Yakovlivka, Ukraine – Maxim was at home with his girlfriend when shells started crashing into his village of Yakovlivka, near Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
Shrapnel ripped through his arm and face.
“It happened so quickly, the explosions… I heard something flying over us,” he told Al Jazeera from a hospital on Thursday, where he is now receiving treatment.
“I was covered up to my waist in rubble and something started burning. I tried to free myself, then I tried to get my girlfriend. I was so weak I couldn’t pull her out. “
Civilians have been caught in heavy shelling of their homes in and around Kharkiv, a predominantly Russian-speaking city, which has been under attack since the start of the Russian invasion on February 24.
Emergency services managed to rescue Maxim’s partner, but she is heavily concussed and is too weak to talk.
Another woman died in the operating theater as doctors tried to save her life.
“At least three people were killed in heavy Russian shelling of this village last night, a number of others injured,” Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford said, reporting from Yakovlivka.
“We understand there are still people in the village, but we’ve just heard shelling in the distance and machine-gun fire in the forests on the way.”
Piles of rubble now line the streets after shells slammed into houses on the side of the hill. At least 30 homes were destroyed.
Despite heavy shelling and its proximity to the Russian border, Kharkiv is still under Ukrainian control.
Ukrainian authorities said indiscriminate shelling on Wednesday had “pounded all night” residential areas in Kharkiv, which United Nations prosecutors are investigating as a possible war crime.
Many of the city’s 1.5 million people have fled.
One woman in hospital told Al Jazeera that Russian soldiers let her family escape, but as they drove away, a bullet ripped through her husband’s hand.
“Why did they tell us everything would be OK? Why wasn’t there an evacuation? ” she said, distressed.
‘Welcome to hell’
Thousands of cars filled with terrified families are fleeing south of Kharkiv.
Many of the cars have a sign taped to the windscreen reading “Children” in a desperate attempt to protect those inside.
“We are leaving everything behind us. We have been trying for five days to get out but couldn’t get out because of the shelling. It’s simply hell. We are going to Dnipro and after that, we don’t know, ”Olena, a Kharkiv resident, told Al Jazeera.
Hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people fleeing the conflict are being housed in public buildings in the outskirts of Dnipro, some 220km (137 miles) south of Kharkiv.
Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from a public school that is being used as a temporary shelter, said many fleeing from Kharkiv and Mariupol, in the southeast, as well as the Donbas region, had arrived at the facility. They will soon be continuing their journey to try and reach the nearest border.
“There are a lot of people here… a lot of children,” Abdel-Hamid said.
“Those who are fleeing Kharkiv told me how they spent days and days in the shelter with no food, in the cold, not being able at any point to go out,” she said.
The UN warned that at least one million people have fled Ukraine in the week since Russia’s invasion.
On the road south of Kharkiv, a man named Oleksii showed Al Jazeera his car that was damaged when a Russian rocket landed close to his home. Rows of transparent tape covered what used to be the window of the back door, just above a large bullet hole.
“I’ve just spoken to friends in Kharkiv; they tell me it’s worse than yesterday, they are shelling civilian areas. So many buildings are on fire, ”Oleksii said.
People have painted over road signs with blasphemous angry insults towards Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In expectation of a Russian army advance, one sign reads, “Welcome to hell.”