Six months after the Russian invasion, Ukraine is the scene of the largest humanitarian crisis in Europe since the Second World War. Almost a third of those displaced by the conflict come from the region around the country’s second largest city of Kharkiv, in the east. Helping those in need is dangerous work.
Before dawn on 24 February, Kharkiv took a fierce hit. Within 24 hours, Russian troops had reached the northern suburbs, just 30 kilometres from the Ukraine-Russia border. Despite outnumbering the Ukrainian forces, the invading army was unable to enter the city.
“I am from Kharkiv, from the largest residential area in Ukraine – Saltivka, where about 400,000 people lived before the war,” says 21-year-old Tania, who has found a temporary home in Ivano-Frankivsk Region and participated in a Summer school run by the UN migration agency (IOM), for young leaders among displaced persons and members of hosted communities.
“For two weeks, my family and I did not leave the underground metro station, even for a minute. The metro became the main bomb shelter for the locals. I did not want to leave the city, because my grandparents remained behind. But when they came to us in Kharkiv, I decided to flee from the war.”
According to a recent IOM survey, around 28 per cent of the estimated 6.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Ukraine fled from the Kharkiv Region. The humanitarian needs of those who chose to stay, or were unable to flee, are immense.
In May, the city received the first humanitarian convoy from IOM with much-needed items for people staying in shelters and hospitals, as well as hard-to-reach communities in areas under Ukrainian control.
“Locals need solar lamps as there is no light, mattresses and blankets as it is damp and cold in shelters, tools for minor repairs for their damaged houses, and hygiene kits,” explains Serhii, the head of Source of Revival, one of the biggest non-governmental organizations in the region and IOM’s implementing partner in the Kharkiv Region.
In the first months of the war, the Source of Revival team’s working day began at 6am and ended at 3pm, when a curfew was set and any movement around the city was forbidden. The location of the warehouses had to be changed several times due to heavy shelling, missiles, and air strikes.
Not all drivers agreed to go to this dangerous area. The situation has since escalated, the number of casualties is growing, but no one in the team has left Kharkiv. They put on bulletproof vests and protective helmets to deliver IOM’s assistance to those in dire need.
Nadia, who is currently living on the outskirts of Kharkiv, fled her home in the city of Derhachi due to heavy shelling shortly after discovering she was pregnant in March.
“Now, there is nothing left alive in Derhachi,” she recalls. “There is also shelling here, but not as fierce as in my hometown; then, when a missile hit a nearby school, we moved once again.”
Source of Revival brought tailored humanitarian aid from IOM directly to her temporary home as it was especially challenging for a pregnant woman to move around the unsafe city.
The hardest part of the team’s work is delivering aid to communities that survived the Russian occupation. Although it takes time to de-mine the area after Ukrainian forces recovered it, NGOs endeavour to reach people in critical need as quickly as possible.
“Some settlements were razed to the ground. There are many local Irpins and Buchas in our region”, a Source of Revival staff says, referring to two cities in Kyiv oblast occupied by Russia at the start of the war where evidence points to significant human rights abuses being committed against the civilians. Exploitation, kidnapping for ransom, robbery, bullying, torture, rape, and sexual abuse of women, children, the elderly, and men.
Humanitarian workers are helping local residents and identifying victims of conflict-related violence. All of them can go to the IOM centre for physical and psychosocial rehabilitation.
Lately, Kharkiv has been receiving increasing numbers of displaced persons fleeing neighbouring Donetsk and Luhansk regions. And, despite the security situation, even Kharkiv residents are returning to their homes with high hopes.
“They want to rebuild this place, but everything has changed”, says Serhii, whose house was damaged by shelling. “The infrastructure is damaged, houses are destroyed, there is no work, and part of the region is still occupied. Russian troops are trying to move closer to the city, so the threat remains, and chaotic shelling continues.”
According to authorities, over 1,000 civilians in Kharkiv Region were killed in the last 181 days, including 50 children, and this figure may rise. Calm is deceptive here, and the situation can change in the blink of an eye.
In one single night, on 18 August, 21 civilians died, and 44 were injured as a result of a missile attack on a residential area. Nevertheless, as was the case 79 years ago, locals believe in their land and justice, revealing the same strength and character as their ancestors.
“I draw power from my team. I understand that most of them could leave Kharkiv, but they stayed. They are the first to put on vests, helmets and go to help others,” says Serhii.