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

KHARKIV, Ukraine - The morgue in Kharkiv was overflowing.

In the courtyard outside, scores of black and green bodybags were stacked along two of its walls. On the other side, dozens morevictims of Russia’s assault on this eastern city lay exposed to theelements.

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

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

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

But failing in their attempts to enter the city for the pastthree weeks, Russian forces have rained down a daily shower ofartillery fire, missiles and rockets, which appear to strike at randomin civilian neighborhoods. The Washington Post also witnessed evidenceof cluster bombs being used in the area around the main market in thecity center.

Officials here said at least 250 civilians have died, butthat 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 forother Ukrainian cities that hold out against Russian forces.

“It’s hell,” said Maxim Chicholik, 41, as he waited outsidethe morgue to pick up the body of his 48-year-old brother, who he saidwas decapitated and had his arm blown off by shelling as he walked tothe store to buy food. His brother’s wife and children had just fled thecountry that day.

Even in the icy temperatures, the stench of death from thebodies in the nearby yard had started to sour the air of the streetoutside.

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

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

At a checkpoint on a desolate, potholed road into the city -one of the few safe remaining passages in and out - a Ukrainianterritorial 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 interviewon the move on one of the city’s streets, concerned that staying in oneplace for too long could risk a Russian strike. There are around 70hits on the city from projectiles including rockets and artillery perday, he said.

Even in the city center, the thwack of artillery fire canthunder with such ferocity that it reverberates though the ground andbuildings. After heavy bombardment on Monday night, a newly spentcluster bomb carrier was wedged into the pavement outside the city’scentral market.

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

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

Multi-launch rockets known as Grads, which fire volleys ofunguided projectiles, have also been used regularly against Kharkiv’sresidents. Grad is the Russian word for hail. And the hail falls everynight.

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

The exact civilian death toll in Kharkiv is hard topinpoint. Kharkiv police say 250 civilians have been killed, including13 children, since the start of the war. But the police count includesonly those the force documents itself.

Nikolaevich said the morgue isn’t counting. “We don’t keepstatistics,” he said. “We don’t have the spare hands. We will count whenpeace comes.”

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

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

Whatever the official toll, everyone agreed there are countless more bodies yet to be retrieved.

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

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

He thought they were somewhere in the remains of a basementbar. A picture of Edgar Allan Poe on the wall was splattered with muckfrom the force of the explosion.

“We found one over here under the fridge,” Horbikov said. Hedoesn’t know if the dead were civilians or members of the territorialdefense. Many were civilians until just three weeks ago when they tookup arms to defend their country. Wednesday was his second day pullingbodies from the building.

They had to call off their work on Tuesday because thebombardment made it too dangerous. But in the most heavily hit areas ofthe city’s north, they are barely able to work at all - there isn’tenough 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 victimshad yet to be retrieved.

“There are still bodies under there,” said Oleh Supereka, aterritorial defense volunteer who was in the building at the time of theexplosion, 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 stillventured onto the streets in a daily hunt for food. With incomes slashedand supplies scarce, people waited in lines for handouts for nine or 10hours. 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 thefront. She’d been hoping for food.

The sound of explosions rumbled in the distance. Those whocan spend much of their time underground, with thousands setting up campin the city’s subway stations.

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

She didn’t expect to need to flee again and still considersit, but she said she has nowhere to go. “They are bringing panic,” shesaid, sitting in an apartment building basement where she now sleepswith her 11-year-old daughter, Taissya. Lena goes home sometimes to feedthe 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. Abouta 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 andmedicine to those in need and also sleeps in the basement, said hethought they should have enough supplies for a few weeks. But everyonewas nervous about what could lie ahead.

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

For now, the front lines are holding. Melnik Yuri, 47, whois serving with the Territorial Defense Forces on the city’s fringes,was at the morgue to pick up documents recording his 80-year-oldgrandmother’s death. Her body had been picked up a day earlier andburied, but he hadn’t been able to get away from the battle to attendthe 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.”

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The Washington Post’s Anastacia Galouchka contributed to this report.