Kharkiv pushes the intruder back | War in Ukraine

The roads on the outskirts of the city, dotted with charred armored vehicles, are just as many remnants of the very violent fighting that took place there. The country’s second city, stormed by Russian troops in the early days of the invasion, was heavily bombed, forcing much of the population to flee. But as relative calm sets in, more and more citizens are tempted to make a comeback.

A destroyed Russian tank.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Jean-François Bélanger

Oleksandr and Lyudmila Nishcheta even go so far as to venture beyond the city limits. Because this retired couple has a house in Vil’Khiva, about fifteen kilometers east of Kharkov. The journey there is riddled with pitfalls.

The checkpoints of the Ukrainian army are numerous and at each of them the soldiers are multiplying the warnings: the situation is still fluid and changing; the area is still occasionally bombed; retirees should understand that they go there at their own risk. Soon the rows of ruined houses on either side of the road confirm that the fighting didn’t just destroy military targets.

Portrait of Oleksandr and Lyudmila.

Oleksandr and Lyudmila in front of the remains of their home in the Kharkiv region.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Jean-François Bélanger

But when they arrive in front of their house, they are greeted by a concert of playful barking. Rigik, the neighbor’s dog they thought was dead, runs over to Lyudmila and covers her with saliva with big licks of his tongue. Overwhelmed with emotion, the sixty-year-old hugs and strokes him with relief, repeating reassuring words to him.

But once through the gate of the property, a sad sight awaits them. A shell dug a huge crater in the yard and destroyed the facade. Oleksandr sighs as he walks over the rubble and frantically rubs his head, repeating aloud to himself: It’s a nightmare, it’s terrible. Then he says to us: This is what Russian peace looks like.

His wife joins him and shares his grief. They observe the facade in silence, then make a friendly sign to the site of the two Ukrainian soldiers standing guard nearby. This is our country, our homelandremembers Oleksandr resolutely. And no one will force us out of here. His wife nods. She notes that her sense of belonging to the Ukrainian people has skyrocketed since the February 24 invasion.

We are strong. And no one has made us so strong and so united as Vladimir Putin himself. Nobody.

A quote from Lyudmila Nishcheta
Oleksandr and Lyudmila behind a charred van.

Oleksandr and Lyudmila observe the material damage after the passage of the Russian army.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Emilio Avalos

Like most residents of the Kharkiv region, the retired couple have Russian as their mother tongue. But when she sees the traces of the presence of Russian soldiers in her house, she feels torn between hatred and contempt.

She is particularly disgusted that Russian speakers like her have served as a pretext for Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine. Peaceful Russian soldiers supposedly came to liberate usshe said ironically. Free us from what? I don’t know. At the moment, they have largely liberated us from the Russian language.

One last sentence she chooses to say slowly and in Ukrainian to emphasize its meaning. Like them, many Russian-speaking Ukrainians are now ashamed of speaking their native language and are now choosing to speak Ukrainian. As they leave, Oleksandr and Lyudmila hear from the neighbors, the ones who stayed behind. Such as Vasiliy Orinchin, 87, who did not leave his home during the occupation. The slender silhouette, the arched back, the old man quotes an old proverb to explain himself.

Portrait of Vasily.

Vasiliy did not leave his home during the Russian offensive.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Jean-François Bélanger

Where I was born, where I was baptized, there I will die.

A quote from Vasiliy Orinchin, resident of Vil’hivka

The man says that a few weeks ago he saw the Russian soldiers on the street in front of his house while looking out the window. He takes us behind his humble home to show us the memory that we left him.

An unexploded rocket is stuck in the earth, conspicuously less than a meter from the wall of his house. He says it fell in the middle of the night, that it woke him up, because the walls were shaking. They were bombing and it fell on my househe concludes just before adding, with a smile in his eyes: Me, I didn’t ask for anything.

Vasiliy vows to stay at home until Ukrainian deminers visit. He also feels much safer since the Russian soldiers withdrew from the surrounding towns and villages.

Ukrainian soldiers with artillery pieces.

Ukrainian soldiers prepare to attack Russian positions.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Jean-François Bélanger

A dull rumble resounds through the village. Two heavy artillery pieces fall through Vil’khivka. The 203mm self-propelled guns suddenly stop in a field and position themselves, side by side. A swarm of operators immediately scatters to charge them up and point them in the right direction.

Two thunders soon rip through the sky as a huge fireball bursts from the barrels of the cannons. The operation only took a few minutes. Soon, after the shots, the gunners began to pack their things. Because these old-design weapons, a legacy of the Soviet era, are vulnerable to counter-attacks. Ukrainian soldiers therefore rely on mobility and atypical firing configurations to thwart the enemy.

Speed ​​of action and great knowledge of the terrain are essential assets in the eyes of Kran, the commander of the special unit called Tuman, which means fog. The tall man with the full beard looks like a somewhat good-natured grandfather. But the iron gaze we see behind his ballistic glasses and the Kalashnikov he carries over his shoulder leave no doubt about his determination.

We are all convinced that we are going to win, he confirms, pointing at his men with a wave of his hand. He evokes the over-rigidity of the Russian army’s command structure, the problems of supply, logistics and the low morale of its troops as so many factors that aggravate the enemy and favor Kiev’s troops on the ground. But according to him, it is the unwavering motivation of the Ukrainian fighters that makes the difference.

We fight to protect our country, our motherland, our women, our children, our future. There is no better motivation.

A quote from Kran, Commander, Tuman Special Forces Unit, Ukrainian Army

His right arm, nom de guerre Westtakes us to the adjacent bunker to show us his collection of trophies† A series of weapons left behind by fleeing Russian troops are lined up on the concrete wall. RPG7 rocket launchers, machine gun duchkaa gun sniper DragunovGifts from Russiahe says ironically.

The NLAW worn on the shoulder.

The NLAW gift from the British.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Emilio Avalos

But it was another gift, this one from Britain, that proved most useful on the battlefield. Orest shows us the NLAW prominently displayed in the bunker, a very modern anti-tank missile launcher, which destroyed many Russian tanks.

The officer is taking the opportunity to appeal to Western countries to provide the Ukrainian military with more modern weapons and specialized equipment such as night vision goggles. According to him, the only way to quickly end the conflict and thus reduce the loss of life.

A cruel and futile war whose end Oleksandr and Lyudmila eagerly await, referring to the heavy toll; the tens of thousands of victims and the millions of people who are now homeless.

When he leaves the half-destroyed house, feeling his wife’s sadness and despair, Oleksandr embraces her and whispers in her ear: We’ll rebuild everything, don’t worry.

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