Ukraine is in “a very difficult situation,” a senior official of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was recently quoted as saying. As if to underline this assessment, Blinken made a surprise visit to Kiev on Tuesday.

In addition, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky canceled all his foreign trips in the coming days in view of the Russian offensive on the Kharkiv region. At the same time, the mayor of the city stated that there were no plans to evacuate the city itself.

In fact, the situation in the country is confusing given the Russian invasion that has lasted more than two years. The fact is that the Ukrainian military has found itself on the defensive in many places, while the Russian army has repeatedly made small gains in territory. Their constant shelling with rockets and drones, which regularly hits civilian facilities and homes, continues unabated.

In this context, the focus has recently been on Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine. It is the second largest city in the country and has been under constant Russian fire since February 2022. Last week, reports also made the rounds that Russia was planning an offensive on the former city of over a million people.

The approximately 300,000 remaining residents are now used to suffering and constant danger. Kharkiv and its surroundings have been one of the most heavily bombed regions in Ukraine since the start of the war; last spring the Russian army deliberately destroyed the city’s electricity and water supplies. Nevertheless, the number of people holding out in Kharkiv has hardly decreased since the first months of the war.

How do people do that? How do they organize their everyday lives under the hail of bombs, how do they secure their water supply, how do they work without electricity? And: How do they endure the constant danger?

It was 7:15 a.m. when thunder shook the city. A Russian missile fired by Ukrainian air defense explodes over one of the central districts of Kharkiv. Its fragments fall into an administration building, which goes up in flames. The wail of the air raid sirens sounds desperate.

Such situations have long been part of everyday life for the people who live in the area. They rush to a shelter in the nearby subway station to wait out the attack – and then go back to their usual activities. Only the children stay on the subway. They have been learning here in the so-called “metro school” since January 2023; the school was moved to the only reasonably safe place in the city.

The Kasparov family is woken from their sleep in their apartment by the rumbling sound of the explosion. Yulia Kasparova, 45, is a children’s book author and editor at the children’s book publisher “Ranok”. Her husband Dmitry is a system administrator and programmer. The Kasparovs’ apartment is in one of the most unsafe neighborhoods, Saltivka in the north of the city, which has been shot at almost continuously every few hours since February 2022.

The Kasparovs work from home, so they are in no hurry to go anywhere this morning. Not even in the shelter. After looking out the window and assessing the situation, the couple goes back to bed to continue sleeping.

The explosion apparently occurred in a neighboring district. For them, this means something like the all-clear: “The Russians like to strike in the same place several times,” says Yulia Kasparova. “If there is another strike near us, we won’t have anywhere to run anyway, the nearest air raid shelter is a few kilometers away.”

Last month, says Yulia Kasparova, one such “morning rocket” hit a neighboring five-story building. The house was badly damaged and many residents were injured. Everything happened so quickly, people didn’t have time to react. In general, says Kasparova, you can ultimately only rely on fate when it comes to the daily attacks: “The X-59 rockets from the direction of Belgorod, Russia, arrive here within seconds.” You can only go into the hallway or the bathroom run, i.e. places in which there are at least two load-bearing walls.

“When leaving the house, it is important to take an ‘alarm suitcase’ with you, which contains money, documents and other important things,” says Kasparova. Such a suitcase is available in almost every household in Kharkiv, she says: “In the event that people lose their homes in an attack or have to flee the city, it should be occupied.”

There are several reasons why the Kasparovs stayed in Kharkiv at all. Her mother’s illness, says Kasparova, eventually her death and the subsequent care of her father. Escape would have been impossible. Instead, the couple brought their two children and grandchildren to safety in western Ukraine and decided to stay. Also because otherwise the two would have felt as if they were betraying their city: “A city is alive as long as people stay in it,” says Kasparova.

Natalia Burmaka, on the other hand, is surprised by the rocket attack on the street. The 50-year-old works as a pharmacist and has to go to work early every day. She has experienced many rocket attacks, so she knows what to do: She immediately throws herself on the ground and tries to crawl away from the open space. For example to a wall or a concrete wall.

But that’s often not easy in everyday life, as she says: “Once I was on the way home in the evening and it was completely dark because of a power outage.” Burmaka heard a terrible rumble, she says, the sky lit up by lightning, a detonation nearby. More flashes and explosions followed.

“Rockets were hitting everywhere,” says Burmaka. “I was in a public park, the distance to the nearest wall was about 700 meters. I covered this distance in 20 minutes, hiding behind trees and crawling in the darkness, which was lit from time to time by the flashes of explosions. “It was snowing, she remembers, and she was completely soaked terribly frozen. “I thought I was going to die, but I survived.”

At 9 a.m. sharp, Natalie Zubar finishes what she calls her “most important work” – watering her flowers in the morning. Every morning, the 54-year-old takes an hour to tend to her home garden. Zubar, who works in Kharkiv as a journalist and editor-in-chief of the online magazine Maidan, says this saves her from going crazy. By bringing back memories of her old life.

There are more than 50 plants in the large loggia in Zubar’s apartment. She says she likes bonsai hibiscus best. At least 25 can be found in the plant collection. Zubar says she got most of them from the apartments of friends who had left the city.

On one wall of the loggia there are elongated, hollow metal funnels in which cherry tomato bushes thrive. “I built the flower stands from the remains of an RPG-22 Netto,” says Zubar – a Soviet-made anti-aircraft missile. “And the tomatoes self-sown, probably from homemade humus that I prepared for the flowers. Now I can make salad,” says Zubar.

What sounds like a way to pass the time in difficult times has a practical background. Apart from the tomatoes that grow on the balcony, Natalie only has a few groceries in the house: some bread, a few bags of grain, sugar and a can of instant coffee. Because of the constant power outages, it would be pointless to turn on the refrigerator.

Zubar prepares her morning coffee on a gas burner and gets to work when the first air raid siren sounds, as she says. Like most Kharkiv citizens, she no longer responds to this piercing sound that has become part of everyday life – and which now gives structure to her day.

Zubar has a lot to do that day. She has to film a report on the recent devastation, talk to victims, prepare photos for an exhibition about Kharkiv to be shown in the European Parliament and continue to push forward her documentary “Blockpost”.

“I haven’t cooked at home since the war started,” says Natalie Zubar. “I eat on the way to work.” In Kharkiv, more than two years after the Russian attack, there are still many cafes, canteens and inexpensive restaurants that are open from early in the morning to late in the evening. And these are always well attended: “The more frequently and louder the rockets hit here, the more people gather in the catering establishments,” says Zubar. “It’s probably easier to experience the horror of war together.”

A side effect of this unspoken strategy: “I forgot the last time I heard silence,” says Zubar. By this she means the constant noise of the generators that power everything around her: restaurants, shops, offices, post offices and banks. “Generators are installed all over the city and their monotonous hum accompanies Kharkiv citizens everywhere,” says Zubar. “It is very loud.”

At around 2 p.m., when the Kasparov family’s working day is in full swing, there is another power outage in the city. However, Yulia Kasparova hardly notices this. Your laptop is connected to a powerful power bank and continues to work normally. She and her husband own 20 such devices, as well as 20 flashlights, a diesel generator on the balcony, several gas burners for cooking simple meals and a supply of candles and matches.

Fortunately, the mobile internet is quite stable, says Kasparova, and she can essentially work full-time. “We charge our power banks at night when there are only short power outages,” says the children’s book author. “We use them not only to charge our computers, but also for lighting around the house.”

In any case, the power outages are the least of their problems, says Kasparova. The lack of water is much worse. Since Russian attacks on local infrastructure intensified last fall, water supplies may collapse for three to five days. The couple then sets out with ten-liter bottles to fill them up at an old mechanical water pump in the neighborhood.

“We have ten bottles, which is enough for us for three days,” says Kasparova. “Two of us then carry the 100 liters to the ninth floor within just under an hour.” That’s why the Kasparovs use water very sparingly. They only use it for drinking and to occasionally cook an egg or spaghetti. “We wait until there is water in our apartment to wash,” says Kasparova. “If there is no other option, we pour the water on ourselves with a small ladle.”

Shortly after 7 p.m., tears stream down Natalia Burmaka’s cheeks. The pharmacist slowly walks down a street in the city center, enters a shop lost in thought and concentrates on not forgetting to buy fresh bread and dry food for her dog. She has had a hard day at work, she says.

“There are only a few doctors left in Kharkiv and practically no psychologists,” says Burmaka. “People mostly treat themselves, come to the pharmacy to get medication, to share their pain, to seek comfort.”

This means that people primarily come to her with their worries and pain. That morning, Burmaka says, a woman came into the pharmacy and told her that she didn’t want to live anymore. She asked for poison. Her husband died. Shortly afterwards, an older man stood in front of her and said he could no longer live “like a target in a shooting gallery”. He asked for a remedy for the fear.

Burmaka knows from her own experience how demanding everyday life can be under constant fire and a lack of resources – especially when personal losses are added. Last year she lost her parents, both of whom died of a heart attack. Burmaka took antidepressants for several months, barely ate and for a long time only left her apartment when she absolutely had to.

But then she started reading books that reminded her of a happier life. “I am a pharmacist and I know that taking medications over a long period of time can be addictive,” she says. “That’s why it’s better to have an alternative. I’m glad that there are still bookstores in Kharkiv.” Meditation, memories of the pre-war period and breathing exercises also helped her, she says.

Literature also helps Yulia Kasparova, as she says – but its production. When circumstances are particularly adverse and she feels as if she has no strength left, she works on her manuscripts by flashlight until she is exhausted. Sometimes she falls asleep at the desk over her work.

“In March, when the Russians destroyed our thermal power plant, there was no light for weeks, the days were short, the nights were long and cold,” says Kasparova. “That was the first time I understood why people here sometimes take their own lives.” She says she wasn’t at risk of suicide herself. But she no longer saw any point in living in constant fear and terror.

“I started writing a cute children’s book about a dog who gets lost in an attack during the evacuation and has to search for his people for a long time,” she says. She doesn’t just want to help herself. Because if writing saves her from giving up, as she says, then reading could also help the little ones.

Von Yulia Valova

The original for this article “This is how Ukrainians survive in the city that is under constant Russian fire” comes from Tagesspiegel.