In Ukraine’s second-largest city, a furious rain of bombs and rockets takes a toll: ‘There are no coffins left’

Bodies of killed civilians lie on the ground in front of the city morgue in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on March 16. (Wojciech Grzedzinski/For The Washington Post)

KHARKIV, Ukraine — The morgue in Kharkiv was overflowing.

In the courtyard outside, scores of black and green body bags were stacked along two of its walls. On the other side, dozens more victims of Russia’s assault on this eastern city were exposed to the elements.

Some wore slippers; one had on army boots and fatigues. Pale, bloodied bellies lay open to the skies.

“We need body bags,” morgue director Yuriy Nikolaevich explained. Or at least plastic wrap, he said. There was nothing left to use to hand the dead back to their families: “There are no coffins left in the city.”

The grotesque scene was a small glimpse of the human toll of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine. Just 25 miles from the country’s eastern border with Russia, Ukraine’s second-largest city was an early target in Moscow’s advance.

But failing in their attempts to enter the city for the past three weeks, Russian forces have rained down a daily barrage of artillery fire, missiles and rockets, which appear to strike at random in civilian neighborhoods. The Washington Post also witnessed evidence that cluster bombs were used in the area around the main market in the city center.

Officials here said at least 250 civilians have died, but that is not a full toll, and countless more lie buried under the rubble. It is a grim bellwether of the trajectory that could be in store for other Ukrainian cities that hold out against Russian forces.

“It’s hell,” said Maxim Chicholik, 41, as he waited outside the morgue to pick up the body of his 48-year-old brother, who he said was decapitated and lost an arm in shelling as he walked to the store to buy food. His brother’s wife and children had just fled the country that day.

Even in the icy temperatures, the stench of death from the bodies in the nearby yard had started to sour the air of the street outside.

Before the war, Kharkiv was known as Ukraine’s intellectual capital. With more than 30 universities, it brimmed with hundreds of thousands of students. It was a scientific and cultural hub. But today, the 19th-century architectural gems in its center have been ravaged by missile strikes. Burst water pipes leave a cascade of icicles framing blown-out windows.

Parts of the city were eerily devoid of people. Around half the population, some 700,000 people, have fled, according to the regional administration.

At a checkpoint on a desolate, potholed road into the city — one of the few safe remaining passages in and out — a Ukrainian territorial defense soldier warned of what lies ahead.

“Be careful,” he said. “The sky is on fire there.”

The regional governor, Oleh Synyehubov, met for an interview on the move on one of the city’s streets, concerned that staying in one place for too long could risk a Russian strike. There are around 70 hits per day on the city from projectiles, including rockets and artillery, he said.

Even in the city center, the thwack of artillery fire can thunder with such ferocity that it reverberates though the ground and buildings. After heavy bombardment on Monday night, a newly spent cluster bomb carrier was wedged into the pavement outside the city’s central market.

Due to the indiscriminate nature of cluster bomb munitions, more than 100 countries have banned their use under an international treaty. But neither Ukraine nor Russia is a signatory.

“Can it still explode?” a concerned elderly woman asked as she nervously made her way past. But the carrier had already peppered its submunitions across nearby streets, where firefighters worked to put out the flames from its blast.

Multi-launch rockets known as Grads, which fire volleys of unguided projectiles, have also been used regularly against Kharkiv’s residents. Grad is the Russian word for hail. And the hail falls every night.

“They want to destroy as much as they can,” said Kharkiv’s police chief, Volodymyr Timoshko, whose teams try to secure any unexploded cluster munitions after they fall. “Putin’s like a crazy man cutting down the flowers in the street just because he doesn’t like them.”

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The exact civilian death toll in Kharkiv is hard to pinpoint. Kharkiv police say 250 civilians have been killed, including 13 children, since the start of the war. But the police count includes only those the force documents itself.

Nikolaevich said the morgue isn’t counting. “We don’t keep statistics,” he said. “We don’t have the spare hands. We will count when peace comes.”

But the black body bags in the courtyard are numbered to at least 1,125. The morgue, one of four in the city, takes in around 50 bodies a day, up from 15 or 20 a day before the war and the coronavirus pandemic, Nikolaevich said. But that includes some who died of natural causes. Military fatalities are not usually brought to his morgue. Ukraine does not release figures on its military dead.

Whatever the official toll, everyone agrees that countless more bodies have yet to be retrieved.

“When we see some buildings completely destroyed, there are entire families in those buildings,” said Synyehubov, the governor. “To say who is or isn’t left under the debris is too difficult.”

Volodymyr Horbikov, head of the city’s rescue service, knows that well. His team picked through the rubble of a fresh strike in the center of the city. Three bodies had already been pulled out, and his crew was searching through the rubble for two or three more.

He thought they were somewhere in the remains of a basement bar. A picture of Edgar Allan Poe on the wall was splattered with muck from the force of the explosion.

“We found one over here under the fridge,” Horbikov said. He doesn’t know if the dead were civilians or members of the territorial defense. Many were civilians until just three weeks ago when they took up arms to defend their country. Wednesday was his second day pulling bodies from the building.

They had to call off their work on Tuesday because the bombardment made it too dangerous. But in the most heavily hit areas of the city’s north, they are barely able to work at all — there isn’t enough of a break in the shelling.

Even up the street at the regional administration office, which was damaged in a huge blast March 1, the bodies of all the victims had yet to be recovered.

“There are still bodies under there,” said Oleh Supereka, a territorial defense volunteer who was in the building at the time of the explosion, pointing to a pile of rubble at the end of a hallway.

The coats of workers who never came out still hung near the building’s battered entrance.

Even though going outside was a gamble, people still ventured onto the streets in a daily hunt for food. With incomes slashed and supplies scarce, people waited in lines for handouts for nine or 10 hours. Some still came away empty-handed.

Oksana Levchenko, 38, waited for 5½ hours on Wednesday, starting at 6 a.m., but there were only diapers left when she got to the front. She had been hoping for food.

The sound of explosions rumbled in the distance. Those who are able to spend much of their time underground are doing so, with thousands setting up camp in the city’s subway stations.

Lena, 43, had already fled war once, leaving Donetsk in 2015 as Ukrainian forces battled Russian-backed separatists. The Post is identifying her by only her first name for security reasons.

She didn’t expect to need to flee again and still considers it, but she said she has nowhere to go. “They are bringing panic,” she said, sitting in an apartment building basement where she now sleeps with her 11-year-old daughter, Taissya. Lena goes home sometimes to feed the cat, but Taissya is too frightened to be in the apartment.

The girl sat on a mattress in the corner of the basement, drawing manga cartoons. She is scared when the shelling gets loud. About a dozen residents of the nearby apartments now stay in the basement, too. There used to be more, but many left.

The water supply was cut after a strike the night before.

Borys Shelahurov, 27, who volunteers by ferrying food and medicine to those in need and also sleeps in the basement, said he thought they should have enough supplies for a few weeks. But everyone was nervous about what could lie ahead.

“We don’t want another Grozny here,” he said, referring to Putin’s 1999 near-total destruction of the Chechen capital. “But we don’t want to live in Russia.”

For now, the front lines are holding. Melnik Yuri, 47, who is serving with the Territorial Defense Forces on the city’s fringes, was at the morgue to pick up documents recording his 80-year-old grandmother’s death. Her body had been picked up a day earlier and buried, but he had not been able to get away from the battle to attend the funeral.

She was killed by shelling as she tried to reach shelter in the metro station. His own apartment was destroyed, he said.

“When the war is over, I’ll have no place to go,” he said. “That’s why I’ll stand until the end.”

Anastacia Galouchka contributed to this report.

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