Ukrainians know the war is not over, so each day we clean up, document the destruction, and do our best to prepare
Near one of the oldest and most beautiful squares in Kyiv, Sofiivska, I met Andriy Khlyvnyuk – a famous Ukrainian singer who recently joined the police civil defence. I wrote about him during the first days of the war. The video of him singing the century-old march Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow went viral. Pink Floyd collaborated with Khlyvnyuk and issued their version of the track, Hey Hey Rise Up, in support of Ukraine.
At the start of the war, the streets of Ukrainian cities emptied. So when strangers meet now they say hello, and when you come across someone you know, even a distant acquaintance, you hug each other. I told Khlyvnyuk I’d just come from Donbas, and had a feeling of irreversible tragedy lying ahead in anticipation of possibly the biggest battle of the war. “How are you holding yourself together?” Andriy asked me. “I’m not thinking too hard,” I told him. “I just focus on what I should do next.” “The same with me,” he said. This is the case with most of my friends and the people I meet.
A few days after the liberation of Bucha, I walked through the most damaged street – Vokzalna. According to the Ukrainian authorities, at least 400 people were killed there during the Russian occupation. Bucha is a suburban town near Kyiv, where middle-class professionals prefer to buy affordable flats and houses since there are more kindergartens and fresh air. Among the wreckage of burnt tanks, Ihor and Volodya – workers in a communication company – were repairing fibre cables to restore internet connections in the town. Metres away, rescue workers were de-mining the area. In the neighbouring town of Irpin, which was heavily shelled, the mayor asked residents to help clean up the debris. He needed 300 volunteers; 1,500 signed up at once, and within days almost 10,000 had joined the clean-up effort.
I take photographs of every house I see. First, I photograph all the houses that have not been destroyed – these are the majority. I post these photos so people who have managed to escape can check whether their homes survived. For a brief moment, I feel I have come to these areas not just to provide a grim account of horrors, but to give hope that their towns have survived, that there is a place to go back to.
Travelling between liberated villages and towns around Kyiv to document evidence of crimes – something I see it as part of my job to do – has become hard. Many bridges were bombed and roads are being cleared, so traffic jams are enormous. People are now coming back en masse. But the mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, has asked residents to wait. Air raid sirens are still sounding, though we hear them less often. The full-scale assault on the capital may resume. Oleksandr Gruzevych,deputy chief of staff of land forces and the general in charge of the defence of Kyiv, says it doesn’t matter how the battle in Donbas goes: the Ukrainian capital will remain a key target for Russia. Others are concerned that after the sinking of the Moskva battleship, the Kremlin is keen for revenge and will consider another attack on Kyiv.
Nevertheless, there is a feeling of victory. So far Kyiv has been saved not because of Putin’s mercy but because of the capital’s air defences, the best in the country. The Russians’ retreat was not a goodwill gesture; they withdrew because they failed to conquer the capital. Some checkpoints in the streets of Kyiv are now being removed to allow traffic to flow more freely. A beauty parlour near my house sends a message: “We’re open again.” A plumber is ready to come to my friend’s flat as soon as tomorrow. Pupils attend online lessons in schools. The overnight curfew starts later – 10pm, not 7pm as it was in the first days of war. This allows residents to commute to work, and essential shops and businesses have reopened. A few restaurants are open again too.
I am not ready to go to restaurants yet, and opt for a supermarket instead. Eating out, having a good time, doesn’t feel right. Many Kyiv residents feel survivor’s guilt. The city authorities say 228 сivilians, among them four children, were killed in Kyiv, and almost 400 people wounded. Still, the level of destruction cannot be compared to Kharkiv or Mariupol. Moreover, in nearby towns such as Bucha, Irpin and Hostomel, many residents paid the highest price possible for not letting Russians in. They were tortured, robbed, murdered. Many houses were burned.
Coming back to Bucha a few days ago with a group of foreign journalists who wanted to see destroyed Russian tanks, we couldn’t find any, and even Vokzalna street is now open to vehicles. Houses have been destroyed by shelling, yet it’s not obvious that a fierce battle took place here. The journalists looked disappointed. For us it’s still the place we live, though cleaning up doesn’t mean erasing the memory of what happened here.
Ukrainians are resilient because we know how to switch to survival mode very fast. That’s our history. You do what you have to do, because you might not get another chance. Oddly enough, it’s me who calms down western friends and colleagues who complain that they feel powerless. Here in Ukraine we do not feel powerless. We do something practical to defend ourselves all the time. My major criticism of western intelligence analysts, who were correct about Putin’s war, is that, among the often dire scenarios they outline, the one in which Ukraine wins is rarely mentioned.
These days the most popular image in Ukraine is the photograph of a kitchen cabinet that stands untouched on the wall of a bombed-out building in the town of Borodyanka, near Kyiv. “If a kitchen cabinet holds up,” people say, “we definitely can.”