The ghost district. When will life return to Northern Saltivka?
26 July, 2022
Residents of Northern Saltivka walk past a destroyed house Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

Northern Saltivka resembles Prypiat. According to the most optimistic estimates, less than a thousand people remained in this district, out of almost 200 thousand people who lived there before the war. Since hostilities no longer take place in the immediate proximity to Kharkiv, electricity, water, and gas supply has been partially restored, and some people have been gradually returning to their homes. But no one knows when this area will become comfortable and safe to live here again.

"The fare in transport is 20 hryvnias ($0,5, ed.), and everyone should pay. Where are you going?!" the driver shouts loudly to the man who, together with a group of other elderly people, enters minibus number 259.

Kharkiv residents reluctantly get money out of their wallets, but the man refuses and, after a collective quarrel, eventually comes out to wait for the red bus, which is municipal transport: it is infrequent, but it is free. Today, a minibus is the only means to get to Northern Saltivka without calling a taxi, but even 20 hryvnias is a lot of money for many residents of this district.

Falling asleep to the sound of Grads, waking up to the eerie silence

Northern Saltivka is one of Kharkiv's youngest and most densely populated districts. It appeared in the mid-80s of the last century. Today it is the most significantly damaged part of the city, but the first thing that strikes the eye here is not the ruins but the almost complete silence and the absence of people and cars on the streets. This silence is constantly broken only by distant explosions from artillery shots and MLRS. It's the only place in Kharkiv where you can hear them so well, but people have long been used to this background.

A smashed car near a missile crater in Northern Saltivka / Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

"I fall asleep to the sound of Grads and wake up to the eerie silence," Valentyna tells me while we, together with several dozen other residents of Northern Saltivka, wait for breakfast, which is delivered here daily by volunteers of the «Vidrodzhennia» church.

Valentyna could not stand the constant shelling and left on April 1, lived in the private sector with her sister, and returned exactly three months later, when water and power supply were restored in their house.

"There is no place like home. The first night, I slept like a baby here, I just passed out. I was in my own home, where I was born," the woman smiles. But she refuses to be photographed, fearing that journalists may show where people gather in Saltivka, and then a "gift" from the Russians will land there.

Municipal enterprise employees cover broken windows with chipboard in Saltivka / Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

At the next entrance of the house, three men in overalls of the municipal enterprise cut chipboard sheets and nail them to the windows, preparing the house for the heating season. They do this all over Kharkiv; there is no way to change windows while there is constant fire very close by. In one day of work, the municipal enterprise employees finish the entire entrance of a nine-story building.

At half past eleven, a white minibus with the inscription "evacuation" finally arrives. Vyacheslav Khramov, "Vidrodzhenya" pastor, and his assistant take out two large churns of vegetable soup. A short prayer — and in 10 minutes, the dish is distributed in pots and bowls to those who need it.

The queue for humanitarian aid from volunteers in Saltivka / Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

The nearest grocery store is three kilometers away from Northern Saltivka, and you need to go there on foot. But it doesn't matter, because there is no money anyway. Therefore, Saltivka lives only thanks to volunteers. Someone always comes here — three times a day.

"No one starved to death here during the war"

"In the first days of the war, we were not helping people with soup, we were taking them away from shelling, recalls pastor Vyacheslav Khramov. It was scary to take them to the train station. Imagine a train station full of people and lots of children. Mothers are crying, children are crying, forcing their way into these cars. I stood there and prayed that they would leave." 

Meanwhile, bomb shelters were equipped for the residents who could not be taken out: in addition to the roof, we had to provide food. So the idea of cooking came up. Every day, 150 liters of soup are cooked in the courtyard of the local house of prayer, but, according to the pastor, on the day of our conversation, 300 liters were cooked.

Pastor Vyacheslav Khramov, resident of Northern Saltivka / Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

On the most difficult days, when volunteers couldn't reach Saltivka, people cooked over a campfire, recalls one of those who stayed here despite the danger. Now, there is no gas supply in many houses because the pipes are seriously damaged.

"During the war, no one starved to death here. That was my job as a pastor. I would like us to become kinder after the war so that these people start cooking food for themselves and others." Vyacheslav Khramov smiles.

He jumps up and sits in the minibus because people are waiting for them at the next location.

A smashed window of the Saltivka school / Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

How to study under fire?

Kharkiv schools are constantly under fire, and several buildings have been completely destroyed. School No. 164 in Northern Saltivka was lucky, says its director Larysa Borshchyk: only windows and communications were damaged. The man in the yard is cleaning up the broken glass, and the windows will soon be covered with chipboard. But of course, we are not talking about resuming the proper educational process. 

In the first days of the war, several hundred people were hiding here from shelling. The educational process was resumed only in April. During this time, many children left the country and began to study abroad without stopping their studies at the institution they had been attending. Since the beginning of the war, only about ten students have left the school, Larysa Mykolaivna reports with pride in her voice. We chose the time of online classes so that everyone was comfortable.

A destroyed facade of a residential building in Saltivka / Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

Restoring on your own

The schoolgirl I meet after an hour of wandering around Northern Saltivka studies at this school No. 164. She confirms that her studies were fine, but without live communication with her peers, no lessons are a joy.

Her father, Serhii, and his neighbor Oleh came to replace the water pipe in the basement of the house on their own so that the water supply could be restored. The girl plays nearby, cutting rings from pieces of plastic pipes, having nothing better to do.

In the house where these people had lived before the war, the windows and the entrance were damaged, and the gas pipe turned into a sieve, without replacing it, the house cannot be fully returned to operation. But the residents decided not to wait for the municipal enterprise employees and started repairs themselves. First, we got organized through the house residents' chat, we arrived and cleaned the house territory. And now Serhiy and Oleh are changing the water pipes that cracked because of frosts at the beginning of the war, then they will arrange water supply in the house themselves.

A man on a training device in Saltivka / Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

"I have a lot of friends who don't want to stay in Europe anymore because they miss home," Serhii admits. But he understands that while there is a war near Kharkiv, no repairs will make everyone come home.

His words are confirmed by a neighbor passing by: "You go to bed and think about whether shells will land here or not." At the same time, even here, no one is hiding when there are messages about air raid alerts: if we get hit, so be it.

A resident of Saltivka makes repairs in a residential building himself / Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

"Where are you going? The Nazis will kill you!"

Serhii left on the first day of a full-scale war. He planned to take his family to the village of Prosyanka, in the Kupiansk district, and come back. But the next morning, the village was already occupied by Russian troops.

"We stayed there for two months. The whole village hated me because we collected money for the Armed Forces of Ukraine through my Instagram, which has 3,5 thousand followers," Serhii laughs. 

The Russians did not settle in Prosyanka. We drove in columns, took away tractors and trucks from locals, gathered former military men we found among the village residents, and moved on.

A crater from a Russian missile on a street in Northern Saltivka / Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

In the second month of the war, Serhiy's family managed to get out of the village of Prosyanka with the last evacuation column. As they drove, Russians with weapons in their hands shouted through the window of each car: "Where are you going? The Nazis will kill you!"

A destroyed residential building in Northern Saltivka / Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

A house that was supposed to protect two hundred people

Most of the destroyed houses in Northern Saltivka are near the ring road. This area was the closest to the zone of direct fire. The house on Nataliia Uzhviy Street, 82 has become a sad symbol of Saltivka. This 16-story building can most often be seen in photos from the district.

At the beginning of the war, about two hundred Kharkiv residents were hiding in the basement here, says Kateryna. Until February 24, she had lived in a neighboring house. 

And today, I came to pick up my things from the ruined apartment. 

Kateryna, a resident of Northern Saltivka / Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

"It was very scary. We were trying to calm the children down, give food to the elderly. No transport was coming here. Only once — on the fifth day, a car stopped by and threw some bread on the curb," she recalls.

Kateryna left Saltivka on the seventh day of the war, taking only winter boots and a down jacket from her clothes. The next day, the 16-storey building was hit by a shell for the first time, and everyone who was hiding in the basement left the building. 

A destroyed residential building in Northern Saltivka /Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

When Kateryna first returned to her house and something exploded nearby, her dog immediately ran to the basement of the "panel building," although it was already completely destroyed.

A burnt-out residential building in Northern Saltivka / Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

What's next?

Serhiy Filchakov, head of the Kharkiv Regional Prosecutor's Office, reported that as of mid-June, 35 people were killed, and 61 were injured due to shelling in Northern Saltivka. Two hundred buildings, 70% of all residential buildings, were destroyed.

A graffiti on the wall of a residential building / Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

In the courtyard of one of the houses, a woman slowly pulls out a weed that has sprouted through the asphalt on the playground during the war. This is Svitlana. She also left Northern Saltivka, but returned at the first opportunity.

"I am a construction worker, and I think the area can be more or less restored, she says. But those who have gone far are unlikely to return while the situation is so uncertain."

Author: Oleksandr Khomenko