Six months after the start of the war in Ukraine, the country is the scene of the largest humanitarian crisis in Europe since the Second World War. The Russian invasion has resulted in heavy destruction and losses, and almost eight decades later, these two events mark turning points for different generations of Ukrainians.
The devastation caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine has resulted in the largest humanitarian crisis in Europe since the Second World War, and forever linked two different generations of Ukrainians, including those in Kharkiv.
Six months into the war, the city whose pre-war population was roughly 1.4 million remains at the epicentre of the heaviest fighting, shelled almost daily, a nightmare reminder of wars for elderly residents of the city. Seventy-nine years ago, this region also fought for its freedom. On 23 August 1943, the city was liberated from Nazi troops, a date now celebrated as Kharkiv Day, on the eve of Independence Day.
Over 13 million people have been forced to flee their homes, seeking safety elsewhere in the country or protection abroad. Entire cities and villages have been razed and over 5,500 civilians have lost their lives according to the UN.
For many Kharkivians, lives are defined as Before and After.
At 4 a.m. on 24 February, Ukraine’s second largest city took a fierce hit. Within 24 hours, Russian troops had reached the northern suburbs of the region’s capital just 30 kilometres from the Ukraine-Russia border. Despite outnumbering the Ukrainian forces, the invading army was unable to enter Kharkiv.
“I am from Kharkiv, from the largest residential area in Ukraine – Saltivka, where about 400,000 people lived before the war. For two weeks, my family and I did not leave the metro (underground station) even for a minute,” says 21-year-old Tania, who has found a temporary home in Ivano-Frankivsk Region and participated in IOM’s Summer School for young leaders among displaced persons and members of hosted communities.
According to a recent IOM survey, the biggest number — almost a third of all internally displaced persons in Ukraine (28 per cent) — have fled from Kharkiv Region. The humanitarian needs of those who chose to stay or were unable to flee are immense.
In May, Kharkiv received the first humanitarian convoy from IOM with much-needed items for people staying in the city’s shelters, hospitals, as well as hard-to-reach communities in areas that were regained by Ukrainian forces.
“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, hygiene kits... Only war-affected people can understand the value of this help,” explains Serhii, the head of Source of Revival, one of the biggest non-governmental organizations in this region and IOM’s implementing partner in Kharkiv Region.
In the first months of the war, the working day of Source of Revival’s team began at 6 a.m. and ended at 3 p.m., when a curfew was set and any movement around the city was forbidden. Because of the shelling from heavy artillery, multiple launch rocket systems, missiles and air strikes, the location of the warehouses had to be changed several times. Not all drivers agreed to go to this dangerous area. The situation has since escalated, and the number of casualties continues to grow. 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 says. “We moved to Kharkiv. 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.” Tailored humanitarian aid from IOM was brought directly to her temporary home by Source of Revival, as it was especially challenging for the 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 deoccupation, NGOs endeavour to reach people in a critical state 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. Some people are still missing.”
Humanitarian workers are supporting people on the ground 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,” says the head of Source of Revival, Serhii, whose house was damaged by shelling as well. “But everything has changed: 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, among whom are 50 children, and this figure may not be final. 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 in Kharkiv Region as a result of a missile attack on a residential area. Nevertheless, just like 79 years ago, locals believe in their land and justice, showing the same strength and character they and their ancestors displayed nearly a century ago.
Since May 2022, Source of Revival has distributed more than 16,000 solar lamps, 7,000 blankets, 3,000 hygiene kits, 5,000 mattresses, 18,000 towels, 10,000 jerry cans, and other non-food assistance from IOM in Kharkiv Region. Deliveries are still ongoing with funding from EU Civil Protection & Humanitarian Aid, European Union in Ukraine, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), USAID's Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA), the Ukraine Humanitarian Fund, the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), as well as governments of Japan, Canada, Germany, France, Denmark, Kuwait, South Korea, Sweden, and Slovakia.
* Irpin and Bucha are towns in Kyiv oblast of Ukraine that were temporary occupied by Russian forces at the beginning of the war. According to the Commission of Inquiry led by the Human Rights Council, information collected from these sites may support claims that serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, perhaps reaching war crimes and crimes against humanity, have been committed in the areas.