In Irpin, Ukrainians slowly rebuild their burned-out homes – POLITICO

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IRPIN, Ukraine — Volodymyr Yukhymchuk thinks it was God who saved him and his wife on March 4, 2022 — the day a Russian jet fired a rocket into his house in Irpin, a town just to the northwest of Kyiv.

The 59-year-old, who was in the sitting room, was concussed by the blast, while his wife, who was in the kitchen, got away with only scratches.

“I don’t know how else to describe it other than God’s miracle. When our neighbors saw what happened, they thought we were dead. Yet there we were, searching for each other in the dark and dust,” Yukhymchuk told POLITICO while standing near the ruins of the house his family shared with a family of refugees from the eastern region of Donetsk.

The Yukhymchuks lived in one half of the house, while the family from Donetsk occupied the other. The refugees, however, had already left Irpin by the time of the airstrike, fearing the worst. Continually forced to move on by war, they already lost their flat in Donetsk when Russian-backed mercenaries occupied the city in 2014.  

“The rocket hit their part of the house,” Yukhymchuk said.

There are thousands of similar stories. Although rebuilding is under way, Kyiv and many other regions that were liberated from Russian invading forces are still scarred. The Kyiv School of Economics has estimated damage from the destruction of housing stock at €50.7 billion ($54 billion). As of January, a total of 149,300 residential buildings were damaged or destroyed, including 131,400 houses, 17,500 apartment buildings and 280 dormitories, the KSE reported.

As of fall 2022, more than 2.4 million Ukrainians have had their homes damaged or destroyed. Such a scale of destruction requires an entirely new system to provide victims with housing, the Ukrainian Ministry of Regional Development and Infrastructure reported in January. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has also said that reconstruction work in the country will cost more than $1 trillion.    

Various foreign organizations, such as Global Empowerment Mission, the Howard Buffet Foundation, and the United Nations Development Programme, together with foreign partners of Ukraine are helping people to rebuild or find temporary shelter in prefabricated houses.

But the amount of work is daunting. While the Ukrainian government plans to involve international partners and start “the biggest reconstruction since World War II,” people in the meantime frequently have to rent flats or live with relatives, while carrying out rebuilding themselves. Weather conditions and time risk finishing the job that Russian munitions started, and are destroying even those houses that can, technically, be repaired. 

“Before the start of the works, local authorities categorize the destroyed housing into three types: minor damage, big repair, and must be dismantled. Very often people refuse to dismantle heavily damaged houses, as they want to restore them,” Dmytro Cheychuk, deputy head of Bucha city council, told POLITICO. 

In Irpin alone, more than 1,060 buildings were damaged, 115 of them were completely destroyed, the United Nations Satellite Centre has reported.

God’s will

Volodymyr Yukhymchuk, 59, stands next to the ruins of his house in Irpin, a suburb in the Kyiv region. On March 4, 2022 a Russian jet fired a rocket at it while Volodymyr was inside | Photo by POLITICO

Yukhymchuk’s house is in the third — “must be dismantled” — category of destruction.  

“My wife inherited that house from her parents. But we modernized it, and made it perfect for our retirement years. We worked so hard,” Yukhymchuk said bitterly. “It took only a second for a Russian pilot to push the button. But I still think we got lucky. At least no fire broke out afterward.”   

Irpin was in chaos back then. People were evacuating, hospitals were not working effectively. The Yukhymchuks ran to their neighbor’s basement across the street during air raids.

However, they decided to stop these dashes for cover a few days before the rocket attack. 

“If we die, we die. The only thing I prayed for is for death to come quickly,” Yukhymchuk said.

After their house was destroyed, the couple moved to Volodymyr’s brother’s flat in the Ukrainian-controlled part of Irpin. Their street became the gray zone between the two armies. They could only return to their destroyed yard after the liberation of the Kyiv region to start cleaning the debris.

Although the local government told Volodymyr that his house could be rebuilt only after the end of the war, God stepped in again. The local protestant church, the Irpin Bible Church volunteer center, came to the rescue.

“American believers found out about our story and decided to help financially,” Yukhymchuk said. “The church found people and in about a month they built a temporary house right next to the destroyed one.”

The construction work ended in November. However, the family still could not spend winter in the new home. “Our house has an electric heating system, so when Russians were bombing our energy infrastructure, it was pretty cold in here. I had to set up a potbelly stove,” Yukhymchuk continued.  

He hopes to rebuild his house after the war ends. Although many told him they had questioned God on why he let Russia invade Ukraine, Yukhymchuk says they were wrong to go to the Lord only with complaints. “I believe this situation is under his control,” Yukhymchuk said. “See how things turned out for me. So many people died after those rockets hit their houses. So many survived but did not get any help and had no place to live. But I prayed and someone always turned up to help us.”

Scarred and scorched

Kateryna Kashyrina, 46, lived only a couple of blocks away from Yukhymchuks. Kashyrina has been working as a condominium manager of her six-story building for several years. People moved in only at the end of 2016. “There were so many refugees from Donetsk and Luhansk regions, who ran from the war. They started a new life, just finished interior renovation,” Kashyrina told POLITICO while sitting in one of the dark apartments of her building.

Now she has keys to every flat, except those that do not exist anymore. Their building is empty. The sixth floor and the roof are completely burnt. “The refugees were the first ones who understood what was coming. They left even despite assurances from our government that everything will be alright. I now understand they did not want us to panic on the streets. But I wish the authorities just told us to leave as soon as possible,” Kashyrina said.

As a condominium manager, she felt responsible for the rest of the tenants. They organized themselves in groups to get supplies and to prepare to wait until the war ends. They all hoped it would end in a month or so. However, in the first days of March, more and more of them started to understand that they needed to evacuate. Some used their own cars. “In the first days of March, we evacuated moms with kids, then pensioners. Most hoped for an evacuation train to Kyiv. But on March 5 [in 2022] Russians blew up the rails,” Kashyrina recalled.

And soon Russian military columns entered her neighborhood. She planned to get out of Irpin on March 6. But then she found out that Russians were shooting at private cars that were bypassing their checkpoints.  

In mid-March, residents learned the Russians had opened a green corridor and let people evacuate. Kashyrina left for central Ukraine. On March 26, 2022, she recognized her building on drone footage from the war zone. It had been destroyed. When Kashyrina returned, neighbors told her that as soon as Russians understood they lost Irpin and needed to retreat, they were incensed. “On March 28 a Russian tank was just driving the streets and shooting at the residential buildings randomly out of frustration. Just not to let us live as well as we used to live, I suppose,” Kashyrina said.

A fire started after the hit. Eight upper apartments, the roof of her own building were completely burnt. Ventilation systems and pipes melted, and supporting structures corroded. The building was at risk of collapse. Local volunteers and the government helped to clean out the debris and promised to send construction materials to those residents, who start rebuilding on their own. “Funds [state foundations that help with reconstruction] told us they can help only with façade, roof, and windows. But first, we need to repair supporting structures,” Kashyrina said. “And that is the priciest and hardest part.”

The sum was horrendous for the tenants — 17.5 million hryvnias (€450,000).

“They did not want to give their own money first. Expected a miracle. But the government has no money too. The funds refused to take us, because of the supporting structures problem,” Kashyrina said.

Eventually, residents managed to collect 2.2 million hryvnias from their own pockets and fundraised 560,000 hryvnias. That was enough to finally start construction work in the fall. “We were told if we don’t start, our building will first soak, then freeze, and finally collapse in winter,” Kashyrina said.

Now a brigade of 12 construction workers is repairing the supporting structures and is planning to finish it in three weeks. Only after they are done, Kashyrina will try again to get help from international funds to cover façade, roof, and windows repair. “But we constantly discover new problems. Now we have to destroy parts of the walls to clean the ventilation system. Also, our balconies are at risk of collapse. We need to buy special metal pipes to strengthen them. And we have no money,” Kashyrina said.

While most of the inhabitants of the building are now scattered around the world, she has to control the repairs. Tons of papers, and construction expertise, and at the same time she has to maintain her own life and her duties as a young grandmother. Now Kashyrina lives in a rented apartment, separated from her daughter and granddaughter.  

“As I believe we can rebuild our home, I believe Ukraine can win this war. Because we are protecting our land. Invaders took away our lives, and our building.”

“But justice will prevail. Truth is on our side,” Kashyrina said, looking at her house, scarred and scorched, as it slowly faded into twilight.

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