Spirits are high in Kharkiv as Ukraine drives back Russian troops, says resident
Maria Avdeeva says people are breathing a sigh of relief — but they're not out of the woods yet
Nearly three months ago, Maria Avdeeva spoke to CBC on what she called the "most awful" day of her life.
It was Feb. 24, the day that Russia invaded Ukraine. The Kharkiv resident told As It Happens she was awoken by Russian shelling — a sound that would soon become all too familiar.
Ukraine's second largest city has faced heavy bombardment during the war. Buildings have been flattened, and streets are left charred. Many residents have been killed, wounded or forced from their homes.
Avdeeva, a research director at the European Expert Association, has remained in Kharkiv throughout the war. She spoke to As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan on Monday. Here is part of their conversation.
Maria, what's your reaction to the news that Ukrainian forces have pushed back invading forces from Kharkiv?
It brings much hope and ... I would say, the feeling of happiness to me and to people in Kharkiv.
The city was under constant Russian shelling for almost three months. From the beginning of the war, there was no day when the city wasn't shelled by the Russian troops.
And now we have this moment when, for several days, the city is in silence and the fear [that] the bombardment might start [at] any moment is disappearing.
We still hear air sirens quite often, but generally the mood is very high.
Can you still hear shelling?
Yes. In the city, I could hear the outgoing [shelling] because the Ukrainian artillery is firing at the Russian troops, trying to get them as far from the city as possible.
And if I go to the outskirts — or out of the city to the suburbs, the nearby villages — then you could clearly hear the sounds of the fights, the outgoing and incoming shelling, because Russian troops are really fighting back, and they don't just abandon their positions.
How would you describe what life has been like in Kharkiv since Russia invaded?
Life was difficult because Russian troops were constantly shelling residential areas and targeting civilian infrastructure.
For example, [in an area of Kharkiv] called Saltivka, before the war, 500,000 people were living there. Almost all of them were forced to leave the city because it was not possible to stay because everything was destroyed. They didn't have people there. They didn't have any water supply, any electricity, especially during the winter months. And winter was really cold this year.
And many of [those] people still live in the metro, in the underground, because they decided not to go, but they cannot stay in their apartments anymore because they are destroyed.
And people, elderly people, have gone through a very difficult period. And still, they are struggling because it's hard for them to get supplies of food. And volunteers are helping them with that a lot.
Maria, what has been the worst day for you?
The most difficult moments for me [are] when I go and speak to the people who are suffering because of these bombardments — people in the hospital.
I was talking to a woman. She was outside on the streets queuing … to get water. And then Russian shelling started … and she was hit [and] wounded in this attack. And one of the [pieces of shrapnel] is still in her leg because doctors were not able to get it out because it's too deep inside. And she was [saying] how she was outside and two people that were staying in line with her, they were killed, and she saw them. It happened [in front of] her eyes.
Do you know people who have died?
Not personally. None of my colleagues or friends have died.
But, of course, I have been to the funeral of the people who were killed. And I have been with one of the media groups in the morgue [with the bodies of] all these civilians. Because the problem during the winter time was that the relatives of the people were gone, and there was no one who could pick up the bodies from the morgue. And they were just lying there waiting for community services to take care of the bodies and bury them.
Why did you decide to stay in Kharkiv?
I saw my mission in combating Russian disinformation by providing the truth about the situation in the city, and also raising awareness amongst the international community and people throughout the world about the war crimes committed by Russian troops in Kharkiv.
Did you ever think about leaving?
I was thinking that I might leave if there will be a moment when Russian troops will come into the city [and] get control over the city physically.
There was several times that they attempted to do so. It didn't work out for them.
How much sleep have you been getting?
Hard to say. I think usually like five hours a day. No more than that. So, yeah, not much.
You said that there's a feeling of relief right now with the news that the Russians are starting to pull back and that the shells, they're further and further away now. Do you think that your city is going to be able to recover, to heal from all of this?
I do hope so. But it will take much time. Because there [is a lot of] destruction … and that means that there will be a lot of time and effort and money needed to rebuild all of this.
And then, still, the city is too close to the border with Russia. And until this war is over, the city will be under constant threat of new attacks or new offensive operations by Russia.
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.