Ukrainians cling to life on the front line: ‘We are patriots’

KHARKIV, Ukraine — Viktor Lazar shares his war-side balcony with a pair of binoculars and a tiny orange snake, his only companion in an apartment that seems to be on the edge of the world.

Opera binoculars, more a joke, are hardly necessary – the front line is visible without them. The rumble of Russian and Ukrainian bombardment is still audible, though Lazar claims not to notice it. Under its balcony is a crater, one among many others. In the next street, a Grad rocket launcher passes.

Lazar estimates that the Russians are only 10 kilometers (6 miles) away.

As the war enters its fifth month along deadly rifts in eastern and southern Ukraine, Lazar and his few neighbors in the sprawling and broken neighborhood of Saltivka in Kharkiv represent an unresolved life in which many are trapped. New communities are told to flee. Not all do.

As towns and villages around the capital of Kyiv began to rebuild after the Russians withdrew months ago and world powers discuss a long-term recovery, others in eastern Ukraine still can not sleep soundly.

Soviet-era apartment buildings in Saltivka once housed half a million people, one of the largest neighborhoods in Europe. Now there may only be dozens left. Some buildings are blackened, while others crumble slab by slab.

“This is my house,” says Lazar, 37, who is shirtless in the summer heat, revealing a machine gun tattoo on his right arm. He proclaims that he is ready to fight the Russians, but his only weapons are kitchen knives.

A broken guitar hangs on the wall of his apartment. Lazar, a musician, dreams of organizing a provocative concert in the resonant streets of Saltivka. In better days, he played to crowds in the squares of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which is showing signs of a post-war rebound – despite being only a short distance from the border with Russia.

Saltivka, by comparison, is almost dead. Past a last metro station dedicated to heroes, all activity stops. Shops are closed and apartment buildings are gaping with broken windows. In one, a table-sized piece of concrete twists slowly over a shred of rebar, waiting to fall.

Tall grass rises above abandoned playgrounds dotted with fallen, ripe cherries. The soldiers’ trenches are bare. In a few apartments that have now been gutted, the laundry is still hanging up.

From time to time, a car creaks along the rubble. This could bring in movers trying to salvage furniture or volunteers bringing in help.

Outside Lazar’s building, people have assembled a modest kitchen with a bell mounted to ring when the day’s food arrives. Near the teapot on a woodstove, ammo crates now contain slowly stale bread.

Some electricity came back, but no running water. Lazar leans into a basement where water is still gurgling for bathing. Two middle-aged women emerge from the darkness, into the fresh air, and walk away.

But life is less of an adventure for those who have no options. Pavel Govoryhov, 84, sits at the entrance of a building now as fragile as he is. He has two canes handy. For four months, he lived in the basement before returning to his apartment. He tenses at sudden noises. Just talking about his fights makes him cry.

“My children don’t help me,” he says. “Why do I need such a life?”

In time, he knows, winter will return mercilessly to unheated buildings.

The Russians could do the same. More than 600 civilians have been killed in the Kharkiv region north of Donetsk since the invasion, some in Saltiva. Ukrainian authorities alleged that the Russians had used banned cluster bombs.

Communities on the outskirts of Kharkiv are still in uncertain hands, which is believed to be part of Moscow’s strategy to keep Ukrainian troops so distracted they cannot be sent to places like Donetsk where the Russians are eating away at entire towns.

“You don’t wish that on anyone,” says 14-year-old Bogdan Netsov, who lives with his family in an apartment with drawn curtains.

In another building in Saltivka, a sign scrawled on the stairs warns potential occupants that “if you enter, you will get killed”.

This is where Viktor Shevchenko still lives, although he needs the light from his cellphone to see through its dim light during the day.

“I speak for the whole world,” he says, unshaven and invigorated with tea. “We will repel Russia. Because we are patriots and we live on our land.

Dishes lie broken in his destroyed kitchen. A religious symbol of his Orthodox faith is burned. A clock hanging on the wall, like the neighborhood around it, has stopped working.

Shevchenko grabs the clock and winds it up.

“It’s rolling,” he said with a hint of pride. “It turns.”

His legs tottering, he rediscovers the silence of Saltivka, the ticking of the clock in his hands.

Mstyslav Chernov from Kharkiv, Ukraine contributed.

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