War in Ukraine: A street struggles to rebuild after a bombing

The smell of corpses rotting under rubble is no longer in the air. The land minesweepers have come and gone. The school is back up and running, although classes are curtailed by power outages. The hair salon is open.

But Raisa Yakovenko, a 61-year-old pensioner, still jumps to her feet when a refrigerator door closes – a faint echo of the Russian bombs that damaged her home and ravaged this community in the early days of the nearly 9-month-old war in Ukraine.

A woman holds a kitten in a hallway

Raisa Yakovenko, 61, lives in an apartment that was badly damaged by Russian attacks on Borodyanka early in the war. The pensioner lives alone with her kitten Javelinka, named after the anti-tank missiles used by the Ukrainian armed forces.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

“My problems are not that serious,” she said. “You can live without a window.”

The town of Borodyanka was among the first casualties of the invasion, becoming a bottleneck for Russian convoys rolling southeast toward the capital, Kyiv, some 35 miles away. The 14,000 residents paid a heavy price for their resistance: burned, ruined buildings stand next to untouched buildings as if a tornado ripped through the city.

“They didn’t expect us to fight back,” said Roman Rudnychenko, 57, who works as the city’s chief architect.

People in a rubble-strewn yard with a mural in the background

A mural by British street artist Banksy depicts a judo fight, one of several works the artist has made in Borodyanka and other hard-hit locations in Ukraine.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Now, nearly seven months after Russian forces ended a short but brutal occupation, Borodyanka has become a symbol of a certain defiant resilience, but one that is sometimes sorely tested.

Foreign dignitaries regularly come up from Kyiv to marvel at the blackened skyscrapers – and to have their picture taken in front of them. This week, the British street artist known as Banksy unveiled a signature stencil-style mural on the side of a badly damaged apartment building, showing a gymnast doing a handstand on a pile of rubble.

“Borodyanka, Ukraine” read the caption on the artist’s Instagram account.

However, many locals are tired of its bold image. Just over half the city’s population has returned, and many of their homes are uninhabitable. As winter sets in, townspeople and local authorities scramble for repairs to survive the cold months.

In a sense, Borodyanka is Ukraine in miniature. As more and more areas in the south and north-east are retaken by Ukrainian forces, the retreating wave of occupation leaves a landscape of shattered cities, towns and villages.

The most recent of these is the strategic southern city of Kherson, which Russian forces abandoned last week, destroying vital infrastructure in the process. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was enthusiastically welcomed by locals during his visit to Kherson on Monday, hailed its residents as heroes and pledged to restore basic services as soon as possible.

But across the country, rebuilding is a difficult, difficult endeavor.

With nationwide reconstruction costs already estimated at a staggering $350 billion and nearly a third of the country’s 44 million people displaced within Ukraine or fleeing abroad, Ukrainians are grappling with constant, harsh reassessments: stay or go? Rebuild or start over somewhere else? Hold on to memories or put them aside?

“We are part of a historical process,” said architect Rudnychenko. “But we don’t yet know how the story will end.”

::

A street simply named Tsentralna—Central—cuts a straight line through Borodyanka, bisecting neighborhoods of humble wooden or brick homes giving way to forests and fields. It is lined with large apartment buildings, many dating from the Soviet era, punctuated by small shops, the post office and the police station.

Even in its pre-war heyday, the street may have appeared nondescript to outsiders. But for Olga Drabei, 34, who has lived her entire life at Tsentralna 306, her third-floor apartment represents “everything — all my childhood, marriage, motherhood, everything I hold dear.”

Olga Drabei, 34, has lived her whole life on Tsentralna Street

Olga Drabei, 34, says the third-floor apartment she had to vacate after the Russian attacks represents “everything – my whole childhood, marriage, motherhood, everything that’s dear to me.” She hopes to return to her homeland one day.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

More than eight months after bombing raids rocked the building in early March, the 50-unit block is said to be structurally intact but still without electricity and running water. Explosions blew out dozens of windows; Fire left stairwells charred. Some residents gave up hope of returning before winter and sealed the doors with giant squiggles of foam insulation.

Drabei and her husband hope to soon be able to move out of the cramped temporary accommodation nearby together with their 7-year-old son. But their parents and 89-year-old grandmother, who lived with them before the war, are not allowed to return to them. The upheaval of the war was already too much.

On a damp day last week, Drabei guided visitors through the apartment’s cool, cluttered rooms. The TV and most of the equipment had been looted. Her son had already outgrown a small cot left in a corner. The once carefully tended garden behind the building was a tangle of weeds and bare branches.

Children play in a dark hallway

Children play in dark corridors of middle school in downtown Borodyanka on November 10, 2022. The power is turned on only sporadically.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

“We’re lucky — we’re alive and we have a place to go back to,” Drabei said. “Life will return to our city. It will just be different than before.”

Just down the street at Tsentralna 367, retiree Yakovenko lives alone with her kitten Javelinka — named after the anti-tank missiles that helped Ukrainian forces repel the Russian offensive on Kyiv. The damage to their building came when rockets slammed into a military recruiting office across the street in early March, nearly leveling it along with the adjacent greengrocer and pharmacy.

Unexpected noises still make her nervous, she said, but petting Javelinka helps her calm down.

After her window was blown, Yakovenko made do with plastic and cardboard covers throughout the spring and summer, until the state paid for new panes to be installed. She was still waiting for a door to replace the one blown off its hinges.

She considered herself lucky. Like virtually everyone on Tsentralna, she knew the story of Ivan Simoroz, a young policeman who once lived on the street.

Children play on a carousel

Children in Borodyanka play in the shade of buildings destroyed by the Russian invasion more than eight months ago.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

On February 26, two days after the Russian invasion began, the 26-year-old was on guard duty when his family’s home was bombed. His wife, mother, father, brother and grandmother were killed instantly; his one-month-old daughter Polina died in hospital a short time later.

“Sometimes the sadness is so great,” Yakovenko said.

On the ground floor of the building, a 73-year-old woman named Halyna waved to departing visitors from her window. She opened it to explain that her own apartment down the street had been vandalized, so she rented a unit here that was cold but mostly intact.

“I’m fine,” she said. “I have two blankets!”

::

By a gruesome coincidence, nearly all of the Borodyanka men mobilized for military service are deployed to the scene of a particularly brutal battle, in and near the town of Bakhmut, hundreds of miles away on the Eastern Front.

Men in uniform carry blue and yellow Ukrainian flags on a street

The funeral procession for soldier Oleksii Kozlenko goes up Tsentralna Street in Borodyanka.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

One day last week, the body of fallen soldier Oleksii Kozlenko, 32, came home. As the funeral procession made its way up Tsentralna, a group of women who had gathered to receive aid packages from the community turned and knelt as the coffin passed.

“Every day we seem to bury someone,” said Rudnychenko, the architect.

Further down in Tsentralna, at the Flower Cafe — which sells plants and bouquets as well as groceries — owner Tetiana Lytvynenko, 33, served paninis and coffee. Business was a bit slow, she said.

The café sits across from the much-photographed pair of nine-story buildings with blackened facades, directly across from the Banksy mural on an adjacent building. Lytvynenko said it was understandable that outsiders would come to see these things; even she is sometimes shocked at the sight of the sooty, hulking shells in which so many of her clients once lived.

A café with food pictures painted on its side, across from buildings whose facades have been blackened by rocket attacks

Tetiana Lytvynenko’s Flower Cafe in Borodyanka is back in business. It faces a much-photographed pair of nine-story buildings with blackened facades, and Lytvynenko said it was understandable that outsiders would come to see them. “I just wish more of them would order food!” she said.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

“When people come to see, I just wish more of them would order something to eat!” she said.

The small, bright cafe she and her husband ran for ten years was badly damaged by bombs, but since it’s a modular kiosk, replacing it wasn’t too difficult. This was not the case with her nearby apartment. As the couple took shelter from Borodyanka with their young son, the couple spotted the smoking ruins of their building in news footage.

She shook her head.

“At first we were shocked and we cried, but we’re past that stage,” she said. “Now we just laugh.”

https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2022-11-15/la-fg-ukraine-war-one-streets-struggle War in Ukraine: A street struggles to rebuild after a bombing

Alley Einstein

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