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Wounded Kharkiv - the city through the eyes of those who document the consequences of Russian attacks for Ukrainian and global media

Kharkiv after a nighttime drone and missile attack by Russians. Morning of 17 January 2024. Photo by Yakov Lyashenko


Burnt houses and cars, smashed windows, bloodstains on the asphalt, dead bodies on the ground - wounds on the body of the city. People suffer from every shelling, "arrival" or other consequences of Russian attacks, and their lifelong property is destroyed. Favourite places disappear, historical architecture is destroyed, high-rise buildings become abandoned ghost houses, and the city's panorama loses its usual appearance. For two years, the Russians have been ruthlessly trying to take Kharkiv: first by storming it, but after failing, they turned to missile and drone terror. Someone's home, first place of work, a bar for dates and meetings with friends, a university, etc. are targets for the Russians. The city is being wiped out before our eyes, and only memories and photos remain. We are talking to Kharkiv residents - local documentary filmmakers who have to record almost every place of pain in their hometown. Pavlo Doroho, Yakiv Lyashenko and Oleksandr Magula talked about the wounds of Kharkiv that hurt them too.


Bar "Old Ham"


The destroyed building that housed the Old Ham bar. 14 March 2022. Photo by Pavlo Dorohoy


The photographer Oleksandr Magula invited girls there to meet him, and Yakiv Lyashenko and his friends dreamed of celebrating the upcoming victory there. However, on 14 March, a Russian Iskander missile hit a historic 1911 building on Svobody Street, where the Old Ham was located in the basement. The pub, named after the famous American writer Ernest Hemingway, no longer exists. The place where creative youth gathered and Serhiy Zhadan held literary evenings is now a ruin. Two people died then. For Oleksandr, this bar was one of his favourite places to hang out in Kharkiv: "When my friends and I were still students, we used to go there often. Just as often we would leave the bar for a smoke break and look at the old building opposite. It's hard to believe that it's destroyed, just like the bar itself. The Russians are erasing many important places."


A ruin in the centre of Kharkiv next to the Old Ham bar. September 2022. Photo by Oleksandr Magula


During the full-scale Russian invasion, the bar became an improvised bomb shelter for Kharkiv residents: they stopped serving beer but started providing shelter. "I don't have a photo of this place and its ruins. Because we went there to relax, not to document," says photographer Yakiv Lyashenko sadly. 


Saltovka 


At one point in their lives, Pavlo Dorohoy and Oleksandr Mahula lived in Saltivka, the largest residential area of Kharkiv. Before the outbreak of the full-scale war, about half a million people lived there, almost a third of the city's population. Now it is one of the biggest, most famous and most painful wounds in Kharkiv, especially its northern part. The occupiers tried to storm the city from there.


Russians start shelling Kharkiv. A view of Saltovka from the window. Autumn 2022. Photo by Oleksandr Magula


"From my house I can see Russia," Oleksandr Magula begins, "and when the alarm started, I could see a light on the horizon from the window. Missiles were flying from Russia. After 40-50 seconds, there was an explosion in Kharkiv. This meant that the missiles had already arrived."


Russian missile attack on the Sloboda district of Kharkiv. 22 June 2022. Photo by Oleksandr Magula


Northern Saltovka in May 2022. Photo by Oleksandr Magula


Oleksandr Magula compares his house to an observation deck where he could watch not only beautiful sunsets, but also what Russia would do to Kharkiv in a few seconds. One day, when he was at home, a bomb flew next to his house on the next street. He felt the windows of his apartment shake. "I saw a huge red flame. It seemed like some kind of gateway to hell. It was very scary at the time," - Magula recalls.


A historic building in the centre of Kharkiv is damaged. 12 March 2022. Photo by Pavlo Dorohoy


Pavlo Dorohoy also spent his childhood in Saltovka, where he has the best memories. "I love this neighbourhood very much. Even though many people consider it depressing. I used to live on the 9th floor and always liked to see what was beyond these houses. I used to peer into the edge of the city and the fields beyond," says Pavlo. For him, Saltovka is primarily a green neighbourhood with a developed infrastructure and native streets, where his mother still lives. "The block building of panels, with the Rossiya cinema and the Ukraina shopping centre next to each other, is a combination," says Pavlo.


"Devils of War" near the damaged Kharkiv apartment block. 9 March 2022. Photo by Pavlo Dorohoy


Rescuers clear the rubble after Russian shelling. 16 March 2022. Photo by Pavlo Dorohoy


Pavlo Doroho says that it was difficult for him to film what the Russians had turned his Saltivka into. There, he saw what he began to call the "tree of war", when someone's belongings, thrown out of buildings by the blast wave, hang on the branches. "This is also a very creepy thing for me. It is clear that these are just things, but they are someone's things. Where are their owners? What happened to these people?" says Pavlo.


A rescuer's light in a building destroyed by the Russians. 31 December 2023. Photo by Yakov Lyashenko


Yakiv Lyashenko calls Saltovka a "panel anthill", he has never lived here and never wanted to, but he would not want to see all the ruins and the misery that the residents of this area had to face. The Russians mercilessly bombed the whole of Kharkiv and Saltovka as well. 70% of the northern part of the district was destroyed. People lived in the subway for weeks. Yakiv Lyashenko still clearly remembers the first time he came to Northern Saltovka with foreign journalists during active Russian attacks in the spring of 2022.

"It was 1 April. It was very scary. 10 minutes before we arrived, a Russian Grad rocket had just been fired. We saw a multi-storey building on fire, and a lonely old lady walking near it. Russian artillery was working, and the elderly woman was calmly walking around the building. The military convinced her to leave, but she did not want to. She stayed in this danger. She chose to stay at home. This picture really impressed me," says Yakiv Lyashenko.


An elderly woman walks around her house, which was shelled by a Russian Grad rocket. 1 April 2022. Photo by Yakov Lyashenko


After a counter-offensive by Ukrainian forces in September 2022, when our Defence Forces pushed the Russians back to the border, life in Saltivka became calmer. Many people whose homes survived returned home.


The heart of the city


The city centre after the Russian attack on the Kharkiv air force base. 1 March 2022. Photo by Pavlo Dorohoy


On 1 March 2022, Russians fired two missiles at the city centre during the battle for Kharkiv. The building of the regional military administration was damaged. As a result, 44 people died.


"This is the central square of the city. This is the heart of the city. Every Kharkiv citizen passes by there almost every day. There is a park and Derzhprom nearby. This is the business card of Kharkiv. Perhaps, this attack was the most painful for me," says Pavlo Doroho. It was the first time that Russians attacked the centre of Kharkiv, and historic buildings were also damaged. In front of the photographer, the bodies of the dead were being taken out of the OVA, which took two weeks to remove from the rubble.


Kharkiv residents carry the body of a deceased man out of the Kharkiv OVA. 1 March 2022. Photo by Pavlo Dorohoy


"It was such a strong moral blow. Until that moment, it seemed that the war was somewhere around Kharkiv, and then it became obvious. Closer. It is here. Since then, a lot has changed in the city and in me," says Pavlo.


Pavlo Doroho says that it was photography that gave him the strength to document everything that was happening to his hometown. "It's strange how photography, on the one hand, allows you to be an observer, to look at things from a distance, and on the other hand, you can't help but let all these events pass through you," says Pavlo.


«I am afraid that my city will not turn into Gaza» 


The centre of Kharkiv is home to some of Ukraine's top higher education institutions. Russian missiles also hit education. Russian troops attacked the O.M. Beketov Kharkiv National University of Municipal Economy, demolishing two floors. Oleksandr Magula documented the damaged building, where he used to visit often. His friends studied there, and he used to take additional English classes there.


"It was hard to see these destroyed walls when you remember them intact," says Oleksandr Magula. The number of places dear to him that are being destroyed by the Russians is growing. "In addition, my Karazin University, in particular the Department of Journalism, where I studied, was also damaged. I feel like my city as a whole is turning into a ruin. This list also includes my first two editorial offices, 057.ua and Gvara Media. I'm afraid that one day I will come home and my city will turn into Gaza," says Oleksandr Magula.


Russian missile strike on the Kharkiv National Academy of Urban Economy named after A.M. Beketov. 5 February 2023. Photo by Oleksandr Mahula


"I understand that there are many buildings that we have lost forever," reflects Pavlo Doroho. "They will not be restored. Because even before the war, Kharkiv had a problem with the architectural heritage in general and with the city's development. Now it will only get worse, I think. Of course, it's upsetting and even makes me angry. Sometimes it seems that we don't even need an external enemy. We will destroy what previous generations have built, even if it is the generation of Soviet Ukrainians."


Fire in the building after another Russian shelling. 2 March 2022. Photo by Pavlo Dorohoy


The documentarian notes that the war causes pain not only because of the lost architecture, but the worst thing is that people suffer because they are left homeless. In Kharkiv, there are those who have been affected by Russian aggression for the second time, Pavlo says: "They came from a region where the Russians had already destroyed their home. This is the most painful thing, that people are hit more than once."


«I did not choose to film the war»


Hitting a multi-storey building or a private house, an industrial facility, an oil depot, a Nova Poshta terminal, a queue of people receiving humanitarian aid, etc. - the list is long and constantly growing. Yakiv Lyashenko is among those Kharkiv documentary filmmakers who record the criminal actions of Russians for foreign media almost every day. It is difficult for him to determine where the "arrival" hurt him the most. He heard the explosions from the window of his apartment, so he immediately went to the scene of the shelling. "When an "arrival" happens in Kharkiv, I hear it. I don't wait for the alarm to go off, I immediately go to the scene to document the events. If I wait, there will be nothing and no one there when I arrive," says Yakiv.


Russians attack on a line of Kharkiv residents waiting for humanitarian aid. Spring 2022. Photo by Yakov Lyashenko


He doesn't hide the fact that what he often sees on the set doesn't leave him indifferent: "Once there was a pool of blood and a human finger at the scene of a tragedy. The wounded and dead had already been taken away, but that finger remained on the ground. It is impossible not to think about it."


Yakiv Lyashenko concludes: "If I was photographing something civilian, I could choose what to shoot. But now I don't choose anything. It's the war that chooses me. I have to shoot what is there."


On the night of 17 January 2024, a doctor holds a child after another Russian missile and drone attack on Kharkiv. Photo by Yakiv Lyashenko


Police evacuate an injured woman from a residential building that was attacked by Russians. 30 December 2023. Photo by Yakiv Lyashenko


«Kharkiv is a city that holds me and gives me strength»


Oleksandr Magula notes that, according to his observations, the portrait of an average Kharkiv resident has also changed, as the city used to be a student town. "I noticed this change in the subway. There used to be a lot of young people there, but now I get on and notice that I can be almost the only young man in the carriage," Oleksandr says.

With fewer people, there are fewer cars. However, the roads - the arteries of the city - are circulating, and sometimes there are traffic jams and parking problems. "It's clear that people live, people fight, people celebrate life, people hold on somehow. This is great, but the ruins that have become scars remain. When you see them, it's always upsetting," adds Pavlo Dorohoy.


A Kharkiv patrol policeman tries to enter A.M. Beketov University after a Russian missile attack. 5 February 2023. Photo by Oleksandr Magula


But despite the drone attacks, Kharkiv is alive. Cultural events are held in the city. Kharkiv residents themselves are returning home despite the shelling. "In Kharkiv, even during the war, there are probably more events than in cities that don't know what war is. There are concerts and theatres here," Yakiv Lyashenko also notes that new cafes are opening in the city. "People are starting from scratch. They worked hard under fire in extremely difficult conditions to open. These Kharkiv residents did what they could to keep their city alive. I respect them for that."


No one can predict whether Kharkiv will be the same as it was before the invasion, but perhaps it shouldn't be. A new page in the history of the Hero city continues to be written every day. However, unfortunately, it is filled mainly with the dates of Russian attacks, notes on the number of victims, and is visually supported by documentary photographs so that nothing and no one is forgotten.


"Once, my military friends from Kraken told me that in order for everything to be fine in Kharkiv, the border line with Russia should pass at least through the centre of Belgorod. Then, having moved the front line that far, we will be able to install air defence in Kharkiv, and it will be able to defend us. It's a joke, but there's probably some truth in it," Oleksandr Magula hopes that maybe in this case the Russians will stop attacking the city at least with C-300 missiles.


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