The roads on the outskirts of the city, strewn with charred armored vehicles, are as many vestiges of the very violent combats which took place there. Stormed by Russian forces in the first days of the invasion, the country’s second city was heavily bombarded, which caused a large part of its population to flee. But as relative calm sets in, more and more citizens are tempted by a comeback.
Oleksandr and Lyudmila Nishcheta even go so far as to venture beyond the city limits. Because this retired couple owns a house in Vil’khiva, about fifteen kilometers east of Kharkiv. The journey to get there is strewn with pitfalls.
The checkpoints of the Ukrainian army are numerous and, at each of them, the soldiers multiply the warnings: the situation is still fluid and changing; the area is still subject to occasional bombardment; retirees should understand that they go there at their own risk. Quickly, the rows of houses in ruins on each side of the road confirm that the clashes did not only destroy military targets.
But when they arrive in front of their house, they are greeted by a concert of playful barking. Rigik, the neighbours’ dog whom they thought was dead, runs up to Lyudmila and covers her with saliva with great licks of his tongue. Overwhelmed by emotion, the sixty-year-old, relieved, embraces and caresses him, repeating reassuring words to him.
But once through the gate of the property, a sad sight awaits them. A shell dug a huge crater in the garden and devastated the facade. Oleksandr heaves a sigh as he walks over the debris and rubs his head frantically, repeating to himself out loud:
It’s a nightmare, it’s terrible. Then he says to us:
This is what Russian peace looks like.
His wife joins him and shares his distress. They watch the facade in silence, then wave friendly to the two Ukrainian soldiers who stand guard in the neighborhood.
This is our land, our motherlandrecalls Oleksandr with determination.
And no one is going to force us out of here. His wife nods. She notes that her sense of belonging to the Ukrainian people has skyrocketed since the February 24 invasion.
” We are strong. And no one has made us so strong and so united as Vladimir Putin himself. Nobody. »
Like most residents of the Kharkiv region, the retired couple have Russian as their mother tongue. But seeing the traces of the presence of Russian soldiers in her house, she feels torn between hatred and contempt.
She is especially disgusted that Russian speakers like her have served as a pretext for Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine.
Peaceful Russian soldiers supposedly came to liberate usshe said ironically.
Free us from what? I do not know. At the moment, they have mostly freed us from the Russian language.
A last sentence that she chooses to pronounce slowly and in Ukrainian to accentuate its significance. Like her, many Russian-speaking Ukrainians are now ashamed of speaking their mother tongue and choose to speak Ukrainian now. As they leave, Oleksandr and Lyudmila hear from the neighbors, those who stayed behind. Like Vasiliy Orinchin, 87, who did not move from his home throughout the occupation. The frail silhouette, the arched back, the old man quotes an old proverb to explain himself.
” Where I was born, where I was baptized, that’s where I will die. »
The man tells us that he saw the Russian soldiers in the street in front of his house a few weeks ago while looking out the window. He takes us behind his modest home to show us the
memory that we left him.
An unexploded rocket is stuck in the dirt, prominently less than a meter from the wall of his house. He says that it fell in the middle of the night, that it woke him up, because the walls shook.
They were bombing and it fell on my househe concludes simply before adding, a smile in his eyes:
Me, I didn’t ask anything.
Vasiliy swears to stay at home until the visit of Ukrainian deminers. He also feels much safer since the Russian soldiers withdrew from the surrounding towns and villages.
A dull rumble is heard through the village. Two heavy tracked artillery pieces charge through Vil’khivka. The 203mm motorized guns suddenly stop in a field and position themselves, side by side. A swarm of Operators immediately spreads around to charge them and point them in the right direction.
Two claps of thunder soon rip through the sky as a huge ball of fire erupts from the muzzles of the cannons. The operation only lasted a few minutes. Quickly, after the shots, the gunners began to pack up. Because these weapons of old design, a legacy of the Soviet era, are vulnerable to counter-attacks. Ukrainian soldiers therefore rely on mobility and atypical firing configurations to thwart the enemy.
The speed of action and the great knowledge of the terrain are essential assets in the eyes of Kran, the commander of the special unit called Tuman, which means fog. The tall guy with the full beard looks like a somewhat good-natured grandfather. But the iron gaze that we perceive behind his ballistic glasses and the Kalashnikov he carries over his shoulder leave no doubt about his determination.
We are all convinced that we will win, he confirms, pointing to his men with a wave of his hand. He evokes the too great rigidity of the chain of command of the Russian army, its problems of supply and logistics and the low morale of its troops as so many factors weighing down the enemy and favoring the troops of kyiv on the ground. But, according to him, it is the unfailing motivation of the Ukrainian fighters that makes the difference.
” We fight to protect our land, our motherland, our women, our children, our future. There is no better motivation. »
His right arm, nom de guerre
Westtakes us to the adjacent bunker to show us his collection of
trophies. Lined up on the concrete wall are several weapons left behind by routed Russian troops. RPG7 rocket launchers, machine gun
duchkaa gun sniper
Gifts from Russiahe says, ironically.
But it was another gift, this one from Britain, that proved most useful on the battlefield. Orest shows us the NLAW which sits prominently in the bunker, a very modern anti-tank rocket launcher, which has destroyed many Russian tanks.
The officer took the opportunity to launch an appeal to Western countries, asking them to provide the Ukrainian army with more modern weapons and specialized equipment, such as night sights. Only way, according to him, to quickly put an end to the conflict and thus reduce the loss of human life.
A cruel and senseless war whose end Oleksandr and Lyudmila are impatiently awaiting, referring to its heavy toll; the tens of thousands of victims and the millions of people now homeless.
When leaving the half-destroyed house, feeling his wife’s sadness and despair, Oleksandr embraces her and whispers in her ear:
We’ll rebuild everything, don’t worry.