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Is Russia Punishing Kharkiv for Resisting? “Brutal Assault” Reduces Homes & Schools to Rubble

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Ukrainian and Russian officials have begun a new round of peace talks in Istanbul, Turkey. Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called for a humanitarian ceasefire to end the war, which began when Russia invaded Ukraine 34 days ago. The Guardian’s Emma Graham-Harrison speaks to us from Lviv, just back from reporting in bombed-out Kharkiv, one of Ukraine’s largest cities bordering Russia, where Putin’s army has launched one of its most brutal coordinated attacks. Graham-Harrison describes how the Russian military is “pummeling” civilian neighborhoods because they have not yet been able to take over Kharkiv.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Ukrainian and Russian officials have begun a new round of peace talks in Istanbul, Turkey. The Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan spoke before the negotiations began.

PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: [translated] Achieving a ceasefire and peace as soon as possible is to the benefit of everyone. We think we have now entered a period where concrete results need to be attained from talks.

AMY GOODMAN: U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has also called for a humanitarian ceasefire to end the war, which began when Russia invaded Ukraine 34 days ago.

SECRETARY-GENERAL ANTÓNIO GUTERRES: Let’s be clear: The solution to this humanitarian tragedy is not humanitarian; it is political. I’m therefore appealing for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire to allow for progress in serious political negotiations aiming at reaching a peace agreement based on the principles of the United Nations Charter.

AMY GOODMAN: In a sign of possible progress, Russia’s deputy defense minister said today Russia would, quote, “fundamentally” cut back military operations near Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.

To look more at Russia’s war in Ukraine, we’re joined by Emma Graham-Harrison, international affairs correspondent for The Guardian. She is joining us from Lviv in western Ukraine, recently reporting, though, from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which has been devastated by weeks of Russian attacks.

Emma Graham-Harrison, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you begin by just taking us to Kharkiv and what you experienced, who you spoke to?

EMMA GRAHAM-HARRISON: Thanks so much for having me on the show.

So, I mean, perhaps we could start with the drive to Kharkiv. You know, as you said, it’s the second-biggest city in Ukraine. And the road up there is the road you’d expect. You know, it’s a huge highway, sort of multiple lanes in either direction, and it’s almost completely empty, because the city itself has become so dangerous. It’s not technically under siege, but we spoke to the governor, and several people from Kharkiv told us they just can’t get drivers willing to bring up food and other supplies, or they struggle to, because the bombardment, the attacks on the city are so intensive that people don’t want to risk going up there. So you drive up this sort of eerily empty road.

And then you go into a city — the Russian troops are focused on the north and the east, so we were driving in from the south, obviously trying not to cross the frontlines. And as you go towards the center, you start seeing the impact of this brutal, brutal assault. I mean, obviously, the worst-hit city in this country is Mariupol, the port city that has been besieged and horribly devastated. But Kharkiv is probably among, you know, those that are competing for the horrible sort of title of being the second most bombed. They sort of announced the assault on Kharkiv by sending a missile into City Hall, which has been completely hollowed out. Firemen are trying to sort of clear the wreckage, make what’s left of the building safe. And they’ve already pulled 30 bodies from the wreckage, and they fear that there are many more people there. And as you drive through town, you see pictures which, for people who have sort of seen images, particularly for Brits who have seen images of the Blitz in World War II, it’s reminiscent of that, because there will be a whole house just missing, sort of punched out by a bomb, or half an apartment building just shorn off, the apartment building open to the sky. And that’s just in the center.

As you go towards the outskirts, where the fighting is most intense, there’s hardly a building that hasn’t been damaged by shelling. The shells are landing all the time. I mean, we were in a residential neighborhood where people are still living, where there’s a Metro station. A lot of people who don’t have bomb shelters or whose houses have been destroyed have moved into the Metro — some, ironically, built in the Soviet era to protect from Western attacks, you know, in the potential Cold War era, now sheltering the people from attacks from Moscow. And just a couple of hours after we left this entirely residential neighborhood, a rocket slammed into a queue of people waiting for food aid. And you can see — we went past a school that had been hit — every building had either, you know, damage, windows missing. But, incredibly, there are still people living there. And perhaps half, two-thirds of the city’s population have left. But the people we spoke to, some of them couldn’t leave, but many of them said they wanted to stay, that there’s a military fight on the frontlines and that they are staying for a sort of a different kind of fight, a fight to keep the spirit of their city alive.

So, we spoke to the governor. We spoke to a poet who’s doing poetry readings. Kharkiv is famous for its sort of literary, cultural, intellectual tradition. And he sees himself in a long line of intellectuals, Ukrainian intellectuals based in Kharkiv, who paid a very heavy price for their intellectual opposition to Moscow — you know, in the Soviet era, poets, writers who tried to define a Ukrainian identity and were purged, many of them executed. And, you know, he sees being there as a poet continuing that resistance as part of the struggle.

We spoke to volunteers, a young couple who had gone to the railway station. They were planning to leave at the start of the war. They saw this huge crowd of people that had all these kids trying to get out. And they said, “We’re young. Other people need to go more than us.” And every day since then, they’ve been collecting donations, just from sort of Instagram, going online. Whatever money they get, they go to a supermarket. They package up small food supplies — they don’t have that much money — you know, some pasta, some cans. And then they go to the worst-hit neighborhoods where people don’t have money, because, of course, the economy stopped with the war. People are running out of things to eat. In some cases, they’re housebound. They can’t get out to what shops are still open. And they’re handing out this food. And, I mean, we saw people running when the van turned up with these parcels, people literally running to get the food. And they said that neighborhood was not even the worst hit, that they’ve been to other parts of Kharkiv where people were fighting for the food because the situation has got so bad. But they are part of this strong community that are determined to stay.

We went out with the rubbish collectors. You’d think, you know, a city under heavy shelling — they’ve been given flak jackets, so they’re going out with body armor protection. But they say, “You know, we’ve got to collect the rubbish, because, actually, if you leave it there, it becomes a hygiene issue. If there’s a lot of rubbish that’s not collected, it’s a morale issue. If there’s piles of sort of stinking trash, people will feel that their city has been abandoned. And so we have to go and keep this spirit of our city alive, while our soldiers are sort of fighting on the frontline,” which is only a few kilometers away.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Emma Graham, you write that there’s a sense that Kharkiv is being punished by Russia for its resilience, its resistance, because it’s managed to hold off Russian troops. Could you expand on that?

EMMA GRAHAM-HARRISON: Certainly. So, I mean, a lot of people that we spoke to there said this to us. I mean, they said, “Look” — you know, for instance, in this very residential neighborhood where the guys were collecting rubbish, it was just apartment blocks, schools, a couple of little shops. Every building pretty much was damaged, including the school. And they said, you know, “Look around you. What is the military target here?” That was very near where this queue of people waiting for humanitarian aid were hit and six people were killed. You know, they said, “What possible military target is there here?” You know, the City Hall, the fact that that was targeted with a missile, the other places we saw that were — you know, many were just individual residences, but, you know, a courtroom, a famous place actually called House of the Word, this sort of literary heritage place — you know, none of them in any way military targets.

And, you know, Kharkiv is a Russian-speaking city. It’s just by the Russian border. Russian troops — it was targeted right at the beginning of the war. The governor of Kharkiv region told us that Russian forces got into the city but were repelled. And the captives that they had spoken to, the Russian prisoners of war, said they had been told, and they expected, particularly because this is seen as a sort of — you know, it was actually a capital of Ukraine; in some ways, it’s seen as a sort of cultural, intellectual capital of Russian-speaking Ukraine — they expected to be welcomed there, expected to be let in, and that because there had been this military success, because the Russian army was not able to punch into Kharkiv, was not able to take it, there was this sort of pent-up fury that the Russian military was unleashing on them, you know, really pummeling these civilian neighborhoods — as we’ve seen, for instance, in Mariupol, you know, neighborhoods that are just homes, where there is no military reason to be hitting these places, you know, to be hitting apartment blocks, to be hitting schools —

AMY GOODMAN: Emma, I wanted to — 

EMMA GRAHAM-HARRISON: — to be hitting —

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to some Kharkiv residents clearing rubble and debris after a school was hit by a missile. They told Reuters Russia had intentionally targeted the civilian structure. One man said he wanted to send a message to his brother in Russia, who doesn’t believe reports that Russia is hitting civilian targets.

KHARKIV RESIDENT 1: [translated] This is a civilian structure. It is a school. They have not been able to take the city, so they decided to destroy it, just like the fascists did. Simply fascist. But what the Russians do now, let them choke on their own body parts. Not even the fascists did things like this. This is very cruel. It is pointless. It doesn’t make any sense. What has a school done wrong? What have the children done wrong? What have I done wrong?

KHARKIV RESIDENT 2: [translated] I looked out of the window. People started panicking, so I came to help my former school. The Russians say they only attack military objects and structures. This is not true. Look here. This is what is really happening. Let everyone see. Let no one say it is fake news.

KHARKIV RESIDENT 3: [translated] I want to send greetings to my brother in Severodvinsk. Here, look, brother, you have liberated your niece, surely a Nazi. As you could see, we are all Nazis. So you have liberated your niece, the Nazi, from her school. Earlier, you have liberated your nephew, also a Nazi, from another school. The missile landed right in his classroom.

AMY GOODMAN: Those are the words of Kharkiv residents. Emma Graham-Harrison, you know, this started with a man trying to address his brother in Russia who didn’t believe the propaganda about what was happening in Ukraine. And I wanted to go to something you tweeted, a petition by journalists calling on Zelensky and MOD — that’s the minister of defense — to end harassment and develop transparent rules of work. Of course it decries Russia’s attack on independent media, but then it goes to the Ukrainian government, and it raises all sorts of issues, like settling the issue of accreditation of journalists from the Ministry of Defense, explaining to the territorial defense units and the Security Service of Ukraine on the ground [what] this accreditation means, also providing all possible assistance to the work of Ukrainian journalists, on a par with foreign media. Can you talk about — and signed by dozens of reporters.

EMMA GRAHAM-HARRISON: So, actually, I mean, I was not involved in drawing that up. I was really trying to use my platform to amplify the voices of Ukrainian journalists. I think it’s really important that their work on the forefront of reporting this conflict in their own country is recognized. So, I think probably I’m not the best person to speak about the petition, just in the sense that I wasn’t involved in drawing it up. But certainly, you know, always in conflict zones, there is — it’s important to make sure that everybody understands and recognizes the work of journalists and that there’s a clear accreditation system so it’s easy for us to prove who we are, that we’re genuine journalists and that we’re doing our job.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you — last night on PBS was one of the few interviews that’s been held with a spokesman for Russia’s President Putin about Russia’s role in the war. And Judy Woodruff asked the spokesman about this issue of the targeting of cities. He denied it. He claimed that — and we’ve heard this before in other wars, including the United States — that the Ukrainian soldiers were using civilian facilities for sniper attacks and for other attacks on Russian troops. Any evidence of that, that you saw? What was the role of the Ukrainian military in the period that you were there in Kharkiv?

EMMA GRAHAM-HARRISON: So, I can say, in the civilian neighborhoods where I personally was and where I witnessed, you know, as I said, very extensive [inaudible] shelling, where there was a death — six deaths, particularly in one neighborhood, I didn’t see any military presence at all of any kind. I mean, there were checkpoints in the city at sort of key junctions and things like that, so clearly there was a military presence in the city. But certainly in the areas that I visited, where I saw, you know, damage and destruction.

And I’d like to say at this point I also went to visit the hospital in Kharkiv, or one of the many hospitals, where, of course, as we’ve seen, there’s been dozens of attacks on healthcare facilities across Ukraine in this war, you know, perhaps most infamously the bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol. But doctors in hospitals are extremely frightened of being targeted, because they’re — or at least of being hit. Of course, Russia says they’re not being targeted, but they’re certainly being hit. Many of them didn’t want to give interviews. They said they were torn between the desire to show the world what was happening to the civilians that they’re treating and their fear that talking about it publicly might put their patients at risk by making them a profile. And that’s, you know, a really terrible, terrible thing to hear.

And the hospital we went to, there was shelling very close. The doctors and nurses had moved in at the beginning of the war and not left. Because of the intensity of the fighting and because of the curfew in the city, they were living there around the clock to treat their patients. You know, they said, “If we go home and it’s a curfew and there’s a big attack and a lot of patients come in, who’s going to look after them?”

And, you know, the people we met there were — the people who have been affected by the shelling, by the war, were certainly civilians — you know, for instance, an 18-year-old girl who was at home when their building — actually, the building next door to them was hit by something very large, so it affected their building. She refused to leave her apartment because her 93-year-old, I believe, grandfather, certainly a very elderly grandfather, is a double amputee. He couldn’t easily get down to the basement bomb shelter. You know, I think everybody can understand that very human desire to be with your loved ones, not to leave them alone. And when the force of the explosion hit, it picked up a door, it tore it off its hinges, and it slammed it into her face. She —

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds. Emma, we want to thank you for being with us. Emma Graham-Harrison works for The Guardian. We’ll link to her recent coverage from Kharkiv. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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