Dispatches from Ukraine: 'We have no choice but to survive'

As urban warfare intensifies in Ukraine’s second-largest city, messages from Cincinnati’s Sister City, Kharkiv, have dwindled since the bombs started falling.

One of the latest dispatches came from an underground shelter in the city of 1.4 million: “We’re praying to live,” Iryna Bakumenko wrote somberly.

Members of Cincinnati-Kharkiv Sister City Partnership watch the situation hour by hour, hoping their friends are safe in the bomb shelters of the city 26 miles from the Russian border.

The group’s president, Bob Herring, was not surprised to see Ukraine’s army and civilians vigorously fight back.

Leading up to the invasion, his Kharkiv friends told him, “We're going to defend our country. We don't want to be part of Russia. We don't want to be dominated by them or under their thumb. We're proud to be Ukrainian, even though we may be of Russian ethnic descent or Russian as our first language. We're Ukrainian and Ukrainian patriots, and we're going to defend our country.”

Ann Lampe, of CKSCP, could not fathom what it is like to shelter in a subway tunnel. Her friend Nadia Klymyshyna told her: “Today I volunteered here as some food was delivered and I helped to distribute it.  It was nice. I had a kilo of sugar and a spoon and I shared it among many. There are some foreigners here. I spoke English, they felt happy.”

Nadia returned to her Kharkiv flat on Sunday because the metro was closed. “I think I am safe, but the situation is unpredictable,” she told Lampe. “Some towns in Kharkiv region are occupied by Russians so it means that the war is on, and we don’t know what the night is bringing. … I hope we will be safe this night.”   

Herring suspects his Kharkiv friends are under “tremendous stress” seeking shelter and food, worried whether their homes have been hit. No wonder messages have tapered off.

Messages from Kharkiv came fast and furious after dictator Vladimir Putin announced Russia’s “special military operation” — in other words, an invasion. Here are their words, shared by members of Cincinnati-Kharkiv Sister City Partnership. All timestamps are in Cincinnati time.

As Invasion Starts, A Flurry Of Dispatches From Kharkiv
Iryna Bakumenko, 1:09 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 24: We have been woken at 5 a.m. by the sounds of bombing. We prepare our documents.  No school, no work today.  (Mayor) Terekhov is with the people! I love you all.

Nadia Klymyshyna, 3:09 a.m. Thursday: It is not a good morning. But we are staying at home. 

Everything works — electricity, internet, transport, shops. Schools and kindergartens are closed, the center of the city looks and feels the same, there were sounds of explosions in the morning, but we didn't see anything and don't know much, we are getting the news that our army is stopping the invasion. But no details. … Thanks for your voice, we will keep in touch.

Andriy Klymyshyn, 3:15 a.m. Thursday: Well, at about 5 a.m. I heard sounds of war. Explosion. But not near. Somewhere at the edge of the city. I did not know what to think and what to do. I decided to wait and checked Facebook for information. Didn’t find any. Later some info started to come and in about two hours I knew that Russia had attacked our military infrastructure and attacked the border. From Belarus also. 

Lots of people try to move out of the city. People try to store some food and water. Take money from banks.

We are trying to stay calm and get proven information of what is actually going on. 
No panic on the streets. No tanks yet. [The] Army is fighting.

We need, I think, some international help. Now. Sanctions. Armor. Demonstrations at Russian embassies. I don’t know.

Denys Tkachov, 3:35 a.m. Thursday: Dear American friends! The situation is really quite scary. We were woken up by several explosions next to Kharkiv at 5 a.m. … It's a full-scale invasion by bloody Russians.

Valeriy Bakumenko, 5:57 a.m. Thursday: Schools and kindergartens are closed. Vitally important services and factories are working as usual. Kharkiv air shelters … are in the adequate condition. Banks, shops, public transport, water, heating, electricity OK with fighting just 5km away! The mayor is always in contact with people visiting major sites, meeting people, giving press conferences.

This week, Andriy Klymyshyn updated the scene and answered questions via email: The city has been hit very badly ... My neighborhood has many buildings damaged or destroyed completely (well, they have walls, but nothing inside them), but not every building, so far. My own building (big and old block of flats) has some holes in the roof and many broken windows. My flat is intact, so far.

Q: Do you plan to stay? Yes. Don’t want to look scared and be forced to run away. I stay to see what is going on and what will happen later. This is my city and my country.

Q: Do you and your neighbors have enough food and water? What are you eating? Yes. No starvation in Kharkiv, so far. We have humanitarian aid points and some shops are working. I bought some stuff today, for example. No kefir, unfortunately, but I will survive without it, I think.

Q: How do you get information about the war? I have Telegram, YouTube, radio. Do not have TV for about 10 years or more. Internet is enough.

Q: Are Russians targeting the hospitals? I have no idea what exactly they are targeting, but some were damaged definitely.

Q: What is the mood in your neighborhood? To survive. Most people are angry.

How Cincinnati Came To Care So Much About Kharkiv
The Cincinnati-Kharkiv Sister City Partnership formed in 1989. Dozens have visited Kharkiv since the 1990s and hosted Ukrainians in their homes. Members have exchanged business, cultural, and educational practices. Judith Meredith, a former president, has been to Kharkiv 10 or 11 times, “including on 9/11, when several of us went over to open the American Center in Kharkiv.”

In more stable times, 2018, Susan Neaman, Pat Cleveland and Herring, the group’s president, were in Kharkiv and met with the Kharkiv Baseball Team. “These guys were introducing baseball to Kharkiv, and we were able to bring them some equipment,” Herring recalls.

Cincinnati’s Sister City members shared reactions to the invasion starting on Thursday. Some were stunned, some not surprised. All are heartbroken.

Frank Clark, 4:24 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 24, start of the invasion: I was not surprised when I learned of the invasion. I have been watching this unfold for weeks. I knew Putin was lying from the beginning when he said this was just a training exercise. I was in Kharkiv in 2000 with Roxanne Qualls and a delegation from Cincinnati. It breaks my heart to see what is happening to those wonderful people and their beautiful country.

Jay Dewitt, 7:02 p.m. Thursday: Presented a seminar on real estate brokerage practices in Kharkiv in 2003. Been on the board since. At that time realtors were often occupied in brokering, say, one room in a two- or three-room apartment. Toilet facilities and a tiny kitchen were shared. No mortgage money for housing. Much has changed since then, and I believe we Sister City folks played a significant role in upgrading civic and governmental roles. 

Steve Hirschberg, 7:14 p.m. Thursday: Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine tragically reminds me of Sept. 1, 1939, the day on which Adolf Hitler launched an unprovoked attack on a peaceful, sovereign neighbor, Poland. Let us hope that Putin’s aggression does not plunge the entire continent of Europe into war. I hope Putin is not that crazy.

My colleagues and I have found (our Ukrainian visitors) to be warm, friendly, intelligent, and talented people who sincerely love their independent, democratic country and want it to thrive. Now I fear for their safety and their future.

The very thought that Russian tanks could come rolling into our sister city or that Russian artillery could potentially turn such a beautiful and historic metropolis into rubble truly sickens me.

Mike Burns, 8:05 p.m. Thursday: I am very distressed by the Russian aggression in Ukraine, and especially in Kharkiv which has apparently been impacted more than other areas of the country at this stage of the invasion. I, like many, hoped that Putin would not take such drastic steps to try to influence Ukraine's autonomy and democracy. … Colleagues and friends in Kharkiv …  certainly did not envision that he would invade. They hoped for a diplomatic solution. Now many are hunkering down in their basements and in subway stations and bomb shelters with air travel shut down and roadways too crowded to leave. My thoughts and prayers are with them.

Jay Dewitt, 11:04 p.m. Thursday: Putin’s paranoia/admitted insecurity will be his undoing. He can’t sustain his aggression.

Ann Lampe, 11:42 p.m. Thursday: I am worried for all our Ukrainian friends, and especially for those with children. Fortunately, I am receiving updates via What’s App, but who can rest easily while viewing a video of distant shelling filmed from a Kharkiv residence or not have one’s heart ache at the sight of a friend’s two young children and wife sitting in a bare, brick basement, utilizing it as a makeshift bomb shelter while wondering what the next hours will bring?

Gail Bason, 8:28 a.m. Friday, Feb. 25: I am totally devastated by the news. I have hosted many Ukrainians in my home over a decade or so and have loved learning about Ukraine. … In the last several years the visiting Ukrainians have been young, 20s to 30s, beautiful, full of life, eager to learn about the U.S. and specifically how we Cincinnatians manage our media, small governments, utilities, and other contemporary issues. They are decidedly pro-Western democracy.

Matthew Lehman, Newport, 11:44 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 27: My family lived in Ukraine for almost five years from 2005 to 2010.  I worked in our company’s Kyiv and Kharkiv offices, where we employed about 100 team members for seven years.  I also traveled extensively throughout Ukraine on business, working with medical research collaborators. One of our strongest research partners was the National University of Pharmacy in Kharkiv, around the corner from the Cincinnati Sister City offices. 

We have maintained close friendships with so many in Ukraine. …  Every man I know, and many women — shopkeepers, receptionists, teachers, doctors, and nurses — have taken up arms to defend their communities.

We hope for a quick resolution to Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression, but great damage is already done. 

For Americans who want to assist Ukrainians, I can recommend websites of two effective organizations: Global Empowerment Mission and Razom for Ukraine.  These events are a reminder of the price of freedom, and we should recognize the bravery and sacrifice of our Ukrainian allies. (Lehman is a Democratic candidate for Kentucky’s 4th congressional district.)

Sunday Messages Tell of Street Fighting and Hellish Days
Nadia and Valeriy get through to Cincinnati Sister City president Bob Herring on Sunday. The news from Kharkiv is grim.

Nadia Klymyshyna, 3:36 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 27: We are hanging in there. Everything that is happening is not OK at all, but we have no choice but to survive. That's all we do — me and Arsenly in the subway. This night we slept in the carriage of subway with lots of other people. It is like you are on the train and it is your destination, but you shouldn't go home as it is not safe. (Note: Nadia has since moved to a safe place, according to her husband.)

I don't understand how it finishes. It has been three hellish days and I want it to be over, but I don't see how. What is the resolution? I see now the whole world is against Putin, but it doesn't look that it helps. … It is very dangerous in Kharkiv, shooting in the street. Our city is getting ready to fight the Russians inside the city.

Valeriy Bakumenko, 4:36 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 27: It’s been the hardest 36 hours with heavy bombing and shelling and then they tried to penetrate the city. Street fighting was everywhere, now coming to an end. Our troops and civil defense militia are sweeping the few streets where you can still see the horde. Many houses were destroyed, old people, women, and children killed.

You can see unexploded shells and missiles near kindergartens and schools and on street playgrounds and stadiums. Barbarians.

Love to all your family and those who know us.