‘After the victory’: ruined city of Okhtyrka clings to hope of brighter future


Pavlo Kuzmenko, a surgeon by profession and the mayor of Okhtyrka by appointment, offered a rough tally as he drove through the streets of his city, passing one ruined house after another. Not that long ago potholes were among his biggest headaches.

“Six people were killed here,” he said. “Three people there.” He preferred not to offer an overall death toll so as “not to frighten the citizens”. That number could be told “after the victory”, he said.

Despite the mayor’s conviction, victory appears as far off as the peace that Okhtyrka enjoyed less than a month ago.

Before the Russian onslaught began, Okhtyrka, which sits in Ukraine’s north-eastern Sumy region, was a small, bustling city that was home to about 48,000 people.

Today, after three weeks of almost daily bombing, it is a flame-licked, smoke-choked and rubble-strewn shadow of the place it once was.

Play Video 1:18 Ukraine drone footage shows scale of destruction in Okhtyrka – video

More than half Okhtyrka’s population have fled, and reports that it has been razed are hardly fanciful. The train station is gone, pummelled with an explosive ferocity that has flipped over some of the heavy freight wagons. Gone too are the town hall, a shopping centre and a local cultural centre. A single bomb managed to obliterate three houses and destroy the windows and balconies of a pair of nine-storey buildings 100 metres away.

A large crater has been gouged in the ground, and a persistent smoke rises from the splintered wood and atomised masonry spewed on to the streets.

Facebook Twitter Pavlo Kuzmenko stands by a large crater. Photograph: Nataliya Gumenyuk/The Guardian

“Two elderly ladies died in these houses today,” said Kuzmenko, pointing to the results of the latest Russian strike. More bodies could lie in the debris.

“Look around, this is a residential area. There’s no military facility nearby, just a small river and a forest.”

Facebook Twitter Destroyed houses in Okhtyrka Photograph: Nataliya Gumenyuk/The Guardian

For all the talk and predictions of cyberwarfare and disinformation that followed the last Russian invasion in 2014, Putin’s latest war is an old-fashioned one of maps, battles and massive civilian suffering.

Okhtyrka’s thermal power station, which was taken out not by a cyber-attack but by a bomb, has been partially repaired, but people are struggling – especially when temperatures drop to -12C at night.

Facebook Twitter The partially repaired thermal power station in Okhtyrka Photograph: Nataliya Gumenyuk/The Guardian

Facebook Twitter The partially repaired thermal power station in Okhtyrka Photograph: Nataliya Gumenyuk/The Guardian

Many women took their children and left during the first few days. But many people remained, among them elderly people who have nowhere to go and do not want to leave their homes.

The mayor’s professional training has proved invaluable. “I operated myself in the first days, when there were many victims,” Kuzmenko said. “I do complex operations. It’s completely different compared to peacetime. We have been preparing for some injuries from miles and explosions, but studying theory and practising are different things.”

But why Okhtyrka? Looking around, it’s hard to fathom what could have made this small city such a target, and why at least 100 civilians appear to have been killed.

“It’s because Okhtyrka did not surrender, and did not greet the Russians with flowers,” Kuzmenko said. The mayor said he had spoken to Russian prisoners of war who confessed that they had expected to be in Kyiv within two days.

Facebook Twitter A bombed shopping centre in the downtown area. Photograph: Nataliya Gumenyuk/The Guardian

Okhtyrka also has an ineluctable geographical and strategic importance. It lies in the middle of a triangle that can be drawn between three regional centres – Sumy, Kharkiv and Poltava – and is just 37 miles from the Russian border. Had the Russian troops occupied it straight away, the road to Poltava would have been opened and Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, cut off from the capital. What’s more, Okhtyrka produces 50% of Ukraine’s oil, hence the shelling of its oil depository.

New but already familiar routines are emerging amid the bombardment. When they are not hiding in the basement of a kindergarten, a team of residents set about clearing the debris.

People no longer rush for cover when they hear the distant detonations. They know the most dangerous attacks take place when it is dark. In daylight, the Ukrainian forces who control Okhtyrka can pinpoint sources of fire and shoot back.

Facebook Twitter An attack on an Okhtyrka kindergarten killed three people, including a child, as they sought shelter, according to Amnesty International Photograph: Nataliya Gumenyuk/The Guardian

Without being on the ground, forensic experts are reluctant to identify the type of weaponry that is being used in an indiscriminate attempt to destroy Okhtyrka piece by piece. But the Ukrainian military suggest it could include Tochka-U missiles and rockets.

According to Amnesty International, an attack on an Okhtyrka kindergarten on 25 February – which killed three people, including a child, as they sought shelter – involved widely banned cluster munitions from a 220mm Uragan rocket.

“This is from a BM-27 Uragan multiple rocket launcher system,” said Vlad, a Ukrainian soldier, as he examined the debris at the kindergarten.

Facebook Twitter Vlad, a Ukrainian soldier, examines debris at the kindergarten. Photograph: Nataliya Gumenyuk/The Guardian

The Kremlin claims it was attacking a military target. But Amnesty says the strike may constitute a war crime.

“I live next to the kindergarten which was shelled,” said Halyna, a laboratory assistant. “I saw the blood near the entrance to my house. It’s scary.”

On the 19th day of the bombing, her youngest boy would not stop screaming and crying. “My son survived a clinical death a year ago – I pulled him out of a coma,” she said. “And my daughter has a stent in her kidney. I didn’t save my children only to lose them now.” But she had decided she and her children must stay in Okhtyrka so she can help those in need.

Facebook Twitter Halyna, a laboratory assistant. Photograph: Nataliya Gumenyuk/The Guardian

She juggles the volunteering with going to funerals of people she knew. “Serhiy was a piano turner, I was at his funeral today,” she said. “But I don’t want to talk more about death. It’s very difficult.”

The mayor, who is in his 40s, had just buried a friend he had known for 15 years. “Unfortunately, we have funerals every day,” he said. “We do not have time to honour our people properly. They are buried quickly. Many civilians die. The Russians thought that people would say ‘Putin, help!’, but we say ‘Putin, die!’.”

Vlad the soldier said proudly that opposition in and around Okhyrka had helped slow the Russian invasion in its first hours. “They didn’t expect it. We destroyed them.”

But taking the city still matters to the Russians. And if they can’t occupy it, they may choose to flatten it.

Kuzmenko, who was elected a year and a half ago, had intended to focus on Okhyrka’s renovation and on sorting out the holes in its poor roads. Now he was examining bomb craters and dispatching people to risk their lives as they tried to repair gas, water and power supplies under heavy fire.

“Okhtyrka is the frontier between civilised and uncivilised worlds. It’s us who are stopping this criminal advance,” he said.

His crater-side pleas were familiar. Ukraine’s skies needed to be closed off and the 1994 Budapest memorandum – under which Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal in return for security assurance from Russia, the US and the UK – needed to be upheld, he said.

Facebook Twitter The House of Culture on Sumska Street, bombed on 7 March. Photograph: Nataliya Gumenyuk/The Guardian

He was not asking for humanitarian aid: Ukrainians could look after themselves, he said. “Install a no-fly zone,” the mayor insisted, admitting he had not been precisely sure what that entailed until a month ago. This was not about international security, he said, it was about protecting his people.

Curfew was approaching but there was still time for a few more stops on the tour. As we moved from site to site, the mayor allowed himself glimpses of how Okhtyrka would look “after the victory”. In the ruins of the railway station, he envisioned a splendid new building made of glass.

In spite of the ceaseless bombing, the deaths and the daily funerals, Kuzmenko was not the only one looking past the debris of the present and towards a phoenix-like future for Okhtyrka.

When would the war be over, we asked Halyna, the lab assistant. “Honestly, I believe that when the tulips bloom, the war will end. I believe it,” she said.

“I see how the town is dying in front of our eyes, but we’re young, and those who have left will return to rebuild it. Our dear Okhtyrka will stand, and our Ukraine will last. We will welcome spring with joy. We will go to our beaches. We will take a rest in our green meadows and hills. We will enjoy the beauty here.”

Nataliya Gumenyuk is a Ukrainian journalist and the director of Public Interest Journalism Lab