Ukraine: People start rebuilding amid war

YAHIDNE, Ukraine –

On the outskirts of a Ukrainian village stand the remains of a small school that was partially destroyed in the early weeks of the Russian invasion.

Surrounded by tall pine trees, the school’s broken windows provide glimpses of abandoned classrooms unlikely to see students again anytime soon. It is just one of many buildings in Yahidne destroyed by the war.

But this village and others are gradually coming back to life a few months after Russian troops withdrew from the northern region of Chernihiv. Now people are repairing houses and the sound of construction tools fills the air. Volunteers from all over Ukraine and from other countries come to help, because there is still so much to do before another winter comes.

Among the workers are a copywriter and a cameraman who have been repairing the roof of the apartment building in front of the school for several days under a blazing sun.

Denys Ovcharenko, 31, and Denys Huschyk, 43, were from the capital Kiev. They joined a volunteer organization called Dobrobat, a name that combines “dobro” or kindness with “bat” for battalion.

The men and 22 other volunteers help their compatriots return home as quickly as possible.

“While the boys protect us, we work here,” Huschyk said, referring to troops at the front.

No one in the village plans to rebuild the school, which was used as a base by the Russians. Villagers prefer not to mention the place.

Most of Yahidne’s residents – nearly 400 people – spent a month in the school’s basement, where they were held around the clock as human shields to protect against an attack by the Ukrainian army.

Only occasionally did the Russian troops allow villagers to climb up and enter the yard. But that wasn’t enough. Ten people died in the dark, overcrowded basement. Survivors blame the lack of fresh air.

The Russians left the village at the end of March.

The Dobrobat group plans to repair the roofs of 21 houses in the coming weeks. The volunteers include teachers, athletes and programmers. About 80% of them have no construction experience.

Yahidne is just one of the villages in northern Ukraine that have suffered from Russian aggression. And Dobrobat is just one of the groups responding, sometimes with volunteers from outside Ukraine.

A father and son from the Czech Republic decided to spend their annual family trip in Ukraine this year. Michal and Daniel Kahle only see each other for a few weeks each summer while the son studies in the United States.

“We wanted to do something meaningful instead of just being tourists,” says Daniel, 21.

That is how they ended up in the city of Makariv in the Kiev region. In the first weeks of the war many buildings were destroyed or damaged.

Father and son joined the youth volunteer movement Building Ukraine Together, which has been helping to repair damaged buildings in eastern Ukraine since 2014. For days they worked with young people from different parts of Ukraine to rebuild the Makariv fire brigade, which was hit by an artillery shell on March 12.

“It’s a long game. We can’t pause our lives, sit at home waiting for the war to end,” said Tetyana Symkovych, the coordinator of the volunteer group in Makariv.

Many Ukrainians volunteer because they want to be helpful. But that’s not the only reason why Yulia Kapustienko comes to the fire brigade every morning to putty the walls. At the end of April, the young woman left Mariupol after spending two months in the besieged port city.

“I saw dead bodies and burned houses. Still, when I see a normal house, I automatically imagine what will happen to it after the rocket hits,” she said. “It’s impossible to erase this from your mind. But at the same time, I’m trying not to get stuck in the past, so it’s important for me to do something, to take responsibility.”

The 23-year-old is originally from Horlivka in the eastern Donetsk region. Her first experience of armed occupation was in 2014. After that, she cried for three years, unable to bear the loss of her hometown.

This time she chose a different strategy.

“I know now that you have to do something,” Kapustienko said. “I don’t care what I have to rebuild. The most important thing is that it is in Ukraine.”

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