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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

As missiles strike, a radio station broadcasts the rage of a battered city

A pedestrian passes the aftermath of a Jan. 16 Russian missile attack which struck a residential area and injured 17 people, in central Kharkiv, Ukraine on Jan. 17, 2024. Kharkiv, in northern Ukraine, is under almost daily bombardment. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

By Andrew E. Kramer and Maria Varenikova

It was the middle of the night in early January when a Russian missile streaked in and exploded in the center of Kharkiv, blasting down walls and shattering windows.

The next day, people went shopping and to work, ate out in restaurants and clogged the streets with traffic jams, almost as if nothing had happened.

But behind the business-as-usual veneer, residents of Kharkiv have been seething. Over the past month, Ukraine’s second-largest city has taken the brunt of Russia’s missile campaign, which has killed and wounded dozens of people, blown up buildings and unnerved everyone.

It’s an almost daily torment. To vent, Kharkiv’s residents have a dedicated outlet: Radio Boiling Over, a new FM station.

“This is Boiling Over in the Morning,” Volodymyr Noskov, the host of the morning call-in show, said on a recent broadcast. “What are you boiling over about today?”

In Kharkiv, a sprawling city of universities and factories, coping has taken many forms.

Nearly two years into the war, the city is opening schools underground. Psychologists visit strike sites to calm residents. Plywood goes up immediately over blown-out windows.

“Keep Calm and Carry On Studying,” reads a sign at the entrance to one university.

Amid the carnage, Radio Boiling Over, which went on the air a year ago, is becoming one of the most popular local media outlets. It serves as a megaphone for the fears and frustrations that simmer within a population under near constant assault.

“Despite all Russia is doing, the city is still living,” said Yevhen Streltsov, founder of Radio Boiling Over. But, he said, “people are getting tired because their nerves are not made of iron” and they want to complain.

While there are occasional complaints about local bureaucrats and inefficiency, most of the anger is directed at Russia, especially after strikes.

“Burn in hell until the seventh generation. Curse the unwashed Russians,” a listener, Tetyana Arshava, wrote on the station’s Instagram page after one high-casualty missile attack.

The station broadcasts hourly news updates and talk shows in the morning and evening, with a focus on missile strikes; interviews with soldiers on the front line 100 or so miles east; investigations of Russian war crimes, and of course the anger of hundreds of thousands of people forced to worry daily about their safety. The station’s name, Radio Nakypilo, can also be translated as Radio Fed Up.

It receives funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, an American nonprofit financed by the U.S. government, and the European Endowment for Democracy, with the mission of covering local news in a community that, even by the standards of Ukraine’s battered cities, has endured a harrowing 23 months.

Just 24 miles from the Russian border, Kharkiv was an early target of invading Russian ground forces and was partly encircled. People fled. Of the pre-invasion population of about 2 million, 1.2 million remain today.

Barrages of ballistic missiles fly in anywhere from once a week to daily, arriving so quickly that alarms can provide no more than 40 seconds of warning. Parents rush children into bathtubs or, at the least, away from windows.

Over the past three weeks, Russian missiles ravaged two hotels, Kharkiv Palace and Park Hotel; blew out windows in popular restaurants, which quickly reopened; and hit apartment blocks. The predawn strike on the apartment building early this month injured 17 people.

“This is our everyday life,” Streltsov said.

Yet despite the mortal threat, ballistic missile strikes have become so common in Kharkiv that Radio Boiling Over does not interrupt its music programming if only one missile has landed, Yevhen said. Announcers will cut in only for volleys or a catastrophic strike.

Kharkiv is handicapped because the military’s best air defense systems, including U.S.-provided Patriots, are mostly reserved for the capital, Kyiv. So it endures the regular mayhem that comes with being the closest large city to the Russian border.

“Nobody has this experience anywhere in the world,” the mayor, Ihor Terekhov, said in an interview. He said people were generally coping well. “There are strikes, yes, but no panic.”

Terekhov has been promoting a program of building schools underground, to protect them from missiles. The school district has built five in corridors of subway stops, called MetroSchools, and is close to finishing a purpose-built subterranean elementary school for 450 students, with only the soccer field on the surface.

The subway schools are at once an uplifting scene of children, boisterous and happy, finally back in classrooms and among friends, and a post-apocalyptic vision of a world where schools are designed similar to bunkers.

“It’s really surrealistic,” said Iryna Tarasenko, director of the city’s department of education, which is overseeing the underground school program. “This is the reality we live in, these are the conditions.”

Radio Boiling Over’s mission is to capture that reality, and give people an outlet to let off steam, as well as provide useful practical information. On a recent evening, it was reporting on a missile strike in the Kharkiv region, but not in the city. One woman was killed. The station was taking calls.

“We’ll just start the program with a very important topic,” anchor Filip Dykan said. “Kharkiv is getting bombed. You’ve all seen it. Please call to tell us what is boiling over with you.”

There are service elements to the broadcast as well. A real estate agent came on to answer questions about a program of state subsidies for people trying to buy new apartments after theirs were blown up. Yes, it was frustrating, he said; the application required 14 documents.

Even attempts to help don’t always go over well. One listener griped about a report on how online theater shows provided an additional format for entertainment (live shows are mostly banned). “What additional format?” she asked. “Additional to what is gone? Soon it will be the only format. Whatever.”

The government gave Radio Boiling Over space on the FM spectrum for two purposes: to report local news and to jam a Russian psychological warfare operation that had been beaming in news on the same frequency. The Russian channel sent eerie, bizarre content intended to unnerve civilians and soldiers, including repeating the phrase “We will kill you.”

With the switch to Radio Boiling Over, people started to tune in, Streltsov said. “People listen because we are fast” with news about missile strikes and fighting along the front nearby, he said.

Roman Korobenko, a reporter for the station, said people younger than 40, who came of age after the Soviet breakup, were fed up with Russia. Older residents had mixed feelings, he said, sometimes lamenting that war had come even though Russians and Ukrainians had previously lived in peace.

As he reports the news, Korobenko said, he looks for unexpected angles on the attacks, beyond the monotonous tally of dead and wounded.

One such story involved hibernating bats. The missile strikes disturb the bats, and sometimes send them fluttering down in huge numbers through broken windows into apartments below.

After one recent strike, noteworthy for being one of the first suspected deployments by Russia of a North Korean ballistic missile, one man found a creepy scene of hundreds of bats clinging to the furniture in his damaged apartment.

A local animal shelter collects them, Korobenko reported, and it now has 5,000 bats in a heated storage area; it plans to release them in the spring. That was a positive story, he said.

Some people are annoyed with the constant wail of ambulance sirens, he said. Some are just continually gripped by anxiety.

Mostly, Korobenko said, people are angry. “These days,” he said. “Everybody is boiling over.”

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