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Garbage collectors in Kharkiv dodge mortars to pick up the trash

Andrey Taranenko drives a municipal garbage truck through the Saltivka neighborhood of Kharkiv.
Jason Beaubien
/
NPR
Andrey Taranenko drives a municipal garbage truck through the Saltivka neighborhood of Kharkiv.

KHARKIV, Ukraine — On the northeastern edge of Kharkiv, the streets are empty but the dumpsters are full.

Andrey Taranenko is driving a white municipal garbage truck through Kharkiv's Saltivka neighborhood.

Rows of high-rise apartment buildings in Saltivka are in ruins. Some of the Soviet-era housing complexes have craters from Russian rockets. Others are streaked from fires. Some of the buildings have been so heavily pounded by Russian artillery that they've partially collapsed.

Yet some residents are returning to fix up their apartments, while some never left. And they produce more and more trash every week, says Taranenko.

"When people started to come back, they'd left fridges here full of food," he says of the residents who fled this neighborhood during the intense attacks on Saltivka in the early weeks of the war. "So they started to throw away things they didn't need. So of course there was a lot of garbage here."

Because of the shelling and debris in the streets, he says garbage trucks couldn't get in to some areas for weeks. Trash was piling up on the sidewalks. Everything was rotting.

Saltivka remains in range of Russian artillery though the shelling here now is intermittent. Taranenko and his three-man crew all have been issued bulletproof vests, but only one of the men is wearing his. The windscreen of their truck is cracked from an explosion. Even more menacing, there's a walnut-sized hole in the passenger side of the cab where a piece of shrapnel from a mortar went through the door. It's lodged in the back of the cabin behind Taranenko's seat.

As the trash collectors swing bags of rubbish into the back of the truck, the booming of artillery is a constant reminder that the front line is only a few miles away.

A housing complex in the Kharkiv neighborhood of Saltivka is heavily damaged from Russian attacks.
Jason Beaubien / NPR
/
NPR
A housing complex in the Kharkiv neighborhood of Saltivka is heavily damaged from Russian attacks.

"Yeah, yesterday for example it was quite loud here and honestly I was quite scared," says Taranenko, who's been driving a garbage truck for the last 16 years. He says it's better to not stay very long in the same place because you never know when the next mortar is going to hit.

"It's better to move somewhere," he says with a laugh that sounds slightly nervous.

In this part Saltivka, there are no shops or businesses open. The power is still out. Buses haven't resumed running.

Svetlana Bobrysheva, however, has remained here throughout the war. She says she takes cover in a basement bomb shelter when the shelling gets really bad.

Svetlana Bobrysheva has remained in the same apartment since the 1980s and has been here throughout the war.
Jason Beaubien / NPR
/
NPR
Svetlana Bobrysheva has remained in the same apartment since the 1980s and has been here throughout the war.

It used to be that the garbage men making a racket with the trash cans first thing in the morning annoyed her. But now it's completely different.

"Thanks so much to these guys," she says. Bobrysheva grew up in this housing complex. In the 1980s she moved in to the same flat that she now stubbornly refuses to leave. Her apartment is on the third floor. She points it out by noting that it's underneath all the burnt out ones.

When the neighborhood came under heavy mortar fire from the Russians and most residents fled, Bobrysheva says the garbagemen kept showing up.

"They have been with us since the first days of war," she says.

She breaks into tears recounting what a relief it is to see the garbagemen on their rounds. In the midst of a chaotic war, she says the arrival of Taranenko and his noisy white truck is a sign that she and her neighbors haven't been forgotten.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.