut through the darkness.

It was a visceral reminder that Kharkiv’s agony is far from over.

A former Soviet-era bomb shelter has become home to 150 people in Kharkiv. Families continue to live here long after the city was declared safe. (Murray Brewster/CBC)