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Eyewitness to war: Former EWU coach in Ukraine describes civilians being targeted

UPDATED: Tue., March 1, 2022

By Dave Cook For The Spokesman-Review

Wait, listen and watch.

In the five days since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Chris Hansen has been sequestered for the most part in an apartment in Kharkiv with his wife, Victoria, and Victoria’s daughter, Sonja, as they wait to see what transpires next.

Hansen, reached Tuesday at about 3:30 a.m. his time in the town of about 1.4 million residents, said Monday was an active day of bombing, but not as severe as the “shock and awe” of the first two days of fighting that started on Feb. 24.

Hansen, a former Eastern Washington University football coach and player, has been in Kharkiv since December.

Although the city is just 26 miles from the Russian border, the apartment is farther south in the central section of town, about 2 miles from the center of the city.

Most of the sounds they hear of shelling in the city, including reported carpet bombing Monday into residential areas, was farther north. Reuters reported Monday that dozens of civilians have died in Kharkiv.

“The thing that bothered me about today was they … hit civilians, and they hadn’t done that yet,” he said. “It takes it to whole new level that you have to guard against. I was sort of in this assumption that I wouldn’t be a target, but I would be (their) mistake. But today, those people were targeted.

“It takes the danger level up a lot of notches. There is no care for the people and they did it on purpose.”

Hansen said that bombing had resumed, and power and natural gas was out in some sections of Kharkiv. But so far, a pair of power outages less than 10 minutes each and only a daylong internet outage are the only service interruptions he’s had to endure. Cell service remains in place.

The bombing is getting alarmingly closer.

“Everything to the north is in the city limits now,” he said. “It’s not just tanks and missiles shooting outside of the city firing to the edge. This war started 25 miles from the city. Now they are knocking at the door.”

Even as talks to resolve the conflict took place near Belarus, the bombs were dropping at regular intervals. Hansen pinpointed them to a section of town near a northern main street called Serpnya. He calculates that as about 5 miles from the apartment, and blasts to the south of him are about the same distance away.

Hansen has not left the apartment since he and Victoria made a run to the market shortly after the bombing began. His wife, however, went to work on Saturday. She serves an integral role for train transportation in the region.

“People are purchasing tickets to Kyiv,” Hansen said this past weekend of the exodus of people trying to flee Ukraine. “When they get there, they just load up the trains with standing-room only and leave immediately for Poland.”

Hansen’s stepdaughter has also gone to work twice since then, but won’t for the time being. Victoria Hansen takes a bus and two subways to get to her workplace – to the north in the heart of the bombing. She worked two 12-hour shifts and is now finished for a month – for vacation.

Although there is a bomb shelter just outside their apartment complex, Hansen said they feel safe in the apartment, which was built during the cold war and has cement “a foot thick.”

Sleep for him has consisted of naps, usually two hours or less – if he is able to sleep at all.

He said the bomb shelter is about 20 feet below ground, with rooms that measure about 12-by-12 feet and 20-by-20 feet.

He said it is musty, wet and muddy, and there are already a couple of people who have taken up residence there. He figures it could fit 100 people, but maybe 50 to 60 “comfortably.”

“I don’t want to go to the bomb shelter,” he said, noting that moving to a stairwell would be their best chance to surviving a blast. “I like the construction of this building, and I think it is built well enough to withstand as much as that bomb shelter can. I think we’re just going to stick it out here.”

On the night after the initial bombing, he saw overnight tank activity from the fourth-floor apartment, but they didn’t know until daylight hours that they belonged to Ukraine. As many as 25 tanks were lining the street before they left. One of them, however, had to be hauled away after its track came off.

“I’m really hoping they leave before daylight,” Hansen texted at the time of their appearance. “I did not want to be on the 50-yard line of a skirmish.”

Other than that, the streets have been all but deserted outside their apartment.

Hansen tries to guess how far away the bomb blasts are. Two days ago, he reported jets were bombing a location to the south, near where the international airport is located.

Hansen and his wife were scheduled to depart for a vacation to Egypt on Thursday, but as most everything else, those plans are indefinitely on hold.

As Reuters reported, Russian President Vladamir Putin is showing no sign of reconsidering the invasion he unleashed on Russia’s neighbor in an attempt to pull it firmly back under Moscow’s influence.

“There are so many superlatives you can use to describe this army and their pilots,” Hansen said in praise to Ukraine. “It’s truly inspirational and emotional the way they are fighting. They are willing to die; they are a proud people and determined.

“They are holding their own, and I just hope our country can help them.”

Hansen predicted on the first day of the invasion that the Ukrainian capital in Kyiv could very well fall by morning.

Instead, the military and government have been defending their ground, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy leading the way.

“Kyiv is in good shape and holding their own,” Hansen texted. “Zelenskyy is out of his suit and leading his nation. I really respect him.

“I’m the first one to admit I thought they the capital would go down. They aren’t letting it happen.”

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