KHARKIV, Ukraine -- Before the rockets rained down on Kharkiv, the sprawling warren of shops known as Barabashova was the biggest market in Europe, and one of the busiest.
Now, Oleksiy Chelyshev's 12-square-meter menswear stall is one of only two tiny stores that are open on a deserted, rubbish-strewn passageway near the edge of the 75-hectare market, swaths of which have been turned to rubble. The rest are shuttered behind corrugated roller screens.
Chelyshev’s decision to reopen was an act of defiance that few of his fellow retailers at Barabashova have undertaken. His stall is one of 15,000 trade and storage spaces at the market, a multicultural hive of commercial activity where more than 90,000 people -- including traders from Vietnam, China, Afghanistan, African countries, and Russia, among others -- worked before the war came to Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city.
“This place is usually full of people. Every shop open. There’s no business here now, but life has to continue,” the 37-year-old said while shutting up shop on a recent weekday afternoon after making only one sale all day.
“I’m not going to let that moron in the Kremlin bring me to my knees,” he said -- a reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
In mid-March, Russian missiles hit Barabashova, reducing 15 hectares of shops and goods to rubble and ashes. According to city authorities, between 20 and 30 percent of the market was destroyed.
But Russian efforts to seize Kharkiv were stymied, and now Barabashova is showing embryonic signs of life again, with a handful of traders like Chelyshev opening their stalls despite the persistent threat. Many of them hail from the nearby suburb of Saltivka.
Home to over one-third of Kharkiv’s 1.5 million residents, Saltivka was the most densely populated area in Ukraine before the February invasion. On the northeastern outskirts of the city just 40 kilometers from the Russian border, it was a key target of Russian forces from the start.
Missiles hit Saltivka's 12- and 16-story white-panel apartment towers on the first day of the onslaught, and it is still being targeted nearly four months later.
In a June 13 report titled Anyone Can Die At Any Time, Amnesty International said it had uncovered proof that Russian forces repeatedly used 9N210 and 9N235 cluster bombs and scatterable land mines, all of which are banned under international agreements, in Kharkiv. Cluster munitions release dozens of bomblets or grenades midair, scattering them indiscriminately over hundreds of square meters.
“People have been killed in their homes and in the streets, in playgrounds and in cemeteries, while queueing for humanitarian aid, or shopping for food and medicine,” Amnesty’s senior crisis response adviser, Donatella Rovera, said in the report, which concluded that Russia’s actions in the city constitute war crimes.
Normally teeming with traffic and family life, the vast residential area of Saltivka is now a ghost town. Row after row of charred, crumbling towers loom silently above the tree line of its boulevards. Building facades have been ripped from their walls, nakedly exposing apartment interiors like a damaged dollhouse. Beneath the trees, their ravaged remains lie in giant heaps of rubble. Crushed into the concrete slabs and twisted metal are the possessions and the memories of Saltivka’s residents, most of whom have joined the exodus of refugees now spread across Ukraine and Europe.
Many of the roughly 600 civilians confirmed to have been killed in Kharkiv during the war died here. In an area that housed hundreds of thousands, only a few dozen remain. Most of them are pensioners in the twilight of their existence, unwilling or unable to commit to the uncertainty of life as a refugee.
In one apartment block that normally houses 250 people, there are seven holdouts.
“Nobody needs us anywhere else,” said retired engineer Halyna Zakusova, 65, as she poured tea brewed on an outdoor fireplace in a clearing beneath her building. “This is our home. All our belongings are here.” She was joined by Lyudmyla Hevryasova, 69, her husband, Tolik Hevryasov, 72, Oleksandr Shinkaryov, 32, and two others for their daily ritual of afternoon tea.
“This is our eternal flame,” Zakuova said, pointing to the fire. “We’ve cooked here every day for three months.”
Their apartment block still stands intact but bears the scars of war. “May 1 was the worst,” said Hevryasova, pointing to smashed windows and impact craters across the building’s facade. “It was hit four times in a bombing raid. I was on the first floor, cowering. I thought the whole building was going to collapse. It was so frightening.” For Zakusova, the hardest period was the winter, “There was no heat. It was so cold, I had to sleep under four duvets.”
Surviving a feral and often subterranean existence for three months -- without gas, electricity, or running water -- was only possible with the shared solidarity the survivors discovered when they came together as a group. “Before the war, we weren’t particularly friendly,” said Hevryasova, handing out salad, bread, and traditional Ukrainian lard with the tea. “Now we’re a family.”
In addition to the danger of bombardment, stress and anxiety took its toll on the group. Originally there were eight holdouts, but one man died, according to Hevryasov. “He spent his time fixing windows, renovating his apartment. But when everything was destroyed again, he just lost hope and had a heart attack soon after,” he said of the neighbor, who had lived half his life in the building and died at age 62.
Under the warm June sunshine of a recent afternoon, the atmosphere among the group was upbeat. Power in the building had been turned on, giving them access to light and TV in their apartments. The war continues, with no end in sight, but there was a sense of closure over the worst of their ordeal.
Recalling the tearful moment in the first days after the invasion, when his sons tried to convince him to leave, Hevryasov stood by his decision to stay.
“There was no use leaving. Bombs were dropping everywhere, not just here,” he said. “I know someone who left here and was bombed in another place. Where could we have gone? You can’t escape fate.”
Hevryasov’s fatalism is a hedge against despair -- a valuable ingredient for survival in a war that seems to have no other logic, and an attitude shared by others who have returned to work at Barabashova.
“Bombs will drop where they drop,” said Lyudmyla Kireyeva, 49. who has reopened the women’s clothing shop she manages at the market. “If you are destined to die, then you will die. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
She’s an optimist, she told RFE/RL, “but we have a proverb: What must be, will be.”
Bright bikini-clad mannequins pose in the sunshine outside Kireyeva’s shop, striking a stark contrast with the incinerated remains of a pavilion next door.
Thousands of tons of charred debris remain uncleared across the expanse of the market. Ruined buildings remain hazardously upright, creaking in the wind, collapsing piece by piece. The scale of destruction is simply too massive for the over-stretched authorities to clear up. Instead, a few traders whose stalls escaped the blaze return to work and open shop next to the rubble.
Single mother Zhenya Polyakova, 37, is a resident of Saltivka whose home was destroyed by a Russian strike. Her profitable wedding gifts stall at Barabashova escaped harm, so she returned to work as soon as she found a temporary home for herself and her 14-year-old son.
“I’ve worked in the market for 17 years and I love it, but last night I went to bed with nothing but my undies and a rucksack, ready to go in the event of another bombing attack,” she said within earshot of neighboring traders clearly entertained by her salty sense of humor.
“I don’t need charity. I don’t need money. I don’t even need a husband. I just need Putin to die,” she said. “And when he does, I’m going on a four-day bender.”
Polyakova’s jocular spirit is shared by many Barabashova traders whose return to work is driven in part by the human desire for community.
Halya Kramarenko, 66, manages a sunglasses store belonging to a Vietnamese businessman and has worked at the market for 26 years. “When the bombs started dropping, my daughter went to the basement for two weeks. But I couldn’t leave my husband who was too ill to go downstairs so I stayed with him and took care of him.” Her husband died of his illness on May 3, and she came back to work a few days later.
“Life goes on,” she said. “We still have to live. There’s no use sitting around crying.”
Born in Kazakhstan to Crimean Tatar parents, Lemar Osmanov believes in God and likes his beer. Hoisting one with a couple of friends after closing up his hardware stall for the day, he recounted the near misses that he said characterized the past few months.
“On May 15, I left the shop for a break. As I walked away the area was bombed. A few days later, another bomb landed 100 meters from my home,” said Osmanov, 42. His friends toasted his luck and teased him about the fate that has kept him in the dusty passageways of Barabashova for 15 years.
“I don’t know what God wants. Is he going to put a bomb here or over there?” he said. “What’s the use in running here or there. God decides, rockets fly, and I just keep working.”
Chelyshev is also determined to keep working -- and is confident in Ukraine’s ability to stand up to Russia.
“A nuclear bomb might defeat us,” he said, smiling from his stall, “but the wind will carry the radiation back over Russia, so what can they do?”
Born in the far northern Russian city of Murmansk, Chelyshev spent years as a child in Moscow before moving to Kharkiv. But it’s clear where his loyalties lie.
“They’ve been at us for three months and they’ve achieved nothing,” he said of the invading forces, using an expletive for emphasis. “This isn’t 100 years ago. Ukraine is now strong. They’ll never defeat us.”
“I’m not scared. What’s the use of being scared?” he added. “I don’t want to live in a basement. I can only walk forward. I can’t go backward.”