The escape from Kharkiv

Click to play video: 'Kharkiv Diaries: One family’s decision to stay or go'
Kharkiv Diaries: One family’s decision to stay or go
WATCH: harkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, has been bombarded by Russia since the beginning of the invasion. The New Reality documents what Kharkiv is like for the parents of a young toddler as they make the painstaking decision to stay or to go. And we introduce viewers to one of the everyday heroes working to save lives — a Ukrainian braving the bombing campaigns day in and day out, bringing people out of Kharkiv, and bringing in critical food and medical supplies. Krista Hessey reports – Apr 2, 2022

When Oleksii Zavrazhnyi stepped out of his apartment in Kharkiv, he noticed two Grad rockets lodged in the children’s playground where he often takes his 10-month-old daughter.

The playground, built only a year ago, is surrounded by large apartment complexes that house hundreds of people in Ukraine’s second-largest city. But on that morning, Russian artillery rained down on the peaceful neighbourhood.

A Grad missile fell in a children’s playground in Kharkiv, February 28, 2022. Courtesy Oleksii Zavrazhnyi

Zavrazhnyi keeps walking, his cellphone in hand filming everything he is witnessing. He approaches a pool of blood on the sidewalk where another rocket hit a woman who was on her way to a store. Both her legs were torn off instantly by the tail end of the bomb, says a local who witnessed the attack. Nearby, crows pick at what appears to be flesh.

The woman reportedly died in hospital, one of the almost 300 civilians killed in the city since the invasion began.

“Please save us,” Zavrazhnyi pleads in the video. “This shouldn’t happen.”

Before the invasion, Kharkiv was home to nearly 1.5 million people. After five weeks of relentless shelling by Russian forces, the city lies in ruin. Burnt-out cars and debris litter the streets and emergency crews continue to search through the rubble for bodies. Many residents have fled, and those who have stayed behind find refuge in basements and the city’s underground metro.

People are seen in the metro where they spend most of the day out of safety from Russian artillery in Kharkiv, Ukraine on March 31, 2022. Wolfgang Schwan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

After enduring the bombardments for eight days, Zavrazhnyi and his wife decide to pack their things and head to central Ukraine where a friend found them a place to stay. Their car is packed with only the essentials — some clothes, diapers, and a terrified cat. As they bid a goodbye to the city where they had built a life over the last decade, Zavrazhnyi takes in the scale of the destruction.


Russian rockets have wiped out “items from your box of memories,” he says. That cafe where you had your first date? Gone. The park where your child took their first steps? Gone.

“All these small details, they’re destroyed,” Zavrazhnyi says.

Click to play video: 'Exhausted refugees from Mariupol, Melitopol share harrowing journey as they arrive in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine'
Exhausted refugees from Mariupol, Melitopol share harrowing journey as they arrive in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine

From Kharkiv, it’s less than an hour-long drive to the Ukraine-Russia border. The city is largely Russian-speaking and served as Ukraine’s capital in the early Soviet era. From the outset of the war, it was a target for Moscow, which perhaps thought its troops would be welcomed there. Instead, it has remained one of the fiercest battlegrounds of the war.

A view of a destroyed school in Kharkiv on March 25, 2022, during Russia’s military invasion launched on Ukraine. Aris Messinis / AFP

After early defeats and setbacks, Russian forces have employed a ruthless tactic they previously used in places like Aleppo, Syria, and the Chechen capital of Grozny: if they can’t take control of a city, they destroy it with bombs. They target critical infrastructure like hospitals, schools, water and food supplies. On March 11, Russian forces reportedly bombed a care home for people with disabilities in Kharkiv.

More than 400 residential buildings are now uninhabitable, according to the city’s mayor Ihor Terekhov. With stores and services shuttered, the city teeters on the edge of a full-blown humanitarian crisis. When medical and food stocks run low, residents use social media to ask for help.

One of the people who answers the call is Roman Tropin.

He makes the two-and-half-hour drive from Dnipro to Kharkiv a few times a week, carrying with him much-needed medical supplies and food. Tropin is on a military reserve list, awaiting the call to fight. So, he, along with 20 or so friends, banded together to deliver humanitarian aid to Kharkiv and other hard-hit regions.

Roman Tropin does the drive from Dnipro to Kharkiv multiple times a week. Shant Kel Khatcherian / Global News

“To sit and wait, watching how Russians are killing our people, is kind of impossible,” Tropin says. “We are trying to help as much as we can.”

The informal aid network is a lifeline for those trapped in Kharkiv. There’s a critical need for diapers and baby food, Tropin says. He makes stops at multiple locations to drop off supplies: a local hospital and a volunteer centre run out of a school. The group’s members even pay for gas and supplies out of their own pockets but are accepting donations to help cover costs.

Once his van is empty, he picks up people looking to flee the city. On this day, he picked up two families looking to escape the warzone with their young children. The adults huddle into the van, each with a child on their lap and a concerned look on their face. For many, this is just the first leg of their journey west.

“Most of them only have a little suitcase or a briefcase with essentials,” Tropin says. “And everybody has the same question: how and where will they live now? It’s very hard – to see it and to grasp it.”

Two families pack into the back of Roman’s van headed to Dnipro. Shant Kel Khatcherian / Global News

Among many Ukrainians there’s a sense of bewilderment. While many thought a conflict with Russia could indeed happen, in Kharkiv, the reality is far worse than anything they could have imagined.


“My brain still cannot accept that the war is going on and that so many people are dying, and that entire cities are destroyed by bombs,” Tropin says, shaking his head.

So far, Roman’s home of Dnipro has largely been spared. Before the war, he worked as a lawyer and had his hands full with two young boys and a newborn daughter. When the invasion began, his wife and kids went to stay with relatives near the Hungarian border. For him though, staying behind was never a question. “If I can help people, it should be done, and every Ukrainian is feeling the same,” Tropin says.

Roman hasn’t seen his family since the beginning of the war, but he says he video calls with them every day. Courtesy Roman Tropin

Across the country, civilians have banded together in an impressive display of solidarity. Russian President Vladimir Putin had hoped to capitalize on the divisions in Ukrainian society, but instead, he’s brought people together.

“Everybody in Ukraine is united in one family,” Zavrazhnyi says. “That’s how it looks right now. That’s how it feels right now.”

Zavrazhnyi admits that prior to the war, he didn’t feel a strong sense of patriotism for his country but that has now changed. When he saw Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy remain in Kyiv despite the threat of the invasion, and when the country’s military sprung into action to defend Kharkiv, something changed within him, he says.

“A lot of people are scared. Really scared. But the things that make us scared and afraid, they make us powerful and more united,” Zavrazhnyi says.

Oleksii says removing his daughter from danger was his number one priority, but they want to return to Kharkiv as soon as they can. Courtesy Oleksii Zavrazhnyi

Zavrazhnyi and his family are now safely in Kremenchuk in central Ukraine. The occasional military plane flies overhead, but they are no longer awakened by the sound of bombs.

From their temporary home, Zavrazhnyi is already making plans to return to Kharkiv. As soon as Russian forces retreat, he’ll be returning to rebuild and make new memories.

See this and other original stories about our world on The New Reality airing Saturday nights on Global TV, and online.