Getting Your House in Order, Ukraine

It’s amazing what a couple of weeks will do. The last time we made the five-and-a-half hour trip to the village the countryside was snowbound. Although Ukraine’s snowy farmland is beautiful (from the warmth of the car, at least), poor visibility and icy roads had made the drive anything but relaxing. However, now a week into spring, the sun was shining, and the huge trucks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces sucked the dust from the road verge into swirling, grey-brown eddies.

Squeezed into the car were a couple of generators and some bags of aid. After our last trip, the village coordinators had asked if a generator was available, as they were keen to set up a hub where villagers could access warmth and electricity when the inevitable power outages occurred.

When we arrived, it looked like the entire village had turned out to meet us. I was surprised to see so many kids, as most youngsters from settlements this close to the front have been sent far away to safer areas. We received a warm welcome, and after handing over of the generator and other goodies, my colleagues recorded the obligatory videos to send back to the aid donors. Such reporting ensures accountability for goods received and delivered by the NGO, which is essential for keeping the supply of aid coming in.

Kateryna, our contact who had coordinated our visits to the village, then invited us to her house for a meal before we started our journey back home. It was late afternoon, and with the temperature falling it was good to get inside out of the cold. The kitchen table was spread with delicious traditional Ukrainian foods, including potato dumplings, meatballs, mashed potato, freshly baked bread, chicken, pickled cucumbers, cured meats and cheese. We sat and ate with Kateryna, her husband and her Mum, with one of my colleagues helping me to understand the gist of the conversation. As is custom when receiving visitors, home-fermented spirit was also offered in endless quantity.

After being encouraged to eat a mountain of the home-prepared food, Kateryna gave us a tour of her house. First was the lounge room, where all the pictures had been taken down and stored safely. She told us that explosions from Russian ordinance can shake them from their hooks, sending them crashing to the floor. Kateryna then showed us the fabric she had stitched together to cover the large windows in her bedroom, to help stop flying glass in case they were blown in.

Next she lead us down some stairs and out the back door to a covered rear walkway. Down another series of stairs, and Kateryna opened the door to the boiler room, which was located under the house. There, an electric hot water system provided the heating for her home when the town’s power supply was functioning. Next to the boiler was a neatly made bed. Kateryna explained that the room made a good bomb shelter, as the house’s thick concrete foundation slab provided a safe, protective ceiling.

Intermittent power requires back up heating, and after climbing the stairs from the boiler room, Kateryna showed us her tin-lined coal store. The neatly constructed sunken shed contained what looked like enough coal to survive several winters. Next to the coal store was a heavy door which Kateryna opened, and after telling me to mind my head, she disappeared down a steep flight of stairs. We followed, arriving in a large, deep cellar.

I used to joke about huge larders being ‘big enough to survive a nuclear winter’, and although Kateryna’s definitely fell into this category, there’s nothing funny about the threat of nuclear strikes in Ukraine. The cellar shelves were packed with literally hundreds of jars of preserved vegetables and fruits of every description, and large sacks of potatoes were sitting atop wooden pallets placed on the floor. One of my colleagues at the NGO had told me previously that most Ukrainians who had lived through the Soviet years all had well stocked cellars. It was part of the culture to grow and preserve your own food in order to survive the inevitable hard times; a tradition which was now standing people in good stead during the Russian invasion.

Back inside the house, Kateryna insisted we take the remaining food with us, and loaded us up with bags of delicious goodies. It was getting late, and we were going to be returning to the city well after curfew. We thanked Kateryna and her family for their hospitality, and they thanked us in return for helping their village. As we said our goodbyes at the car, I noticed the heavy canvas that had been secured over each of the house’s windows.

I don’t know what Kateryna and the other residents will do if the Russian invaders break through the contested lines and advance closer to their village. I expect most will leave, and a few will stay, determined not to abandon their homes regardless of the danger. What was clear from our visit to Kateryna’s home, is that living close to the front line in a nation under attack requires getting your house in order.

Postscript: I found out that several months after our visit Kateryna had sustained serious injuries during a a Russian strike on her village

I have intentionally excluded the names of locations, towns and people (if I do mention individual’s names, they have been changed) in my posts about Ukraine, and not included any specific photographs. Although this may seem excessively cautious, this is an appropriate time for excessive caution.

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