It had been 3 months since I had been to the city, and I was wondering if I would see much change. Security was still tight; the soldiers manning the checkpoint on the edge of town were strict and cautious, inspecting our documents and vehicles carefully before waving us through. They were fully kitted out and armed, and their heavily dug-in positions lined the road.
The first thing I noticed as we reached the city was the increased amount of traffic. During my last visit, the streets were near deserted. At that time, amazingly, the city buses were still running, but apart from them, the only vehicles around were a handful of old Ladas and some military vehicles. Now, the streets may not have been packed, but there were significantly more vehicles on the road, and most were private cars. Many businesses appeared to have reopened, and there was a bustle about the streets. It felt very different.
We had come to town to help an elderly lady, who I will call Anna. Her family, who had left as refugees, were trying to convince her to join them in Germany. Anna didn’t want to go. Her eyesight was fading, and she didn’t want to leave her flat, or her grandson who was stationed in the city with the Armed Forces. We were visiting to deliver food, medicine, and a new pair of glasses for Anna, and to assess the damage from a small fire that had started in her kitchen.
Arriving outside Anna’s apartment building, we squeezed the cars into the typically cramped and limited parking available. Artillery boomed somewhere in the city, but with far less regularity than three months ago.
Our Ukrainian colleague rang Anna, who appeared a few minutes later at a double window several floors above us. Calling out, waving and smiling, she dropped a small plastic bag down to us which contained the key fob for the security door.
Ukrainian apartment buildings are mostly remnants of the Soviet era; big grey concrete blocks where no expense was spent on aesthetics. We entered the typically grimy and well-worn stairwell and made our way up to the third floor. Anna met us at the door with a big smile and hugs.
We filed inside and into her small kitchen. It looked like she was struggling to manage; pots, pans and crockery covered the bench space, and used dishes sat in the sink. On a chopping board was a cut onion, and a loaf of bread with small spots of mould. The stovetop was blackened from the fire. There was a windowed balcony attached to the kitchen, which Anna looked to be using as a storage space. Amongst the clutter I was surprised to see an assortment of wheel bearings sitting on a sill.
Anna opened the food box we had brought, and thanked us profusely as she looked through the contents. Our Ukrainian team member showed her the medicines and explained what each was for. Trying on her new glasses, she looked around and beamed. ‘Ohhhh spasiba (thankyou). Spasiba!’
Anna reached down and picked up a framed photo of a grey-haired man from the kitchen table. He was wearing a smart suit, and looked to be attending an official function. She showed us the photo and then held it to her heart. I couldn’t understand Anna’s words, but the meaning was clear. This was Anna’s husband, whose name, she told us, was Mikael. She began to talk about him with obvious love and pride, and I picked up the words ‘professor’ and ‘mechanical engineer’. That likely explained the wheel bearings I had seen on the balcony. Perhaps Anna had friends that looked in on her from time to time, but I couldn’t help but think how lonely she must be without Mikael, particularly with her family away in Germany, and her grandson in the Army.
Anna told us about the stove fire, which we understood through her tone and gestures was a very frightening incident. It turned out that only the range hood was no longer working, so we told her we would pick up a new one and return to install it. I noticed the back of Anna’s slippers had worn through, so made a note to replace these too.
Leaving the apartment block, we drove the short distance to one of Ukraine’s large chain hardware stores. People were out on the streets, heading to and from the shops, and others were walking their dogs in the Spring sunshine. The parks and gardens were flush with new green growth. For a moment it was easy to forget that Ukraine was at war, and the Russian forces were close. Inside the store we bought a new hood for Anna’s stove, and some slippers, and I also grabbed some toiletries for her. We retured to the apartment block, and artillery whumped again as we climbed out of the cars.
Anna was delighted to receive the slippers and toiletries; little luxuries I expect were beyond her means. As we set about installing the range hood, she once again picked up the framed photo of her husband and placed a hand over her heart. Through her gestures and few English words we understood that Mikael would take care of all the maintenance around the flat, and that he could fix anything. Anna retrieved a glass jar full of drill bits and a bag of screws from Mikael’s collection to assist us with the job.
After installing the range hood, we switched on the light and fan. ‘Ohhhhh! ‘ exclaimed Anna, smiling broadly and thanking us again. We gathered up our gear and said our goodbyes, receiving big hugs from Anna. We assured her we would come back and see her again soon.
The city certainly had changed in the three months since I had last visited. There was still a big military presence, and explosions still rumbled, but It felt like the town was coming back to life. The Russians had beaten down the city, but had been unable to destroy its spirit. Residents like Anna had held on through the worst of times, and people who had fled were now returning to rebuild their lives.
I hoped that Anna’s family would also return soon, and take care of this gentle yet stoic old lady in her little apartment, living alone with her photographs and memories.
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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