“Kill them all”. How Russia is destroying Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city
Kharkiv… one of the gems of Eastern Ukraine, the country’s second-largest city. Founded 378 years ago. A center of culture, education, and industry. A city of young people, cocktail bars, historical monuments, theaters, musical halls, and universities.
In 2022, it was a hub of film festivals, physics research, and the capital of Ukrainian fantasy and science-fiction literature. On 24-28 February, it became a place of fire, death, and ruin brought by the Russian army.
According to Russian propaganda, since it was populated by 1.5 million primarily Russian-speaking Ukrainians, it needed to be “liberated”. That liberation came in the form of dozens of rockets, bombs, and mortar shells that have taken hundreds of lives so far.
Here is how Kharkiv looked before the war, its universities, parks, and squares:
Kharkiv after Russia’s brutal military aggression:
24-27 February. Russian troops and artillery attack the Kharkiv region
Kharkiv and the nearby towns wake up to the sound of air raid sirens. 4 explosions are heard in the town of Pisochne. Residents of Balakliya report a column of Russian armored vehicles moving towards the city, marked by the ‘Z’ symbol. A day later, Russian special forces are seen on the streets of Kharkiv.
The ground incursion in the city is easily repelled by the Ukrainian defenders… but once the Russian forces realize Kharkiv won’t surrender, the bombings begin.
28 February. The shelling starts, Kharkiv in flames
In the first hours of the war launched by Russia against Ukraine, Kharkiv became the target of massive and merciless artillery shelling. BM-21 Grad systems that can fire 40 rockets at a rate of 2 per second covered Kharkiv in flame and rubble.
Hundreds of people were injured and dozens died in the first days of Russia’s attack. 7 deaths and 40 wounded were confirmed in the very first hours. From day one, apartment houses, schools, and kindergartens (in short — civilian buildings) were the primary targets.
1 March. Massive attacks on infrastructure, homes, and citizens
Rocket artillery keeps demolishing Kharkiv. A massive explosion takes place at the Kharkiv City Administration building. The 21-years-old volunteer and student of the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv Yulia Zdanovska became one of the victims of this terrible tragedy.
The girl had studied at the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics. Also, she had been a teacher and taught computer science and mathematics in a village in the Dnipropetrovsk region. And one of the last Yulia’s messages was: “Thanks, but I will stay in Kharkiv till our victory.” She died with the dozens of other people.
Russian jets purposefully bomb electrical power plants and water pumps, leaving entire districts without light and water. Artillery smashes apartment buildings, a dormitory of the Kharkiv Aviation University, the Opera Theater, and the Philharmonic Music Hall.
21 more people are killed and 112 injured in the span of one day.
2 March. Shelling of Kharkiv University, police department and TV tower
Aiming at the building of Ukraine’s Security Service in the city, Russian artillery misses and devastates the Sociology department of the Kharkiv National University. The building catches on fire. An aviation strike hits the city’s TV tower, communications go silent.
3 March. Active shelling of towns in Kharkiv region
The Russian army begins using artillery and aviation against towns in Kharkiv region. A cruise missile hits an apartment building in Izium, killing 8 people in one strike. The Russian army is trying to use a campaign of terror to suppress local resistance and advance on the ground with tanks and troops.
5 March. Shelling of Saltivka residential district
Saltivka, a purely residential district in northern Kharkiv is bombed by Russian aviation. 10 apartment buildings are heavily damaged and many catch fire. 35 firemen are dispatched to save the local residents, but many buildings are still under Russian shelling and cannot be reached. People are buried under brick and concrete.
“Throughout the night one young girl kept waking up her mum. She’d sit up crying screaming: ‘Mom, I’m scared, please save me, save me now.’ She only calmed down by the morning after her mum had sat holding her all through the night.” — a woman from Saltivka describing her night in a bomb shelter. (BBC)
6-8 March. Bombing of apartment buildings
Russian jets drop more bombs on Kharkiv’s residential areas, including another communications tower and the Heavenly Hundred Square. At least 12 more people are killed, 200 have been pulled from under the rubble by emergency services.
At this point, the dead are numbered in the dozens, hundreds have been injured, and the damage to the city is extensive. Kharkiv lives in terror of daily bombings and artillery barrages.
9 March. Attempts at a blockade, the battles for Izium
The Russian aggressors are now forcing their way on the ground towards Kharkiv in an attempt to blockade the city and eventually occupy it. Tanks and soldiers are marching through Kharkiv region. The town of Izium becomes the site of battles between the Ukrainian defenders and the Russian invading forces.
Ukrainian troops are successfully defending Kharkiv on the ground. 40,000 people are evacuated from Eastern Ukraine.
10 March. Massive destruction of residential areas
Up to this point, 400 homes and apartment buildings in Kharkiv have been devastated by Russian artillery and aviation. A huge percentage of the city’s residents are forced to live in the city’s subway.
“The most horrible thing was the whistle of jets. I will remember them all my life,” said Mr. Kuzubov, a Kharkiv resident. “They are destroying our historical heritage and our architectural heritage. They want to destroy it all, they want to demoralize people.” (New York Times)
12 March. “Kill them all”. The calculated killing of civilians
The Security Service of Ukraine intercepts Russian radio communications that describe the tactics of the occupying army. “F***ing kill them all,” says one Russian soldier to another, describing the army’s orders to shell and shoot civilian people. The goal is to break Kharkiv’s resistance, force it to surrender through the terror of brutal bombing, and occupy the city.
17 March. Shelling of Kharkiv’s largest market, massive fires
A Russian rocket strike sets fire to Barabashovo, the largest open-air market in Kharkiv. The massive flame engulfs thousands of square meters and spreads to nearby apartment buildings. Locals flee the fire but many still sustain heavy burns. The rescue efforts by emergency services last for hours.
“They are maximizing the terror. They are shelling or bombing random objects [areas and buildings] now,” said Ms. Zubar, a Kharkiv local. “But we would rather die fighting for the city than leave.” (New York Times)
19 March. Russia loses the initial ground battle for Kharkiv
The Head of Kharkiv Regional Administration states that the Russian army has lost the ground battle for Kharkiv. The Ukrainian Army has stopped the advance of Russian troops and tanks. Powerless to occupy the city, the Russian aggressors double down on the shelling of civilian homes.
21 March. Survivor of Nazi camps dies under Russian bombardment
Borys Romanchenko survived several Nazi death camps during World War Two: Buchenwald, Peenemuende, Dora and Bergen-Belsen. Later in his life, became vice-president of the International Buchenwald-Dora Committee.
He was killed by a Russian shell hitting his apartment building in Kharkiv on March 21st.
“A [Russian] shell hit the multi-storey building in which he lived. His apartment burned down. We mourn the loss of a close friend. We wish his son and granddaughter, who brought us the sad news, a lot of strength in these difficult times.” — Buchenwald concentration camp memorial committee.
24 March. A humanitarian aid station is shelled
Russian forces shell a humanitarian aid station that was giving out food to Kharkiv residents. 6 people die on the spot. 15 more are wounded. Russia’s advance on Kharkiv is once again unsuccessful but the aggressors continue their inhuman and murderous shelling of the city’s residential areas.
29 March. Use of banned weapons, shelling of towns in Kharkiv region
Artillery strikes are reaching an inhuman level of brutality. In one day, Kharkiv suffers 59 hits from mortar shells, 180 rocket barrages from multiple-launch systems, and shelling by banned cluster munitions.
Many smaller towns and villages are either under Russian occupation or under heavy artillery fire.
30 March. Thirty-five days of murder and destruction
1292 residential homes, 70 schools, 54 kindergartens, 16 hospitals, and 239 administrative buildings lie in ruins due to Russian bombardment. The shelling continues, Kharkiv is being blockaded from the direction of nearby towns and the Russian border. The Russian occupying army terrorizes the cities and villages in the Kharkiv region.
2 April. The bombing of hospitals
As the merciless bombing of hospitals continues, maternity wards are forced to transfer underground. Many pregnant women have evacuated but 200 still remain in the city. They sleep in corridors of underground shelters, breathe in dusty air and read by the light of their cell phones. Newborn children are cared for by medical staff in horrible makeshift conditions.
3-9 April. Shelling of more residential districts.
Artillery continues to demolish Kharkiv’s streets. The Russian strategy remains consistent: bomb and shell civilian buildings to break the city’s spirit and demoralize Ukrainians. 23 people are injured, including children in the Slobidskyy district of Kharkiv.
The number of people who died is hard to determine, as many are buried under rubble.
10 April. More cluster bombs descend
Russian forces start dropping bombs via parachutes in Kharkiv. Many of these bombs may contain cluster munitions: the bomb or rocket detonates, sending hundreds of smaller explosive fragments at high speed in all directions. Such weapons are banned by international conventions due to the massive death and injury caused specifically to living people.
11 April. More death in Kharkiv, the terror continues
Another day of Russian terror in Kharkiv. 5 more people die, including a child. Firemen continue to pull bodies from under the rubble of ruined apartment buildings. Locals identify them by the smell of death and decay and call the emergency services. Many Kharkiv residents move to the subway, used as a bomb shelter if they can reach it safely. Women, children, and the elderly seek safe spaces underground.
15-17 April. Shelling civilians during Easter
On Friday, Russian artillery strikes Kharkiv once again. Rockets hit a residential district. Explosions erupt in residential homes and at a public park, killing 10 and wounding 40. Among the dead… a 7-month-old baby.
On Sunday, while many in the world are celebrating Easter, the Russian army once again shelled populated areas in Kharkiv. This time, artillery strikes hit the center of the city, killing at least 5 and injuring 13 people.
18 April. Shelling of a children’s playground
On Monday April 18th, Russian artillery hit a children’s playground in a residential district in Kharkiv. Several buildings were damaged and two people died. The senseless and inhuman shelling of Kharkiv by Russians continues. Ukrainian law enforcement is documenting these war crimes.
21 April. Fifty bombings in one day
On Thursday, the Russian army shelled Kharkiv at least 50 times, using nearly everything they had: artillery, rockets, Grad and Smerch systems, and more. Two people were wounded and two more died when an artillery shell landed on their car. 22 small towns and villages in the nearby region are still under Russian occupation… the worst fear is that they are subjected to the same atrocities as Bucha and Irpin.
Kharkiv continues to suffer from this inhuman war. Russian soldiers, jets and bombs make the city bleed and burn. Despite this, Kharkiv’s people still live and fight. They want their land to be free and their skies to be peaceful.
Discover Kharkiv, Ukraine’s cradle of art, science, and architecture, prior to the full-scale invasasion in the documentary series “Cities of freedom”.
Ivan Shovkoplias, сommunications consultant, Ukrainian media volunteer