For more than a month, the Russians destroyed Chernihiv with planes and artillery. Now the locals are restoring it with their bare hands. An inspiring report about people who could not be defeated

Oksana Rasulova
Yuliana Skibitska
For more than a month, the Russians destroyed Chernihiv with planes and artillery. Now the locals are restoring it with their bare hands. An inspiring report about people who could not be defeated

Олег Петрасюк / «Бабель»

In March 2022, Chernihiv oblast was probably the most affected by Russian shelling. During a month of active hostilities, Russian troops destroyed approximately 20% of Chernihivʼs buildings. To rebuild them, at least 14 billion hryvnias are needed. One of the most damaged neighborhoods is Bobrovytsia in the eastern part of the city. The Russians shelled it every day until March 30 and destroyed about 300 private houses. Local residents decided to dismantle the rubble and rebuild what was lost on their own. They are helped by volunteers of the public organization for the reconstruction of Chernihiv "Bo mozhemo" (”Because we can”) — for almost two months, they have been gathering every day to help victims of Russian shelling. Citizens and volunteers were united by Oleksandr Tymoshenko, who himself lost his home in Bobrovytsa, and Andriy Galyuga. He lives in another district, but helps the townspeople throughout Chernihiv. "Babel" journalist Oksana Rasulova visited the settlement and asked Oleksandr what it was like for people who lost their homes due to the war.

No end in sight

Until the 1970s, Bobrovytsa was a village, and then the growing Chernihiv "swallowed" it — this is how the microdistrict was formed. Still, there is not much from the city here: private houses, gardens, orchards, this yearʼs unplucked mulberries and apricots on the roadside. A few hundred meters from the last houses is the village of Novoselivka, which the Russians occupied and destroyed in March.

Andriy (left) and Oleksandr (right).

Олег Петрасюк / «Бабель»

Oleksandr and Andriy meet us in Bobrovytsia. We follow their car to the edge of the district. The further to the end of the city, the more broken and burnt houses are there. We stop on one of the last streets of Bobrovytsia.

― In fact, this is the border of the city, the Ukrainian Armed Forces were here, ― Oleksandr, getting out of the car, points with his hands along the street. — And from there the Russians pushed.

He works in the field of creating "smart houses". He spent almost his entire life of 40 years here, in Bobrovytsia. He has two children — the son is twenty, the daughter is sixteen years old.

— My wife Tanya and I have lived here since childhood. Her parentsʼ house is further down the street, mine is 200 meters away, — he says, walking down Luhova (Meadowy) Street to the intersection with Pishchana (Sandy). — Here we met, studied together since the first grade, got married and have been together for more than 20 years. Here is our house.

Олег Петрасюк / «Бабель»

All thatʼs left of Oleksandr and Tanyaʼs house behind the perforated fence were the walls, and even not all of them. They bought this house in 2017, and on the eve of February 24, they were finishing the renovation. Only the bathtub and faucet remained from the bathroom, dishes is all whatʼs left from the kitchen. Rescued school textbooks are stored in the former kindergarten. There are gift bags, a model car and jeans lying in the corridor.

Through a hole in the floor, a basement is seen — thatʼs where Oleksandrʼs family hid, until they left abroad five days before the shelling of the district. The coupleʼs parents stayed at home. It was they who told Oleksandr that on March 13 a projectile hit his house. The day before, Oleksandrʼs father took all his valuables to his garage, but later the garage burned down during the shelling.

Олег Петрасюк / «Бабель»

— Alone, without volunteers, I would still be raking the debris, — Oleksandr says. — There was no end in sight.

Mountains of garbage, which was once a home, have already been removed from his yard. The surviving slate and bricks are stacked nearby. About three dozen yards in Bobrovytsa, where volunteers have already worked, look the same. From some houses the walls remain, doors and a plate with a number from others, surviving ceramic dishes, melted glass bowls or the remains of preserved foods from the cellar are found in almost every fire. If the owners have returned, the remnants of their life are carefully stacked on a patch of yard.

Олег Петрасюк / «Бабель»

Oleksandr says that those who have shelter are returning. He and his son live with his grandmother, his parents and wife and daughter stayed in Germany, father-in-law and mother-in-law rent an apartment. The man first came to Chernihiv in mid-April. Brought several loads of humanitarian aid from volunteer headquarters in the west of the country. After three such trips, he decided to stay in the city and began to dismantle his ruined house. Then he organized neighbors for joint meetings, and then he saw that an acquaintance was engaged in the same business — thatʼs how they united. For the past month and a half, about thirty people have been sorting through the rubble of houses in the private sector every day. "Like donkeys," the man laughs.

— Itʼs like in the old cartoon about grief, remember? Grief was shared — and it ended. Thatʼs how we are. This is how strangers become closer than family members, — says Oleksandr. — And we do something every day, just to occupy our hands and mind.

Trudova Street, 5a

On the day we arrived, the volunteers planned to work in another, also heavily destroyed area of Chernihiv. It takes half an hour by car from Bobrovytsia to get there. When we arrive, Andriy, although he himself came there not long ago, is already managing the process.

Inside the remains of a house surrounded by a garden and a small town, a group of men break down the walls. The women in the yard are sorting the bricks that have already been knocked out, but so far they have little work to do. Only the frame remained of the house, deceptively strong in appearance.

Олег Петрасюк / «Бабель»

— As we all got so active, guys, take the lintels between the doors, from above, — commands Andrii. At the demolition site, he immediately becomes attentive and concentrated, moves quickly between the remains of the building and seems to see with half a glance which wall might be the easiest to break.

— Tie the rope! — shouts to a group of men. — Letʼs pull. Rock it out! Just donʼt let it go... A little more. Donєt drop it, because it will fall on your head! Move away from the wall everyone! I can already see that he is walking there... We all run from here. Sasha, take a shovel.

Oksana Boyko ties a thin blue scarf on her head and chooses a hammer for working with bricks. She came to the demolition of the house together with her preschool son Kostya and her husband Kolya.

— We sort out what can still be used, and what the utility workers will later take away as construction waste, — she explains, keeping an eye on her son, who has already put on a white hard hat and is breaking bricks.

Олег Петрасюк / «Бабель»

Oksana has been in similar places for more than a month, she comes several times a week when work (she works as a nurse) and children (she has a teenage daughter) allow. It was because of the children that the family left Chernihiv in March — they lived in a house on Chornovil Street that was bombed by Russian aircraft. There were minor injuries — the son still has small scars on his face — but they decided to go to Ivano-Frankivsk oblast. They spent two months there.

— The landlady there was very energetic, — Oksana recalls. — She said that she would go to rebuild Chernihiv. I remember her words very well. But when we returned, I saw that before rebuilding, you must first disassemble everything. On the first Saturday after my arrival, I could not find a place for myself, I wanted to do something. I saw a post about gathering of locals on social networks — and went to break the walls. Then the husband joined.

The woman lost track of how many objects she had already visited. They are now friends with the owners of some ruins, and consider themselves one family.

Олег Петрасюк / «Бабель»

— They say that breaking is easier than building, but it hurts our souls when we see it, — says Oksana. — Sometimes we find personal things, almost always mattress springs and dishes remain intact. These were peopleʼs memories. It is difficult for them and for us. Even before the war, I decided that I should not get attached to things, and now I think so even more.

— Mom, why are you talking and talking? ― a bored Kostya approaches the woman. He wants to show how he breaks a brick, and Oksana, smiling in farewell, follows her son — she will explain him how to remove cement.

"They say somebody pointed the place to Russians"

From time to time Andriy comes to consult the red-faced fat man. This is Serhiy, the owner of the destroyed house.

Олег Петрасюк / «Бабель»

— I just left the house to the garage and the rocket flew in, — he recalled on February 28. ― I went out to get a tool because I was finishing repairs in the kitchen. The son-in-law was in the far room, the wife with her daughter and granddaughter in the bomb shelter nearby. It didnʼt affect anyone.

Serhiy pulls out fragments from a projectile found in the yard from under the sink near the garden.

— Only one house on the street was broken into, — he says. — People say it was pointed to Russians. I was in the ATO. As it began, I gave the boys a helmet and armored car at the checkpoint — the children were standing with nothing. Even now, I submitted documents to go to war, but they donʼt move for now.

Serhiy is 54 years old, 23 of them he spent in the military. He was an ambulance driver and a staff sergeant. His father was also a military man who built this house in the 1970s, when he returned home from service in Rostov-on-Don, nowadays Russia.

Олег Петрасюк / «Бабель»

― I was already finishing, reworking here... But new windows had to be installed in the kitchen. I was thinking of digging a lake and retiring, sitting with my granddaughter, — while Serhiy is talking, a recently found kitten rubs against his leg. Their cat was burned during the bombing. Serhiy, while looking for him in the burning house, received burns on his back. — We managed to get some of the childrenʼs things out of the house, but nothing of our own. I spent my whole life building it — and now have to start anew. I invested every penny in this. Itʼs so sad.

From 2008 to 2012, Serhiy worked in Russia as a driver and in construction to save money for house repairs and his daughterʼs education. Every year he came home for only two weeks. Now his daughter rents an apartment in the city, and he and his wife live in a wooden structure above the garage.

There are chevrons and old pictures on the garage door. Inside it smells of grease and borscht — Kateryna, Serhiyʼs wife, cooks a whole bucket of it for all the volunteers. A wooden ladder made of a surviving woods leads to the cabin above — only near the first lintel is the charred edge.

Олег Петрасюк / «Бабель»

The entrance to the apartment is covered with white lace tulle. In the little room there is a bed made of pallets, a wardrobe, a table, a lamp, bags with a few belongings. The man has already gone to the city council to find out about compensation, but so far there are no funds. At first, he cleared the rubble with his son-in-law, then he paid for the help of his neighbors, but he quickly gave up on that idea. The volunteers he contacted only sympathetically explained that they do not work in that area: there is not much damage there. He says he got the same answer from UN volunteers. His daughter was advised to contact the volunteers from "Because we can".

Serhiy examines the remains of the house from a window covered with a mosquito net. In a few hours of work, the volunteers dismantled the house almost to the foundation.

Олег Петрасюк / «Бабель»

― I did everything profoundly, it was perfect, good enough for children and grandchildren to live there ... ― Serhii sighs, and then, shuddering, adds. ― Well, Iʼll make it even better.

Belongings are not whatʼs important

— This is our task — to give hope, — says Andriy, smoking a cigarette during a short break. — When a man comes to his burned home, he is confused. But then he sees support, he sees that he was not forgotten. It would be easier to make all this with an excavator, but thatʼs not the point.

Such gatherings are usually held in the evening, from 5 PM to 9 PM — daytime is inconvenient because of the heat and work. Often, those who need help are found out on the site itself — they come to dismantle other peopleʼs houses and tell their own stories. First, Andriy or one of his associates comes to the site to determine how safe it is to organize a dismantling there for people without construction experience. If it is necessary to disassemble particularly threatening structures, it is done by the high-rise workers, and Andriy along with them, because he has permission to do such dismantling. Therefore, they announce gathering for those who want to. Neighbors, friends, strangers come and go. If a group of children gathers, someone is sure to keep an eye on them.

Олег Петрасюк / «Бабель»

Andriy works in Chernihiv oblast electricity provider. Previously, he was the chief engineer of a division with 1,000 employees, engaged in electrification of the region, and only later — in equipment diagnostics. During the siege of Chernihiv and after the deoccupation of the region, he returned to work "in the fields". In his free time, he began to help restore light in simple cases, and so he ended up in Bobrovytsia at one request. He saw how bad the situation in the neighborhood was, and wrote a post with a proposal to the locals to get together and help each other, as they did in the villages in his memory. Installation of windows, replacement of slate, dismantling of ruins was added to work with electricity. Thatʼs how Andriy met Oleksandr, who was essentially doing the same thing in the same area — and they joined forces.

Олег Петрасюк / «Бабель»

― Before, I did not volunteer, I earned money. And although it sounds pathetic, I will say from the heart: the war showed that the most important thing is not belongings. And the idea of the movement is to prove that this is possible, says Andriy. — According to our example, they are already being organized in other districts and villages. You donʼt just have to wait for humanitarian aid and stand with an outstretched hand. We need to act ourselves. First, we are currently dismantling, and then we will rebuild. This is how civil society is formed.

Andriy inspects the yard. The bricks are removed, everything is clean. The sun is already setting, and itʼs time to have dinner. And just as he commanded before at work, he calls everyone to wash their hands and go to the table.

Олег Петрасюк / «Бабель»

While everyone is standing for a group photo, Serhiy puts a table in the center of the yard under an arch made of grapes, and Kateryna takes out bread, plates and a pan-bucket of borshch from the garage. Volunteers applaud themselves and hurry to wash their hands.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

Support Chernihiv volunteers. Support Babel: Patreon 🔸 [email protected]🔸donate in cryptocurrency🔸in hryvnia.