The places where the fighting took place start a few kilometers from Kyiv. At first you see trees — shredded, without crowns, their large branches lie along the road. Then broken houses with holes from shells, burnt remains of concrete walls. The inscription ДЕТИ, CHILDREN is on the green fences. This is Zalissya village, 15 kilometers from Brovary city. From March 8 to 30, it was under occupation.
All the way from Kyiv to Chernihiv, the picture is constantly changing from broken to untouched villages. In Chernihiv Oblast, there are much less of the latter. At the entrance to the former checkpoint there are two burnt Russian AMPVs, behind them on the road fence is written Russian Federation is shit in bad Russian. On the concrete blocks littering the passage, someone tried to draw the inscription "COURTEOUS PEOPLE" — a self-name for the Russian occupiers in the Crimea in 2014.
We arrive in the village of Lukashivka, about 40 kilometers from Chernihiv. Itʼs small, with less then a hundred households before the invasion. But also with history — the first mention of the village dates back to the XVII century. Later, the Church of the Ascension was built — now it is an architectural monument. We stop near the church. The building is gutted — there are two big holes in the roof, the walls have collapsed a bit. A shell sticks out of the ground near the church, and cans of Russian MREs are scattered inside.
— Good afternoon, children! — We are greeted by local women who are standing with bicycles at the bus stop. Volunteers are coming to Lukashivka for the second time, so now the locals were already waiting for us.
We quickly split into groups: some volunteers go to work on tractors, others gather 10-15 people and go from house to house, mostly to the ones where they worked last time. There is not a single surviving yard in Lukashivka. Some are so bombed that the debris canʼt be removed in two days.
Our group goes to the very end of the village. There, on the outskirts, is Lyudaʼs house, its veranda was hit by a shell. But Lyuda was lucky: only the porch was demolished, the house itself is almost intact. Although Lyudaʼs friend, Lyuba, was even luckier — the only damage in her house is broken windows. Lyuda quickly explains to us where to put the garbage and goes about her business. Lyuba stays: she gives us buckets and wheelbarrows. The boys start breaking the fallen wall with a crowbar, the girls collect bricks.
— When the shell hit here, Lyuda and Vasylivna and the husband were sitting here in the cellar, — says Lyuba, constantly slapping herself on the face: she chases away midges. She talks in a special local dialect — a mixture of Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian words.
— And who is Vasylivna? — I ask Lyuba.
— Her mother, the three of them hid here. And then the Russians came. They bombed very hard that day. And then we came out of the cellar, we saw tanks coming from the other side. They went and went, just like cockroaches.
I go down to the cellar, where Lyubaʼs family has been hiding from the shelling for weeks. There are two beds by the wall, potatoes are stacked in another corner. Candles stand on one of the beds. It smells of dampness and earth.
— [In Lyudaʼs house] the gas pipe was damaged, so gas whistled there for days, — Lyuba continues. — Thatʼs why we came to take them [to our place], because their house could just explode — and the cellar as well.
The Russians occupied Lukashivka on March 9. They went to the yard where Lyuba and Lyudaʼs families were hiding and asked where their sons were. Lyuda immediately replied that they had daughters. Lyuba said nothing — her eldest son is now fighting at the front.
— They [Russian occupiers] walked the same road, — says Lyuba. — Twice they went there in the gardens — and both times they exploded, stumbling upon their own mines.
We laugh and joke that at last the Russians have done something useful. Lyuba laughs too. But an insect interferes. Every five minutes we spray ourselves with insect repellent.
— We have never had so many midges, — complains Lyuba. — And as soon as katsaps came, they appeared. I call them katsap flies.
I ask if the Russians looted here. Lyuba shakes her head confirmingly.
— When they were leaving [the village], they even took potatoes with them! They were especially interested in vodka. Vasylivna hid about three liters of alcohol here in the house. And she said, "Letʼs go get some alcohol." I say: where will you find it& "No," she replied, "I hid it in the closet." Well, we went there, with our legs shaking, itʼs all buzzing around, they shoot. And as soon as we approach the house — we see one narrow-eyed carrying that bottle of alcohol. Well, whatever. Vasylivna still had a ten-liter bottle of wine. Itʼs been corked for years. Sour, like vinegar! They [the Russians] also drank it.
In a few hours we cleaned the porch, which was covered with bricks and wood sticks. Lyuba asks the boys to cover the roof — and then Lyuda and Vasylivna will even be able to return home. Lyuba brings roofing material and coffee. While we smoke and rest, she willingly continues to talk about life in the occupation.
— Once the Buryat came into the yard. Drunk, barely staying on his feet, — says Lyuba. — And so short, with the machine gun dragging on the ground. He walked and shouted: "You donʼt believe me? Iʼll shoot you!"
— Where have you been then? — a girl from our group asks.
— We were sitting in the cellar. Went out, he said again: "Donʼt believe me? Iʼll shoot." We reply, why shouldnʼt we believe you& We do believe you. Itʼs scary — a drunk guy with his finger on the trigger. Now he will stumble, his finger will jump off — and he will cut us [with bullets]. Then another soldier came in, he was more sober. He took the first one by the shoulders and pushed him out of the yard. Told us, "Excuse us." Well, of course, we excused them... Go with God...
Lyuba becomes silent, thinking. We are also silent. Mosquitoes are buzzing and a garbage truck is wheezing.
— They said they came to save us, — Lyuba continues. — We say: "From whom do you save us?" They: "You forbid Russian language here." I say: "Since we were born, the Russian language was not forbidden here." They again: "Yes, no, itʼs you seniors, and the children no longer know Russian." But this is not true. Here and in Chernihiv, children speak Russian in kindergartens.
At 3 pm we had lunch near the bombed Church of the Ascension, where we gathered upon arriving. While we are eating, a local man comes. He looks 45 years old, he is thin, in a dirty cap, and holding a rake.
— I want you to know, — he begins, without addressing anyone specific. — Itʼs not Russians who bombed this church. These were Ukrainians.
We are silent. The man continues:
— That church stood and didnʼt bother anyone — no, it was necessary to bomb it. Is it nice now?
— Why are you telling us this? — shouts one of the guys.
— So you knew the truth! Couldnʼt they move a little? A kilometer there, a kilometer here — but no, Lukashivka was the target! Was it impossible to find a compromise? Who are you there — pilgrims, or what? Know the truth!
Sasha, one of the organizers of our trip, approaches the man. He says that we came to the village to help and dismantle the shattered houses. Hearing this, the man quickly calms down and leaves.
In the evening we go to the village of Yahidne, which is 20 minutes from Lukashivka. It is closer to the Belarusian border, so it was captured earlier — on March 3, Yahidne already was occupied. The Russians drove all the remaining residents to the basement of a local school and held them there for 28 days. Eleven of the 350 people who lived in the basement died.
We set up a tent camp near the ruined House of Culture — only pieces of the walls and the stage remain there now. While we have dinner, local women, teenagers and representatives of the territorial defense — almost the whole village — come to the club. During the last cleanup gatherings — there were two of them in Yahidne — volunteers cleaned up here. So some of us are already well acquainted with the locals. Women talk about seedlings, the military keep an eye on the area, smoke and keep machine guns relaxed.
Standup artist Vasyl Baidak, who cleaned with us in Lukashivka, takes the stage. He starts joking with local women. Four of them — three Valyas and one Nina — are the most talkative. Women make fun of the capitalʼs stand-up comedian, Baidak jokes. In the end, he decides to hold an auction for a piece of brick and brings Nina on stage.
— Five hryvnias is the starting price! Who gives more? — begins Baidak.
— Twenty! — shouts someone in the crowd.
— One hundred!
The higher the stakes, the more surprised Ninaʼs face becomes. We laugh.
— Are you the smartest here? — Suddenly a short bald man in a T-shirt and shorts shouts behind the women. The laughter stops. — Are you the smartest here, right? — He continues. — And my son is serving [in the army]!
— We understand this and glory to your son, — Baidak calmly answers. — We came to help you with rubble.
— And my son serves! — The man does not calm down, raising his voice. One of the men from territorial defense carefully takes him by the elbow and takes him out of the spot. The auction ends at 600 hryvnias. Nina takes the money and declares from the stage that it is for every local.
At six oʼclock the next morning, the camp was still asleep, about ten of us sit by the fire. The man with whom he had a fight comes to our tents again. We give the man some cigarettes, his name is Ruslan. Ruslanʼs house is in front of the club, his son is now fighting in Donetsk Oblast.
— Standing on our knees, my mother and I persuaded him not to go, — says Ruslan. — He said: "Dad, my boys there are, Iʼll go." Heʼs a border guard. He went on foot to Ivanivka village, then to Kolychivka, where he was almost shot by his own people — itʼs dark, you canʼt see anything. He went to the checkpoint, raised his hands and shouted: "Iʼm Ukrainian, Ukrainian."
When the Russians entered Yahidne, Ruslanʼs son was no longer in the village. And he himself with his family and several neighbors hid in the basement.
— They came in, [neighbor] Tolik got out, and saw: tanks, soldiers are coming. Well, he shouted: "Glory to Ukraine!" And they killed him, shooting in the forehead.
— Didnʼt you understand that they were Russians? — I ask.
— He understood everything! He was under this influence, — Ruslan beats his finger on his neck. — So he shouted. We had another man, a fisherman in camouflage pants. They also [shoot him] without asking anything...
Then the occupiers took everyone to the basement of the local school. I ask Ruslan why they needed this.
— Why? How else could they steal everything [from our houses]? We just came out of the door, and he [the occupier] already takes everything out of the house. My panties were taken away, they stole all my underwear! Even socks!
— Why did they need your underwear? — one of the men is surprised.
— Ha-ha-ha, damn it! Who do you think they here? Katsaps? No, from Tuva! And what did they see in that Tuva? This is their poorest republic. They have never seen electricity or asphalt in their lives. They went around, looked at everything... Small, dirty, in these rubber boots... And when ours came in — they were tall, beautiful.
I ask Ruslan if any of the locals cooperated with the Russians. The man seems genuinely surprised by my question.
— Nobody! There was nothing like that with them [in the village].
Someone by the fire remarks that he does not understand those who cooperated with the Russians. Ruslan agrees, but then for some reason starts to well up.
— Itʼs giggling now, when it became past. And then it was not funny, — he raises his voice. — Whatʼs to laugh about when they take you to be shot? Your hands and feet are shaking. People begged them, fell on their knees [so that the Russians would not touch them]. They took my neighbor to shoot him three times. Do you think it was funny then? And when our people [Ukrainian troops] came in, he left the village and exploded on the road. You see how it happens. He was shot three times and died from a mine.
Ruslan is already going to leave. He shakes hands with men. And then turns back.
— And thank you for coming here and cleaning everything up. We wouldnʼt be able to do it here without you.
By noon on the second day, only four of the organizers remain: Vika, Oksana, Sashko, and Dima. Vika and Oksana wash the dishes, Dima and Sasha carry buckets of well water. All of them are representatives of the so-called creative class, before the war they met at parties.
— When the Russians were already moved out of there, we went with Sasha in Chernihiv Oblast, — says Dima, lighting a cigarette. — We looked around and understood that something needs to be done.
— We started even earlier, — says Vika. — We were approached by dog shelter from Gostomel — the cages were smashed. They wanted to raise money to buy new ones. And we thought, why pay money? We gathered people, and they set up new cages in a day.
The Repair Together volunteer initiative deals with several areas. They help people in the villages to rebuild houses — install new windows, bring humanitarian aid and arrange repair gatherings. The money is collected in donations — they plan to be able to completely abandon Ukrainian donations and collect only Western money. This is their fourth trip. The first two were without accommodation, but the organizers say that this format is not very convenient, because the road from Kyiv takes a lot of time.
— How effective is what we are doing here? — I ask.
— Good question, — Dima smiles.
— Iʼd say itʼs effective, — says Vika. — We see the reaction of people. And those who survived the occupation, and those who come here. Locals come and thank us. This is important for them.
— We see how their eyes shine, — adds Oksana. — They constantly come to us, bring something. Today the woman brought us her conservation.
— Yesterday we had a concert [standup of Vasyl Baidak] and even in the chat there were questions whether it is appropriate to hold such concerts in such a place, — Sasha joins the conversation. — These people survived the occupation, and what, do they have to forget laughter now? Itʼs important for them to be remembered and to be noticed.
I ask how the organizers can describe their typical volunteer.
— Everyone is very stylish, — laughs Oksana. — As one [local] woman said, "everyone is so unusual here".
— This is such a typical Kyiv hipster, — says Sasha. — People who come here usually want to do something. Not everyone can fight and hold a machine gun, but everyone wants to help.
Behind Lukashivka is a large field with two farms. Both were smashed by shells. An abandoned Russian armored personnel carrier stands on the ground between the farms. As we approach it, the strong smell of dead flesh hits our noses — one of the farms still has the corpses of cows. There are two burnt tractors in the field. There is also Russian equipment near the broken water tower — it is completely burned, so we canʼt understand what it is. On the grass lies a loaded ammunition with whole shells. Grass breaks through the shot metal everywhere.
The couple, Valentyna Ivanivna and Serhiy Yakovych, live in the house closest to the farm. However, there is almost nothing left of the house — only a stove. The shell hit the garage, the fire spread to the house. The owners were hiding in the cellar at this time. When they were able to leave it, there was no house or garage with cars.
— Iʼve been building it for fifty years! It was the best house in the village! A spectacular one! Significant! Whatʼs here, — sighs Serhiy.
He and his wife look well over 70. Serhiy worked all his life on construction, he built this house himself. He earned money mainly in Moscow. Valentyna worked as a teacher in a kindergarten in Chernihiv for 50 years.
— I have a godmother in Russia, — says Valentina, dry and short woman. — When it all started, I called her, and she said: "It canʼt be true". My son then dropped her photo [of a burned-down house]. She replied only: "What a horror." And thatʼs all. She didnʼt call or wrote anymore.
— How did the Russians behave [when they entered the village]? — I ask the couple.
— At first they even asked if we needed something, — Valentyna answers. — One of them was a Buryat, he asked if he can see our dogs. We said: yes, look, why not. He looked and said, "No, our dogs are different, they are laikas". He was apparently their leader. Then they told us not to worry and that everything would be fine.
Valentyna drives the midge away from her face and continues.
— And then, when our troops came in, they stayed just behind the fence. The boys came in, I fried eggs for them, threw the straw [for them to sleep], and said: letʼs wash your feet, Iʼll heat your water. They replied: "No, weʼll wash them with cold water". They slept, and left the next morning, I told them that I would open the gate so they could come to sleep here at night. But they didnʼt come anymore.
Valentyna touches the burned trees — they used to be fir trees. He sighs.
— If only they [the Russians] hadnʼt come again, — she says. — Itʼs scary, very scary that they will return. I have to do something here, but my hands just go down.
— I wish I was at least 50 years old, — says Serhiy, walking past his burned car. — Then maybe I could come up with something [after all this destruction]. But now…
You can help the Repair Together project here.
Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.