KHARKIV, Ukraine — Viktor Lazar shares his wartime balcony with opera glasses and a tiny orange snake, his only companion in an apartment on the edge of the world.
Opera glasses, rather a joke, are hardly needed – without them the front line is visible. The rumble of Russian and Ukrainian shells can still be heard, although Lazar claims not to have noticed. Under her balcony is a pit, one of many. A Grad rocket launcher rolls over on a nearby road.
Lazar estimates that the Russians are only 10 kilometers away.
As the war enters its fifth month along deadly fault lines in eastern and southern Ukraine, in Kharkiv’s sprawling and scattered neighborhood, Lazar and some of his neighbors Saltyvka represent an unsolved life in which many are trapped. New communities are being asked to flee. Not everyone does.
While towns and villages around Kiev’s capital began rebuilding months ago following the Russian withdrawal and world powers are discussing long-term reconstruction, others in eastern Ukraine are still unable to sleep.
Saltyvka, one of the largest neighborhoods in Europe, was once home to half a million people in Soviet-era apartment blocks. Now there are probably only dozens. Some buildings have been blacked out, others are collapsing panel by panel.
“This is my house,” says 37-year-old Lazar, who is shirtless in the sweltering heat, revealing a machine gun tattoo on his right arm. He announces that he is ready to fight the Russians, but his only weapon is kitchen knives.
A broken guitar hangs on the wall of her apartment. Lazar, a musician, dreams of giving a defiant concert in the busy, cat-colored streets of Saltivka. On better days, he played to audiences in the square of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, which is showing signs of retreating from the war – despite being close to the Russian border.
In comparison, Saltivka is almost dead. After a last subway stop dedicated to the heroes, all activity collapses. Shops are closed and homes have broken windows. In one case, a table-sized cinder block is gently rolled over a piece of rebar and waits to fall.
Tall grass covers deserted playgrounds strewn with fallen and ripe cherries. The soldiers’ trenches are bare. In some apartments, which have since been torn down, laundry is still hanging on the line.
From time to time a car will be crushed by debris. It may take movers trying to salvage some furniture or volunteers bringing help.
Outside the Lazarus building, people have set up a simple kitchen where the bells ring when lunch comes. Next to the teapot on the wood-burning stove, ammunition boxes store the slowly stale bread.
Some electricity is back, but there is no running water. Lazar sneaks into a dungeon where the water is still rushing for the bath. Two middle-aged women emerge from the darkness looking fresh and gone.
But for those who have no choice, life is nothing short of an adventure. 84-year-old Pavel Govorihov sits at the entrance of a building, now as fragile as himself. He has two sticks in his hands. He lived in the basement for four months before moving back into his apartment. He emphasizes the sudden noise. Talking about his struggles brings tears to his eyes.
“My children don’t help me,” he says. “Why do I need such a life?”
In time, he knows, winter will return mercilessly to the warm blocks of flats.
The Russians could do the same. Since the invasion, more than 600 civilians have been killed in the Kharkiv region north of Donetsk, some in Saltiva. Ukrainian officials claim the Russians used banned cluster bombs.
The communities around the Kharkiv coast are still in precarious hands, reportedly part of Moscow’s strategy to divert Ukrainian troops from being sent to places like Donetsk, where Russians are chewing up entire cities.
“You wouldn’t wish that on anyone,” says 14-year-old Bogdan Netsov, who lives with his family in an apartment with drawn curtains.
In another Saltivka building, a protruding sign on the stairwell warns potential residents: “If you come in, you will be killed.”
Here, Viktor Shevchenko is still on the phone at home, even if he has to flash his phone so he can see his sadness in broad daylight.
“That’s what I say to the whole world,” he says, unshaven and heavy on tea. “We will oust Russia. Because we are patriots and live on our land.
The utensils in his ruined kitchen are scattered. A religious symbol of his orthodox faith is burned. The clock on the wall has stopped working, as has the neighborhood around them.
Shevchenko grabs the watch and winds it up.
“It goes on,” he says, not without pride. “It runs.”
He returns to the stillness of Saltyvka on shaky feet, the ticking clock in his hands.
Mstislav Chernov in Kharkiv, Ukraine contributed to this.
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