When Tatyana Marchenko, 63, returned to her home in Kharkiv earlier this month, she entered a world of destruction.
Clothes and children’s toys were scattered over the paths between the burned-out buildings, many of which had massive holes where shells had smashed through.
“I lived in the same Saltivka neighbourhood my whole life. And now it’s just gone, it is a horror show.”
Saltivka – a Soviet-era, working-class development project initially intended for the city’s industrial workers and their families – was home to around 600,000 people before the war, making it one of the largest neighbourhoods in Europe. Though admittedly cramped, it was full of energy, Marchenko recalled.
But since the start of Russia’s invasion four months ago, Saltivka, which lies in the north-east of the city, has borne the brunt of Moscow’s relentless shelling of Ukraine’s second-biggest city. Now, the neighbourhood feels like a ghost town.
Marchenko, like many others, left Kharkiv – just 25 miles from the Russian border – with her husband in the early days of the war as enemy tanks threatened to overrun the city.
But she returned this month, encouraged by reports from friends and officials that shelling was winding down following a successful Ukrainian counter-offensive that has pushed Russian forces away from the outskirts of the city. Others emerged from the nearby underground metro stations that were turned into shelters where they had spent weeks living.
Collectively, they are now trying to navigate their lives in the most damaged neighbourhood of Kharkiv.
Many residents in Saltivka do not have access to gas, electricity or running water, and Marchenko is now forced to carry large bottles of water up to her apartment. “At least I am staying fit, but this is not how I was imagining my pension,” said Marchenko, who worked for 30 years at the local post office.
Yet she calls herself one of the lucky ones. Her apartment was left largely untouched, apart from the small pieces of shrapnel that broke her windows and remained scattered around her home when she returned.
Walking around Saltivka, the sheer randomness of Russia’s strikes quickly becomes apparent – one block hit, the next left untouched, one apartment turned to ruins, the next undamaged.
Just below Marchenko, on the ninth floor, a Russian MLR rocket obliterated the flat of her neighbour and lifelong friend Nastia. “Look at that,” Marchenko said as she walked one floor down to show a large round hole in what was once Nastia’s living room. “This is where our children grew up together. All of those memories are gone.”
Some families have lost their homes or are remaining underground because they are still too frightened of Russian attacks.
At the Heroiv Pratsi (Heroes of Labour) metro station in the north of Saltivka, around 100 people, mostly women and children, are still hiding, despite the subway reopening earlier this month. To make matters worse, the relative calmness that prompted Marchenko and others to return was, in the end, deceptive. Over the past week, Kharkiv has experienced some of the worst Russian shelling it has seen to date, killing more than 15 people, as worries grow in Kyiv that Russia is now mounting another attack on the city.
Russian forces are just a few miles away from Saltivka, and from her flat, Marchenko could see Ukrainian troops rearranging their positions in the forest that borders the neighbourhood.
Throughout the day, sounds of explosions were audible in the background, but many in Saltivka now simply shrug, unimpressed and largely familiar with the threat of danger that no longer keeps them up at night.
Somewhere on the front line was Marchenko’s son, she said, pointing to a small shrine she had made for him in her flat. “My son was not a killer and wasn’t planning to sign up to fight. But something changed in him after he saw that Russians were bombing ordinary civilians,” she said. “I’m so glad he’s defending our country.”
Saltivka is arguably the most powerful testimony contradicting Russia’s repeated claims that its military does not target civilian infrastructure.
“At first, we thought Russia was just getting the wrong intelligence, thinking our soldiers could be hiding in civilian buildings,” said Sergei Bolvinov, head of the investigative department at the Kharkiv region’s police force. “But now we see this was always the plan – to target civilian infrastructure.”
In total, he said, around 2,000 high-rise buildings had been severely damaged in the city, many of which will not be repaired. “Saltivka, especially its north, is destroyed completely.”
Not far from Marchenko’s house lies the devastated Barabashova market. Before the war, it was the biggest market in Europe and one of the busiest. Some of the few shops that remain open on the abandoned, rubbish-infested passageway there sell flowers.
“There is no romance left in here, but we have funerals,” said Anastasia, who ran a flower shop of the same name.
Anastasia said that just the day before Russia launched its invasion, she made a “massive” order of Dutch tulips from the Netherlands for 8 March, International Women’s Day. Ever since the days of the Soviet Union, the day has been widely celebrated in both Russia and Ukraine, with men often spending a fortune on flowers for their wives, mothers and sisters.
Now the tulips were mostly rotting away. “Tulips are not for funerals. Families of fallen soldiers only want lilies.”
Anastasia said she was still “kicking herself” for the tulip order, adding that virtually no one in the largely Russian-speaking city could have imagined its big neighbour would actually invade their country.
“I am still thinking every day: should I have seen it coming? Should I have placed that order?”
Being so close to the border meant that many in Kharkiv, like Anastasia, whose uncle lived in Russia, had developed extensive cultural and family ties with their neighbour.
The war has served as a decisive break between the city and Moscow. “Everything changed on 24 February, and there is no going back now,” said Bolvinov, the local police chief who now refuses to speak Russian at work.
On Wednesday, Kharkiv’s largest university announced that it was closing its Russian literature department, reorganising it into the Department of Slavic Philology. The city is also planning to rename more than 200 streets or squares that celebrate Russian artists, writers and historical figures.
For many in Saltivka, the symbolic moves have made little difference to their daily struggle to survive and keep on going. And most of them remained grimly pessimistic about the prospects of the war ending anytime soon.
“Who knows for how long this will go on? And we can’t live like this much longer,” said Artyom Belousov, 45, who stayed in Saltivka throughout the war to care for his mother who has dementia.
The fighting in Ukraine has turned into a bloody war of attrition, with both sides making few strategic advances.
Western leaders have started to warn that it might take years before the war winds down. And local officials fear that even if Ukraine manages to push the invading army out of the country, Russia will still be able to fire rockets from the city of Belgorod, just across the border.
Belousov, dragging on a cigarette, said he tried not to think of the difficult months that lay ahead.
“What if the winter comes, and we still don’t have any heating? What will become of us?”