He pulled people out from under the rubble in Kharkiv. “Napalm” Podcast, Ep. 2 Text version

Yevhen Spirin, Stas Kozliuk
He pulled people out from under the rubble in Kharkiv. “Napalm” Podcast, Ep. 2 Text version


Napalm is a series of podcasts about photographers, journalists, cooks, pharmacists, servicemen, doctors, saleswomen, and programmers. In short, this is a series of podcasts about Ukrainians experiencing war, about the everyday life of our country, heroically resisting the Russian invasion. We want to hear the voices of our citizens, their stories about everyday and not-so-everyday life, and we want our listeners to hear those voices as well. Before the war, photographer Stas Kozliuk made photo reports from the protests and wrote about Berkut’s crimes on the Maidan for Babel. Now he works as a fixer for foreign journalists. On March 12, Stas visited the Kharkiv city center, bombed by Russian troops for the second week in a row. He traveled with sappers, removed engines from Grad shells, and visited the Oblast state administration building and the Karazin University. On March 13, Stas worked with rescuers to dismantle the debris caused by the shelling.

Hello, Stas. Where did the war find you, and how did you end up in Kharkiv?

Hi there. The war found me in Bakhmut city. Since January 2, I have been in Donbas almost all the time, returning to Kyiv only to wash my clothes and driving back. I worked with a colleague in Kurakhovo, Marinka and Krasnohorivka. We were filming what was happening there. The aggravation [of the situation] in Donbas began on February 17. They [Russians] started firing more actively. Villages that had not been shelled for years came under fire. Shells were hitting the targets 20-30 km from the front. We visited these villages, trying to show [the people] what was happening and that we needed to prepare for the start of the war.

And what did the people in these villages say? In 8 years, they have become unaccustomed to being bombarded. Did they understand that the war was about to start?

We were in a village near Marinka named Taramchuk. There were about fifteen people left. There were no Armed Forces positions there, no military, no warehouses, and generally nothing. But since February 17, they were constantly shelled by heavy artillery, 152 caliber pouring down on the houses. And people kept asking, "For what?" That is, they understood that something was coming. They said: "We havenʼt been shelled like that for a long time, and here we are sitting in the basements. We have a field outside the village; you should see it. "And [at this field] there really are craters that I can fit in full length. We also went to the village of Memryk, on the way from Pisky, 30 kilometers from where the front line was.

A family of migrants lived there, and on one fine night, shells of 152 caliber landed near their house. They were a little scared. In 2014 they fled the war, leaving the occupied part of Donbas. They did not hear these sounds for a long time, and here they were again. We talked to the locals in Marinka and Krasnohorivka. They said yes, the shelling intensified, and it was scary. They read and saw the news that a great war may break out. They were very scared and didnʼt know what to do, how to evacuate, and where to go because they had neither money nor opportunity [to do so].

Sometimes, people ask, "Where in Ukraine can you be safe now?". And I say, "Nowhere is safe."

Nowhere is safe, itʼs true. I remember when my colleagues and I started anticipating the war to begin. It was during Putinʼs appeal.

That 40-minute appeal about "history"?

Yes, where he lied that Lenin invented Ukraine. We were sending the photos in a cafe in Kurakhove, and it was a bit surreal. Because we watch online how war is declared on us, and people are buzzing nearby, someone is celebrating a birthday. People are dancing. And we understand that this may be the last night you can hang out. After that, we waited for a few days for the war to begin in Krasnohorivka, spending the night in abandoned houses. We arrived at the demarcation line and waited with cameras in the abandoned houses for it to start. Fortunately, it didnʼt start at that moment. So we decided to relocate. There were three of us — a foreign colleague from a Turkish TV channel, Max Levin and I. Max decided to wait somewhere else. I was planning to go home. I was tired and wanted to have a rest. On February 23, I found myself in Bakhmut.

As I understand you and Levin were traveling together?

Yes, on the 22nd [of February], we split up. Max went on his program, and I went to Bakhmut to rest and understand what was happening. After that, I planned to go to Kyiv. But on the morning of February 23rd, my acquaintances called me and said that foreign journalists were coming here, and everything they needed had been canceled - they had no fixers, no drivers, and no one to help. They asked me to find someone. And I said, "Okay, letʼs work one more week."

We checked into a hotel. On the evening of February 23rd I went out for a beer with colleagues. It was around eight oʼclock. Soldiers I am familiar with wrote me that Russian activity increased on the demarcation line. Radio reconnaissance began. Then acquaintances among the Kharkiv border guards wrote that they saw the movement [of troops], they became more active. I understood that the war would start that day. I came to the hotel and, at 2 a.m., handed in my text, even though I realized that no one would publish it in the morning and no one would read it because it was no longer relevant. But the work needs to be done. After that, I went to bed and set the alarm at 4:50. It was quiet when I woke up, so I thought maybe I still have a few hours. I started to fall asleep, but 5 minutes later, my windows began to shake. All cars under the hotel had blaring alarms. The whole city woke up. Someone started packing, running away. I went out into the corridor to call my family and say: "Attention! The war has begun. Please be careful".

The foreigners who lived with me on the floor - others, not those I worked with — ran with their suitcases down the stairs, squeezed into the car, and drove off. In short, the morning did not start well. The most epic part of the story is that we were abandoned by a driver who was supposed to come to work with us at 9 am the same morning. I called him as soon as the shelling started. He said: "Well, if you donʼt come to Kostiantynivka in half an hour, then sorry, everyone is on their own".

We have been looking for a taxi driver for three hours. The one we eventually found was really out of this world. His car had an empty tank. We decided to refuel before going to the Dnipro. We drove to the gas station. There were huge queues in front of it. And he was like, "Whatʼs going on?" I replied, "Man, did you not read the news this morning?" And he said, "No, why do you ask?" I said, "The war started." And he answered: "What war? Itʼs all bullshit. Nothing will happen."

The funny thing is that we were standing in a kilometer-long queue for refueling. There was a field, a wasteland for several kilometers, around us. Our artillery was firing [at Russians], and they were firing something in return. And we could not leave because our turn was coming. But if someone fired at the gas station, the situation would not be the best.

Of course, the gas station with tankers with fuel is not a very good shelter.

Yes. Then my colleagues and I went to the Dnipro, because it was a safer place. We started looking for a car, found it and realized that we had to work. We decided to go to Kharkiv.

It took me about 4-5 days to adjust because you donʼt know what to do the first few days. You have to work, but you just canʼt. On what day did you brace yourself and make a work plan?

On the first day, I was in no condition [to work]. I was shaking. My relatives are living in Kyiv. I knew that something was exploding there, but I didnʼt know where exactly. I did not know where all my relatives, acquaintances, friends, and loved ones were. And Russian relatives were telling me some nonsense that this is just a "denazification operation."

I havenʼt smoked for a long time, like, at all. But when we arrived at the hotel, I threw my things somewhere in the lobby, went outside, sat on the stairs, and smoked half a pack of cigarettes at once. I couldnʼt light the first cigarettes — my hands were shaking too much. But I had to work because I had foreigners with me and needed to help them. The next day we have already started working. They found volunteers, local authorities, and contacts. But I still havenʼt collected myself completely. Some part of my brain is blocked.

Did you experience that [because of the war] you canʼt eat or sleep as we did?

I still canʼt sleep normally. I sleep very little — around four hours. I go to bed, fall into the darkness of some kind, and wake up when the alarm rings. And I do not hear the sirens—neither from the [application on the] phone nor from the street. I wake up, watch the news and find out that the sirens were on Dnipro. I could not eat properly in the first few days [of war]. Conventionally speaking, I ate a cutlet — and that was enough for the whole day. I couldnʼt stomach it. Now it has become more or less manageable.

How did you decide to go to Kharkiv? As far as I remember, the shelling started around February 28. My aunt lived there. On the 27th we talked to her, and she said that everything was ok. And then, on the 28th she called and said, "I want to leave." We helped her. It was complicated because on the evening of the 28th it was already impossible to find a taxi. And you arrived in Kharkiv on 10 or 11 March?

We were in Kharkiv twice. We were there in early March — on March 5, it seems. We worked in the Dnipro, talked to local volunteers and local authorities, went to Kryvyi Rih, and saw how the city was preparing [for the war]. But the war continued, and we needed to talk about it somehow. It was impossible to get to Mariupol because it is surrounded and far away. Going to the Donbas was not a great idea because they are trying to cut it off, and to be in the cut-off Donbas is also not a good decision.

In short, you did not want the “LPR” passport.

I didn’t want it very much. There are no safe roads, but there are roads that you can drive to Kharkiv. In Kryvyi Rih, we met a local volunteer from Kharkiv, who came to Kryvyi Rih to shop. We contacted him, and he drove us. There is a road there, and not even one. We found a place to live near Kharkiv. It was cold there, and there wasn’t any electricity at night because of the blackout, but at least it protected us from the wind.

Did you manage to talk to someone who is not under fire, with ordinary people you can meet on the street? What do they think about it? There is a stereotype that Kharkiv was pro-Russian in 2014.

You know, it’s very hard to continue being pro-Russian, when Russian bombs are falling on your city. We talked to the people on the streets. The two most popular questions they asked us were ʼWhat for?” and ʼWhen will it all end?’. We also talked to people in hospitals. Some people were feeling nostalgic about the USSR, sausages you could buy just for 2.20 Rub…

About ice cream made according to GOST.

Yes, about ʼthe best ice cream in the World’. At the same time, these people were saying, “We are an independent state. Why were these orcs brought here? They are firing at us’. I well remember the moment when the TV tower in Kharkiv was shelled. I went for a smoke at that time, looked up, and saw flashes somewhere over the horizon. 10 seconds later or so, I heard loud explosions. And then I heard a plane — it was the scariest noise I have heard in my life. Earlier, there were times when I came under rocket-propelled grenade fire. But [the threat of being bomber from] the plane is even worse.

When you first hear a jet fighter, you realize that you are fucked. You feel as if you have no stomach or heart. You just want to die.

Yes, and preferably quickly and painlessly. But back to the topic. We worked in city hospitals for the first three days, interviewing civilians. And we heard absolutely horrible stories. For example, on March 2 or March 3, the Russian destroyed a building on Holodna Hora with Smerchs. In this building lived a 70 or 80-year-old woman. She was paralyzed. Many people were hurt on that day. Ambulance workers rescued them. Medics looked at that woman, saw that she didnʼt have any injuries, and rushed to save others. And this woman just continued to lay on the street. Neighbors carried her to the other part of the residential building, placing her in a relatively safe apartment without any windows or heating. And she just laid there for a couple of days.

There is a preference for who can be saved. If someone is 30 years old and can be saved, medics will save them [and not the elderly].

I understand that. At that time, the ambulance had other tasks.

I canʼt even comprehend how the ambulance works in such conditions. A monument needs to be erected after them.

It works great, but itʼs not easy for the employees. We talked to a doctor who works in the ambulance. He says: "We are working under fire. We evacuated one woman, and we were driving on the road when the artillery started firing on us. We jumped out of the car. I just laid down on this woman and was laying on her so that she wouldnʼt be injured. I covered her with my body. Then the shelling ended, we loaded back and drove on." Russians burned several ambulance cars. At night, these monkeys fired at the base with ambulances. As a result, two cars burned down, several more were destroyed, and they donʼt work.

Did you visit the subway? Whatʼs going on there?

Yes, we visited several stations. One of the stations in the center doesnʼt have that many people. The center is more of an administrative part [of the city]. There were offices. So there, the situation is more or less normal. There is space. You can stretch your legs, and there is enough water and food. And then, we drove to the Saltivka district and visited one of the stations there. Itʼs horrible. On calm days, when the Russians donʼt fire very much, 500 people live there. And when they start firing more actively, one and a half thousand people live there.

Right at the station?

Yes. You go in and enter the people-made ant-hill. Everywhere you look, you see someoneʼs legs, arms, someoneʼs head. People just sleep next to each other in piles. And wherever you lay down, this is your place. Those who came first managed to take seats on the trains. Those who came last sleep in the drafty aisle. At this station, we met a grandmother who survived World War II. She is hiding in the subway because katsaps [Russians] are shooting at her. There is a problem with water because there are so many people. Purely logistically, it is challenging to distribute water to everyone. Feeding everyone is also a problem. Plus hygiene. I cannot describe the smell at the station. But you can imagine — five hundred people, living there, at best, for more than a week, without the shower and with one toilet for everyone. These are the conditions there.

Is there a centralized food delivery system? Does the local government take care of that?

We talked to people who live on the subway. They said that those who live nearby, near the metro station, run home to raid the refrigerators from time to time. Shops are working in some places in the city, and you can buy something. But those who live further away may not get to their homes. So people are fed there. Volunteers help, bring food. I donʼt know about local authorities, and they have many other problems now. But somehow, they are trying to maintain order so that everyone is fed and has access to water.

Now they have no other task more superior than saying that everything is under control.

But even one or two food distribution points for 500 people is not enough. There are huge queues.

What about the center? You were near the Oblast state administration, Karazin University…

Ruined. I remember Kharkiv before the war. You drive to the center and see a lot of cars, expensive shops, and glass everywhere. There is no glass now. Itʼs all broken. Some of the buildings are just shattered. I saw the building of the Economical faculty of Karazin University. I remember it before the war, and I see it now. Itʼs messed up.

I think I have a photo near this faculty. I visited some conference there

Now it looks like a box with windows, although in some places there are remaining сeilings between the floors. Garbage is underfoot, fragments of walls, glass, books - in short, everything that was blown away by the blast wave is lying on the street. Destroyed, burned cars are standing near it. The Oblast state administration is a whole other story. There were many volunteers there at the time of the missile strike, and the Territorial Defense was based somewhere nearby. But this is still not an excuse for launching missile strikes on the city center. We found people in the hospital who lived in the center and were injured by these missile strikes.

You were there with SES officers, rescuers. Has anyone been pulled out of the rubble alive?

Two separate brigades are working there. There are sappers, and there are those who dismantle the rubble. Those dismantling the debris said they managed to save people immediately after the shelling. For example, they rescued two people from the local police building. People just got lucky. When the rocket landed, they stood in a corner on the stairs. And when the missile fell, these stairs just "dropped". As a result, people were blocked in the basement. These policemen had mobile phones, so they could call rescuers and say that they are alive. Rescuers dug them up. They dug a very narrow tunnel three meters long to get people out of there. The survivors can be rescued, but only immediately after the shelling. If the blockages are dismantled for a long time, there is almost no chance of finding people alive. When I was filming this house on Holodna Hora, I found out that the day before, a 72-year-old woman was found there, crushed by a stove. The roof fell on her first, then the floor.

You sent me a photo with a skull.

Yes, it was in the Oblast state administrationʼs backyard. We were shooting there when rescuers worked in the building. Two members of the territorial defense were also there to protect the thing that remained in the administration from looting. We went inside to look at these destructions, at what was left of the Oblast state administration. And we saw a huge crater from the impact. An ambulance stood on the site of that crater. It was struck by a rocket. Parts of these ambulances are still on the 4th floor, wreckage from the car.

Foreign colleagues said: "Here lies the skull. There is nothing to see here." I took a picture, and only when we arrived at our base near Kharkiv I realized that I had taken a photo of a charred human skull. And I donʼt know what to say. When you work with rescuers and go into a house, you get the impression that youʼre in a horror movie. Blood is on the walls everywhere. And if the blast wave killed a person, then there are also traces of the place where the person was "imprinted" into the wall.

Is there any life in Kharkiv other than war? Do people walk [on the streets] or not? Because there are no people on the streets in Mariupol now. What about Kharkiv?

The whole Saltivka is sitting in the basement. The sappers and I went to Saltivka to check where the missiles dropped. Fortunately for us, everything that could detonate had already detonated when we arrived. Most people hide in local basements, in groups of 30-40 people each. We didn’t have time to go there because we were assigned to the sappers. There is life a bit further from Salvivka. Groceries stores are working. Pharmacies, pet stores, and post offices are partially open. Humanitarian aid is handed out on the streets. Queues are lining up for it. But the city is very empty. I remember what it was like before the war — many people, traffic jams. And now in the middle of the street there are broken cars, which got into an accident on the first day, and were just left there. There are burned-out cars. Sometimes people walk the streets, carrying packages from the shops. Some people are standing with suitcases along the roads, trying to catch a vehicle to leave the city.

When you entered and left the city, did you see what happened in the Kharkiv Oblast? Because many people decided that it would be safer in the villages, everyone went to the country houses. And I must say that all those who went to the country in the Kyiv Oblast, miscalculated. How in the Kharkiv Oblast?

There are no safe places anywhere. Rockets are flying. A few days ago, a plane flew over Kharkiv, and bombed the nearby village. An entire street was ruined. The southern part of Kharkiv is calmer. It is further from the front line, and there is almost no shelling.

But our air defense is working. Our artillery is working too. You go out to smoke and see that[our] "Grads" are working on the horizon. And you think, "Well, okay, so someone didnʼt get to Kharkiv." I met many people in Kharkiv, and I sincerely wish them to stay safe, alive, and not under the occupation. I donʼt want Russians to come there. Hereʼs whatʼs important. When we worked with the sappers, they said they were finding cluster shells from Hurricanes.

Which are forbidden.

Yes. And they are finding them in the civil areas, between the houses in, for example, the Saltivka area. Cluster munitions are forbidden in general, and they are firing them on civilians.

As we were told, Hurricanes and Tornadoes have a part of the rocket that breaks off on a specific trajectory and starts releasing small bombs, covering a certain area.

So thatʼs the planned destruction of the civil population.

A special operation.

But I must say that they excelled in the denazification of the country. Now everyone speaks Ukrainian, and every other person has a Kalash.

It’s the sign of the times. Because when you used to come to Kharkiv, Donbas, and even the Dnipro and spoke Ukrainian there, people kept talking to you in Russian. And now, when you speak Ukrainian, people are also switching to Ukrainian.

What are you going to do next? What are your plans?

My foreigners have been in Ukraine for a long time. They need to go home. Now we need to decide how to transport them across the border.

But foreigners are allowed to leave.

Yes, but they need to get to the border first. There is also one more thing - I have to wash my clothes.

I can give you the address of the laundromat in Kharkiv.

We’ll see. We’ll drive in the direction of the western border and transport our foreigners across the border. I’ll take a couple of days off, and we will drive the car to the service station, check it, because the roads are not in the best condition, and I don’t want to break down somewhere near Kharkiv or Izyum. And then I’ll be back [to the front lines], I don’t know where exactly, because the situation keeps changing.

In a week or two, you will be sitting in a coffee shop.

I already did. Coffee shops have already opened in Dnipro. This afternoon, I went for a coffee with my colleagues. We found a coffee shop nearby. We decided that it is a part of peaceful life, and we have to remember what peaceful life is.

It is a bizarre picture when you are standing on an empty street, there are no people, the siren is howling, and the dude with glasses is passing by with a paper cup.

Yep, with a lavender latte or something.

I doubt that he has a lavender latte. It’s more likely Nescafe 3 in 1 with condensed milk, but it paints a very strange picture.

We have people like that here . In the first days, I saw a couple walking on the street when the siren sounded. Very Orthodox, with a cross, quietly walking and praying for safety in the city.

But maybe if they hadn’t prayed, the city would have been ruined.

Everything is possible. Here people are walking their dogs, life in Dnipro is blooming, except that the shops have closed. It was problematic to buy new clothes. But we had to change into something.

How are things at your home? Is everything ok?

I don’t know.

How long have you not been there?

For a month. I left my apartment on February 16.

So you have been homeless for a month.

Yes. I have a bag with a bulletproof vest, underwear, and socks. That’s all I have now. And a backpack with equipment. I have a lot of everything left at home. My colleague went there a week ago to pick up the vest. It’s just that I had a stockpile of body armor.

You can hardly find any armor here, and you have piles of them at home.

He once gave me his blue bullet vest. He left the profession, joined game development, successfully entered IT, and worked well. But when the war broke out, he realized that he could not sit and write games. He resigned, picked up a camera and returned to the profession. He needed body armor. He had the keys to my house. So he went to the house. He said it was intact, nothing was stolen, and the windows were intact. Just in case, he took my documents from there. I don’t know how the apartment is now. Because they shelled Obolon, and it’s nearby.

Everything is ok there. When I was coming to my apartment, there was a sign on the front door, written on A4 paper, “Comrades looters, we have armed volunteers there.” There is no one in the building, but everything looks fine.

I hope that everything is intact. But I would like to go home and take some things because I have to change my clothes.

I spent about five days with one sock because I had time to get one and not the other.

I have four pairs of socks with me. I wash them from time to time.

In the sink?

Yes, in the sink. What other option is there? It’s war. Someone has one pair of socks. Someone doesn’t have them at all.

Translated from Ukrainian by Yana Sobetska.