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As Russians Continue to Pound, Kharkiv is a Diorama of Resilience

Kharkiv, Ukraine — here, thirty miles from Russia it’s been a roller-coaster week. Sunday morning, February 5 two Russian missiles hit the city center before the air-raid alarm could sound. Local friends told me that the best alarm in such a circumstance is a dog: Pups bark about a minute before impact.

By Joe Lindsley

Then on Tuesday night, six Russian rockets hit within 10 minutes. And on Thursday, around 4 am, hours before Russia assaulted all of Ukraine, Moscow sent 9 missiles to Kharkiv, turning the night into spectacular orange daylight and shaking the city.

Somehow, I slept through that 4 am attack. I’d stayed awake until 3 am, working and monitoring news of Iranian drones targeting Kyiv. When the all-clear sounded, I, exhausted, put on my noise-canceling headphones and fell asleep to the sounds of Chopin—lovely sounds that prevented me from hearing the entire city shake around me.

I woke up around 9 am. My phone was dead but as soon as it recharged I read with shock about the horrible night I’d slept through: everyone else in the city was captivated by the orange and purple glows and the resounding shockwaves. Then as my messaging app woke up, in rushed reports to reports of Russian missiles flying in from the Caspian Sea heading for Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, Dnipro, Lviv—everywhere, really.

Between 10 pm Thursday night and noon Friday, Russia sent 71 cruise missiles 35 S-300 missiles, and 7 Iranian drones to peaceful, free Ukraine. Ukraine’s air defenders were able to intercept 61 of those missiles and five of the drones. But the ones that hit their targets caused major damage, in this Russia’s 14th massive strike on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.

Diorama of Resilience

On Sunday, some local friends brought me to one of the scenes of destruction—a wild scene. A straight street, sloped down, lined with beautiful residential buildings, 6-8 stories, still beautiful in the smoldering apocalyptic smoke.

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Before me, were two rows of buildings, on either side of the street, each like a doll’s house, facades ripped off, almost all windows gone. I saw a couple standing on their stone balcony—looking dazed. Moments before had been a lazy Sunday morning. Now everything was ripped apart, people’s lives and rooms exposed to the elements and the world.

In other buildings and rooms, I saw people already installing plywood to cover the gaps in the walls.

It was a diorama of resilience.

In the street, firetrucks, rescue workers, and an old woman holding her dog, in a blanket, while a firefighter pet it. Ahead, I saw the missile crater. The world Central Kitchen was already there, with a tent, serving up hot coffee, tea, and soup to residents and rescuers alike.

“We’re getting seriously [expletive] hit,” I texted a friend in Lviv Tuesday night. I was in a quasi-shelter in my hotel along with United Nations people.

“What does this give you, lad?” my friend replied. In other words: Why did I choose to stick around here, not just in Ukraine but in Kharkiv, especially amid growing reports that Russia is planning some new offensive?

I thought about it, as the alarms wailed, and then replied:

“Why am I here in Kharkiv? It gives me purpose and focus. When missiles are falling down around me, I am more honest and determined. It gives me no excuse not to work hard. Lives are at stake. And it gives me the story, the means to share the story, and it lets me share the stories of those who would be otherwise forgotten.

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“… and maybe underneath it all of course is a hidden act of turning what would be despair into purpose. I don’t want to live in the regular world, which seems too dull for me. I am seeking, as a Canadian volunteer who spent many months here said, ‘true material purpose.’

“I hate horror movies and roller coasters and bungee jumping but I’ll do this. Hahaha,” I added.

During the Tuesday night strikes, I was speaking with some United Nations people in the same shelter as me. It felt like being in an Agatha Christie mystery novel, stuck with strangers as everything shook around us.

One of the UN people had just arrived here from Sudan. He told me that in a weird way, life is better here. You can have a nice meal, and walk safely at night on the streets even though there are no lights. But he added that he had never experienced anything so scary as Tuesday night as Russian hell rang down upon this lovely, civilized city.

On Sunday night, after that morning’s attacks, I went into an Irish pub, the sort of place that seems to be apocalypse-proof. A family—adults, children, dogs—had brought their own drinks and food to celebrate the birthday of a woman named Natasha. She, a nurse, brought me a piece of cake. In her eyes, I saw a fierceness. Some of the men around the table were firefighters. They have seen horrible things. But at that moment, in our diorama of resilience, we sang and toasted and find new energy for whatever Russia in its sick obsession with destruction, might throw our way next.

But the bad news is never far away. A friend in Bakhmut wrote to say, “It’s like hell [here.] It’s like a constant bad psychedelic trip.”

And in the face of that hell, we all just take one step at a time and keep on.

Later, a French friend, a military veteran who came to Ukraine to help in any way, now back home, wrote these words:

“Just light a candle, and remember about everything and everyone you love.”

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