In Kharkiv, the bodies pile up, testifying to the human toll of the war
“We need body bags,” said morgue director Yuriy Nikolaevich. Or at least plastic wrap, he said. There was nothing left to use to return the dead to their families: “There are no more coffins in the city.
The grotesque scene was a small glimpse into the human toll of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine. Just 25 miles from the country’s eastern border with Russia, Ukraine’s second-largest city was an early target of Moscow’s advance.
But failing in attempts to enter the city for the past three weeks, Russian forces have rained down a daily hail of artillery, missile and rocket fire, which appear to hit civilian neighborhoods indiscriminately. The Washington Post also witnessed the use of cluster bombs in the area around the main downtown market.
Officials here said at least 250 civilians have died, but that’s not a full toll and countless more lie buried under the rubble. It is a grim indicator of the trajectory that may be in store for other Ukrainian cities resisting Russian forces.
“It’s hell,” said Maxim Chicholik, 41, as he waited outside the morgue to collect the body of his 48-year-old brother, who he said was beheaded and slain. had his arm blown off by shelling as he went to the store to buy food for his family. His brother’s wife and children had just fled the country that day.
Even in the freezing temperatures, the stench of dead bodies in the nearby yard had begun to sour the air on the street outside.
Before the war, Kharkiv was known as the intellectual capital of Ukraine. With more universities than any other city in the country, it was teeming with hundreds of thousands of students. It was a scientific and cultural center. But today, the 19th-century architectural gems at its center have been ravaged by missile strikes. Burst water pipes leave a cascade of icicles framing blown windows.
Parts of the city were strangely devoid of people. About half the population, some 700,000 people, have fled, according to the regional administration.
At a checkpoint on a desolate, rutted road leading into town – one of the few remaining safe passages in and out – a Ukrainian Territorial Defense soldier warned of what lay ahead.
“Be careful,” he said. “The sky is on fire there.”
Regional Governor Oleh Synyehubov met for an on-the-go interview on one of the city’s streets, fearing that staying in one place too long could provoke a Russian strike. There are around 70 hits on the city from projectiles, including rockets and artillery a day, he said.
Even in the city center, the sound of artillery can thunder so fiercely that it echoes off the ground and buildings. After heavy shelling on Monday night, a recently depleted cluster bomb rack was stuck in the pavement outside the city’s central market.
Due to the indiscriminate nature of cluster munitions, more than 100 countries have banned their use under an international treaty. But neither Ukraine nor Russia are signatories.
“Can it still explode?” asked a worried elderly woman as she nervously walked past. But the carrier had already scattered its submunitions on nearby streets, where firefighters worked to douse the flames from its explosion.
Multiple-launch rockets known as Grads, which fire volleys of unguided projectiles, have also been used regularly against Kharkiv residents. Grad is the Russian word for hail. And hail falls every night.
“They want to destroy as much as they can,” said Kharkiv police chief Volodymyr Tymoshenko, whose teams are trying to secure all unexploded cluster munitions after they fell. “Putin is like a madman who cuts flowers in the street just because he doesn’t like them.”
The exact civilian death toll in Kharkiv is difficult to determine. Kharkiv police say 250 civilians have been killed, including 13 children, since the start of the war. But the police tally only includes those the force documents itself.
Nikolaevich said the morgue doesn’t count. “We don’t keep statistics,” he said. “We don’t have a free hand. We will count when peace comes.
But the black body bags in the yard number at least 1,125. The morgue, one of four in the city, sees around 50 bodies a day, down from 15 or 20 a day before the war and the coronavirus pandemic , Nikolaevich said. But that includes some who died of natural causes. Military dead are generally not brought to his morgue. Ukraine does not publish figures on its military deaths.
Whatever the official toll, everyone agrees that there are still countless bodies to be recovered.
“When we see completely destroyed buildings, there are whole families in those buildings,” said Synyehubov, the governor. “To say who is or is not left under the rubble is too difficult.”
Volodymyr Horbikov, head of the city’s emergency service, knows this well. His team excavated the rubble of a new strike in the center of the city. Three bodies had already been removed and his team was searching the rubble for two or three more.
He thought they were somewhere in the remains of a basement bar. A picture of Edgar Allan Poe on the wall was spattered with mud from the force of the explosion.
“We found one here under the fridge,” Horbikov said. It is unclear whether the dead were civilians or Home Defense personnel. Many were civilians until just three weeks ago when they took up arms to defend their country. Wednesday was his second day of removing bodies from the building.
They had to cancel their job on Tuesday because the shelling made the job too dangerous. But in the hardest hit areas north of the city, they could barely work.
Even up the street at the regional administration office, which was damaged in a huge explosion on March 1, the bodies of all the victims had yet to be recovered.
“There are still bodies under there,” said Oleh Supereka, a Home Defense volunteer who was in the building when the explosion occurred, pointing to a pile of rubble at the end of a hallway.
The coats of workers who never came out still hung near the dilapidated entrance to the building.
Even though going out was a gamble, people still ventured into the streets in search of food daily. With reduced incomes and scarce supplies, people lined up to receive free aids for nine or 10 hours. Some still left empty-handed.
Oksana Levchenko, 38, waited half past five on Wednesday, starting at 6 a.m., but there were only diapers left when she arrived at the front. She was hoping for food.
The sound of explosions rumbled in the distance. Those who can spend much of their time underground, with thousands of encampments at metro stations across the city.
Lena, 43, had already fled the war once, leaving Donetsk in 2015 as Ukrainian forces battled Russian-backed separatists. The Post only identifies him by his first name for security reasons.
She didn’t expect to need to run away again and still thinks about it, but she said she had nowhere to go. “They bring panic,” she said, sitting in the basement of a building where she now sleeps with her 11-year-old daughter, Taissya. Lena sometimes goes home to feed the cat, but Taissya is too scared to be in the apartment.
The girl was sitting on a mattress in a corner of the basement, drawing manga. She gets scared when the shelling gets loud. A dozen residents of neighboring apartments also live in the basement. There were more, but many left.
The water supply was cut after a strike the previous night.
Borys Shelahurov, 27, who volunteers by carrying food and medicine to those in need and who also sleeps in the basement, said he thought they should have enough supplies for a few weeks . But everyone was nervous about what might happen.
“We don’t want another Grozny here,” he said, referring to Putin’s near total destruction of the Chechen capital in 1999. “But we don’t want to live in Russia.”
For now, the front lines are holding. Melnik Yuri, 47, who serves in the Territorial Defense Forces on the outskirts of the city, was at the morgue to retrieve documents recording the death of his 80-year-old grandmother. His body had been picked up a day earlier and buried, but he had not been able to get away from the battle to attend the funeral.
She was killed by a bombardment as she tried to take refuge in the metro station. His own apartment was destroyed, he said.
“When the war is over, I will have nowhere to go,” he said. “That’s why I will hold out until the end.”
Anastacia Galouchka contributed to this report.