‘Terror against Ukraine’: Residents flee as rockets rain down on Kharkiv

By Joel Gunter
in Lviv, Ukraine

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Alexandra Markevitch at a makeshift refugee shelter in Lviv, Ukraine. "I have never felt so much love for my homeland," she said.
Image caption,
Alexandra Markevitch rests in a makeshift refugee shelter in Lviv, Ukraine. "I have never felt so much love for my homeland," she said.

Alexandra Markevitch fled Kharkiv on Sunday, as Russian shells rained down on her neighbourhood and gunfire rattled her city.

She ran with her son Pasha to the station, with only a few documents, family photographs, and warm clothes in hand, and they made it on to a train headed west. When a pressure wave from a rocket strike hit the train, Markevitch feared it would be derailed, she said. When the train made it past the outskirts of the city and the sounds of the blasts, she tried to comfort her son. It was his 11th birthday.

Russia has bombarded Kharkiv, Ukraine's second city, since it invaded the country on Thursday, shelling residential areas and later the cultural heart of the city. On Tuesday, Kharkiv's opera house, concert hall and government offices were hit in a series of strikes, killing at least 10 people and injuring many more.

The city's mayor said a separate rocket strike on a residential neighbourhood had destroyed a hospital, killing several and injuring many. President Volodymyr Zelensky called the strikes on Kharkiv a "terror attack against Ukraine".

Many thousands are now fleeing the city, leaving behind homes, families and jobs. Many have made it by train as far as the city of Lviv in the west of Ukraine, some to a makeshift refugee shelter in an old theatre on a cobbled street, where people can stay for a few days before they have to move on. Markevitch, 29, sat alone there on Tuesday, on a mattress on the stage. She was a stylist in Kharkiv, she said, until she sold her business last year to help fund her grandmother's Covid care. As her son Pasha played, she turned over a necklace pendant her grandmother left her when she died.

Markevitch's family and friends are still in Kharkiv. Many residents there cannot flee. Just days ago she was with them, hiding in a shelter under a neighbouring apartment building, where it was cold and damp, with no electricity, no heat and no real food and she was sick with worry for Pasha. Above ground they could hear "every sound of the war", she said. "Shelling, bombing, grad rockets, fighter jets. Nobody sleeps because there is bombing all day and all night."

Three days and nights after the invasion began, and "full of fear I would lose my son," Markevitch made her choice. "Either you face death there or you face death on the road," she said. "At least on the road you have a chance of getting somewhere safe."

She is in contact with her family and they are still OK. "Physically, they are alive," she said. "Spiritually, life has become very hard in Kharkiv".

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Men sheltering in an underground station in Kharkiv. Thousands have hidden undergound as Russian forces shell the city.

Just 30 miles from the border and largely Russian speaking, Kharkiv has long been considered an obvious target for this invasion. Russian troops have engaged in street combat there with Ukrainian soldiers defending the city, and the city has been heavily bombarded from the air, killing scores of civilians at least.

Residents who spoke to the BBC on Tuesday described spending long nights in cramped bomb shelters or, for those with no access underground, in the hallways of their apartments, away from windows.

Iryna Ruzhynska, 40, was sheltering on Tuesday in the hallway of her second-floor apartment in a 16-floor building, with her two sons, daughter-in-law and grandchild. Ruzhynska's mother, who is 75, was trapped in her own 11th-floor apartment because the building's lift was out of order.

"We have put scotch tape on the windows and pillows by the window stills," Ruzhynska said. "We don't turn on the lights, only the torches on our phones. We managed to go to the store yesterday, but we queued for four hours and there was virtually no food left."

A street nearby Ruzhynska's apartment was shelled on Monday, she said - a thumping blast that left body parts strewn around the street. When she opens her window she can hear gunfire and bombing.

"It is exhausting and terrifying living under this pressure," she said. "And I am angry, because this is a big, beautiful city, my city, and they want to wipe it from the face of the Earth."

Late last night, while the rest of the family was asleep in the hallway, Ruzhynska put in her earphones and danced alone in the dark, "to try and release my emotions", she said. "Then I cried silently for a long time." It was a Russian singer she was listening to, she said. "Because we are people of peace. It does not matter to us."

Yehor Konovalov, 23, fled Kharkiv after the bombardment began with his parents and two siblings, and headed to a family business property in a village close to Donetsk. On Tuesday the family of five was sheltering in a cold 2m by 2m cellar while explosions could be heard in the distance.

"When the shelling started my eight-year-old sister woke me up at 4am and said, 'Yehor they are firing, they are firing bombs at Kharkiv'.

"I couldn't believe it. Then we heard the bombings and saw the ash cloud rising above the horizon."

Konovalov said the family was now cut off from buying food and other provisions because the Ukrainian army had blown the bridge near the village. The family had only three bottles of water and a few days' worth of food left for five people.

"We need to get to Western Ukraine, to get my mother and sisters safe and me and my father can join territorial defence troops," he said. "We are not afraid to die to kill those who invaded our soil."

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
A member of Ukraine's territorial defence forces stands inside Kharkiv government building on Tuesday.

Andrey Akonenko, a 22-year-old web designer who fled Kharkiv on Tuesday with his girlfriend and spoke to the BBC from Poltava, 150km away, also said he would sign up to defend Ukraine.

"They are shelling our residential areas, our apartment buildings - there are no military sites there where they are bombing," he said. "They are trying to destroy Ukrainian people."

Akonenko was hoping to reach Lviv, he said, where Markevitch was waiting on Tuesday to move on from the refugee shelter with her son Pasha, ideally to Poland.

"The main goal is simply to leave Ukraine for somewhere we won't be in a war anymore," she said.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has tried to claim he is liberating eastern cities and districts like Kharkiv from an oppressive Ukrainian government, but over eight years of war he appears now to have only reinforced in many a deep patriotism for Ukraine and a turning from Russia.

"I have never felt so much love for my homeland and for my city," Markevitch said. "I hope the war will end and I can bring my son back home to Kharkiv as soon as possible."

Before then, she said, she was only focused on making it to Poland, and finding Pasha a birthday cake.

Valeriia Ratynskianska and Daria Sipigina contributed to this report.