KHARKIV – The dead Russian soldier’s body was still lying there in the snow where it had been on Friday. The Ukrainian soldiers hadn’t moved it, because of sloth or rage or simple preoccupation with the enemy army doing its best to put them in the same pose, spread-eagled on their backs surrounded by an aura of blood.
This afternoon the fighting was still all outside of the city. We came across the body at a four-way junction with Kharkiv’s ring road on Saturday, arriving at a Ukrainian army position with very little warning shortly after passing a line of civilians waiting to buy food at a grocery store. The road is littered with destroyed vehicles — three burnt-out Russian BTR troop transports, a scuttled Ukrainian KOZAK, the decapitated turret of a tank. The body is of a Russian soldier who tried to break through the Ukrainian lines outside of the city of Kharkiv yesterday and failed. Shortly afterward Tyler Hicks of the New York Times came along and photographed it while it was covered in snow. Now, the snow has melted, exposing the body, but it’s the same one. The soldiers say there are two more in the houses nearby. Before we can look we hear thumps of artillery and have to jump into a trench, sinking up to our ankles in thick, clinging mud. The dirt in Ukraine is the softest and blackest I have ever seen, creating a pure chocolate brown mud when diluted with water or melted snow.
The war in Ukraine has been going on for three full days now. There was Thursday when the first missiles struck and then Friday, when the fear started to set in, and now Saturday. In Kyiv on Saturday civilians marked with bright strips of yellow tape like the wheat fields on the Ukrainian flag are fighting Russians in the streets. They have been instructed to destroy roads and burn forests and shoot at tires in order to make the Russian advance as miserable as it possibly can be. Outside of the city road service workers are taking down street signs so that the Russian tanks get lost. I have been reading up on all of this in the past few hours down here in the garage, because what I am finding is that it is very hard to keep up to date on current events when the entire country is at war.
Every day, though, I learn a little more about the city that I am in. On Friday an IT specialist taught me to appreciate the beauty of Kharkiv’s architecture. On Saturday, the crowds of nervous 20-somethings at the central train station taught me that Kharkiv is a massive college town filled with people from all over the world. There are 38 universities or higher education centers here and an estimated 300,000 students, hundreds of whom are milling about the station looking for trains.
“Really I didn’t think [it would happen]. I was studying, I was reading, I was doing everything normally,” says Jurabeck. Jurabeck is from Uzbekistan and is studying aerospace engineering at Kharkiv’s aviation university. Or at least he was until Thursday. “Yesterday we went to the shelter. I think I already got mental illness! No sleep. My brain is suffering.” He’s smiling and laughing while he casually tells me how his life was completely upended. All his Uzbeck friends crowd around listening, happy for some distraction from waiting and waiting and waiting for a train to come take them away. Some 368,000 people, per the U.N., have fled from Ukraine into other European countries.
Everyone is waiting. There are families with children and young couples and groups of students and old women walking with canes and small gaggles of people who were in crisis before all this began, the drunk or homeless or distressed that are always at train stations wherever you are in the world. All of these people gather in packs on platforms and in the tunnels but it is never completely clear which train is coming and where it is going when it leaves. Many people have pets. Olga, 63, cradles an elderly hairless cat named Simon swaddled head to toe in blankets and scarves, his tiny wrinkled head peeking out like ET in the bike basket. I have never pet a hairless cat before so I rub him gently behind the ear and he leans into it and smiles just like my cat does. His skin is soft like an earlobe. I show Olga a picture of my cat and she coos.
“I just want to get back to my country, see my mom,” Daniel SinJesu, who came to Kharkiv a year ago from Nigeria to attend the national technical university, says on Saturday. “I just don’t wanna be here when it gets worse. Normally I would be ok just staying inside, staying in the bomb shelter but yeah bro…” Daniel trailed off. He said he and his Nigerian friends were heading for Uzgorod and the Moldovan border. Before it got worse.
Daniel got out just in time. Later that evening it got worse. It seems to me that the guests at my hotel have spent more time in the underground car park than they have in the plush rooms above, mistaking the sound of slamming doors for shells and the sound of shells for slamming doors. I know from my research, before the hotel turned off the internet for safety reasons, that Russian troops have been commanded to resume their offensive, that a huge column of tanks is moving from Belgorod towards the border near Kharkiv.
We spend the night in the garage sleeping on disintegrating blocks of padded insulation that is thankfully not fiberglass. At around two a.m. I give up and go sleep on a couch cushion on the floor in the lobby, behind a row of couches and well away from all of the windows. No one has turned the elevator music off so I toss and turn to smooth jazz until sometime past five a.m. when I fall asleep. I wake up at seven on Sunday to one of the hotel security guys nudging my cushion with his boot. He tells me to go back down to the garage and mimes shooting a gun. When I get down there I check my phone and there are reports of Russian soldiers in the middle of the city. The shelling picks up again. We come upstairs after half an hour and huddle in the dark, checking the news on our phones. No one can do any reporting because there are gunfights in the streets but we have no idea where. The street in front of the hotel is calm but you can hear both shells and guns coming from somewhere sort-of-nearby. At some point a little after noon it slows. The news claims that the Ukrainians have won, wrested back control of the city from a Russian incursion, but that there is now a city-wide 24-hour curfew – anyone still out on the streets will be assumed to be a Russian saboteur and could be shot. A group of armed men piles out of a police car a block away and three or four of us poke our heads out of the lobby doors to look at them. They look at us and we look at them and then I decide to go back inside the hotel because when a person with a gun looks at you for long enough it gets a bit uncomfortable.
This is not a particularly comprehensive account of the past two days. I can only tell you what I see when I can move around or read when the internet isn’t out, and what I’m finding is that war often constricts your life into a tiny bubble of small actions that help you manage your personal fear of dying.
We spent most of the day on Sunday in the lobby, devising a new threat assessment method based on the duration and volume of shelling outside. Silence was relaxing — boots off, naps on the couch, perhaps a trip back up to the rooms on upper floors for a shower or change of clothes. Occasional, faint shelling meant you put your shoes back on. Louder shelling meant body armor on and debate over whether or not to go to the car park, hoping that by the time you had finished discussing the shelling would stop. Anything more than that meant a trip back to the patio furniture and insulation pads downstairs. The curfew makes it impossible to do much in the way of reporting or interviews. Eventually I walked over to reception to get new key cards for the room that I have only visited twice in the past day. I asked Igor at the front desk how he was feeling. “It’s… nothing,” he said. “Yesterday maybe I was scared, now I just feel nothing.”
I said that I get it, my stress had peaked this morning and finally broken, allowing me to eat a full meal for the first time since Friday. I asked him how his family was. He says they’re ok, but that earlier they had seen Russians in the street below their house. Igor is sleeping at the hotel because it’s safer, but none of us really sleep. There is not a single person in this country who is well rested. It has only been four days. The hotel has turned the outer lights and internet off again. Now we wait for what the next night brings.