We left the warmth of the village administrative office and walked out into the frigid air. It was a sullen, overcast day in southern Ukraine, and bitterly cold. Outside a generator roared, providing scarce power to light the building, and an opportunity for some of the few remaining locals to recharge their phones. Making our way down the town’s main road, we crunched through the frozen puddles, pulling our jackets tight around us. Leafless trees stood like line drawings against the sombre sky. Apart from the occasional Lada revving and sliding down the slushy tracks, there seemed to be no-one else around.
The village had been occupied by Russian forces for about eight months, and back under Ukrainian control for perhaps six weeks. I don’t know whether the shattered buildings and bomb craters were a result of the Russian assault or the Ukrainian efforts to retake the area. Or both. I don’t suppose it matters who fired the rounds when your home lies in ruins.
A local bloke, tall and broad-shouldered with big, capable hands, had offered to show us the physical toll the war had taken on his village. We paused in front of a pile of white bricks, large stone blocks and timber planks that must have previously been a substantial buiding. A crater over two metres deep lay between us and the ruin. ‘Ракета (rocket)?’ I asked. Our guide nodded. ‘Да (yes). Ракета.’ Beside the road ran a system of interconnected trenches and small bunkers fortified with sandbags and logs.
We left the road and picked our way carefully throught the debris, moving awkwardly over the heaped bricks and splintered timber. Out guide led us to the doorway of what was left of a large, two storey building. We entered, and broken glass clinked and crunched under our boots as we climbed the stairs. Russian soldiers had sprayed graffiti onto the stairwell’s white walls, including the name of their home town. When we reached the first level, the floor was completely covered with bricks and a chaos of wreckage. The wall at one end of the building was missing entirely, allowing us to see out over the village. Piles of books were heaped amongst the bricks; some lying in crooked stacks, some prone and splayed, whilst others lay open at a random page. We were in the village school.
Although all war damage is confronting, there is something particularly disturbing about a school torn apart by catastrophic violence. Schools are places which, ideally, provide a safe, supportive and welcoming environment for some of the most vulnerable members of the community. In small towns, they are often places where kids have come together for generations to learn, form friendships, develop and grow. In this village, that place was now destroyed. Most of the children are long gone, taken by desperate family members who have fled to cities, or countries, far away.
We went back down the stairs, and after walking single file along a dark corridor, entered the school gym. It was big enough to fit a half-sized basketball court. At one end, behind the backboard, the wall was pocked with fist-sized holes. Climbing frames and a set of paralell bars stood to one side, along with a few chairs and desks. Scattered across the floor of the gym were hundreds of spent small-arms cartridges, lying amidst children’s clothing and deflated basketballs. A cat, its wariness of strangers overcome by hunger, appeared and meowed loudly, slinking amongst the rubbish and debris.
Our guide picked up a heavy volume, the hardback cover of which read Українська Радянська Енциклопедія (Ukrainian Soviet Encyclopedia). The book had been used by Russian soldiers for target practice; shot full of holes in a patent gesture of contempt for Ukraine.
Leaving the gym, we continued further down the corridor and into a classroom. Desks still stood in rows, but were now covered in smashed masonry. Dim light seeped into the room over the sandbags which were stacked to half the height of the window frames. Two upturned stools sat neatly on top of one of the desks. I wondered if they were put there by a couple of kids at the end of the school day, not realising it would be the last time they would sit in their classroom.
We ducked under the splintered frame of the school’s front door and out into the early afternoon gloom. A pyramid of books was piled on the verandah above the door, blown out of the window along with the glass which lay at our feet.
Our guide lead us across the street. A small dog appeared, his coat impossibly white for the muddy, wet ground, and barked his best at us. Shortly after a woman came out of the doorway of a ruined house, picked up the dog, and disappeared back inside. I wondered how she survived in her semi-demolished house, particularly with no power.
We walked over to a destroyed building, with a set of stairs leading to a basement. The stairwell was covered in fallen bricks and timberwork, and was a tricky scramble to descend. Once inside the basement, our guide explained by torchlight that it had been a Russian command post during the occupation. Several bedframes and a few chairs stood on the damp concrete floor.
After climbing out of the basement, we walked slowly back to the village offices. We thanked our guide, shook hands, and said goodbye. Although the retreat of the Russians was the end of suffering under occupation, life for those left in the town is still very grim.
I looked back towards the school, a childhood place of learning now desecrated by war. I wondered how many years it would take to repair and rebuild all the damage to the village caused by Russia’s senselesss invasion.
A village is, of course, more that bricks and mortar. Even after reconstruction has replaced the buildings and essential services, what about the individuals, families, social structures and civic institutions that make up the village community? How long will it be before the refugees that choose to return come back to rebuild their lives? And when will the school once again buzz with the energy, noise and laughter of kids?
I have intentionally excluded the names of locations, towns and people in my posts about Ukraine, and not included any photographs. Although this may seem excessively cautious, this is an appropriate time for excessive caution.