Settlements along Ukraine’s eastern steppe were reduced to wreckage as the war passed through them. Now choked with weeds and with few residents, they are at risk of disappearing.
By Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Natalia Yermak
July 14, 2023
The New York Times
Leave the eastern Ukrainian city of Izium and turn westrougher roads, where dead trees and twisted power lines give way to a string of shattered villages. These enclaves, once the backbone of Ukraine’s agricultural eastern steppe, were reduced to ruin as the war passed over them like a flood tide.
Despite being recaptured by Ukraine’s military last fall, the villages of Sulyhivka, Virnopillia and Kamianka are now at risk of being lost — not to artillery or pitched battles, but to overgrown weeds, wildflowers and minefields. They are another kind of casualty in a war that has claimed many.
The few residents who returned home after the Russians retreated are struggling to live. They have waited 10 months, in vain, for electricity to be restored, for their fields to be cleared of explosives, and for neighbors to come back to restore some semblance of community. The Ukrainian government’s attempt to formalize some type of reconstruction effort has changed little.
The New York Times spent several days traveling across what was once part of Ukraine’s frontline between the cities of Izium and Kharkiv, visiting these ghost villages — just three of many that have been decimated — and listening to residents describe their lives. The distant sound of artillery was still audible, like an unmoving summer thunderstorm.
There were Victor and Anatolii, the two lone residents of Sulyhivka who have taken up a close friendship. Nina, the village elder of Virnopillia, who is toiling to keep her community from disappearing. And Svitlana, a woman from Kamianka, consumed with her neighbor’s betrayals.
Before the war, Victor Kalyberda, 61, and Anatolii Solovei, 52, were little more than acquaintances. Mr. Kalyberda was a tractor driver. Mr. Solovei was a well-to-do landowner who grew wheat, corn and barley — staples of Sulyhivka’s harvest. A cordial relationship was inevitable in a two-street village of around 50 people.
Russia’s invasion forced both men to flee, along with the rest of the residents. Mr. Solovei placed one of his brand-new tractors along a secluded embankment with hopes that it would survive Russian occupation.
Maybe it was the terrain or Russia’s stalled tactics, but after passing through Sulyhivka, the frontline froze a few miles to the west last spring, near where it was 80 years earlier, when
Hitler’s army advanced toward Moscow. “The village passed back and forth a hundred times during that war,” Mr. Solovei said, “and this time the frontline was right here.”
In the months after Russians occupied the village last year, it was destroyed. Mr. Solovei’s new tractor burned. Both men’s houses were sheared apart by artillery.
Ukrainian troops liberated Sulyhivka in September. The two men returned shortly afterward. Mr. Kalyberda took up residence in a neighbor’s summer kitchen. On the other side of the village, Mr. Solovei returned home, erecting a community-donated foam plastic shelter among the ruins of his house.
The two men are currently Sulyhivka’s only permanent residents. There is no electricity or gas. “I got used to surviving on my own,” Mr. Kalyberda said. “Everything is needed, because there is nothing left.” He gets most of his food from volunteers and water from the village well.
At least once a day, he walks to see Mr. Solovei, past the war’s detritus of armored vehicles blasted open and destroyed farm equipment. The overgrown cemetery where both men’s families are buried is littered with small land mines that can blow a person’s foot in half.
Recently, Mr. Kalyberda helped move some surviving farm equipment for Mr. Solovei, who plans to start cultivating his fields after clearing the explosives himself. But often, the two men sit and drink tea or coffee, saying little. “What’s there to talk about?” Mr. Solovei asked.
Measuring the Damage
It was early July and Nina Zagrebelna, 67, was sitting in the dusty secretary’s office of Virnopillia’s partially destroyed community center. It was hot. A plastic sheet covered the smashed windows.
In front of her was a collection of printed checklists that she would use to record her villages’s first wartime damage claims.
Since the 1990s Ms. Zagrebelna has been the head of Virnopillia, which had a prewar population of 654 but now has roughly 120 residents. Her authority was diminished under laws passed by the Ukrainian government in 2020 and again under martial law after the invasion. “I give everything I can to the village,” she said. “Not everyone likes it: different people, different opinions.”
Ms. Zagrebelna has taken it upon herself to do what she can with the few resources afforded to Virnopillia. She also acts as a go-between for her neighbors and the complicated bureaucracy involved in trying to procure damage payments. “There are a lot of unclear questions about how to do it,” she said. Virnopillia is roughly five miles west of Sulyhivka, whose village elder has been mostly absent. Only recently have volunteers appeared there to discuss potential damage claims.
Russian troops never managed to occupy Virnopillia, though much of it was destroyed by shelling, just as it had been in World War II. It took three decades for the village to recover from that war. But the chief complaint of Virnopillia’s residents is that there is no electricity. Its return
has been slowed by the arduous process of clearing explosives next to power lines. Rumors vary on when it will be restored, as is the case in most of the villages nearby, ranging from “this fall” to “after the war ends.” “There is little humanitarian aid, little building materials,” Ms. Zagrebelna said, noting that reconstruction materials and other goods are distributed from the local municipality. Undeterred, she hopped in an aging gray sedan with her papers and a measuring tape. She was ready for a long day of putting a price tag on the destruction of her lifelong home.
‘Just Tell Me You’re Sorry’
Fewer than half a dozen people stayed behind in shell-raked Kamianka during its Russian occupation. One of them was Vasyl. He lost his leg to a small land mine after the Russians fled, but his injury has done little to assuage his neighbors’ suspicions about his pro-Russian leanings. “He was an elder with the Russians,” said Svitlana Spornyk, 60, whose house was destroyed by an airstrike. “Now he walks around and no one is going to prosecute him. He cooked moonshine for the Russians, they lived with him.” Kamianka sits nine miles northeast of Virnopillia and is bisected by a river valley, giving it the look of a half-folded piece of bread. The Russians occupied the village, with a prewar population of over 1,000 people, for half a year, leaving the ‘Z’ symbol of their invasion on homes and vehicles. With approximately 80 current residents, Kamianka is reckoning with the same problems as Virnopillia and Sulyhivka: no electricity, land mines everywhere and a national government that they believe has forgotten them. Before the war, the residents of Kamianka had a vibrant social life, celebrating holidays and spending time together as a community. But with rumors of Vasyl’s coziness with the Russians circulating among returning residents, the small community has only made some headway toward returning to its prewar cohesiveness.
Ms. Spornyk claimed that Vasyl had taken parts from her family’s tractors during the occupation. “Maybe he did it because of the instinct of self-preservation,” she suggested. Her claim could not be verified. Ms. Spornyk shook her head. She would not forgive him. She and her husband had planned to pass their property down to their son. Now most was destroyed and some items that remained were stolen by Vasyl, she said. “Just fix it,” she sighed. “Just tell me that you’re sorry and bring me the parts that you stole.”
Dzvinka Pinchuk contributed reporting from Kamianka. Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Natalia Yermak and Mauricio Lima spent days traveling to war-ravaged villages in eastern Ukraine. Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a Ukraine correspondent and a former Marine infantryman. More about Thomas Gibbons-Neff