Hello, friends. This is the 10th issue of our Napalm podcast. And today we are talking to Tanya, a Kharkiv resident. Weʼre talking about the city, about what happened in all the days of the war, and about what is there now. Tanya, thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us. I have a traditional question for all guests: could you please tell us about your day on February 23?
I donʼt remember February 23 very well. I remember the night of February 24: I was watching a UN meeting. I was just interested in what was going on there. UN President Antonio Guterres spoke, saying Putin should be stopped. And in about half an hour, explosions began, which I heard just from the window. This is my memory of that night. Then I remember running around the apartment, picking up some things and running to the subway.
What was in the subway when you came there? Were there already a lot of people?
There were people already, yes. They kept coming there. Most of them were families with children, dogs and cats. We live next door, our apartment is near the Studentska metro station. At 5 am the subway opens, and in an hour many people were there. All the benches were occupied, as well as the stairs. Honestly, it looked very scary. Nobody understood what was happening. The subway workers themselves didnʼt understand anything either. When it became clear that the war has started, they began to help people in the subway, to open the special fountains with drinking water, which we had previously seen only in educational videos.
Do you remember the first week? Because at first no one understood, for example, what was happening in Kharkiv. When did the heavy shelling begin?
Everything is so intertwined [in my memories] already. The houses on the outskirts of the city were affected first. This is Buchma Street, Northern Saltivka district. Shells started to fall there. At first it was unbelievable that this could happen in Kharkiv. But the number of shellings and destroyed houses was constantly increasing, and it did not stop. It has already become clear that it has not just hit once or twice, but itʼs what is happening constantly. Nothing has changed since then. In the last few days, it seems to us, there are a little less shelling. And we hope that the Ukrainian Army will push the occupiers further from of the city, and that is why we already hear less explosions. Although it may be an illusion, because even at night, when we sleep, there is this thunder [from the shellings], and in the evening we constantly hear gunfire.
What is the situation in the city with food, medicine, water? I understand that you donʼt walk around much under constant shelling if itʼs Saltivka.
If we look at the humanitarian situation globally, there were no serious problems with food, water and electricity in Kharkiv. If you need humanitarian aid, you can get it. There are many branches of Nova Poshta and Ukrposhta that provide this assistance. Yes, you have to stand in line there, it can take several hours. And itʼs dangerous because itʼs crowded. But you can get help. Houses are broken in Northern Saltivka, people there are frying food on fires. There are still a lot of people who stay there. Although they have options for evacuation. And the city council offers [then] to move to the subway, to boarding schools, to different specifically prepared buildings
The situation in the Oblast is worse. According to the latest reports, 24 out of 56 united territorial communities are temporarily occupied. We know only fragments of what is happening there. The most difficult situation is in the Izium direction. Liptsy, towards the border with Russia, is also occupied. Russian propaganda media publish videos showing the occupiers bringing something there. It is unclear if this is enough. We know stories about people with specific surnames who made pancakes out of straw during the occupation because there was nothing to eat. They took the leftovers left by the occupiers, these pastes with the "Russian Army" inscription. People had to survive.
Did the authorities offer to leave the city? There were evacuation trains from the train station.
Yes, from Ukrzaliznytsia. In the first month, many people wanted to leave. There was panic and crowds at the station. And for a long time, evacuation trains were provided. People waited for hours to get on them. You could wait even for a day. Now evacuation trains are appointed from time to time. Ukrzaliznytsia publishes this information. Currently, there are also regular trains, so it is possible to leave the city. At the same time, there are buses provided by volunteers. There are still volunteer organizations taking people out of Kharkiv on their own, and it works.
Did someone return? Maybe, left in the first days and then came back?
Yes, we have covered such stories as journalists. For example, a girl returned after two or three weeks. There were trains on which people returned from Poland and other countries. They explained that their relatives stayed here, or [they had] someone close who was fighting and defending the city, and they could not be abroad all the time. Those who simply felt their connection with Kharkiv also returned. However, the danger remains: every day, people die from shelling. If the shell does not hit the house, it hits the car. Two people were burned alive yesterday on Zhukovsky Avenue. A vehicle got hit while it was driving. And such stories happen every day.
Regarding debris. There was a whole team of people dismantling debris in Borodyanka, from which nothing is left, and in Irpin. About a week later, everything was cleared there. I understand that the situation is different because there is no shelling in the Kyiv Oblast now. What is the situation with debris in Kharkiv? Is it dismantled? Who does that?
Rescuers are dismantling the debris. In the first weeks, units from neighboring Oblasts, Poltava and Sumy, went to reinforce Kharkiv rescuersʼ efforts. To this date, not all blockages have been dismantled. According to the City Council, more than 1,900 residential buildings have been entirely or partially destroyed. Volunteers donʼt do this [dismantle the debris] alone. But I know that there is an initiative of the State Emergency Service [urging people] to help rescuers. There may be such cases. But in the face of constant shelling, Iʼm not sure that the rescuers allow civilians to dismantle the debris.
Do you remember 2014 in Kharkiv? Protests and the “KhPR” flag. How did the Kharkiv citizenʼs mood change after this war began?
Yes, I do remember. [Back then] people said that we [and Russians] are neighbors and brotherly nations. But when the shells hit people’s houses, they see this aggression themselves, and there is no talk of brotherly nations anymore. Journalists working in the field constantly meet people who want to address Putin. They [want to] address [Putin] directly. It is an opportunity for them to say: “What are you doing?!” All of this is often accompanied by swearing because there are simply no other words when you stand on the ruins of your apartment, in which you invested everything, and you have nothing left. The day before, we met a grandfather who came to the house, where the four floors dropped into his apartment after the shelling. He had no dishes left, nothing. He was sitting on a bench near the entrance [to the residential building], which was simply laid to waste. What words can be found for Russia here? Nobody expresses sympathy. However, according to the prosecutor’s office and the Security Service of Ukraine, [in Kharkiv] people [suspected of collaborating with the enemy] are constantly detained.
Adjusters [of enemy’s fire]?
Yes. Or those still writing posts in Russia’s support in the media. There are still such stories. You rightly said that Kharkiv was semi-pro-Russian environment before all these events. Although when the invasion took place, despite someone’s predictions, the top of our government, neither city nor oblast, did not surrender the city. This led to a wave of patriotic statements about them.
I wonder how Misha is doing there?
We know that he lives [in] the same [place] as before, in Lisopark. It’s one of the zones that are constantly under fire. Grad shells dropped in his yard. You can see this on his Instagram. His rhetoric has really changed. He expressed public support for Volodymyr Zelensky on his social networks.
He was going to volunteer. But I don’t know how this story ended.
Among the latest posts [he published is the one with the text:] “I want to exchange my Harley bike for a car for the Armed Forces of Ukraine”. So this is the situation. He supports the Ukrainian army.
It is a bit strange why he didnʼt leave. He has a lot of apartments in Kyiv.
War changes a person.
How have the conditions of your journalistic work changed?
Every day, I sleep in the basement. I work from the basement as well. My responsibilities include updating Suspilne Kharkiv’s Telegram, Instagram, Youtube accounts, news feed, all these things. We have people who work “in the field”, but there are fewer of them because not everyone is in Kharkiv now. And not everyone knows the peculiarities of work during hostilities. Historically, our editor-in-chief Slava Mavrychev has been visiting all hotspots or liberated villages where areas may be mined since the invasion, and others have been working in the city. He is more or less prepared and understands how to act in emergencies. However, there are no safe places in Kharkiv now. There is a recommendation for everyone to work from basements, safe places, and bomb shelters. [It’s also recommended to] go out only occasionally and only on task to save everyone’s life. As for communication, we have these opportunities. We have the Internet and electricity.
Oh, the air raid siren is on. In the last few days, the sirens are not so common. There were fewer of them.
I think the sound of the air raid siren needs to be changed. It is impossible to listen to it.
I don’t know. Maybe in Kyiv, people treat air raid sirens more responsibly. But in Kharkiv, itʼs just an illusion now. We don’t hear it in some places. And not all people react to it. [Some people] began to procrastinate [with moving to the shelter]. But you can’t behave like this. A few days ago, we witnessed a man walking] and not thinking in advance where to hide. He just died in the middle of the road. We need to keep in mind that you can’t just walk [around the city].
I saw a video of people planting flowers in the center of Kharkiv.
Yes. This is such a metamorphosis of the city. Despite the shelling, public utility workers are working like crazy. And while there is such a strong recommendation for everyone not to be on the streets, we see how they plant flowers and constantly work in all possible areas. On the one hand, we should know that life goes on and not be sad, but on the other hand, a gardener was injured during such cleaning in Gorky Park. Thank God he’s okay, he was discharged from the hospital. But it was reported that a fragment [of the shell] passed near [his] heart, and there is nothing good about it. I have many questions for the city authorities about such outrageous work of public utility workers.
In 2014 in Luhansk, when the war started, the city was shelled, and the city mayor, Serhiy Kravchenko, sent communal workers to plant petunias.
Yes, but many public utility workers still don’t do this just because they are forced to. This is evident from their words when we communicate. They feel [that they have to do it]. They go out on work themselves and want to show that the city lives, the city works and we will restore the city. We have to erect a monument to them for everything they do. But the big question for the city government is, how much are they protecting these workers? Is it not possible to postpone work in certain districts?
Can you describe how your ordinary day looks like?
I get out of the basement and start to gather all the content created by our colleagues to post it on Telegram.
Do you work in the basement?
I live in a private house. We have a basement at home. And when there is no shelling, you can work from home and get out of the basement. Our editor-in-chief is also hiding in the basement at home. Some colleagues left [the city] and work remotely, some ― from basements, from apartments. There are video editors. There are people responsible for social networks.
And what does life in the city look like? For example, are coffee shops open?
In the city center, the business gradually opens up. Situation on outr district is nothing like it. We have one pizzeria that is open for delivery. [Businesses] open at their own risk, because there is constant shelling. On April 17, the city center was heavily shelled, many shops were damaged, five people were killed and more than twenty were injured.
Regarding the Oblast, we don’t know a lot of what is happening there. I subscribed to all existing chats. Even though there is often no connection, people somehow get on rooftops, hills, catch the connection and try to pass something on to their relatives or just write online. The information vacuum is very painful. [We don’t know much] about what is happening in the villages that are under constant fire, about how people are forced to go to Belgorod. There, the connection with them is lost.
They have their phones confiscated, and there are filtration camps. You have to go through the filtration, they ask how you feel about Russia, about the war. And, as far as I know, those who did not pass the filtration, disappear completely. No one knows what happens to them next. It is still unknown how many such people there are.
I know cases when people managed to get out of Russia and go to Europe. I know specific people who escaped to Estonia. But I also know that there are many children. There was a story when [Russians] blackmailed a woman by taking her passport, and without a passport there is nothing you can do, even buy a SIM card. People are indeed being questioned in the camps [about their loyalty to Russia].
Have you been thinking about leaving Kharkiv at some point?
These thoughts come to me from time to time when the shell hit closer and closer [to my home]. Recently, Grad shells fell one street away. Just one street away, in a minute or two of the walking distance.
On the avenue next to my house, there were also fires, and shells now stick out from the road. I think that if this silence, which has now been established, will hold, it will be possible to stay. And if not, and the war comes to our village, we will have to go. At least to the city center, or even outside the city borders.
Everyone has their own mental reserves. This is a perfectly normal story.
This is a problem many people have now. They are tied to their property or their relatives. But now, even people with disabilities or animals can leave with the help of volunteers. [They] will get them and put them on the train. Though people [often] think that no one will help them anywhere.
They say, "Weʼre going into nowhere, and nobody needs us there."
And then we see [people running after them] in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast with ten cans of honey and whatnot... People respond very kindly. We see stories of heroism and humanity. There are enough of them for many storybooks.
Thanks so much for agreeing to talk.
You are welcome.
Today Tanya Fedorkova from Kharkiv was our guest. She stayed there for a whole time [since the war began]. She is a journalist. I hope that everything will be alright. And in case you will be here [in Kyiv], please drop by.
Thank you very much. It was nice talking to you. Everything will be fine.
Translated from Ukrainian by Yana Sobetska and Anton Semyzhenko.