Eerie and desolate: it’s hard to believe that Saltivka used to be the most densely populated not only in Kharkiv, but also in Ukraine. The war changed everything, the city was one of the first cities to face the attack of the invading Russian military. Results are clearly visible in the neighbourhood: even today, 80% of the windows are covered with wooden boards. With the help of the Ukraine Humanitarian Fund and Hungarian Interchurch Aid, this is about to change for the better. During the spring, HIA has handed out vouchers that residents can use to buy construction materials – and today, they came to monitor the results.
Saltivka’s playgrounds are empty and quiet: children’s laughter – once an essential part of the courtyards of the district – is uncommon these days. Barricade tape lines the school yard opposite the house the team is about to enter, informing people that it is still dangerous to go where children used to play before. The house is in somewhat better shape, though all the walls of the entrances and corridors are covered with black char from a fire that occurred as a result of a direct shell hit. The smell of smoke and burning still lingers in the staircase, a reminder of the terrible experiences residents had to live through during the siege of Kharkiv.
The monitoring team arrived just as the remaining windows in Mykhailo’s apartment were being replaced with new ones. When the repairman starts to demount the damaged window, he also gets to work: despite his respectable age, he carries the remains of the heavy wooden frames. “My wife and I survived two missile hits” says Mykhailo as he helps the technician to replace the windows. “When the glass of the windows shattered due to the first attack, I covered them with wooden board myself because it was very cold. After the second attack, the authorities helped us. The windows of the balcony were all blown out, and the windows of the big room were saved by my homemade barricades made of soft sofa cushions – I covered the windows with them on time, before the second attack.”
Mykhailo and his wife Olga survived terrible events in their apartment: first, rocket attacks, then a fire that could not be extinguished for several hours due to the ongoing combat near their home. They were unable to evacuate in time because of Olga’s paralysis from Parkinson’s disease. “We were sitting in the corridor and were already saying goodbye to each other because we thought we would choke to death on the smoke”. The fire from the first level started to suffocate them as smoke reached their apartment on the ninth floor – fortunately, they were both able to be evicted in the end.
Ever since, they had to rely on friends for shelter as the flat could not be heated. “Now my wife is in a safe place, we have been living at our friends’ house for more than a year. We have been accepted as family, but you understand how difficult it is to live away from home, and to bother your friends with your presence, especially when my wife is a bedridden patient. She has been ill for a long time, so I have been taking care of her for more than 10 years. I am 75 years old, and now, in addition to caring for her, I got a job as a street janitor to support our family budget. I didn’t know how to prepare the apartment for winter and didn’t expect anyone to help us replace the windows, because I was so used to relying on myself.”
Now Mykhailo and Olha hope for coming back home, as they have been dreaming of for over a year. “Thanks to the new windows, the apartment will be warm,” says the owner and smiles as he grabs the new window frame. “I’ll renovate the side of the window myself, and get the apartment ready for my wife’s arrival home. And maybe our daughter and granddaughter will come back too, but they are in western Ukraine now.”
Evgeniya Viktorivna is Mykhailo’s neighbor from the 4th floor. She redeemed the vouchers she received from HIA to rehabilitate her damaged apartment, but she keeps them as a great treasure. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am to HIA for helping us replace and purchase the windows. We have just received them and will be installing them in the coming days.” It takes between 35 to 90 minutes to replace windows depending on the damage to the walls – but it means the world for those that have been living in the dark for so long. Saltivka’s dark rooms which have not been exposed to the sun for more than a year are quickly transformed into a bright, peaceful spaces.
As the healing process goes on, Saltivka’s residents are also slowly returning. This is not a full-fledged return to life yet, but the daily danger of rocket attacks is something many Kharkiv citizens put up with in exchange for living in their beloved city. “In the winter of 2022, 4 people lived in the house, now we have 40 people” say the elderly people gathering to observe the team of Hungarian Interchurch Aid staff examining the repairs funded by the Ukraine Humanitarian Fund. With the gradual return of humane living conditions, their future also looks a bit brighter again.