When it’s bad, you appreciate the little things


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February 10, 2023

When it’s bad, you appreciate the little things

  • Dispatches from Ukraine
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • war

The Russian attack left traces on the Ukrainian capital and its inhabitants that will not disappear for years.

Photo: Kyiv City State Administration

Four months ago, a group of people stood in this courtyard as artillery cannonades were heard from afar. Lyudmila, 45, had not gone to work for a long time, so she did not see this with her own eyes. She worked in a small grocery store where, apart from small purchases, you can have a coffee or eat a pastry. Though it is surrounded by tall apartment blocks, she at least knew the faces of many of the inhabitants. Lyudmila, who liked to talk, came to like some of them.

So maybe it’s better that she didn’t see all this. That day, the inhabitants of the block next to the store stood wrapped in blankets, most of them simply in pajamas, while a few had managed to put on their outdoor clothes. Everyone, without exception, was terrified, broken, angry. The fire quickly consumed their worldly possessions. They became homeless in an instant.

After the strike, a blaze engulfed the staircase and subsequent apartments in a 15-story block. Rescue services quickly arrived on the scene, extinguishing the fire for hours and dragging some of the trapped inhabitants out by climbing the ladders of the fire engines. Nevertheless, five people died and the police found one body only a month later while searching the building.

The threat had hung over the capital city of Kyiv, where 3 million people lived until the Russian attack on February 24, that fighting would move deeper into the city.

Lyudmila returned to work a month and a half after this incident. As usual, she went to the store at eight in the morning. The sooty skeleton of the block frightened her for a long time. Her eyes had nowhere to turn when she went out to smoke because the destroyed building is almost directly in front of the store’s exit. At first she looked at it with horror and a certain reluctance, because her thoughts immediately wandered to the charred bodies.

This changed when workers appeared in the area. They polished without pause, and Lyudmila witnessed the pitch-black residue disappearing, replaced with white almost overnight.

“It’s loud and dusty, but that’s okay. What is most important is that this block is rebuilt,” she admits.

A carefree moment

In the first days of July, little was left of the gloomy atmosphere of that March morning. The neighborhood had turned green long before, and the dense leaves somewhat obscured the affected block. However, not so much that it did not attract the eyes of passersby. Every now and then someone raises their head to peek at the building or stop and take a photo. There are still many apartments in the neighboring buildings without windows, which have been replaced by plastic sheeting.

The store where Lyudmila works was also devastated. The shock wave broke windows and destroyed some of the goods that were left. It looked as if a tornado had passed through the space. She worked with the owner for several days to restore order.

Today, many residents have returned to this apartment complex. A man pushes a stroller with a child inside, boys run wild in the courtyard, a woman walks her dog while two men sip bottled beers near Lyudmila’s shop. Someone visits her every few moments. On hot days, ice cream, cold drinks and beer are the most popular. Despite problems, residents allow themselves more and more levity, which the war had taken away from them.

Two boys run into the store and stare at the sweets behind the glass counter.

“What would you like?” says Lyudmila.

“Uh…” is all they can squeeze out; they don’t take their eyes off the sweets. Finally, after a long pause, one almost screams out as if suddenly enlightened: “Chupa Chups!”

His colleague, who has no money, clearly did not like the choice. He urges him to take an oblong gummy.

“Look, it’s bigger,” he says in a low voice.

The price is the same as for the lollipop.

“Get it!” he urges insistently.

“I’d like this one, please,” the one with the money says to Lyudmila and places coins on a plastic tray.

They run out delighted, not paying attention to the renovated building.

The hole remains haunting

A dozen or so kilometers away there is yet another block with a hole in it. It was there that the rocket struck at the end of February, on the third day of the Russian invasion. The nearly 30-story block has become a symbol of the effects of the war in Kyiv. Nevertheless, people flocked to the nearby supermarket soon after the attack. Most of the shops were closed then. No one knew how long the ones that were still open would be operating or whether there would be anything to buy in them. Every now and then someone would approach with the hope of at least getting bread.

Oleksandr, 37, is standing by the supermarket, with his back to the damaged block. He lives in the neighborhood and usually goes shopping here. He has not left the city this whole time. He did not want to abandon his house. He remembers the day when the rocket struck; the long lines, empty shelves, and how he helped build outposts in the area as Russian soldiers tried to break into the capital.

Today, at the beginning of July, the atmosphere here is like near Lyudmila’s shop. In the supermarket, the shelves are full and there is even a canteen where every few moments someone comes by for a prepared meal. There are not many free spaces in the parking lot, and those going shopping or already returning with bags only raise their heads to get another look at the gaping hole.

Next to the struck building, workers carry metal parts. A smiling boy walks by and takes a selfie. He bends his head slightly to show the hole made by the rocket. There is a beauty salon and one of a popular chain of cafes on the ground floor of the ruined building. However, a decision on what to do with the block has not yet been made—to demolish it, remove only the part that is uninhabitable, or just to patch the hole. Residents complain about the sluggishness of the city authorities, because of whom they must act on their own.

Four hundred people lived in the building to which they now can’t return. If no renovation is carried out before the autumn chill, the remaining flats may also be damaged.

A long war

Today a terrible heat and stuffiness prevails, before an impending storm. That is why Oleksandr has taken a break for beer and consumes it in the shade. He was a construction worker until February 24th, but virtually the entire industry has come to a standstill. He cannot find a job in his profession.

“Nobody is eager to invest in such projects now. Therefore, the sector remains dead. This will change only when we defeat Russia,” admits Oleksandr.

He puts his experiences and difficulties in the background. As he puts it, these are trifles compared to the experiences of those who have lost their homes, loved ones, health or are under fire.

“You can earn more money, but you cannot restore life,” he says. “When it’s really bad, you start to appreciate the little things.”

He is convinced that the situation is moving in the right direction and that the war will go well for Ukraine. However, he isn’t wearing rose-colored glasses. He realizes that the conflict will not end soon.

“This war began eight years ago and another eight years is quite probable to me,” says Oleksandr.

In 2014, war broke out in Donbas, where the Russians and the separatists who supported them fought against the Ukrainian army. As a result, two unrecognized republics were created in parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, the defense of which became a pretext for the Russian invasion in February 2022. More than 13,000 people died because of that first eight-year part of the conflict.

A price to pay for reinforced concrete

40-year-old Oleksandr Burlaka, an architect and artist, always thought that his apartment was poorly planned. Usually, three rooms comfortably fit in an area of ​​70 m2. There were two in his apartment. The large corridor seemed to be a waste of space, and the thick walls made any alterations difficult.

He looked at it differently after February 24th. He and his brother-in-law spent two months in the corridor. It was safest there. It fit two large mattresses and had enough space to sit down comfortably with a computer, so he had everything at hand. Thick walls and decent windows effectively dampened explosions. Only once, when a fragment of a broken rocket fell near the station, was there a bang that caused the building to sway slightly.

“People looked at their houses differently. They look at these hard elements and wonder if they can keep them safe,” admits Burlaka.

This has been reflected in the housing purchase and rental market. Those on the top floors and near potential targets have become terribly cheap.

Burlaka says that his sister-in-law, after returning to Kyiv, was looking for a flat for herself. She could not understand why a large apartment, which a few months ago would be rented for several thousand hryvnia per month, was now to be handed over for 6,000 hryvnia. Only later did she glance at a map and notice that it was near an armaments plant, no doubt targeted by the Russians.

More and more people also pay attention to whether an apartment has at least two solid walls, behind which you can hide if necessary. And also whether a building is made of reinforced concrete slabs. A law adopted in June by the Verkhovna Rada requires that every new multi-apartment building has a shelter or other hideaway.

Since the end of February, over 600 buildings in Kyiv have endured Russian shelling. Three-hundred and sixty are to be inspected and rebuilt first. Six-hundred million hryvnia has been allocated from the municipal budget for this purpose, and the government is to allocate another 200 million.

Only anger remains

With this destruction, sacrifice, violence and the continuation of war, anger is the prevailing emotion.

Destroyed Russian military equipment has been placed in the square next to St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery. There are burnt tanks, artillery, trucks, passenger cars and the remnants of rockets. Crowds visit. Couples, families, friends; children jump on them despite posted warnings about sharp edges.

23-year-old Julia, a graduate student studying acting, is here for the third time. Each time friends persuaded her to go with them.

“This time I asked her,” says 21-year-old Anna, also dreaming of an acting career.

I ask what emotion she feels when she looks at the wrecks.

“Hate,” says Anna.

Both women are from the city of Sumy, towards which the Russian troops moved during the first hours of the invasion. The women currently live in Kyiv.

They say that they grew up in a Russian-speaking environment. For years they listened to Russian music, with which many pleasant memories are intertwined. Every time they turned it on, they would return to those moments. Now they are removing more and more Russian songs from their playlists. They’ll crack only occasionally and play one.

Julia dreamed of going to St. Petersburg because it seemed to her to be a creative city, but now she has crossed this city and the whole country off the map of places she would like to visit. They both spoke Russian for a long time. Now they use Russian principally only in conversation with their parents, who are not fluent in Ukrainian. Anna’s father is Russian, but when the war broke out in Donbas, he broke contact with his Russian family. He always told his daughter that he was Ukrainian, although he was not born in this country.

“These wrecks should remind us that we can never forgive this,” says Julia.

“Unfortunately, after 2014, we allowed this conflict to freeze. If they did not treat civilians like this, murder or rape women and children, perhaps this would also happen now. After all this, however, we will not allow forgetting. All that remains in us is anger,” Anna echoes.

They feel safe in Kyiv. They believe that the Ukrainian army will sooner or later break the Russian offensive. They want their country to cut off all contact with its northern neighbor.

“We will be separated by a border, visa regime and strict controls,” says Anna.

“…we will build a wall…” adds Julia.

“…we will dig a trench…”

“…flood it with water…”

“… and we’ll separate ourselves completely.”

This text was originally published in Polish in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Translated from Polish by Lukasz ChelminskiThis piece is part of the DS collection: Dispatches from Ukraine.


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