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In Ukraine, Traces of Lives Cut Short

KHARKIV, Ukraine — A loaf of bread on a park bench, collecting snow. A puddle of blood nearby.

Those were the traces of two lives lost this past week, two people killed as they sat sharing a late lunch or an early dinner, or maybe just feeding pigeons. No one seemed to know their names.

They died at around 5:30 in the afternoon on Sunday in the southeastern Slobidskyi district of Kharkiv from a mortar strike, residents said, describing the victims as an older woman and a middle-aged man.

It was overcast and cold, and the ambulance came quickly.

“I was in the kitchen, putting the kettle on,” said Tetiana Stepanenko, 55, who lives in the apartment building that overlooks the park. “Suddenly the windows shuddered.”

“Then we heard the screams,” she said.

She looked out the window from the fourth floor; the bodies were motionless.

Wars often inflict violence at random on people just trying to survive. Civilians — unable to flee or refusing to do so — get caught between the fighting; ordinary, mundane moments suddenly and brutally become their last.

In Ukraine, in such a short period of time, the litany of horrors on unsuspecting civilians has been especially pronounced after Russia invaded in February, including not least the victims found bound and murdered in Bucha, a suburb near Kyiv.

Russians have not so far occupied Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, so there have not been the kinds of execution-style killings that have turned up in the towns near Kyiv. Instead, the violence arrives suddenly and unexpectedly. Kharkiv, which had a prewar population of around 1.4 million, has been shelled incessantly since Russia invaded. Government buildings have been hit with cruise missiles. Cluster bombs have saturated streets. Some residential areas have been turned into post-apocalyptic wastelands.

Apartment complexes still burn, water gurgles out of damaged fire hydrants and shattered buildings moan in the wind, their curtains sucked through broken windows like loose sails.

But some parts of the city are untouched, like the neighborhood in Slobidskyi that was surrounded by the sounds of war but unbothered by its violence until Sunday afternoon. The three mortar shells landed within 50 yards of one another, killing the two on the park bench and making a string of craters in the shape of an L.

The scene, tucked into a network of Soviet-style apartments and mostly closed kiosks, quickly became a neighborhood monument to the war’s randomness, drawing people who had heard the murmurings of neighbors and the explosions there the day before.

Mothers pointed out the scarred earth to their children. Young couples visited, looking around and pointing before darting off. Others walked by and shrugged.

The pit made by a shell that landed on the sidewalk is the first indicator to passers-by that something unusual happened here.

The shallow hole is a few inches wide and carved into the cement like a splash. Gashes point in the direction the shell propelled the shrapnel within. There’s even some of the lethal metal still in the ground, most of it the size of fish food but sharp enough to cut fingers.

Much of the war’s casualties are caused by these kinds of indiscriminate shell strikes. Both the Ukrainian and Russian military have fielded an enormous amount of artillery that are fired at each other incessantly. There are rocket launchers capable of saturating an area the size of a football field with explosives. There are howitzers with shells so big they sound like cars driving overhead before screeching to the earth.

One Ukrainian town in the country’s south has lost people not just to shrapnel wounds but to heart attacks caused by the shelling.

In Kharkiv, emergency medical workers move from neighborhood to neighborhood every day, pulling artillery fragments from places like grocery stores and apartment buildings. On Wednesday morning, seven emergency workers struggled to remove what looked like an expended Grad rocket that had lodged in a children’s amusement park, tying the metal to a maintenance truck in an attempt to dislodge it. In the distance, church bells were soon replaced with air raid alarms.

Near the sidewalk crater by the park in Slobidskyi, there’s a damaged candy kiosk. That shell hit where the wall of the kiosk meets the ground. The metal is splayed open, its yellow paint shorn to steel.

The more residents looked, the more they saw: three sedans with popped tires and cracked windows; a shredded sapling; and the results of a third shell that landed in the soft dirt of an adjacent playground, sending shrapnel through a child’s swing and a green slide. The seesaw was seemingly untouched.

The families with children in the neighborhood have mostly fled since the war began, leaving the playground unoccupied.

Ms. Stepanenko, the neighbor, a friendly and talkative woman, said that she had run to the window and looked down at the lifeless people next to the playground after the explosions.

She and her fellow residents were too afraid to go outside, she said, so they watched from the windows until the ambulance arrived.

“I asked, ‘Who is that? What is that?’ And I was told, ‘They’re from the sixth floor,’” Ms. Stepanenko said. “There was one Sasha on that floor, I don’t see him around anymore. Maybe that was him. And the woman, I don’t know.”

Residents from the apartment complex were wary about talking to journalists, many worried that information made public could help the enemy. The idea that Russians could seize Kharkiv is still a real fear for many still living in the city. One man on the sixth floor said that he didn’t know anything before quickly shutting the door.

One of Ms. Stepanenko’s neighbors, Vasily, appeared startled when he was approached, convinced that anyone inquiring about the deaths could be pro-Russian agents.

Visible from Ms. Stepanenko’s vantage point were the signs of the deadly strike: the bread on the park bench and the puddle of blood.

For a few hours, before the pigeons ate some of the loaf and until a pile of sand scooped from the playground’s sandbox had absorbed the blood, there was a brief echo of two people’s existences that ended on an April day in 2022.

Their deaths, and their anonymous faces, will ultimately become a statistic in this war. A number that will only increase.

“They were sitting on the bench before,” Ms. Stepanenko said. “They are dead now.”

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