Rebuilding within sight of the Russians in Donbas

Rebuilding within sight of the Russians in Donbas
A bust of Lenin in a potholed Lyman street. / Neil Hauer/bne IntelliNews
By Neil Hauer in Lyman April 30, 2023

The Donbas town of Lyman is hardly a picturesque destination these days.

Lying on the northern banks of the Siversky Donets river, the town has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the few settlements in Ukraine to change hands twice in the war, first captured by Russia, then liberated.

Worse still, and in contrast to cities like Kherson, both times were characterised by intense fighting: When Russia first took the town last May, it came only after hundreds of artillery salvos, including by TOS-1 thermobaric munitions. Once Ukrainian troops liberated it last autumn, there wasn’t much left.

But that hasn’t stopped some industrious aid groups from doing their best to rehabilitate the city. Undaunted by the extensive damage, or the proximity of the Russian lines, one organisation in particular is determined to bring normal life back to Lyman.

It was a cool April day when bne IntelliNews visited Lyman. The town is still largely off-limits: with Russian troops only 10 kilometres to the east, artillery activity in the area is high. The bridge across the river, like most in the area, was destroyed by retreating Ukrainian troops last spring to halt a Russian advance towards the city of Sloviansk. A small pontoon bridge next to the ruined structure is the only connection these days.

In the city itself, the destruction is widespread. Well over half the buildings have visible damage from shelling; some of them are much worse, destroyed entirely by airstrikes or ballistic missiles.

Its small size compounds the sense of destruction: For a town with a prewar population of just 20,000, Lyman was the site of two of the most brutal battles of the entire 14-month war.

Amidst the damage, a handful of buildings stand out. A few apartment blocks are capped by new roofing, setting them vividly apart from their neighbours. These are the first recipients of reconstruction aid from Ukraine Aid International (UAI), a humanitarian organisation working extensively in Donbas and elsewhere.

“We’ve done over 25 [roof replacements] in Lyman so far,” says Liz Olegov, UAI’s chief operating officer. “We plan to do around 200. Our plan here was to conserve houses first, and now that we’ve finished with that, it’s on to reconstruction,” she says.

Olegov, an American with partial Ukrainian heritage, has been working in Ukraine as a humanitarian volunteer since last March. After the start of the war, an ad hoc effort to collect supplies for Ukraine quickly led her to found her own organization, Alex21.

“When me and my co-founder [of Alex21] Richard [von Groeling] entered Ukraine last year, we started sourcing things left and right, just based on need,” Olegov says. “And it quickly developed into a situation where people were sending us aid by the literal tonne. So we were figuring out how to get this aid to the frontlines, and we ended up partnering with [Ukraine’s] national police and human rights office, for lists of locations for where we should go. We kind of became specialists on ‘last mile delivery’,  reaching places where no other volunteers could go,” she says.

One of Olegov’s main priorities was to deliver aid to those sorts of far-flung locations that receive less attention. Whereas “everyone has heard of Irpin and Bucha” and other locations close to Kyiv, towns and cities in Ukraine’s eastern regions were far less common destinations for most foreign aid.

“The Zaporizhzhia frontline in particular was very neglected,” says Olegov, speaking of the 170km-long line of contact between Russian and Ukrainian forces in the country’s southeast. “Places like Vuhledar, Velika Novoselivka, Huliaipole – these were the kind of places we wanted to focus on, because they were suffering the most while having some of the least access to aid,” she says.

Liz Olegov, UAI's chief operating officer, in Lyman.

In the course of those supply runs, Olegov ended up working regularly with UAI, with which Alex21 has now merged. That allowed them to scale up their operations and make use of UAI’s strong political contacts in the US – contacts that have enabled them to launch an innovative new project.

That project, the Sister Cities Initiative, involves officially twinning a city in eastern Ukraine with one in the US. Three pairings have been formalised so far, all with cities in Connecticut – Lyman and Westport, Kramatorsk and Stanford, and Sviatohirsk with Easton. Six more are in the works.

The process has already taken on a momentum of its own.

“After the success of the Westport-Lyman project, we were able to raise $250,000 [for Lyman] in a week,” says Olegov. “And mayor after mayor started calling us after that, asking, ‘can we get our own [Ukrainian] sister city?’ We didn’t even really need to pitch anything. So we were able to instead spend our time going to the mayors of the respective Ukrainian cities, asking them to basically provide us with a list of requests. We get a breakdown of what they need most urgently, and then a longer list of everything they would possibly need to rebuild the city, so we have the full process in place,” Olegov says.

Along the way, UAI has been helped immensely by consulting with local starists – a traditional Ukrainian community institution that translates to something like ‘elders’.

“A starist is basically a community elder elected by their neighbours to represent the interests of that street or block,” Olegov explains. “They’re not government officials, but literally the popular granny on the block that everyone trusts. So when we go to a village or town, we’ll find the local starist and talk to them about the local needs, and then take that back to the national police and human rights departments. So we’ll have all three organisations with us when we gather and eventually distribute that aid, and it enables us to provide the accurate exact needs of the community in this hyper-local way,” she says.

Working in this way has enabled Olegov and UAI to build trust with, and engage directly with, communities even on the very frontlines, where formal authorities have long since relocated to safer areas.

While their work in Lyman has been impressive, the city is still dangerously close to active military activity.

Following its recapture by Ukrainian forces last autumn, Russia’s military mobilisation enabled Moscow to rally enough manpower to halt the Ukrainian offensive ahead of its winter goal – liberating the city of Kreminna some 25km to the east. Russian troops have since gone on their own offensive, achieving little success but clawing to within about ten kilometres of Lyman, within easy shelling range. 

Oleg Virienko, Lyman’s police chief, says that civilian casualties from shelling have been getting worse.

“The [Russian] artillery shelling has picked up a bit recently, mostly targeting civilian areas,” says Virienko. “Today and two days ago, there were serious incidents, with civilians killed and wounded in Torske,” he says, speaking of a village just east of Lyman very near to the line of contact.

While he supports UAI’s work, Virienko thinks the military situation makes full-scale rebuilding in the town somewhat premature.

“Everything is stable for the moment, but the frontline is still very close to us,” he says. “It’s still early to talk about any major reconstruction here.”

Nevertheless, the progress has been impressive, and locals are clearly appreciative. Moreover, the success of the sister cities programme promises all the aid necessary to help Lyman get back on its feet – if and when Russian troops are driven out of artillery range.

For Olegov, meanwhile, she’s found more than just a job – she’s found a calling.

“I used to work as a business consultant, but it was kind of soulless, just helping corporations make more money,” she says. “But out here, I can see the direct impact of my work. I can see the people who didn’t have a house that we managed to help provide one for. It’s incredibly fulfilling, and I’ve seen other [foreign volunteers] having the same experience. And I know it might sound odd to be upbeat in a situation like this with so much death and destruction, but it’s worth looking at the beauties like that. We’re all in the rebuilding of Ukraine together.”