The interior of a house damaged during the Russian occupation of Chernihiv region. (Iuliia Mendel for The Washington Post)
The interior of a house damaged during the Russian occupation of Chernihiv region. (Iuliia Mendel for The Washington Post)

Opinion Ukrainians are rebuilding after Russian destruction — and asking why

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Iuliia Mendel is a journalist and former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The journey to Ukraine’s northern Chernihiv region is still complicated by the lack of bridges, which the Ukrainian military blew up in late February when the Russian army began its advance on Kyiv. The Russians were expelled from the Chernihiv region in early April, but the memories of that terrible offensive can be seen all around, despite the blooming spring and millions of yellow dandelions.

Along the road, there are remnants of burnt tanks and broken trees, the hits of military ammunition visible on the asphalt.

As we drive into the villages, my fiance and I see destroyed buildings. The school in Novyy Bykiv, about 65 miles from Kyiv, has broken windows; on the other side, we see a shelled kindergarten with a torn roof. Almost all the houses along the road are heavily damaged. There is still no reliable telecommunications connection in Chernihiv villages. But people are returning — and, despite the threat of further destruction, beginning to rebuild.

Tetyana’s house and the apartment in the old two-story building right across were among those destroyed. She shows me pictures of the mess the Russian soldiers left behind: They went through the closets, scattered clothes, drank alcohol and broke furniture.

When the Russians were leaving, there was a fight and the house was shelled. Not a single window survived, and water leaked onto the ceiling through the damaged roof. Tetyana, whose last name we are omitting for her security, and her family have replaced five windows and even started insulating the wall. But everything around the house is in ruins: the fence broken, storage destroyed, and an improvised bunker dug by Russians in her garden.

“We won’t be able to move into this house this year,” Tetyana says, upset. Her neighbors are busy doing the same thing for now — taking out tons of garbage, cleaning up their yards.

In the nearby village of Makiivka, residents are not cleaning anything until the bomb squad has checked the yards, houses and premises.

“On the first day, they found 47 explosives around the village. And they find new ones every day,” says Olena. In a recent interview with Ukrainian media, a member of the state emergency service, Oleh Savytsky, reported that they dispose of up to 1,500 units of ammunition in the Chernihiv region per day on average.

RUSSIA

POLAND

BELARUS

Separatist-

controlled

area

Lviv

Kyiv

Chernihiv region

UKRAINE

ROMANIA

Crimea

Annexed by

Russia in 2014

100 MILES

Black Sea

THE WASHINGTON POST

POLAND

RUSSIA

BELARUS

Separatist-

controlled

area

Lviv

Kyiv

Chernihiv

region

UKRAINE

ROMANIA

Crimea

Annexed by

Russia in 2014

100 MILES

Black Sea

THE WASHINGTON POST

RUSSIA

BELARUS

POLAND

100 MILES

Kyiv

Lviv

Chernihiv

region

SLOV.

Kharkiv

HUNG.

UKRAINE

Odessa

Separatist-

controlled

area

ROMANIA

Crimea

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

Black Sea

BULGARIA

THE WASHINGTON POST

While Ukrainian authorities are repairing the damage along the tank-beaten roads, Russian artillery is gathering on the border. The Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff has warned that Russia might start shelling the Chernihiv region again; in fact, the Russian military this week shelled two villages near the border, and on Tuesday a Russian airstrike in the region reportedly killed at least eight people and injured a dozen more. On May 10, temporary movement restrictions were strengthened in the region, prohibiting civilians from moving more than a kilometer along the state border. Among other security measures, hunting and other forms of recreation are restricted within 20 kilometers of the border, as is the wearing of military uniforms by civilians.

Serhii and Olena ask not to share their last name “to avoid revenge if Russians come back.” They counted Russian vehicles passing by their house toward Kyiv.

“We counted 1,827,” Serhii says.

Their family had remained here almost the entire Russian presence, leaving only for a few days at the end of March. The Chernihiv region suffered from a humanitarian crisis. Food could not be delivered, power grids were damaged, people were hiding from constant shelling, and many of those who had joined the territorial defense were killed.

As Serhii scanned his yard on his return, he saw many signs of the Russian presence. “They didn’t care about opening anything, they just drove through fences and gates,” Serhii says.

“I counted six [vehicles that had been on the premises]. By the wheels, the ground, you can still see traces here,” Serhii says as he shows the twisted earth in the vegetable garden and traces in the yard. He tried to save some of the dozen trees that had fallen. Most had to be uprooted.

“Pears, plums, apple trees. Pathetic!” Olena complains. “They have stayed here only for a day, but we cleaned the house after them for a week.” She asks herself a lot of questions, including why the Russians left the television set on the wall but took all their son’s socks and underwear or tried to bite off a piece of a colorful handmade soap.

Makiivka, which became a transition village for Russians, doesn’t rely much on the state support now. The residents understand the war brought with it significant economic losses, and the army remains the priority for budget allocations. Serhii has not repaired the window through which Russians got into the house, the door locks and handles are still crooked, and the family lost some household items and all its food. But Serhii is working tirelessly to rebuild his property. The last thing he repaired was the barbecue.

“We will have barbecue for the victory day,” he says. “I want to be prepared for it.”

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