KHARKIV, Ukraine – Olga Bidenko was sleeping in her bed when an explosion shook her apartment building and the walls and ceiling fell on her head.
Emergency workers dug her out and she sat on the sidewalk Sunday morning, wincing as a friend used tweezers to pick up debris from her ankle.
Half of the residential building was flattened in the attack, which police say was likely the result of a rocket launched from Russian territory at 11 p.m. on Saturday.
Russian forces have stepped up attacks in and around Kharkiv city in recent days, destroying buildings, killing and wounding civilians, and bringing the city to the brink.
The increase in rockets, missiles and artillery is a setback for Ukraine’s second-largest hub, which appears to be back to normal just a month ago.
“The whole Kharkiv area is under shelling,” said Oleksandr Volobuyev, head of Kharkiv’s State Emergency Service, after visiting the site of Friday’s attack at a sports complex.
“And unfortunately, we have a growing number of shells and deaths, civilians, and we have children who have died,” he said.
A missile also hit an apartment in Kyiv on Sunday morning, killing one person.
According to the Institute for the Study of War, by attacking Kharkiv, Russia aims to prevent the Ukrainian defense forces from advancing further towards the border.
The Russians are also trying to defend positions east of Kharkiv used to support their attack on the regions south of Luhansk and Donetsk, collectively known as the Donbas.
Russia is also likely to react to Ukraine’s June 23 decision to grant Ukraine EU European Union status, and its approval of additional US military assistance.
A medical facility in Kharkiv was attacked on Saturday night. Earlier in the day, an office tower in the city center was attacked. The sports facility where Ukrainian Olympic athletes train was bombed on Friday.
Only demilitarized buildings were hit in what the police chief said was a Russian attempt to drain the population.
Volodymyr Tymoshko, Chief of the National Police of Ukraine in the Kharkiv region, said: “Every night repeats itself. “What they are doing is to increase panic. They are just killing ordinary people.”
Police, military and war crime prosecutors were at the scene of Sunday’s apartment explosion. The attack injured two people and occurred minutes after the missile was fired from Belgorod, Russia, Tymoshko said.
The increase in ranged attacks has been met with a visibly stronger military presence on the streets and the construction of new military positions.
“What Russia is doing now in the Kharkiv region is a war crime,” wrote regional governor Oleh Synyehubov on Telegram. “This is real terrorism against civilians.”
He said the Russians had “no chance” of capturing Kharkiv and were targeting civilians after losing their battle for the city. “Russia will be held accountable for all crimes on Ukrainian soil,” he said.
Russian forces attempted to capture Kharkiv at the outset of the invasion on 24 February but were unsuccessful. After taking positions around the city, they were pushed back into a pocket along the border.
During the war, Kharkiv faced what Amnesty International called a “relentless campaign of indiscriminate bombardment” by Russia.
“They shelled residential areas almost daily, killing hundreds of civilians and causing wholesale devastation. Many attacks are carried out using widely banned cluster munitions,” the group said in a June 13 report.
When Kharkiv was again in Russia’s sights, the Ukrainians were preparing to defend the city.
In the rural grasslands outside Kharkiv, about 40 members of the Azov Regiment conducted weapons training one recent afternoon.
“Today we are going to do two exercises,” announced their instructor before showing them how they fired Kalashnikovs at targets 100 meters away while still in constant motion.
The group then split up and half of the practitioners in camouflage walked to a nearby valley to practice shooting rocket-propelled grenade launchers at a sandy hillside.
Known for its efforts to protect Mariupol, Azov is a paramilitary group formed in 2014 to fight Russian forces in the Donbas of Ukraine. It works in coordination with the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
“We are ready to do everything necessary to stop them,” said a spokesman for Azov, who identified himself as Gor. “We don’t give them a meter of our motherland.”
Even before the recent intensification of attacks, Kharkiv’s swathes of land were heavily damaged.
School superintendent Oleksandr Gryanik walked through the halls of his 5th to 11th grade institution, showing reporters holes in the roof, broken windows and craters in the yard.
Unaffected by rockets is a room that celebrates Ukrainian culture with displays of clothes, dried flowers and crafts.
The school year ended early in the Ukrainian war zone
“This is where our kids have the strongest feeling that they are Ukrainian,” he said. “And this is a completely untouched room.”
He said the room would inspire the reconstruction of the school after the war.
“They think school is the beginning of nationalism,” he said of the Russians. “And it’s true. It is the building where we give the knowledge to love our country”.
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