2 years after pushing back Russia, Kharkiv faces barrage of attacks

ByPatrick Reevell and Doc Louallen ABCNews logo
Friday, June 21, 2024

It can be difficult to sleep in Kharkiv. Ukraine's second-largest city is now under continuous attack, its residents waking many nights to the sounds of huge blasts.

Less than 20 miles from the border with Russia, Kharkiv has become known around the world as a symbol of Ukraine's resistance.

Two years ago, Ukraine drove Russian forces back from the city. But things have changed. Russia bombs the city most days and last month launched a huge new offensive toward Kharkiv.

Ukrainian officials and residents fear, that unable to seize it, Russian President Vladimir Putin may be seeking to make the city - once home to 1.5 million people - unlivable.

"They're trying to, try to get as much close as they can so they artillery can hit Kharkiv and just push away civilians trying to make them exhausted mentally and physically and, you know, like make Kharkiv empty more and more and more empty every day," Roman Kachanov, a fire chief with Fire Station 11, said. "That's what I'm afraid of."

But despite the continuous attacks, its people try to keep ordinary life going.

"People just have a normal life knowing that every day, somewhere bombs will hit and maybe kill them, maybe not," Kachanov said. "So this is life in Kharkiv."

Kachanov and his team have been responding to Russian strikes for more than two years. They tackle blazes and rescue survivors from the rubble, in a relentless battle that intensified again over the last two months.

"I think me and a lot of other Ukrainians who are still here, who are still in Kharkiv, if we will be thinking negative, it will make our condition even worse," Kachanov said. "I'm trying to stay positive."

Kachanov decided to send his wife and daughter abroad for safety after the full-scale invasion, and they have remained there since.

"A lot of us separated from their families, a lot of divorces, a lot of everything," Kachanov said. "So that's hard. Emotionally hard. Not emotionally hard because of war, because of dead, injured people. Even [we got] used to this one. Yeah. Sometimes you have some stuff in your head. Maybe you need to speak with the guys with a beer. Maybe cry a bit."

Since 2022, seven firefighters have been killed in Kharkiv, and nearly 50 have been wounded, according to local authorities. Firefighters also say Russian troops frequently target sites a second time once first responders arrive, a tactic known as the "double tap."

Last month, Kachanov suffered a concussion after an explosion in a structure where he was fighting to control a fire caused by a Russian strike. He said he has also been at fires dozens of times in the past year that have been hit by a second Russian strike.

The attacks frequently disrupt the work of teachers, trainers, and other essential workers. Adapting to them often means having to move life underground. Last month, Kharkiv opened its first purpose-built underground school, located 16 feet below ground. For the kids here, it means they can attend in-person classes for the first time in more than two years.

"We started in distance learning for two years, and now our children can just sit at the desk, they can speak to each other, you can see that they are smiling, they are happy to be here, and they feel safe here," Olga Grigorash, a teacher at the school, said.

Local volunteer groups have also stepped in to provide humanitarian assistance, and helping with the evacuation of civilians from towns and villages closer to the frontline. Maria Zaitseva, the founder of the charity, Unbreakable Kharkiv, distributes humanitarian aid and helps evacuate people from combat areas.

Last month, Zaitseva decided to evacuate her own children to Germany.

"This summer I decided that it would be safer for my children to stay with my parents during the holidays," Zaitseva said. "Because Kharkiv is being destroyed. Hits on civilian targets, shopping centers, residential areas. It is very dangerous."

Amid fears of a Russian breakthrough, the Biden administration in June agreed to begin allowing Ukraine to use American weapons to strike back across the border inside Russia.

That has let Ukraine push Russian missile launchers farther away from Kharkiv, and in the past week the bombing in Kharkiv has notably eased, residents said.

"Things in Kharkiv are quieter," Zaitseva said. "A lot quieter since our international partners allowed Ukraine to hit inside Russia. And we have results -- in Kharkiv it's better. It would be even better if we were allowed to strike at Russian aircraft."

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