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In Ukraine, traces of shortened lives

KHARKIV, Ukraine — A loaf of bread on a park bench, picking up snow. A pool of blood nearby.

These are the traces of two lives lost last week, two people killed while sitting down to share a late lunch or an early dinner, or perhaps just feeding pigeons. No one seemed to know their names.

They died around 5:30 p.m. Sunday afternoon in the southeastern Slobidskyi district of Kharkiv following mortar fire, residents said, describing the victims as an elderly woman and an elderly man. Medium.

It was overcast and cold, and the ambulance arrived quickly.

“I was in the kitchen, turning on the kettle,” said Tetiana Stepanenko, 55, who lives in the building overlooking the park. “Suddenly the windows shook.”

“Then we heard the screams,” she said.

She looked out the fourth-floor window; the bodies were motionless.

Wars often inflict random violence on people simply trying to survive. Civilians—unable or unwilling to flee—are caught between the fighting; ordinary, mundane moments suddenly and brutally become their last.

In Ukraine, in such a short time, the litany of horrors on unsuspecting civilians was particularly pronounced after the invasion of Russia in February, including in particular the victims found bound and murdered in Bucha, a suburb near kyiv. .

So far, the Russians haven’t occupied Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, so there haven’t been the kinds of execution-style killings that have happened in towns near kyiv. Instead, violence comes suddenly and unexpectedly. Kharkiv, which had a pre-war population of around 1.4 million, has been bombarded incessantly since the Russian invasion. Government buildings have been hit by cruise missiles. Cluster bombs saturated the streets. Some residential areas have been turned into post-apocalyptic wastelands.

Apartment complexes are still burning, water is gushing from damaged fire hydrants, and broken buildings are moaning in the wind, their curtains sucked through broken windows like loose sails.

But some parts of the city are intact, such as the Slobidskyi district which was surrounded by the sounds of war but indifferent to its violence until Sunday afternoon. The three mortar shells landed within 50 yards of each other, killing the two on the park bench and creating a chain of L-shaped craters.

The scene, nestled in a network of Soviet-style apartments and mostly closed kiosks, quickly became a neighborhood monument to the randomness of the war, attracting people who had heard neighbors’ whispers and explosions the day before. .

The mothers showed the scarred earth to their children. Young couples visited, looking around and pointing before setting off. Others passed by and shrugged their shoulders.

The pit made by a shell that landed on the sidewalk is the first indicator to passers-by that something unusual has happened here.

The shallow hole is a few centimeters wide and is dug into the cement like a spatter. The gashes point in the direction the shell propelled the shrapnel inside. There’s even some of the deadly metal still in the ground, most of it the size of fish food but sharp enough to cut your fingers.

Much of the war’s casualties are caused by these types of indiscriminate shell strikes. The Ukrainian and Russian military have deployed a huge amount of artillery which is constantly firing at each other. There are rocket launchers capable of saturating an area the size of a football field with explosives. There are howitzers with shells so big they sound like cars driving overhead before screaming at the ground.

A Ukrainian town in the south of the country has lost residents not only to shrapnel, but also to heart attacks from the shelling.

In Kharkiv, emergency medical workers move from neighborhood to neighborhood every day, removing artillery fragments from places like grocery stores and apartment buildings. On Wednesday morning, seven rescuers struggled to remove what looked like a spent Grad rocket that had become lodged in a children’s amusement park, strapping the metal to a maintenance truck in an attempt to dislodge it. In the distance, church bells were soon replaced by anti-aircraft alarms.

Near the sidewalk crater near Slobidskyi Park, there is a damaged candy kiosk. This shell hit where the kiosk wall hits the ground. The metal is flared, its yellow paint reduced to steel.

The more the residents looked, the more they saw: three sedans with flat tires and cracked windows; a shredded sapling; and the results of a third shell that landed in the soft dirt of an adjacent playground, sending shrapnel through a child’s swing and a green slide. The rocker was apparently intact.

Families with children in the neighborhood have mostly fled since the start of the war, leaving the playground unoccupied.

Ms Stepanenko, the neighbor, a friendly and talkative woman, said she ran to the window and looked at the lifeless people next to the playground after the explosions.

She and her fellow townspeople were too scared to go out, she said, so they watched out the windows until the ambulance arrived.

“I asked, ‘Who is it? What is that?’ And I was told, ‘They’re from the sixth floor,'” Ms Stepanenko said. “There was a Sasha on this floor, I don’t see him anymore. Maybe it was him. And the woman, I don’t know.

Residents of the apartment complex were reluctant to speak to reporters, many fearing that the information made public could help the enemy. The idea that the Russians might take over Kharkiv is still a real fear for many who still live in the city. A man on the sixth floor said he knew nothing before quickly closing the door.

One of Ms Stepanenko’s neighbours, Vasily, appeared surprised when approached, convinced that anyone inquiring about the deaths might be pro-Russian agents.

From Ms. Stepanenko’s perspective, the signs of the murderous strike were visible: the bread on the park bench and the pool of blood.

For a few hours, before the pigeons ate some of the bread and until a pile of sand dug from the playground sandbox had soaked up the blood, there was a brief echo of the existence of two people that ended one day in April 2022.

Their deaths and their anonymous faces will eventually become a statistic in this war. A number that will only increase.

“They were sitting on the front bench,” Ms Stepanenko said. “They are dead now.”


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