Cultural centers

Anger and sadness after the bombing of the cultural center in the Ukrainian city of Derhachi

The night had been unusually calm in Derhachi, a rugged, hilly and ravine-ridden small town on the outskirts of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine.

The din of war had died down somewhat since Ukrainian troops had driven the Russians back to the border.

Konstantin, 77, says he was walking around his second-floor apartment in the early hours of Friday morning when a huge explosion nearby shook the walls.

The elderly railway pensioner stepped outside to see smoke billowing into the night sky from the local cultural center and library in the heart of his small community.

The building, which had been used since the Russian invasion as a humanitarian aid hub, was hit twice, according to local officials. The first strike was with rocket artillery and the second with a missile.

“What was the reason for shooting at this building? I don’t understand,” Konstantin said.

Konstantin, 77, a retired railway worker who only gave his first name, witnessed the destruction of the cultural center – where he once took his young daughter to pick up books. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

Nearby was Irina Homyakova, 78, who didn’t linger long – or far – from her door as the night sky turned red.

“I went outside and there’s an electric wire hanging somewhere and I was afraid I’d be zapped by it,” she said.

Two people – a couple living near the center – were killed and four others were injured, an attack that shocked residents who seemed, at least on the surface, to take the rumble of artillery and the cacophony of war as much background noise.

“We are used to shelling all the time,” said Konstantin, who added that after the attack he “just fell asleep.”

The local hospital’s outpatient department and ambulance station, as well as the registry office were also damaged.

Homyakova admitted to being terrified.

The cultural center of Irpin, Ukraine. He was targeted by Russian forces as they advanced on kyiv. On Monday, UNESCO listed damage to 127 monuments in Ukraine, including 11 museums, 54 religious buildings and 15 monuments. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

What happened in Derhachi on Friday is no coincidence, as the same building was hit twice. Rather, it appears to be the latest example of a targeted campaign of cultural destruction.

On Monday, UNESCO listed damage to 127 monuments in Ukraine, including 11 museums, 54 religious buildings and 15 monuments. One such monument was a statue of Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian poet, damaged during the occupation of Borodianka, outside kyiv.

Additionally, Ukrainian authorities claim that Russian troops looted more than 2,000 works of art from three cultural institutions in the ruined city of Mariupol.

In Derhachi on Friday, the destruction of the center seemed total. Much of the roof had disappeared.

Konstantin, who gave only his first name and spoke reluctantly through an interpreter, checked the damage in the late afternoon and cast a mournful eye over the still-smoldering ruins of the whitewashed structure with lime.

The library was where he had taken his daughter to look for books when she was a child. At the start of the invasion, she fled to Germany with her child, Konstantin’s only grandchild.

When asked why he hadn’t left, he looked pained.

“I don’t know,” he replied, then added after a long pause, “This is my homeland. How can I get out of here?”

In this predominantly Russian-speaking region, Konstantin was reluctant to directly criticize Russians other than to say that the war was very worrying and a stressful situation.

Homyakova, however, did not hold back.

“Who’s to blame? You know who’s to blame, it’s the Russians,” she said. “Look, Russians are shooting Russians. There are Russians here, we’ve been living here for so long and now we’re in this ridiculous comedy.”

The still smoking ruins of the Derhachi Cultural Center. The attacks appear to be an example of a targeted campaign of cultural destruction. (Murray Brewster/CBC)