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Fears of Russia’s renewed eastern offensive simmer in Kharkiv

Vinnytsia, Ukraine – After seven weeks of living next to the sounds of constant pummelling by cruise missiles, shells, mortars and bombs, Ihor Saldyha can tell each of them just by listening.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“If I hear a dull sound – and then it goes slower, slower, slower, I understand this is an outgoing [strike],” said the 38-year-old resident of Kharkiv, a besieged eastern Ukrainian city that lies only 40km (25 miles) west of the Russian border.

A loud whistle means a cruise missile or shell is flying above his head and may land nearby. But the scariest, most unpredictable sounds come from bombers.

“Because you hear a loud buzz up in the sky, and it’s not clear whether it would drop the bomb or keep on flying,” said Saldyha, who works in marketing.

He talked to Al Jazeera by phone as he walked down a street observing plumes of black smoke spurting into the grey April sky from a giant burning market in northeastern Kharkiv.

The market, Barabashovo, is one of Eastern Europe’s largest, and when Russian shelling first set it afire a month ago, many in Kharkiv understood it was time to leave.

“The fire turned night into day,” Olena Kostyuchenko, a 29-year-old sales clerk and mother of two, told Al Jazeera from a room she rents in the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro.

The city lies some 200km (124 miles) southwest of Kharkiv, but has seen little shelling since the invasion began on February 24.

Unable to withstand the nerve-wracking pounding that has mostly been hitting northeastern and eastern districts, about a third of Kharkiv’s 1.5 million residents left, officials say.

This week, strikes on other parts of the city – closer to the city centre or even its south – were reported.

What seems to be a relief to people in the capital means more trouble for Kharkiv.

“It seems to me they brought in more heavy weaponry – artillery systems, multiple-rocket launchers that use cluster bombs,” Saldyha said.

But he, his wife and their 18-month-old son are staying put – even though they survived a tragedy.

His wife’s 82-year-old grandmother died on March 16 of a heart attack, and the family could bury her only 11 days later, because the morgues were full and only one cemetery was accepting bodies.

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