‘They hit us with tanks and mortars… Then it quietened down, so we relaxed. And now this’
For four days this week, the people of Dergachi were able to relax. Ukrainian forces had cleared the Russian artillery from nearby hills, and for the first time in two months this quiet country town, north of Kharkiv, was not under fire.
But in the early hours of yesterday morning, the war returned with a vengeance.
Vladimir Malakhov, a security guard at the town cultural centre, said: “I was in bed. There was an enormous noise, an explosion and I was covered in wood and bits of concrete from the ceiling.
“I began to dig myself out. It took me 20 minutes, and I did it with my eyes closed because of the dust. When we got outside, they started shelling again.”
Mr Malakhov was one of 21 people sheltering in the basement of the cultural centre, which was also an aid distribution centre, when it was destroyed by a missile at about 2am yesterday. All survived. It was a targeted, deliberate strike that wiped out food, water and Red Cross medical supplies intended to sustain civilians in this frontline town.
It was also an unpleasant reminder that Russia retains the ability to hit Ukrainian-held areas near Kharkiv, despite a successful counter-offensive.
“We were shelled every day from the beginning of the war. They hit us with mortars, tanks, Uragan, howitzers, everything. Then four days ago it all quietened down. People relaxed a bit. And now this,” Vyacheslav Zadorenko, the town’s mayor, said.
In the past two weeks, Ukrainian forces have pushed north and east from Kharkiv’s city limits, forcing the Russian army that bombarded the city for two months into retreat.
Earlier this week, the northern thrust reached Pytomnyk, 15km short of the border, and cleared the Russians off a commanding height from which Mr Zadorenko believes they were shelling Dergachi. At least, that’s when the mortar and artillery fire dropped off.
The eastern spearhead has driven the Russians to the other side of the Siversky Donets River at Stary Saltiv, potentially threatening supply lines sustaining Russia’s Donbas offensive.
The shifting tide of battle is literally audible. For the first time since the war began, the booms echoing around the streets of Dergachi and parts of Kharkiv are from outgoing Ukrainian artillery, not incoming Russian rounds.
The success has so bolstered morale that debates on social media wonder whether Ukraine should stop at the border or push on to Belgorod, taking the war into Russia itself.
But while the momentum in this part of the country is now with the Ukrainians, the battle is far from over.
The Ukrainian advances have pushed only about 20km to the north and fewer than 32km to the east – important gains made more rapidly than the Russian offensive in Donbas, but far from a strategic breakthrough.
And as Dergachi has discovered, the Russians are still able to strike back.
The Palace of Culture was initially hit on Thursday by the tail of a rocket that had deployed its cluster munitions over the town, killing two civilians.
It crashed through three floors, destroying the registry office, ballet rehearsal room and the municipal children’s services department – breaking the leg of a man in the lobby. Simultaneously, the local clinic was shelled. Initially, that looked like a coincidence.
Yesterday’s early-morning strike, accompanied by an attack on a shoe factory, made clear it was not.
“They knew. Of course they knew,” said Mr Zadorenko, surveying the smoking ruins yesterday. “But it won’t be the catastrophe for the town they were hoping for. There’s already other aid coming in from elsewhere.”
Nor has the push-back been uniform. Indeed, in some areas the Russians remain menacingly close to the city.
In the village of Tsyrkuny, just a stone’s throw across the ring road on the north-eastern edge of the city, the war has not gone very far at all.
Since Ukrainian forces recaptured it last weekend, volunteers have been able to deliver small amounts of food and water to the handful of civilians still living here.
But it is utterly ruined and has not been de-mined. Two women were killed by Russian booby-traps there this week.
The Russians are only 3km further up the road, and their mortars and rockets still rain down a desultory but deadly hail on the main road that leads through the town.
On Thursday, a man was pushing a shopping trolley down the main street, oblivious to the rubble and unexploded munitions around him.
A couple in a civilian car drove fast in the other direction. “It’s scary up there,” said the man at the wheel, who said he was a local. “Incoming. You better get out of here.”
There are signs the Russian retreat is descending into chaos. Video footage posted on social media on Thursday showed fighters loyal to the Luhansk People’s Republic, a pro-Russian breakaway republic in Donbas, at the frontier north of Pytomnyk. They were complaining they had been denied permission to enter Russia after withdrawing from Kharkiv region.
Elsewhere, though, the shift in the tide of war has been welcomed like the spring that is in full bloom here. In Kharkiv’s grand city centre, rocket fire feels like a thing of the past.
Very tentatively, cafes and some shops are opening. The sparse traffic on the streets seems to get incrementally busier each day.
Teams of volunteers, many of them young people, sweat in the afternoon sun clearing away wreckage and rubble near the checkpoints.
In Saltivka, the north-eastern suburb of Kharkiv across the ring road from Tsyrkuny, things are edgier.
Although it has been out of range of Russian mortars for a week, those who remain here – almost all of them pensioners – remain wary about moving in the open.
“I don’t even like to go over there. It’s safer here, better to be closer,” said Diana Yamlekova, who was standing in the shade outside her block of flats. The sun-drenched bench she gestured to was a matter of metres away.
The Russian artillery has left Saltivka a wreck.
Almost every flat in every 15-storey apartment building has lost its windows. Many are burnt out. The telephone lines have collapsed across the streets. Each courtyard has its own pattern of craters, wrecked cars, and shell-shattered trees.
There is still no electricity, gas or running water. The shops that have not been destroyed are all closed.
Few people have cars, those who do have almost no petrol, and there is no public transport.
The rest of the city and the sense of returning normality could be another planet.
Ms Yamlekova (50) has survived largely on groceries delivered by civilian volunteers who made daring runs into the suburb throughout the battle. Now the shelling has lifted, they are struggling to find enough fuel for the journey.
“There’s no petrol, so they don’t know when they can come next,” she explained, adding: “There are no shops, but no one has any money anyway because there is nowhere to work. If I got a job in the centre I’d have to get to the centre and back before curfew – so who is going to hire me for three or four hours a day?
“I don’t know what comes next,” Ms Yamlekova said. “What do you think?” (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022)