Ukraine’s second city wakes up to war, reports Daniel McLaughlin from Kharkiv

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As Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine awoke to the reality of all-out war with Russia, Larisa and her daughter Yelena sat down to rest for a while on a bench in the center of this university town. . They were weighed down by fatigue and uncertainty, but few belongings: a suitcase, a small backpack and a cat called Chanel.

“The windows started shaking at 5am and I could see and smell the smoke in the distance. We live north of the city, so the Russian border is only about 30 km away,” Larisa says of the first Russian salvoes to hit Ukraine’s second-largest city, home to 1.4 million people.

“We packed our things in 30 minutes. Now we are trying to leave and head west, but we don’t know how or where we will go. We don’t have a car or relatives there.

“The whole building shook,” Yelena recalled of the pre-dawn airstrikes Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed across Ukraine in an attempt to cripple his army’s ability and will to resist his forces.

“Now we want to go because the most important thing is to survive. But whatever happens now, I’m sure we’ll win eventually. Putin has already lost Ukraine, politically and culturally and in other ways.

After the blasts jolted some Kharkivites from their slumber, and calls and messages from friends and family woke others, queues quickly formed at ATMs, supermarkets and at gas stations as people searched for essentials for a quick start or to hide at home and keep up with developments.

“We were woken up by the explosions around 5 a.m., watched the news and saw what was happening, and spoke to our parents to tell them we were fine,” says Liza Grigorenko, who works in IT. with her boyfriend Felix Yevichev.

“Now we’re on our way to buy essential groceries, then we’ll pack a bag just in case and stay home.” We hope for the best that this will all be over soon,” he said.

“We have no intention of leaving at the moment,” adds Liza.

Near Kharkiv’s sprawling Freedom Square, where Ukrainians toppled a towering statue of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin after their 2014 pro-Western revolution, workers boarded up the windows of a restaurant, fearing shells or missiles hit downtown, sending glass and shrapnel flying.

“We feel bad about it,” Albina says, as she walks with her friend Margarita along Kharkiv’s central Sumska Street, which was nearly empty of cars at what would normally be rush hour.

“I heard something around 5 am. It was as if something had fallen in the street or in the yard, but it had to be an explosion. But we’re not going anywhere, we’re staying.

As the distant, low rumble of explosions rolled occasionally over the city center through clear blue skies, some Kharkivites vowed to stick to their normal routines: walking the dog, going to work if possible, visiting elderly parents.

Zhanna Zvereva and Nadezhda Mukhoyan did not open their travel agency on Thursday, but instead met, as they often do, in a downtown park to meditate.

“We come here every day, and today we are meditating for peace,” says Zvereva.

“What Putin is doing is terrible, but we are not afraid and Ukraine is not afraid. This is the end for him, his last agony, and after that he will be taken away,” adds Mukhoyan.

“Of course he won’t go without a fight,” Zvereva said. “But it shows that Putin has already lost. All that remains is violence. Ukraine will triumph and the whole world should know it.

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