WAR IN EUROPE
Rebuilding in the battlegrounds — for Ukraine reconstruction is an act of defiance
In the aftermath of Russian bombings, torture and mass executions, these are the Ukrainian towns that are refusing to give in, doggedly trying to piece their lives back together.
Ukraine’s beloved classical poet Taras Shevchenko stands on the central square named after him in the town of Borodyanka: northwest of the capital Kyiv. He has a gaping bullet wound in the back of his head and another in the front. But he remains standing.
To the people of Borodyanka and to Ukrainians more widely, this bulletproof statue has come to symbolise the invincibility of their nation.
Borodyanka was among the first towns overrun by the Russians when they invaded Ukraine from Belarus in the north in February 2022. They destroyed many houses and killed hundreds of civilians there.
Kostyantyn Moroz, deputy head of Borodyanka, says the statue of Shevchenko – a 19th-century poet and campaigner for Ukraine’s independence from Tsarist Russia – was deliberately targeted by a Russian jet fighter and armoured vehicle because he represented the Ukrainian language and culture which were also targets of Russia. “But he will never be pulled down, just as Ukraine never will be,” he insists.
More importantly of course, many real people were killed and displaced when Ukrainians paused and eventually stopped Russia’s attempted capture of Kyiv in this area during the first weeks of the war. Moroz recalls: “Before the invasion 26,000 people had lived in Borodyanka and nearby territory; only 80 people were part of the territorial defence force. But when the invasion came more and more people took up arms in defence of their motherland and joined the territorial defence force.”
These largely untrained volunteers stopped a column of 300 Russian tanks from occupying a part of the Kyiv region, halting them for a vital one-and-a-half days until the regular army could deploy.
But then the Russians had realised how much damage had been inflicted on them by ordinary people, and exacted revenge by heavily bombing Borodyanka, Moroz said, pointing to the wrecks of apartment buildings all around.
Read more in Daily Maverick: War in Ukraine
Borodyanka was overrun too quickly to allow most of its inhabitants to escape and the Russian Chechens there forbade people to evacuate, forcing them to stay in their houses.
“That’s why more than 229 people were buried under the debris,” says Moroz.
In total, 1,150 private houses and eight apartment blocks were destroyed in Borodyanka, along with three partially destroyed blocks.
The Chechen fighters drained the one well in the town every day to prevent locals from using it.
The aim was to get people back in their homes as soon as possible, to restore something like normality.
On the wall of a shattered building, British artist Banksy painted a child throwing an adult in a judo contest. He chose judo because of macho Russian President Vladimir Putin’s love of martial arts. The symbolism doesn’t need explaining.
Ukraine began rebuilding as soon as the Russians were expelled from here by early April.
Moroz notes that, 14 days later, city authorities were able to reconnect the water and energy supplies. Charities including Caritas and the International Red Cross arrived to provide humanitarian aid. “Efforts were made to partially restore many buildings and help people resettle there.”
Temporary accommodations and apartments were built. The aim was to get people back in their homes as soon as possible, to restore something like normality. Foreign affairs official Andrii Strashnyi says a friend of his has returned to his apartment near here even though a huge hole remains in one external wall. “He has installed a big stove in there for the cold.”
About 28,000 of the 30,000 displaced people are back in their homes and the remainder should be able to return by the end of the year.
Borodyanka is now one of the six cities in Ukraine that are part of the project which provides for the entire restoration of the city according to the Building Back Better principle, Moroz says.
Left where they fell
A few kilometres south of Borodyanka is the town of Bucha (appropriately pronounced “butcher”), which has become synonymous with Russian atrocities against Ukrainians in this war. More than 500 unarmed civilians were killed. President Cyril Ramaophosa and other members of the African peace mission were brought here when they visited Kyiv in June to try to broker peace between Russia and Ukraine. Some believe the experience changed Ramaphosa’s otherwise pro-Russian perceptions of the war.
Occupying Russian troops, perhaps exacting revenge for the ferocity with which the Ukrainians resisted their invasion (when many were apparently expecting to be greeted with flowers as liberators), “went on safari” in Bucha, as one official put it, randomly shooting men women (many elderly) and children for sport, it seems. Their bodies were left where they fell, many of them on Yalunska Street.
At St Andrew’s Orthodox church, parish priest Andrii Halavin says other residents were more systematically murdered, gathered in a basement and tortured before being made to kneel and shot in the back of the head.
The Russian soldiers refused to allow them to bury the bodies in a decent way in cemeteries. And the morgues were not working because the electricity had been cut off.
So he decided to allow the dead to be buried in a mass grave in the church grounds. Local city officials, citizen volunteers and doctors collected the bodies from the streets and backyards.
I am not seeking revenge. I am seeking justice… Particularly because Putin’s government gave medals to the soldiers who did this. Their wives and families should know what they really did in Bucha.
He said they could identify many of them because they knew them, although it was not always easy. A singer in his choir, also named Andrii, was killed with his family and two others in his home. Their bodies were dismembered and burnt. Some bodies remain unidentified still as pathologists seek to discover who they were through DNA testing.
He notes that the Russians later claimed that the deaths here had been posed by Ukrainians. But he shows us on his phone a video of the bodies being put into the mass grave. The video is dated 3 March, while the Russians were still occupying Bucha, so it could not have been Ukrainians staging the deaths.
After the Russians withdrew in early April, 116 bodies were exhumed from the mass grave at the church and properly reburied. On the site of the mass grave a memorial was erected to the 116 and the others killed in Bucha, 501 in all. Some of the plaques have names, dates of birth and dates of death, while some lack the date of death because those remain unknown. And 80 have no names because they have not been identified.
Halavin has given testimony to a Ukrainian tribunal gathering evidence of the Russian atrocities, to make a case if they are ever brought before the International Criminal Court, as Ukraine hopes.
“I am not seeking revenge,” said the priest. “But I am seeking justice so that this never happens again. Particularly because Putin’s government gave medals to the soldiers who did this. Their wives and families should know what they really did in Bucha.”
Further south towards Kyiv is the town of Irpin, which became a major battleground in the first weeks of the war. It was because of the pitched battles in the streets that the town was damaged worse than Borodyanka and Bucha, says Mykyta Gerashchenko, head of the international cooperation department in the Kyiv regional state administration. About 70% of it was destroyed.
It was here where the Russians were finally stopped and forced to retreat to Belarus. They reached about 500m into Irpin. With more time to react, the Ukrainian government evacuated about 90,000 of its population of about 100,000.
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The Russians did not reach Romanivsky Bridge over the Irpin River, which marks Irpin’s southern border. But Ukraine decided to destroy the bridge anyway – among many others – to ensure the Russians didn’t cross, because Kyiv is just 5km south. Gerashchenko says a temporary bridge was built in a week after Russia retreated, and a permanent new bridge is almost complete.
Nearby is another poignant though impromptu memorial: Several hundred now rusting and graffitied cars lying on top of each other. Geraschenko points out that most of those were retrieved from the bridge. As Irpin residents fled south from the approaching Russian army, many did not know that the bridge had been blown up, so they abandoned their cars and continued on foot. Some were fired at either in their cars or on foot and a few died. A baby stroller pulled out of the stream later stands on the edge of the broken bridge, hinting mutely at another anonymous tragedy in this war of so many victims.
We are walking down Gostomelsky Road, scene of some of the worst fighting in Irpin. Reconstruction is still under way. Bulldozers are smoothing the tar that was cratered by explosions. Workers are knocking doors and windows out of multistorey apartment buildings, renovating or rebuilding.
On the other side of the road, single-storey houses destroyed in the fighting are also being renovated or rebuilt from scratch. Gerashchenko says the original population of about 100,000 before the fighting has not only recovered but swelled to about 120,000 because of the influx of internally displaced people, mostly from the occupied territories in the east and southeast.
The reconstruction in these battlegrounds of the first days of the war is in part an act of defiance by Ukraine because the war rages on, mostly in the east and southeast of the country now but with frequent missile attacks elsewhere, including Kyiv. After a lull, these attacks seem to be increasing as winter approaches, suggesting that Moscow will attempt once again, as they did last winter, to destroy the electricity grid to freeze Ukraine into submission.
Gerashchenko says Ukraine believes Russia is accumulating missiles and drones to mount large attacks on infrastructure, including power.
One of the ways the government is trying to beef up its countermeasures is mounting heavy machine guns on pick-up trucks to shoot down drones, while anti-missile missiles focus on the Russian missiles. Ukraine is also building up protective barriers around infrastructure although he says he can’t reveal more because it’s secret. And with the help of international partners Ukraine is replacing transformers and other equipment when it is destroyed.
Not everything is being restored. The twisted wreckage of Romanivsky Bridge will remain alongside the new bridge to recall how the Russians were stopped in Irpin. And Shevchenko will remain as he is in Borodyanka, bullet-ridden but still standing. DM