Part IV: As the invasion begins
Written by: Val Stutz, Edited by: Wilmer Rojas, Quotes in this series have been edited for readability and concision.
“That first day we started to boil water. Then we went to the closest local store and bought provisions. By then you could already hear the shelling,” relayed Andy. “Yet, people were pretty calm. People weren't really panicking. We got what we needed, nothing extra. You can only buy what you can carry anyway. Nobody was grabbing stuff and running out of the store or anything like that. It was very busy, but it was kind of like a normal day.”
“This is not what I would have expected in America. Everyone behaved very, very well. I only saw very limited looting. I didn't really see people breaking into anywhere. Now has that changed at this point? I don't know. I'm assuming the food situation is getting very, very bad in Kharkiv right now. I don't know how much is getting in. When I was there, nothing was being received,” he told us.
As Ukraine’s second-largest city, and a key strategic location near the Russian border, Kharkiv was one of the first major cities to feel the wrath of the Russian war machine. With what is becoming known as “The Battle of Kharkiv” proving to be one of the longest and deadliest of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Oleksiy Arestovych, a Ukrainian presidential adviser, has described the events of Kharkiv as the "Stalingrad of the 21st century." Andy described the severity of the situation in Kharkiv as the early days of the war unfolded:
“Eventually the ATB grocery store was the only one running and their hours were from 8 am–10 am. However, they wouldn't open until 9 am, and you would have to stand in line. If you got in line at eight o'clock you weren't getting in. So I made the decision to go at six o'clock in the morning and stand there until nine. It was cold. It was below freezing in late February and early March. We just tried to get what we could. After a while, the only thing they had left was some bread that they had made, as well as some chips and juice.”
In terms of foodstuffs and beverages, Eastern Europe is known for its consumption of alcohol. Furthermore, one would expect that a high-stress situation like an all-out war would encourage many people to stock up on their favorite liquor. However, Andy noticed the opposite trend.
“There was a lot of alcohol left. Surprisingly enough, people really weren't buying it. I think we were all worried that our money was going to very quickly become worthless, which luckily didn't happen. I ended up buying a lot of chips because they are lightweight and calorie-dense. Plus you can just open the bag and pack them down a little tighter and save space. Items like meat and dairy quickly ran out though.”
With the city quickly becoming surrounded, it was only a matter of time before supply lines to Kharkiv would be cut off, and foodstuffs would not be available at the local grocery stores.
“We also started having occasional blackouts in the city. Eventually, after the first week, the grocery store sold out of everything and just didn’t open back up. They simply didn’t have food to sell. I was able to buy from a few market vendors for three to four days, but after that everything was closed,” Andy said.
The loss of electricity and water was a recurrent problem at the time that threatened to shorten the lifespan of food storage due to a lack of refrigeration. However, to Andy’s surprise, some local utility services were able to restore power to his neighborhood in Kharkiv.
“Around day six we lost water completely. We had been boiling and storing water up until that point. I'm not sure if the water has ever been reconnected in that region. We eventually lost power as well. It was down for two days, which meant we were trying to eat things out of the refrigerator before it went bad. The meat surprisingly stayed frozen. Eventually, by some miracle, they were able to get the power back on. Interestingly, a lot of utility services were still working.”
Even though local utility services were still functioning, this was not the case for emergency services such as police, paramedics, and fire and rescue.
“We did get an announcement that the emergency services were not working. So essentially we couldn’t call the police or anything like that. It wasn't like they were going to be able to respond right away anyway given the situation,” he told us.
Andy went on to describe how the intensity of Russian attacks increased as the days went on.
“The first days weren’t really that bad. We were told that the Russians were only attacking military targets, which I believe was true. Yet, as you can see on the news, Putin has changed his whole strategy. You could definitely hear the shelling. It was close, but everything still seemed pretty calm. People were definitely scared and nervous though.”
Looking back on the days leading up to the Russian invasion, Andy remembered the state of the city and the presence of the Ukrainian military in and around Kharkiv.
“In the days leading up to the war, even up to a week before the invasion, there weren’t any military inside the city at all. I started to see the first few soldiers in the city maybe two days before the war started. This was around the time that the West had started predicting that Russia was going to invade.” It was at this point that Andy noticed that something was wrong. It was as if an ominous sense of dread had overtaken the city.
“That's when everybody realized that there must be something going on. It seemed like even the soldiers were starting to panic. Then, all of a sudden it went from zero soldiers, to two to three soldiers, to a bunch of soldiers everywhere. Then they disappeared again. Every soldier suddenly went to the front. And the remainder of my time in Ukraine, other than when we went through checkpoints on the way out, I personally never saw another Ukrainian soldier.”
After the invasion began, there was immense fear and confusion, with many people deeply concerned about the Russian advance. However, shortly after the first waves of Russian troops entered Ukraine, the Ukrainian armed forces were immediately mobilized and began to put up a fierce resistance. It was a situation they had been preparing for over the last several years.
Andy recalled when he first heard signs of Ukrainian counterattacks.
“On the second day of the invasion, the bombings really intensified. You could hear the shelling, but you could also hear the Ukrainians firing back. I definitely know I heard anti-aircraft weapons. I think some people got pretty nervous at that point.”
The war crimes that Russia has committed against Ukrainian civilians have been well-documented throughout the war. Kharkiv has been no exception. As Russian troops and armored battalions advanced towards Kharkiv, Andy saw a video that was circulating around the city of a local girl, which he shared with us. The girl filmed the video on her phone near the Kharkiv suburb of Bobrivka. In the video, she described how Russian tanks near Bobrivka fired at civilian vehicles, and how her mother was killed as a result of the onslaught. She said she filmed the video for her father, thinking that she would be killed too.
Direct Translation: Civilian Victims Around Kharkiv
Exit Kharkiv-Tsikuny, Bobrovka. There were Russian tanks, they fired at civilians, cars. They killed my mom, a soldier, the second was wounded. I barely got out, please share as much as possible!
I filmed this video after my mom died, I was sitting behind an iron rack while there was shelling. I was sure they’d kill me too.
Please maximum repost!! This video was filmed after my mom died, there was shelling. I wrote it for my dad because I was almost sure I’d be killed.”
Due to Russia’s overwhelming air superiority, which vastly outnumbers Ukraine’s modest air force, the Ukrainian military stood ready to deploy anti-aircraft defense systems and other weapons that could be used to repel Russian air attacks. Furthermore, Ukraine was ready to deploy the advanced weapon systems provided to them by their North American and European Allies. With the advance of Russian ground troops and armored vehicles, the Ukrainian armed forces held their ground and managed to destroy several tanks and armored vehicles around Kharkiv.
However, the Russian military made use of their superior air power, a shift that Andy could tell by the sounds he heard.
“Eventually I would stop hearing the shelling and we would get into this phase where Russians were bringing in the aircraft. I assumed that the aircraft was Russian. I don't know how to tell the difference, but I don't think at that point the Ukrainians had much in the way of aircraft. So I'm going to assume they were Russian. And we stopped hearing the anti-aircraft fire somewhat. I don't know what happened. I can only tell you what I heard with my ears. The sound of war changed.”
The Russians may not have captured Kharkiv in the initial days of the invasion as they had planned. However, Ukrainian resistance has led the Russians to unleash devastating firepower upon the city in recent days. Kharkiv, as a result, is in the midst of some of the most severe and prolonged attacks in all of Ukraine.
Coming next - Part V: Russia Knocking at the Door