Kyiv's satellite towns are healing. It may not look like it at first when walking through the war-torn streets littered with crumbling apartments, shrapnel-damaged roads and burnt-out cars, but six months after Russian troops occupied Kyiv’s suburbs, life is finally returning.
The damage from the occupation is immense. Investigators reported that Russian forces murdered, raped and mutilated civilians in Bucha, Hostolmel, Vorzel, Borodyanka and Irpin, leaving behind over 1,300 bodies. Stories of children being raped by Russian soldiers and citizens mercilessly executed became known in April once the troops left. The massacre shocked the world and led to Russia being suspended from the UN human rights council, a new wave of sanctions and helped fast-track Ukraine’s EU application.
In the rural stretch of land between Kyiv and its suburbs, farm workers harvest the late summer crops. According to my friend Nick, a Bucha native, mines are still hidden in the fields and continue to cause injuries to farmers. Russian troops have been accused of deliberately mining Ukraine’s fertile fields, wrecking the country’s agricultural industry, which will have an impact on its economy for years to come. The cost of surveying lands at high risk of mine contamination and demining is estimated at nearly $500mn, with financial support from Nato helping the demining operations.
After arriving in Bucha, Nick took me to a flattened home improvement store, Epicentr K, Ukraine’s leading DIY chain. Although packs of building materials were stacked high in the car park, no one has started the rebuilding work yet. The government promises that reconstruction will begin when the war ends, Nick informed. But three people were already taking matters into their own hands and were sorting through the piles of rubble surrounding the vast warehouse.
With the government busy directing funding toward the military, it is the citizens themselves that have begun to rebuild their home towns and look after the communities. A short drive from Epicentr K is a traditional Ukrainian bakery that sells fresh bread that would cost a fortune in an artisan London bakery. But here a loaf of bread doesn’t have to cost anything. After the full-scale invasion began, the owners switched to a donation-based system so that those without money are still able to eat.
As we continue our journey, Nick notes the number of people, particularly children, outside enjoying the final summer days. He tells me that a couple of months ago the streets were completely void of people and cars. He smiles at the recently reopened kiosks serving people coffee and a modified Soviet-era Lada with blacked-out windows that sputtered past. Life is slowly coming back to Kyiv’s suburbs. However, the apocalyptic backdrop of decimated apartment blocks is an open wound and a reminder of the nightmare that took place just six months ago.
We stopped by a group of four young people who were rebuilding their small shop as the sun was setting. They mentioned that they were doing all the work themselves and hadn’t received any funds or help from the government. When I asked what they thought the future would look like with the promised reconstruction funds from Western allies, they said it hadn’t crossed their minds. Currently, the only thing preoccupying them was rebuilding and waiting for the war to end so that the government can commence with the reconstruction work.
This seems to be the attitude of a lot of locals. Oleksandr, a bearded carpenter and welder, said he would be very happy to see foreign allies help fund Ukraine’s reconstruction; however, he wasn’t waiting around for that to happen. He was already rebuilding his workshop that was left ravaged by heavy shelling. Fortunately, he has the skills to do so, but not everyone does and other garages surrounding his workshop were left as scorched skeletal frames.
Oleskandr’s apartment was also hit by artillery and his shelled neighbourhood has decayed into a ghost town. The smell of rotting food wafted out of abandoned apartments once occupied by Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechen troops. At the bottom of one staircase, kilos of black potatoes provide a feast for the prodigious amount of flies and pests that have taken over the Soviet-era blocks. But Oleksandr and a few other locals haven’t left. They remain, either out of a lack of options or, like in Oleskadnr’s case, out of determination. He will never leave the home he’s lived in for 40 years, even if the government offers to relocate him. When redevelopment begins, he hopes his apartment block will be rebuilt instead of being razed to the ground.
Olesksandr’s hopes may soon be realised. In the capital, reconstruction is already underway and the redevelopment of a shelled apartment block in the Obolon district is an optimistic sign of the region’s future. Like Oleksandr’s home, the block was severely damaged after an explosion tore open dozens of apartments. However, instead of knocking the complex down, builders are renovating the existing framework and modernising the old Soviet design so that residents are able to return to their homes.
The site manager, Yeroslav, is optimistic about the massive rebuilding projects taking place and emphasised the good organisation and unity of the construction team that has helped the city recover quickly from the month-long siege. He doesn’t see any challenges standing in their way, claiming they only need “time and patience” to get the work done.
However, as September begins, the fear of Kyiv’s brutal winters percolates through the city and the builders are working quickly to try to finish before the heating season begins. The government approved “the Gas Storage Development Plan for 2022-2031” in July to tackle Ukraine’s upcoming heating crisis. The project will allocate $277mn to construct underground gas storage (UGS) facilities and $168mn will be used to develop infrastructure facilities and reconstruct UGS technological equipment across the country.
When asked about foreign funding, Yeroslav believes that Kyiv has enough resources to carry out the rebuilding process. Instead, he says that the funding should first go to the front line and Ukraine’s military who are still lacking heavy weaponry. Indeed, wherever you go in Kyiv, you see people raising money for the army, from major companies opening donation services like Uklon, a Ukrainian version of Uber, to children selling their old toys on the street.
The unity and pragmatism of Kyiv’s citizens is to be admired and it signals a positive post-war development for Ukraine’s cities currently suffering heavy fighting. Kyiv and its suburbs maintain a sense of pride from defeating the Russians, who claimed they would capture the capital in three days, and despite the damage from artillery, the streets remain well kept and clean.
Although millions left the Kyiv region when the war began, many returned at the start of summer alongside refugees from the eastern and southern regions, breathing new energy into the exhausted but resilient capital. It would be incorrect to say life has returned to normal, but walking through Bucha’s municipal park on the last evening of August alongside happy families and friends, it was easy to forget the horrors people here suffered from.
Nevertheless, an apprehensive atmosphere weighs heavy on their shoulders and not everyone is certain that fighting won’t return to Kyiv. Some are waiting until the end of the war before rebuilding, to ensure that they won’t have to suffer the pain of losing their homes and businesses again.