the life of Ukrainians in a ruined estate

Kharkiv (Ukraine) (AFP) – Galyna Chorna sobs as she recounts the Russian rocket attack that wiped out the apartments above hers, shattering her windows, door and any hint of security she still clung to.

The 75-year-old is the sole remaining resident of her nine-story building in Saltivka, one of Europe’s largest housing estates which has been ruthlessly and relentlessly bombarded by Russia since its invasion of Ukraine began in February.

“I’m so scared because I’m alone here, I’m really alone. I had a daughter, but she died a year ago because she drank too much,” she said, shivering despite the heat Sun.

“So now I’m just sitting here on this bucket. When a missile comes in, I just fall to the ground, face down. That’s why I might still be alive.”

Saltivka in the city of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine was once a prosperous neighborhood, built in the 1960s as a “bedroom community” for Soviet industrial workers and home to more than a half a million people.

A relentless barrage of Iskander missiles and unguided rockets began on February 26, hitting buildings indiscriminately.

As the war continues, much of the neighborhood is now in ruins.

The onset of spring was so cold that Galyna’s fingernails and toenails turned black with the onset of frostbite.

There was no running water in the area for the first six weeks of the war, and no electricity until last month. The gas only came back this week.

Cherries on the sidewalk

Burnt buildings tower over every street, their shattered windows and gaping holes smashed through the masonry testifying to the intensity of the bombardment.

Many buildings are scarred by deep cracks and appear to be on the verge of collapse.

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Rusty cars with roofs covered in fallen rubble and decaying twisted metal in the streets.

Several buildings seem to have been spared further in the subdivision, but no corner is really safe, because of the random nature of the bombardments.

Many attacks were carried out using banned cluster bombs, according to rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, charges the Kremlin has denied.

Parts of the district have returned to nature and grass borders grow waist-deep.

With most of the children gone, the cherry trees remained unpicked, their fruit dropped on the pockmarked sidewalk.

Residents who have stayed are earning as much as they can on government grants of less than $100 a month and cooked meals delivered by police and charity workers.

A few Chorna neighbors have moved into a cavernous, dark shelter beneath the local school, where the dim light from bare light bulbs reveals rock-ribbed floors kicking up thick dust.

The beds are made from school desks, chairs and wooden pallets.

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Refugees from the chaos above bend over heated pots of soup in a makeshift kitchen.

Antonina Mykolaeva, 71, moved into the shelter with her husband and around 40 others when war broke out, but died of heart failure a month later.

Their son, a soldier in the Soviet army, was killed decades ago when he was 21. She could not bury her husband in the same cemetery because he was pulverized by shellfire.

“I was always scared when I heard heavy blows, because I was afraid the block would fall on us,” she says.

’70 bombs a day’

Oleg Synegubov, the governor of the Kharkiv region, told AFP that Saltivka had been “almost completely destroyed”.

The most important task ahead, he said, was to ensure heating was restored before the onset of winter, when nighttime temperatures average around -7 degrees Celsius (19 degrees Fahrenheit).

“But the destruction there, the existing damage to the buildings, will not allow them to be rebuilt to the state they were before,” he said.

Part of the job of protecting residents from the elements falls to Volodymyr Manzhosov, a 57-year-old plumber on a city maintenance crew who scrambled to replace bombed-out pipes.

He lives alone in Saltivka – one of five people who stayed in a 15-storey building – after sending his wife and two children to the relative safety of the western city of Lviv.

“The hardest time was around March because it was cold and there were around 70 bombs a day in the area,” he said.

But he remains hopeful of a better future, with the return of public transport and a few shops in his corner of the estate.

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“I live on the ground floor so if my block is affected, it will be fine,” he smiles.

“If something happens and I end up under the rubble, I have a bottle of water and a torch by the bed.”