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Kharkiv is finding a new normal as residents return to work — despite missile strikes

Twenty-one-year-old Anastacia Shapoval says in Kharkiv right now you have to balance the constant shelling by the Russians with the rest of your life.
Jason Beaubien
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NPR
Twenty-one-year-old Anastacia Shapoval says in Kharkiv right now you have to balance the constant shelling by the Russians with the rest of your life.

Updated July 23, 2022 at 5:27 AM ET

KHARKIV, Ukraine — As the war in Ukraine prepares to enter its sixth month, people in the northeastern city of Kharkiv are getting used to a new normal. Even as construction crews clean up bombed out buildings and people return to work, Kharkiv residents also face missile strikes on the city several times a day.

City officials continue to plead with Kharkiv residents to respect air raid alerts and stay inside, or go to bomb shelters. But the sirens go off so frequently that many people have become numb to the noise. Just north of the city, Ukrainian and Russian forces regularly lob artillery shells back and forth, creating a rumble like distant thunder. Only when an explosion is particularly loud - and presumably close - do residents saunter inside or head for the bomb shelters.

Twenty-one-year-old Anastacia Shapoval says in Kharkiv right now you have to balance the shelling with the rest of your life.

For instance, she says, when she's on her way to a coffee shop and she sees on social media an air raid alert announcing shelling, she has to make the Big Decision: "I really want some coffee ... OK I should just go for coffee." She throws her hands up and laughs as if to say, "What are you going to do?"

Behind its boarded up storefront, the café La Sho Tyu in Kharkiv feels modern and clean.  Shelling blew out the windows of the café. The owner says there's no sense in replacing the glass while the shelling continues.
Jason Beaubien / NPR
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NPR
Behind its boarded up storefront, the café La Sho Tyu in Kharkiv feels modern and clean. Shelling blew out the windows of the café. The owner says there's no sense in replacing the glass while the shelling continues.

Shapoval just graduated from college with a degree in tourism and public relations. But for now she's working at a volunteer center where they put together food packets for people in need. A few days earlier, a rocket brought down a five-story apartment building across from the volunteer center. Shapoval says another missile hit just 200 yards from her house. But she says Kharkiv is her home and this is where she wants to be right now.

Most of the explosions are in the northern suburbs and industrial areas. Shapoval says you get used to it.

"As a Kharkiv resident, I understand that, OK, we have night shelling for example," she says. "And for example for 15 minutes there are three, five, seven bombs in Kharkiv. OK. But it's not all the time."

It's not lost on her how unusual this is. The current life in Kharkiv isn't for everyone, she says, and many of her friends who've left may not come back until the war is finished.

Anastacia Shapoval in front of a 5 story apartment building that was destroyed by a Russian rocket in mid-July. The building is across the street from the volunteer center where she works.
Jason Beaubien / NPR
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NPR
Anastacia Shapoval in front of a 5 story apartment building that was destroyed by a Russian rocket in mid-July. The building is across the street from the volunteer center where she works.

Things were much worse at the start of the invasion in February. Russia attacked Kharkiv with cruise missiles, fighter jets and eventually ground troops. Ordinary life in Ukraine's second largest city abruptly came to a halt. The vast majority of Kharkiv's population fled to safer parts of Ukraine and even further west into Poland.

The city's underground metro stations, which were built by the Soviets to withstand nuclear bomb blasts became permanent shelters. Thousands of people slept on the station platforms and in subway cars as Russian missiles pounded the city above.

But now the metro trains are running again. The transit system isn't back to its full pre-war schedule but nearly all the stations have reopened. Commuters and families dart in and out of the aging rail cars.

Now, instead of residents sleeping in the subterranean stations to escape the rocket attacks, volunteers are offering first aid classes specifically for rocket attacks.

Oleksii Yaryichenko from the group Solomyanski Kotyky demonstrates how to stabilize someone who's injured. He explains how to use a tourniquet and makes sure people know that shards of shrapnel should be bandaged in place, not pulled out. He goes over how to assess wounds on a person in body armor.

Oleksii Yaryichenko gives first aid training sessions inside a Kharkiv subway station. The classes focus on how to treat people injured in a missile attack.
Jason Beaubien / NPR
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NPR
Oleksii Yaryichenko gives first aid training sessions inside a Kharkiv subway station. The classes focus on how to treat people injured in a missile attack.

"Be sure to check for wounds under the bullet proof vest," he says while demonstrating how to fold and detach the body armor's straps. "If more rockets come in, you can put the vest back over the person and take cover," he explains. It's war first aid 101.

"You have to understand," says 40-year-old Oleksandr Maltsev who just watched one of the classes. "(We have) explosions and war on our streets every day."

In some parts of Kharkiv nearly every building has had its windows blown out. Work crews gut damaged buildings, and sweep up endless amounts of broken glass. Although some people are putting in new glass, others are hesitant to replace their damaged windows with the conflict showing no signs of ending any time soon. This has led to a lot of storefronts and openings being covered with plywood for now.

Including Anastacia Shapoval's favorite café, La Sho Tyu.

Shapoval explains that the name of the café is three words that are quintessentially Kharkiv. Together they don't really mean anything and are sort of like an American young person saying, "Whatever!" The phrase captures the accent and attitude, she says, of Kharkiv.

"And this cafe was damaged by bombs, too," she says pointing to graffiti-covered plywood on the front door. "There were windows in previous times. Now they have something like this and guys just paint it."

The boarded up front of the La Sho Tyu café in Kharkiv.  Like many buildings in the center of the city, the café's windows were blown out by explosions.
Jason Beaubien / NPR
/
NPR
The boarded up front of the La Sho Tyu café in Kharkiv. Like many buildings in the center of the city, the café's windows were blown out by explosions.

A few nights ago, she says, she came here and the café was full of people for the first time since the Russian invasion. Despite the missing windows and the air raid sirens and the daily shelling, there's life here, she says. This is why she loves Kharkiv. This is why she wants to stay.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.