KHARKIV, UKRAINE (NYTIMES) - Dozens of vehicles and some people on foot, clinging to their belongings, streamed into Kharkiv on Friday (April 29), fleeing fighting from a town to the north.
Before the war, Kharkiv was Ukraine's second-largest city with a population of about 1.4 million people. But it is now a shell of itself, with many of its neighbourhoods emptied, after relentless bombardment.
Ruska Lozova, a town of about 6,000 people about 20km north of the city, had been occupied by Russian forces since March and was retaken by Ukrainian units in recent days. But Russian troops counterattacked on Thursday, unleashing heavy shelling on the town.
Many of the Ruska Lozova's remaining residents quickly evacuated, taking advantage of the now-open road into Kharkiv. Cars, some riddled with bullet holes, limped into the city, packed with luggage, people and pets.
"There was shelling for two months, but last night was a complete hell," said Svitlana, who had evacuated with much of her family Friday and declined to provide her last name. "Everything was burning; everything was bombed."
Ukrainian police and intelligence units funneled vehicles and buses into separate parking lots on the periphery of Kharkiv, which itself was under shelling from Russian forces, to screen those entering for potential Russian saboteurs.
A woman who was sprawled in the back seat of a sedan in a screening area was bleeding from multiple shrapnel wounds. City police scrambled to put a tourniquet above the injury before medics arrived. Blood had soaked into the back seat of the car, and the white jacket of a woman who had tried to help was stained red.
Residents who had fled Ruska Lozova said Russian troops had looted people's homes and abused civilians, while providing some aid, including ageing bread and sugar on Easter.
"Russians were taking phones from us. We were hiding everything," said Natalia Chichyota, 41, a construction worker who had stayed in town during the occupation.
"They looted the cellars. vodka, wine, whatever they could find. They were taking sneakers. We hid the men's footwear; we hid the boots."
Chichyota said Russian forces had positioned their artillery battery directly behind the village to shell Kharkiv - effectively turning Ruska Lozova into a shield. Ukrainian forces in Kharkiv have used neighbourhoods to protect their artillery batteries as well.
The battle for Ruska Lozova is part of a broader campaign launched by Ukrainian forces in recent weeks to push Russian troops away from Kharkiv and hopefully outside of Russian artillery range. Fighting has been fierce, as the Russian border is roughly 30km from the city.
On Friday, Ukraine's military claimed it was in full control of the town.