After Ukrainian forces pushed back the invading Russians, a few residents returned to their bombed out villages
December 18, 2023
When dusk drew in, Halyna Iievleva and Oleksandr Kokovych lit a single candle and turned on a battery-powered lamp to chase away the darkness in the garage where the couple are spending their second winter since the start of Russia’s invasion last year.
Outside, the temperature was minus 9C, but it felt even colder. “I never thought life would turn out like this,” said Iievleva, as she sat opposite a blazing brick stove, the only source of heat since their generator stopped working.
The village of Mala Komyshuvakha, in eastern Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, was once a quiet, picturesque place where residents kept livestock and grew vegetables. Iievleva and Kokovych fled the village when Russian troops poured across the border but returned in September last year after a Ukrainian counteroffensive pushed the enemy back. Although their roof, which was blown off by Russian shells, has been replaced by a charity, a gaping hole in one side of the house means it is unhabitable. There is also no electricity or running water. “I always knew we would return,” Kokovych, 58, said. “When we were away, I dreamt of our house all the time, but I could only see one side of it, and it was undamaged. When we got back, I found out that side of the house really was still in one piece. We couldn’t live anywhere else. We were born and grew up in the area. It pulled us back.”
The world that the couple knew before the war is still there, but barely recognisable. Familiar buildings lie in ruins, warped into grotesque shapes by Russian bombs. The village church also bears the unmistakable scars of conflict, a hole punched into its dome by a shell, the cross lopsided against the grey sky.
Of a prewar population of 123 people, about 15 now live in the village. There have been no children here for a long time. “The school was destroyed,” Iievleva, 60, said. “How can children live here?”
A short drive away, in the village of Kamianka, the scale of the devastation caused by Russian forces is shocking.
Every building in the village, which was home to about 1,200 people before the war, was damaged or flattened by Russian firepower that included aerial guided bombs, Grad rockets and white phosphorus weapons. Many of the homes are now little more than piles of bricks, while others have no roofs or walls. About 100 residents died during the bombardment. “Please help rebuild the village!” reads a banner in English and Ukrainian that villagers have erected on the nearby motorway. It seems like an impossible task and local officials have said it will take decades to reconstruct such settlements.
Only 30 miles from the front, villages such as Kamianka are in limbo until the end of the war and the threat of a new Russian offensive recedes. Not everyone wants to wait. A few dozen locals have returned to the ruins of the village and are trying to rebuild their homes.
But there is no power and the fields that surround the villages here are still pitted with anti-personnel landmines. “We should rebuild Kamianka. We have to,” said Oleksandr Gordiyenko, whose home at the
edge of the village was one of the least damaged. Since he and his wife, Svitlana, returned to the village in March, they have spent all their time working on the house.
Across the village, Vasyl Solyanik surveyed the wreckage of his house, where Russian troops were based for months last year. Before the war, he was the owner of about 500 vinyl records, mostly western rock. “The Russians destroyed or stole almost all of them, as well as my audio equipment,” he said.
After Ukrainian media wrote about Solyanik, wellwishers from Ukraine and across Europe sent him new record players and speakers.
But rebuilding lives and homes will not be so easy. “When we were sheltering in a basement from the bombs, my neighbour and I comforted ourselves by talking about how we would replant all the flowers that had been destroyed,” Iryna Vosmeryk, a teacher, said. “I want to see lavender and roses on the land, not mines.”
Additional reporting by Kateryna Malofieieva.
Marc Bennetts has been covering Russia and the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, for The Times and Sunday Times since 2015. He has reported from all across Russia, from Chechnya to deepest Siberia. He has also reported from Iran and North Korea. Marc is the author of two books: I’m Going to Ruin Their Lives, about Putin’s crackdown on the opposition, and Football Dynamo, about Russian football culture. He is now writing a thriller, set during the polar night in Russia’s far north.