Mark Mackinnon

November 27, 2022

The Globe and Mail


Ihor Lozenko can’t keep warm. Half his house is missing after being hit by a Russian tank shell in February, so a canvas tarp forms his outer wall. He sleeps in his last intact room, beside a small electric heater that only glows with warmth during the increasingly rare hours that this town north of Kyiv has electricity.  “When there is no electricity, you feel the cold,” the 41-year-old factory worker said, standing outside as another thick layer of snow fell Sunday on this shattered town. Mr. Lozenko was wearing the same fleece coveralls and thick wool socks that he had slept in. “It’s so cold, even sleeping in your clothes, even under three blankets.”

Winter is going to be hard everywhere in Ukraine. Russia’s relentless attacks on civilian infrastructure have made basics such as electricity, heating and hot water into luxury items in Kyiv and cities around the country.

Surviving the cold will be an even greater challenge in the front-line regions of eastern and southern Ukraine, and in towns like Borodyanka that were badly damaged early in the war, and which remain in ruins many months after they were liberated from Russian occupation.

Russian troops withdrew from the Kyiv region in early April, revealing horrifying death and destruction in places like Bucha and Borodyanka. While Bucha became infamous for the organized killing and rape that took place there, Borodyanka – where a column of Russian armoured vehicles drove through the town of 12,000 people, shooting into buildings at random – was by some measures even more badly battered.

Nearly every structure in the town’s main Centralna Street was damaged or destroyed. Two apartment blocks on the main square were obliterated by air strikes that had no conceivable military purpose. Ukrainian officials say around 200 people were killed during the month-long Russian occupation here.

Eight months on, the bodies have been buried and the scorched military vehicles have been towed away. But almost nothing has been rebuilt.

The town hall, the courthouse, the high school and the central police station – which the occupying Russians had used as a headquarters – remain blackened shells. The ground where the two apartment blocks once stood has been bulldozed flat, but a washing machine and a toilet still hang from the remains of the neighbouring building, which was also badly damaged but didn’t collapse.

Trauma hangs over the town. Two doors down from Mr. Lozenko’s half-destroyed home at No. 34 Centralna – he survived the explosion by hiding in a vegetable cellar with his parents –

another Russian attack completely flattened policeman Ivan Simoroz’s house at No. 30. All six of Mr. Simoroz’s family members were killed, from his 80-year-old grandmother Nina to his 1½-year-old daughter Paulina.

In between Mr. Simoroz and Mr. Lozenko lives Valentina Orlova, a 68-year-old retired nurse who remained in Borodyanka throughout the occupation, even after her neighbours’ houses were destroyed and her own modest bungalow was looted by Russian soldiers as she watched. This fall, Ms. Orlova suffered a massive stroke that left her partially paralyzed. “Of course, it’s because of the stress,” said her daughter Viktoria, a military paramedic who resigned from her job and moved home to take care of her mother. “A lot of people have died on this street because of heart attacks and strokes. I connect it to the stress they suffered during the occupation.”

Caring for her mother will only get more difficult as winter sets in, especially if the Russian attacks on infrastructure continue. On Wednesday, a barrage of dozens of cruise missiles and suicide drones struck power stations and other targets throughout the country for the fifth time in the past seven weeks.

Each wave of attacks has pushed Ukraine’s critical services closer to the breaking point. Last week was the first time in the war that the Kyiv region experienced days-long blackouts, as well as cuts to the city’s water supply. “It’s not that cold yet, it’s still just around zero, but when the frost sets in, the situation will worsen dramatically,” said Ihor Petrenko, who was running a services tent in the centre of Borodyanka where residents could come to get warm, charge their phones and use WiFi. The tent, which was largely empty on Sunday, was one of thousands of what are known as “points of invincibility” that the government has established around Ukraine. “It’s a miserable thing to be attacking civilians just before the winter,” Mr. Petrenko said.

Some in Borodyanka, with its working-class population of farmers and factory workers, believe their town is getting less help than nearby Bucha and Irpin – middle-class suburbs of Kyiv that were also badly damaged by the war and Russian occupation – because residents here are poorer and less well-connected. Bucha and Irpin both still have deep scars, but both have also been hailed as models of how cities can rapidly rebuild. “Look at what’s going on in Bucha and Irpin – and literally nothing is being rebuilt here,” said Irina Oleksyenko, the manager of a local gas station. “Looking at all this destruction is depressing.”

One of the few destroyed buildings that is being rapidly rebuilt is the policeman Mr. Simoroz’s home, which neighbours say is being painstakingly restored to what it looked like before the war (though Mr. Simoroz didn’t want to speak to journalists about it).

Mr. Lozenko is also rebuilding his home with his own money. On Sunday, he paid $310 for enough cement to lay a new floor in what had been the main room of his home. It was a proud moment, though he still has to patch up the hole in the wall that was created when the tank shell slammed into it.

Mr. Lozenko says the repairs have cost him more than $4,000 to date, eating up money he had set aside to pay for knee surgery for his elderly mother, who lives next door. His savings are now almost exhausted, he said.

Somehow, Mr. Lozenko remains optimistic. He said he’ll add more blankets and layers when he needs to, he’ll work at the local aluminum factory when he can, and he’ll walk to his parents’ house each evening to have dinner and a chat illuminated by his flashlight. “Things are getting better and better,” he said, though he acknowledged that he wasn’t sure how often the factory would be able to operate in December if the power outages continued.

Others say they’re ready to leave Borodyanka, and the worsening conditions, behind. “When there are six-hour-long blackouts, we’re freezing – and our child suffers the most. He can’t understand why it’s not warm, or why we can’t make hot food,” said Yuriy Oleniuk, a 51-year-old factory worker who on Sunday was pushing his two-year-old son Ihor on a swing set in the town centre.

Mr. Oleniuk said his family’s home had been destroyed by a tank shell early in the war, and that he, his wife and child were now living in a settlement of modular homes that had been set up in Borodyanka to host internally displaced persons.

Mr. Oleniuk said he hoped Ukraine would change its rules – which currently forbid fighting-age males from leaving the country – so that he could move with his family to somewhere in the European Union. “Borodyanka might still have a future,” he said, “just not in our lifetimes.”