Desperate Ukrainians risk Russian shelling in food queues
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On a morning hot enough to curdle milk in Ukraine's second city, a few dozen hopefuls bat away wasps as they queue to get their hands on food aid.
They are taking a risk congregating outdoors in Kharkiv, where they can be targeted by Russian artillery fire, but it is the hours-long wait that is troubling them, not the danger.
"People don't think about what could happen because they just want their food," says government volunteer Maxim Gridasov, 45, as he distributes parcels in the Nemyshlyansky neighbourhood.
"Even when there is shelling nearby, nobody leaves. They wait for their food."
The military's notices in local media on locations for aid distribution always include the warning: "Please do not create queues, it can be dangerous."
Russia has pounded Ukraine relentlessly since the start of its February invasion, killing thousands of civilians going about their business.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has put the civilian toll at 5,237 in its latest update last week.
Shortly after AFP's visit, Nemyshlyansky was bombarded by what authorities said were likely to have been Soviet S-300 missiles.
Ominously, the targets have included at least one food queue: 14 people were killed in March by Russian forces while waiting to collect bread in the northern city of Chernigiv.
Moscow says it only selects targets with military value, accusing Kyiv of being behind the incidents or staging them, and sometimes alleging that Ukraine uses locals as "human shields".
I have to live
Despite the dangers, around 40 people waited for food packages from the charity Hub Vokzal in Merefa -- a one-horse town that would have been in Kharkiv's commuter belt when jobs were plentiful.
Train driver Vitaliy Znaichenko, 38, clutches a plastic bag of rice, bread, ravioli, onions and cereals as he leaves the distribution point.
"It was difficult at the start, when the shops were shut or there was nothing in them because of the war. But now, somehow, we've gotten used to it," he says.
It's his first visit here in two months, and he would rather not linger in a large crowd and risk being targeted from above -- but he feels he has no choice.
"I have to live somehow. I have to go to work at a railway station, which is also risky," he says.
Regional governor Oleg Synegubov told AFP artillery fire was still a constant menace in the towns with active military operations in the countryside outside Kharkiv.
The region, which borders Russia, is agriculturally rich but many of its factories have been destroyed in the shelling or have relocated.
Locals find themselves victims of the war twice over, traumatised by Europe's most devastating conflict in decades, and immiserated by the loss of their household's only income.
Under shell fire
Hub Vokzal has provided 900 tonnes of food, nappies, building materials and other humanitarian aid to around 30,000 families in the Kharkiv region's towns and villages.
Founder Mykola Blagovestov tells AFP he and his aid workers have found themselves under shell fire while picking up or distributing food several times.
"We still do it, we go and do our work because it's much better psychologically to do the work and to speak to people, than to sit at home, afraid," he says.
Perhaps the most high profile food aid organisation working in Kharkiv, World Food Kitchen, has also seen its cargo trains and farm partners hit by missiles.
As Russian troops retreated from Kyiv and focus shifted to the battle for the east, the organisation launched by celebrity chef Jose Andres began delivering more than 10,000 meals a day to the city's hungry citizens.
One of its partner restaurants in Kharkiv, Yaposhka, was destroyed when a missile hit in April, leaving four of the staff hospitalised with burns.
The organisation has partnered with a restaurant called 4.5.0., where businessman Ahmed Hassan, 45, oversees almost every practical aspect of the food aid operation.
The amiable Egyptian told AFP on a tour of its extensive facilities -- its kitchen employs 120 workers -- that he had experienced near misses on food collection runs and still worries about air raids.
"I think it's quieter now, but I don't know. The news says it's not quiet," he said.
"I think it's a problem now around Kharkiv, not in Kharkiv itself."