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KHARKIV, Ukraine — Light had finally started to return to the streets of Kharkiv just before the rockets fell.
After more than a year of nightly blackouts, street lights in parts of Ukraine’s second largest city had begun to turn back on this month, bringing hope that life in the city was starting to return to normal. But on Thursday, a massive Russian attack on Ukrainian critical infrastructure temporarily plunged the city back into darkness.
Valentyna Yakimova had been asleep in her bed when the attack began.
Located roughly 25 miles from the Russian border, Kharkiv is regularly struck by rocket fire. Even so, living on the outskirts of the city, Valentyna had not believed her own home was vulnerable.
But at around 4:15 a.m. on Thursday morning, a Russian projectile crashed into a field about a hundred yards from Valentyna’s home, leaving a crater several yards wide.
With a thunderous roar, Valentyna’s windows shattered and the interior of her home ripped apart, she said later that day. In the darkness and confusion, she called out to her sister, Liuba.
In the adjacent bedroom she found Liuba covered in glass, her face bleeding from cuts, Valentyna said. She attempted to carry Liuba, who has been disabled since childhood, but glass and debris covered the floor, making it difficult to walk. The debris also obstructed the front door, preventing it from opening.
Unable to get out, Valentyna contacted her son Serhiy Tkachenko, who lives nearby. Serhiy called emergency services, and first responders soon arrived. They broke through the front door and loaded Liuba into an ambulance to take her to the hospital. Valentyna stayed behind.
“I couldn’t leave everything here, this house like that,” Valentyna said.
While Thursday’s attack was just the latest in a series of strikes on Ukraine’s power grid that have regularly left millions of Ukrainians without electricity, the strike came as something of a blow to Kharkiv’s residents. Just the night before, they had been celebrating when lights along a street near Valentyna’s home had turned back on.
“We were living in complete darkness, and yesterday, when the lights turned on, people went out on the streets and put on music,” said 13-year-old Kiryl, a local boy who lives near Valentyna.
After more than a year of war, Kyril said he was accustomed to such attacks, but he still found the strike on Thursday upsetting. The lights had brought hope that such attacks were coming to an end and that victory for Ukraine was near.
“This was a warning hit for having lights on,” Kyril said.
All day Thursday, people gathered around the massive crater in the field near Valentyna’s home. The site drew onlookers, but the attack and destruction were nothing new. When Russia invaded Ukraine last February, the Kharkiv region had been one of its first targets.
Ukrainian forces managed to repel Russian attempts to seize the regional capital, but Kharkiv sustained heavy damage in the fighting and from subsequent hits from drones and rockets. Regardless, the city has slowly been rebuilding.
In a statement, Russia’s defense ministry said that Thursday’s attack targeting military sites and energy infrastructure was retaliation for alleged attacks on villages in western Russia by Ukrainian saboteurs earlier this month.
After the attack, local officials and public workers visited Valentyna’s home, inspected the damage, and promised to cover the cost of materials for reconstruction.
“The local government really helps us,” Serhiy said.
Over the course of that day, as Valentyna and Serhiy cleaned up debris and boarded up windows in the house, Liuba stayed on their minds. The doctors at the hospital had found a piece of glass inside her intestines, and she would be in the hospital for a few more days.
By afternoon, electricity had been restored in Valentyna’s neighborhood, while much of the rest of the city was still without power. At sunset Valentyna turned on her lights, revealing the bit of progress she and Serhiy had made and the vast extent of work that remained. Wooden panels covered the blown out windows. Glass and debris cracked under her feet as she walked through her home. Valentyna had filled up an entire bucket with the glass from her room alone, but pieces still remained around the house, mixed with other bits of debris.
“This is the Russian world,” she said, referring to a Russian narrative used to justify Moscow’s war against Ukraine.
“Our parents were also fighting in a war,” Valentyna added. “They would turn in their graves if they knew that Russians bomb us and that Germans give us weapons.”