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Story Publication logo March 30, 2022

Civilians Endure Intense Suffering as Russian Shelling Reduces Kharkiv to ‘a Smoking Ruin’

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Kharkiv near the Russian border in northeastern Ukraine is majority ethnic-Russian and the nation's second-largest city. Now, many of its people have fled thunderous Russian airstrikes and artillery that have reduced this Ukrainian center of culture, learning and industry to a shell of its former self. Special correspondent Jack Hewson and filmmaker Ed Ram report from the embattled city.


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Judy Woodruff: And now to the city of Kharkiv near the Russian border in Northeastern Ukraine. It is majority ethnic Russian, and is Ukraine's second-largest city, or at least it was. Now many of its people have fled thunderous Russian airstrikes and artillery that have reduced this Ukrainian center of culture, learning, and industry to a shell of its former self.

Special correspondent Jack Hewson and filmmaker Ed Ram have been in Kharkiv for more than a week, and they sent us this report.

And a warning: Images and accounts in this story may be upsetting.

Jack Hewson: As the war in Ukraine burns on, northeastern Kharkiv has been reduced to a smoking ruin, building after building crushed in by shells, peppered with shrapnel, a residential district reduced to a wasteland, less than a mile from the front line, those that remain are dependent on volunteers like Oleksandr and Zoia.

They bring food to those who cannot leave. But it's dangerous work. Here in Saltivka district, people fear what comes from above. The area has taken the brunt of Russia's daily shelling. Thousands have left.

Man: She welcomes us.

Jack Hewson: For those that stay, life has moved underground.

Woman (through translator): The VIP ward.

Jack Hewson: Fourteen people now live in this basement hiding in fear night and day.

Alexei, Kharkiv Resident (through translator): Sometimes, the shelling becomes so hard that the building shakes.

Galina, Kharkiv Resident (through translator): We got so scared. Even the floor in the basement starts shaking heavily.

Alexei (through translator): Did you see the totally destroyed building over here? That's how it's been.

Jack Hewson: Despite being ethnically Russian himself, Dmitri has only ironic asides for the onslaught of Russian artillery.

Dmitri, Kharkiv Resident (through translator): It's very strange how the Russians try to protect Russians in Ukraine with shelling, bombs, and so on.

Better to do this in their homeland, in Russia. Before this war, as a Russian, I had absolutely no problems in Ukraine. But now I have been living in the basement for a month.

Jack Hewson: The endless booms fray the nerves, but some still risk living above ground. Even after a near-miss, Vitali remains here in his apartment. It's his only source of electricity and heat.

Man: He said he was smoking right in time when bomb passed. And he was smoking right there.

Jack Hewson: Are you not worried, and there's so many bangs around here, that it could happen again?

Vitali, Kharkiv Resident (through translator): How can I explain? We just want to stay alive.

Jack Hewson: So, what happened after that? Where did he go? Has he stayed here ever since then?

Vitali (through translator): We will hold on as long as it takes. There is no other way out.

Jack Hewson: Russian shells have shown little discrimination between military targets and people's homes. As a result, Kharkiv's hospitals have been swamped with civilian casualties. At least 117 children have died across Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict.

Five-year-old Vladimir was almost one of them.

Stanislav Baklanov, Father of Vladimir: He was unconscious for seven days in reanimation, but you see his legs and his back is still not as good as we would like.

Jack Hewson: Vladimir was shot in the head by unknown assailants as his family drove away from their home. He was referred for emergency treatment to Dr. Duhofskoy immediately after the attack.

Dr. Alexei Duhofskoy, Physician (through translator): He received a severe open injury with the penetration of fragments into the brain, and he was taken to the hospital in serious condition. We immediately performed an operation. For the first 10 days, his condition was severe.

Jack Hewson: In the course of Vladimir's surgery, two titanium plates were used to reconstruct his skull.

Outside, Vladimir's aunt and uncle appeared to be grieving. There were details of the case his father didn't want to discuss in front of his son. In the corridor, he told us why.

Stanislav Baklanov: Because, my wife, was killed.

Jack Hewson: Vladimir is yet to learn that his mother died of gunshot wounds as they fled heavy bombardment in their home district of northern Kharkiv.

Stanislav Baklanov: Maybe, I don't know, 500 meters from our home, and our car was shot at from automatic gun. These bullet holes, what we see, but, also, it goes through — just through the car.

Jack Hewson: Stanislav was away on business in Kazakhstan at the time. It is unclear who shot his wife and son, perhaps nervous Ukrainian soldiers, perhaps Russian infiltrators.

Who do you blame for what happened to your wife and your son?

Stanislav Baklanov: I don't know. I don't know.

But what I know for sure is that my wife was killed, and my son is injured, and it happened because of Russians came to our land.

Jack Hewson: The man's lost his wife. His son's severely injured, and he's got to find a new place to live and somehow to survive.

And it's a genuinely harrowing story of loss, and one of hundreds, if not thousands, in Ukraine right now.

To avoid a similar fate, at least two-thirds of Kharkiv's population have fled. The trains continue to railroad Ukraine's displaced population south and west, while more than four million have crossed out of the country.

Lubov Mikhailovna has decided it's time to go. Her village east of the city has been occupied and destroyed by Russian forces. She's been hiding in a basement for a month, without gas, electricity, or water.

Lubov Mikhailovna , Displaced Ukrainian (through translator): I never thought this could happen to us. My father died on the front in World War II. My grandfather also died there, first one and the second one.

And our uncle also died in the war. We thought that we will live a happy life. Our childhood was pretty nice. We never, ever thought that this could happen in our lives. This is the biggest shock in our life.

Jack Hewson: Now in its second month, the exodus goes on, and until a peace settlement is reached, Ukraine's shell-shocked people will continue to pay the highest price of war.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jack Hewson in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Judy Woodruff: Very hard to watch.

And a note: Our coverage of the war in Ukraine is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

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