Since the outbreak of the war, Russian shelling has destroyed over 3,500 houses in Kharkiv. Of these, 500 cannot be restored, primarily high-rise buildings.
The scale of destruction is growing every day, and no one knows how many people will lose their homes. But the city authorities are already developing a plan for its future restoration. They promise to involve the famous British architect Norman Foster. New houses will be built to optimum energy efficiency, taking into account war realities — underground parking lots, which will also serve as bomb shelters.
They say that the post-war reconstruction of Kharkiv can be completed in 2-3 years. It is claimed that the first investors have already agreed. Everyone is waiting for the war to end. Meanwhile, the shelling of the city continues. According to official estimates, 700,000-800,000 people remain in the city.
“No feelings! Who needs this war?” says angrily 52-year-old Serhiy, who has returned to his apartment in Pivnichna Saltivka, the most damaged Kharkiv district, for the first time since March 2022. To the cannonade of an artillery duel a few kilometers away from the city, Serhiy carries eight bags of broken glass, tiles and dishes one by one from his apartment in a building at 271 Druzhba Narodiv Street. “And it’s only from one room,” he says sadly.
At the same time, Ukrainian rescuers, together with their Canadian colleagues from CIRO (Canadian International Rescue Organization), are clearing debris on the roof of a 16-story building, which was hit by several shells at a time. The slabs hanging at a height of 50 meters must be removed so that locals like Serhiy can relatively safely enter their homes or try to repair them. Every day, 2-3 families come at 271 Druzhba Narodiv Street to take some things or clean their apartments.
Yevhen Vasylenko, the spokesperson at the Main Directorate of the State Emergency Service, is not sure that the 16-story building at 271 Druzhby Narodiv Street can be saved, given the damaged structures.
“Can the building be restored? Most likely, no, it can’t. But we will know it for sure after it becomes safer here, after the shelling in this area is minimized. There will be a commission, architects, and builders here, and they will determine if this house is restorable or must be demolished,” he says.
Indeed, starting from about the 9th floor, strong distortions are visible on the stairwells of the high-rise, some steps are at an unusual angle, tilted forward and to the left; several floors up there are cracks in the supporting structures and palm-thick gaps between some of the slabs. Each floor is littered with mountains of broken glass, plaster and remnants of apartment doors torn apart by a shock wave.
The pungent, sweet smell of corpses on the 13th floor is very disturbing. There is no way to make out whether it is a dead person, a pet that died without owners, or just a refrigerator where meat went bad because there was no electricity. A journalist has no right to break into abandoned apartments, most of which are locked. Rescue workers do not have this right either, so they continue to clear the debris on the roof, but do not open the apartments.
“We don’t have the opportunity to inspect apartments, because we do not break down doors. If there is an applicant, first of all, when people contact the police about a missing person, or they are sure that this person is under rubble, then we arrive and pull out the bodies,” says Vasylenko.
The officer of the State Emergency Service assumes that something began to stink in the refrigerator in an apartment on the 13th floor of this building. This was the case at the end of May, when the rescuers cleared the rubble of a high-rise building in search for a missing person and smelt some rotting flesh there.
“It was in Pivnichna Saltivka. Rescuers worked at the site almost all day, but found a refrigerator full of spoiled meat under the rubble,” he says.
A group of Ukrainian and Canadian rescuers meet us on the roof blown apart by a missile. They cut the metal structures on which multi-ton blocks still hang dangerously over the entrance. It is impossible to go further without special protection. We stop in front of the broken stairs of the technical floor and an almost 50-meter chasm. From above, the building looks like a miniature copy of the destroyed 4th reactor at the Chornobyl NPP.
“This 16-story building was shelled with everything. The Grad and Uragan MLRS fired upon those buildings many times,” Vasylenko says.
According to the State Emergency Service, as of June 7, 2022, its staff cleared the debris in 117 residential and administrative buildings in Kharkiv. There is still a lot of work to be done, especially in Pivnichna Saltivka, Pyatykhatky, Zhukovsky and Horizont areas. The exact number of damaged residential buildings is unknown yet. Kharkiv is subjected to rocket and artillery fire every day.
Coming down from the roof of the 16-story building at 271 Druzhby Narodiv Street, we meet a normally dressed young girl in a drunken state. Either jokingly or seriously, she offers the rescuers sex in exchange for their help in getting to her apartment on the third floor. Then we see two teenagers who tell us that 100 meters away, on a nearby street, in a 9-story building at 40 Metrobudivelnykiv Street, there is a corpse of an elderly man under the rubble. He could not move on his own during his life and allegedly died after a projectile hit the house.
“In general, we know where people are. We have cleared debris in almost all buildings. We have already found dead bodies where there are people. But, probably, there are other such houses. Of course, when we receive reports, we will immediately switch our work first to these buildings. The information about the body in the destroyed entrance at 40 Metrobudivelnykiv Street has not been confirmed yet. We will process it, and we will visit the specified address in the near future,” Vasylenko says.
At this time, local resident Serhiy continues to carry out the smashed stuff from his apartment.
“When the bombing started, I couldn’t come here because of the debris. When the firemen arrived, the Russians started shelling again. So the firemen turned and left. It is not clear whether it was a mine or something else that shattered the windows. As to serious damage, it’s a hole in the wall on the third floor. The hole resulted from the very first hit of the house. Who knows how many attacks there were, you can’t count them,” he says.
The man would like to return to his apartment, but I can hear in his voice that this is actually an impossible wish. “No one knows when it’s over,” Serhiy sums up the conversation.
Artillery shelling continues at a distance of about 10-15 kilometers ahead. The steppe is burning, plumes of smoke can be seen in several directions – it seems that the fighting is on a broad front north of Kharkiv.
As we were told in the press service of the Kharkiv Regional Prosecutor’s Office, an investigative team is going tomorrow to 40 Metrobudivelnykiv Street, where the body of an elderly person may be under the rubble. The man seems to have died several months ago. Exhumation of the remains is expected.
Yuriy Larin, Kharkiv
The material is prepared within the project “Countering Disinformation in Southern and Eastern Ukraine” funded by the European Union.