KHARKIV – In the dust, debris and the dead lying in Kharkiv’s central Freedom Square, Ukrainians on Tuesday saw what might become of other cities if Russia’s invasion isn’t countered in time.
Not long after sunrise, a Russian military strike hit the center of Ukraine’s second-largest city, badly damaging its symbolic Soviet-era regional administration building. Closed-circuit television footage showed a fireball engulfing the street in front of the building, with a few cars rolling out of the billowing smoke.
“You cannot watch this without crying,” a witness said in a video of the aftermath, verified by The Associated Press.
An emergency official said the bodies of at least six people had been pulled from the ruins, and at least 20 other people were wounded. Two bodies lay side by side on the cobblestones near an abandoned car. One was barefoot and wrapped in a blanket. The other, in military-colored clothing, had a clenched fist.
It wasn’t immediately clear what type of weapon was used or how many people were killed, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said there were dozens of casualties.
Zelenskyy called the attack on the Freedom Square “frank, undisguised terror. Nobody will forgive. Nobody will forget. This attack on Kharkiv is a war crime.”
It was the first time the Russian military had hit the center of the city of 1.5 million people whose residential neighborhoods have been under shelling fire for days. The Ukrainian emergency service said it had put out 24 fires in and around Kharkiv caused by shelling, and it had disabled 69 explosive devices.
The attack Tuesday also hit a tent encampment on the central square that had been set up to collect aid for the volunteer Ukrainian fighters who have rushed to Kharkiv's defense. In recent days, volunteer guards had occupied the regional administration building as part of those efforts. It was feared that some volunteers were now among the dead.
The crumpled tents remained a flash of yellow and blue in the vast gray square.
“It’s just barbarity, that’s how I see this war,” said Boris Redin, one of the encampment's coordinators. “(The Russians) are surely losing because they don’t have any other arguments besides missiles and heavy weapons.”
At the administration building itself, windows were blown out. Ceilings had collapsed. Concrete dust added another layer of grim, gray desperation. A nearby car was crushed.
As soot-faced emergency responders picked through the debris, there was fresh anger.
“This is for those who were waiting for a Russian peace! This is what you wanted, yes? Many injured,” one said.
The Russian military has denied targeting Ukrainian civilians, despite abundant evidence that it is shelling residential buildings, schools and hospitals.
“(The military) takes all measures to preserve the lives and safety of civilians,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday. “I would like to stress that strikes are carried out only on military targets and uses exclusively precision weapons.”
Unconvinced by such assurances, one Kharkiv hospital has moved its maternity ward to a bomb shelter, where pregnant women paced in the gloom. The cries of dozens of newborns echoed off the thick concrete walls. Electrical cables dangled. Rolled-up mattresses were placed against windows to protect residents from glass shards if explosions land nearby.
As the shelling in Kharkiv intensified, one family spent a fifth day in another shelter beneath the city. Water bottles and backpacks were stocked in the basement. A military-style helmet hung on a shelf, and underneath it a boy looked at a phone. Boredom mixed with fear.
“It is a nightmare, and it seizes you from the inside very strongly. This cannot be explained with words,” said Ekaterina Babenko, the mother of the family.
She could hardly believe the Russian attack was occurring in Kharkiv and tearing its neighborhoods apart.
“My friend who lives in the suburb Gorizont, a few hours ago, the house next to hers was hit and several floors were destroyed,” Babenko said. “And for some time, there was no connection with her. Those were scary minutes, very scary.”
For her family and others still sheltering in the city close to the Russian border, the world above was changing too quickly to comprehend. Warehouses, homes, garages, cars, all were burning.
“Sveta, let’s go,” one man urged in a video that showed the shelling Monday of a residential area in Kharkiv.
“Go, I’ll catch up with you,” the woman says.
“Leave, for God’s sake!” the man pleaded.
Other residents were already flowing west, hoping to leave Ukraine altogether.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine