Mud and Memories

Mud and Memories

Loaded with food and blankets, our three-car convoy drove east from the city. Our destination was a small village that had been flooded when Russian forces blew up the Kakhovka Dam on the 6th of June. Our route passed several other villages, where rocket/artillery strikes on the road had been freshly patched with bitumen. When an incoming round lands on a road, it leaves a distinctive pattern: a hole at the impact point, and then a ‘splatter’ of smaller holes in the direction of travel. In the vicinity of one village, I counted more than 60 patched holes over a two kilometre stretch.

After reaching the edge of a plain of dry, empty grazing country, we descended downwards into a small valley. The village was nestled beside a river, which snaked southward about 90 kilometres before emptying into the Dnipro. Considering the village’s location, I found it hard to believe that it would have been affected by the dam breach. For floodwaters to back that far up a tributary gives some indication of the staggering amount of water that was released when the dam was destroyed.

Entering the town, we followed a quiet, tree-lined road, looking for someone to ask for directions to the village coordinator’s house. There was no-one around, and when we reached an open area on the edge of town, we stopped to stretch our legs and make a plan. A tall wooden gate swung open at a nearby house, and an older lady appeared. Our NGO boss walked over and began talking with her, then turned and waved us over. The lady, Svetlana, greeted us and ushered us through the gate. Beyond was a paved area shaded by a thick cover of vine leaves. Another lady appeared, Alina, who looked like she could be Svetlana’s sister. Seated on a low stool in the yard was Sasha, Alina’s husband. A man in his late 60s/early 70s, He shook our hands and welcomed us.

Svetlana beckoned to us to enter her house. Just outside the door was a large galvanised tub full of mud, and beside it the small frying pan that had been used to scoop up the sludge. Stepping inside, the house was dark and had a strong smell of damp. Everything at floor level had been removed, and the walls were stained and spotted with mould. Standing against the wall, our host showed us where the water had reached its peak, placing her hand at chest height. She talked to us in Russian (the first language of people from this part of Ukraine), and although I didn’t understand her words, the meaning and emotion were clear. Leading us into a small lounge room, Svetlana pointed to sections of the wall where the outermost plaster layer was gone, and the mortar between the large rocks that formed the bulk of the wall had disintegrated. Some of these holes had been freshly patched with what appeared to be a mix of mud, sand, and a little concrete.

Moving through a narrow corridor we reached a bedroom, which had yet to be fully cleared after the flood. Alina appeared, speaking in a steady stream of Russian, gesturing to more holes in the walls and water-damaged belongings. I noticed a small table, upon which black and white photographs were laid out to dry. One was a wedding portrait, and another a pair of lean and fit bare-chested young blokes. Alina came over and pointed at one of the men and smiled. ‘Sasha.’ A small photo showed Alina in her 20s, and beside it was a picture of her daughter as a young girl, rugged up against a wintry background.

She then retrieved several photo albums from inside a wardrobe, all of which were heavy with water. Opening one of the albums, she showed us how the water had destroyed many of the images, turning treasured pictures into monochrome blotches. Other photos had stuck together, their chemicals reconstituting and bonding like glue.

One album still contained several pages that had survived the inundation. Opening it up, Alina showed us a page titled ‘Moscow 1971-1973’. The photos showed soldiers in large Soviet-era peaked caps, posing with serious faces. Alina identified one of the soldiers as Sasha. The irony was striking: a Ukrainian man who had served in the Soviet Army had now had his family home damaged and possessions destroyed by the Russian military.

Alina lead me from the house and into the separate one-room kitchen building. A large section of the wall just inside the door had collapsed into a pile of damp rubble, and I gestured to Alina that the whole side of the kitchen could come down. She nodded and sighed.

Between the kitchen and the house was the staircase to the cellar. Cellars are an integral part of Ukrainian houses, and Ukrainian culture. It is in the cellar that all the food harvested through the year is stored. Growing and preserving your own food is a big part of the Ukrainian way of life, particularly in rural villages. A huge amount of work goes into ensuring that each house has a large store of food for the winter or unforeseen hard times. Svetlana and Alina beckoned us to look down the stairs, where we saw the water had caused the entire cellar to collapse in on itself. The cellar, and all the beautiful food inside, had been destroyed.

Svetlana agreed to come with us to find the community coordinator. As we prepared to leave, we told Sasha how sorry we were at what had happened. Although he didn’t speak English, I’m sure he understood what we meant. We also got the gist of his reply, which included the names ‘Putin’ and ‘Hitler’.

After saying goodbye to Sasha and wishing him well, we followed Svetlana out of the gate. Before we got into the cars, she wanted to show us her neighbours’ house. Looking over the low fence, we saw that a huge section of the front wall was missing. A window was hanging in mid-air, attached only by the top of the frame and one side. We could see right in to the loungeroom. It looked like a rocket or artillery round had smashed into the house, but Svetlana assured us that floodwater had caused the damage. I looked down and saw the road was covered in cracked mud like a dry lake bed, and a desiccated fish lay near my feet.

After leaving some food boxes and blankets at Svetlana’s house (southern Ukrainian summers are hot, but flood-affected villagers use the blankets as replacement mattresses), we headed off under her guidance to deliver the remainder of our load.

We had been given an insight into the way Russia’s heinous action, taken with complete disregard for the safety and wellbeing of civilians, had impacted a single household of older Ukrainians. Downstream from the Kakhovka Dam, an estimated 14,000 homes were flooded and thousands of residents evacuated1. 14,000 stories like Svetlana, Alina and Sasha’s; some more fortunate, some less so, and some unimaginably tragic, with over 50 lives lost in the disaster2. 14,000 households searching for precious possessions amongst the mud, mould and debris, if indeed any part of their homes still exist at all.

I have intentionally excluded the names of locations, towns and people (if I do mention individuals’ 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.

1Australian Broadcasting Commission, 2023, ‘Nova Kakhovka dam disaster aftermath leaves about 600 square kilometres of Ukraine’s Kherson underwater

2Al Jazeera, 2023, ‘Russia blocks UN aid for Kakhovka dam collapse victims

If you liked this post, you may also like Podcast Episode 2. Evacuation, Ukraine, Counting the Cost

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