Ukraine rebuilds towns and villages as soon as they are destroyed

Volunteers clear an area of ​​Kharkiv, Ukraine, devastated during a strike on May 3.
Volunteers clear an area of ​​Kharkiv, Ukraine, devastated during a strike on May 3. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)

BUCHA, Ukraine – Just seeing a kid here – wearing sunglasses, pulling a scooter, pestering his mother to buy him sweets – was enough to impress Petro Trotsenko, a stall owner at a market in Bucha who was reopened last week.

A little over a month ago, the market lay exposed, looted of all its wares, torn by shrapnel. The nearby glass factory where Trotsenko, 74, worked in his younger days was used as a torture chamber by Russian soldiers occupying this suburb of Kiev. The bodies of 22 people from his neighborhood, summarily executed during March, lay where they had fallen in the streets† Nearly every yard was filled with rubble, burnt-out vehicles, and makeshift graves. Almost all families with children had fled.

Hiding in their basement for weeks, Trotsenko and his wife burned wood from the fence surrounding their home to boil rainwater. That’s how they cooked the porridge that kept them alive.

But in about the same time as the Russians occupied Bucha, the city has remade itself. The market is open and Trotsenko has replenished his stock. Huge potholes in roads where the grenades fell have been paved. The suburban train to Kiev is running again. Water and electricity have largely been restored. Families return.

A body in the forest indicates horror in Bucha

President Volodymyr Zelensky says it will cost Ukraine at least $600 billion to rebuild what was devastated during the Russian invasion of Bucha and across the country. But local officials and ordinary citizens are not waiting for a new Marshall Plan. They are clearing and rebuilding their cities, even though the question of when the war will end remains unanswered.

The reconstruction effort is infused with a sense of optimism that Ukraine will survive the Russian attack. Volunteers usually run it, allowing government money to stay focused on the war.

In places where the scars are still fresh, such as Bucha, or still being inflicted, such as Kharkiv and other cities in eastern Ukraine, the driving force behind reconstruction is the Ukrainians’ determination to prove to Russia – and to themselves – that Ukraine is anything but defeated.

In Kharkov, Stas Bocharnikov, a manager at a distribution company, felt so restless to return to normal that he could only endure one week in a bomb shelter at the start of the war. Since then, he has struggled nearly every day with volunteers to clear debris from the attack sites — work that will allow more specialized crews to get on with the task of demolishing or rebuilding damaged structures.

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second most populous city, is located just 40 kilometers from the Russian border. For more than 70 days it has been ravaged by artillery and aerial bombardment, and most buildings in the city have at least lost their windows to explosions. But Bocharnikov now has enough volunteers to fill buses with them and send them to different parts of the city every day.

As soon as Bocharnikov receives the message from the local emergency services that an area has been cleared of cluster munitions, the teams get to work, sometimes with artillery guns in the background.

The risk is worth it for one simple reason, he said, “I don’t want to live in a mess.”

At a damaged culinary school on a recent day, the volunteers ranged from women in their sixties to a 12-year-old boy. They threw scattered rocks into garbage heaps, but carefully preserved cookbooks and utensils that somehow survived the explosion.

People are not paid, Bocharnikov said; most he ever gave them was cigarettes or a free meal prepared by other volunteers in town.

“If one day people will talk about how we rebuilt Kharkov, I want to tell my children or grandchildren that I helped,” said 19-year-old Darina Potapenko.

The next day, the same group of volunteers worked in another part of town—a residential area where a flurry of mortars had crashed through front doors and ceilings. Wearing orange gloves, Marina Smelianskaia, 53, a former lab worker, dug her shovel into a pile of rubble to clear it from the building’s sidewalk.

On the bus ride to the neighborhood, Smelianskaia was demoralized by how many buildings were still damaged in the area — and how she barely made a dent as Russian missiles ravaged homes every night. She kept creating.

“People were working here about two weeks ago — they’ve already cleaned this area — and it was hit again,” she said. ‘Now we’re cleaning it again. So this sense of accomplishment is not there for me yet.”

Civilians crossed a ruined bridge where others were killed while trying to evacuate, seen in video posted on March 7 and filmed by Suspilne News. They fled Irpin, a suburb of Kiev that had suffered heavy attacks when Russia took control of the area. (Video: https://t.me/kyivoda/1765)

Continued shelling in Kharkov did little to deter the volunteers. Tulips have been planted all over downtown and city workers mowed the grass in hard-hit neighborhoods.

Valentina Orlova, 73, hastily planted yellow violets in front of the city’s destroyed regional administration building early this week. It was around noon and the work had to be done by 2pm

“That’s when the shelling usually starts, so we have to be ready to get home soon,” she said.

If an ongoing Ukrainian counter-offensive in Kharkov succeeds, the fighting may end in the coming weeks, giving the volunteers more time to rebuild in more meaningful ways. If that happens, the efforts of residents of the suburbs of Kiev, including Bucha, Irpin and Hostomel – all of which have been extensively demolished – could serve as an example.

In Irpin, a suburb that used to be home to some 60,000 people, municipal workers have been working for half the money to repair dozens of water and sewer pumps.

“We worked day and night without a day off,” said Artur Zahodirenko, the director of Irpin’s municipal water service, which relied on equipment from aid organizations.

About 16,000 people have returned to Irpin in recent days, the mayor, Oleksandr Markushin, said. If progress in restoring services continues quickly, he said, he will formally invite all residents on May 15.

Last week, a bank reopened, as did many kindergartens. The completely destroyed road bridge between Irpin and Kiev, infamous as a place where many were killed by snipers while he tried to flee during the occupation, is now passable by car.

The renewal coincided with the arrival of spring in northern Ukraine, and the suburbs of Kiev are covered with a blanket of dandelions and fresh grass. Brightly colored laundry sways in the gentle, warm breeze. Two boys with skateboards crossed paths with a friend, dyed her hair newly pink, in one of Irpin’s many parks.

Markushin, who never left Irpin during the occupation, recently made an open call to architects, designers and engineers willing to provide their services free of charge to help rebuild the city. He expected about a dozen responses, but was overwhelmed instead.

“We thought only a few people would come, but 121 specialists came today. Imagine! 121! We were shocked,” he said. “Today we visited several locations and in a few weeks they will deliver their first plans.”

Isabelle Khurshudyan reported from Kharkiv. Sergii Mukaieliants and Maria Avdeeva in Kharkiv, and Serhiy Morgunov in Bucha and Irpin contributed to this report.

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