Kharkiv: Cappuccino near the front

There's breakfast! Everything your heart desires and good coffee. The café is well filled. The staff is quick and professional and easily juggles three languages. The sun is shining, great weather! A few young men are sitting there in shorts, women in dresses and a few men with bulletproof vests and assault rifles next to them. Three days ago a shopping mall next door was bombed. Today we have pancakes. This is not meant to be funny or sensational. It is simply the reality of life for Ukrainians in Kharkiv, a few kilometers from Russian terrorists who want to extinguish their lives. 

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Cafe in Kharkiv (symbolic image)

“Bomb weather” means exactly what the word says: cloud-free skies, which enabled bombers to find their targets easily during the Second World War. A word that has changed its meaning over time. Like “Blockbuster.” Today it is known as a synonym for a movie that is so good that no one is left on the street. Everyone is at the cinema. During the Second World War, it was used to describe a bomb that could destroy an entire block of buildings, including the people on the street. When you drive through a city like Kharkiv, this is what comes to mind. When the sun is shining, when you see a cinema, when you see the people.

People in the cafe

I was here two years ago. In the basement of a hotel, with others, while rockets fell outside. I knew the city completely empty, later hosting one Museum conference and today in this somewhat unclear state. 

“How long is the advance warning time right now?” I ask the people at the next table. The laughs. “About this,” he says, making a two-second siren sound followed by an explosion. His girlfriend adds: “Maybe a minute. So if you're going for a jog, start running. Otherwise…just wait.” Neither she nor I have our body armor on. They probably don't have any. But running around in a vest and helmet all day, in the summer, in a café? Not really my idea of ​​a sunny day either. When it bangs, it bangs. 

There are still children in the city. Few. Often the parents are police officers or emergency services and don't want to leave. Even a child either doesn't take the danger seriously or ignores it. The mother, a doctor, translates: “He says: He just throws his arms in the air and then runs away screaming in a zigzag. He says that doesn't help either, but at least it looks funny." The mother doesn't even try to evaluate it or recommend something else to the child. She is happy that the child can do his nonsense and everyone around is laughing. 

Ask about Scholz

Some young men see that I am from Germany and ask: “Why is your president such an asshole? ...well...don't get me wrong. You're here and you're watching this. But why don't you send Taurus? Or more artillery? We're dying here. We had three funerals. YESTERDAY!” I don’t have an answer ready – even if I understand that you mean Scholz and not Steinmeier. Scholz always justifies watching the murder of Ukraine by saying that it would keep the peace. I can't follow the logic. I have Bush and Yahidne seen. Scholz and we probably define the word peace differently. I try to explain to them that most Germans care about their salary, work-life balance, beer and football. And then gradually topics like her car and the dachshund come up. And if there is still space, you can rant a little about Israel and maybe think about Ukraine. You can't explain it any nicer. They look at me blankly. Unfortunately, I don't have a positive answer and don't want to take part in the self-praise. 

The issue itself is urgent, but we won't be able to resolve it over breakfast. So they ask if I've been there before. Whether I understand the danger despite all the fun, whether I know where the shelter is. Yes, unfortunately I know the danger too well. And when everyone is running, I just run after them. For the most part it works well. If everyone throws themselves down, that's what you do too. Wait for the bang, the blast, the screams, the silence afterwards and then the phones ringing everywhere. Often calls that no one will answer. 

Evacuate children

It's crazy what you learn in such areas and what you inevitably pay attention to. The café has a glass front. If a pressure wave hits you, you will have more cuts than you can treat. When there's a bang, someone has to grab the kids and run. This is also much more difficult in practice than in theory. I'm reminded of the children's evacuation clothing you sometimes see here. 

Evacuation clothing for children
Evacuation clothing for children

Adults wear a normal protective vest and helmet. If children can no longer get out by train but have to be evacuated under fire, they are given protective clothing in signal colors. The dark logic behind it: The child has to be evacuated by someone because he cannot decide for himself where he is safe. If the evacuation vehicle has an accident or the evacuation helper is shot, a well-camouflaged child could be left behind. But if it is clearly visible, the next person will grab it and bring it to safety. 

I ask the group if they have children. Everyone looks away in shock and says: Yes. They all have children. Her friend Oleg had children. I ask her about evacuation clothing. Everyone has a noticeable hat, vest or something similar for the children. Things that you actually wear to kindergarten children so that they stand out in traffic. “When there is an alarm, you write the child’s name on the child. If it is found, you can at least assign it,” explains one. They also show me a photo of an eight-year-old who had to give a saliva sample shortly before at the bombed shopping mall. His DNA is compared to the charred corpses to find his father. How do you explain this to a child? “There’s nothing to explain. “He already knew what it was about,” says one of the men. 

Child giving a saliva sample
Child giving a saliva sample (Which)

And despite all the attacks, Kharkiv, just twenty kilometers from the Russian border, was not taken by Russia. Half of the population is now back in the city. Everything is open. Even the big malls. 

How can you live like that? Why here? Why in a nice café? Because Russia wants to destroy precisely this life, Ukrainian culture and all people. But it does not work. The Ukrainians just carry on. Like in this cafe. With cappuccino and pancakes, just a few kilometers from the front.