The kindness of strangers V, Ukraine

Although it was only mid-morning, the sun was already beating down and the humidity was high. From the corner of the street I could see down to the river, wide and shimmering and flanked by thick bands of reeds. Nearby, heavy vehicles worked to remove large piles of rubbish and debris from outside the modest homes that lined the muddy road. My colleagues were coordinating a team of six men, who were part of an army of workers cleaning up the flood damage caused by Russia’s destruction of the Nova Kakhovka Dam.

An impromptu meeting with the work crew had been called outside a corner property with a large blue gate. Every few minutes, a man would appear from the gate carrying two galvanised buckets full of mud. I reckon he would have been in his mid-60s; fit, strong and tanned. He emptied the buckets into a wheelbarrow, then manoeuvred the load around the side of his property and added them to a growing pile. Returning with the empty barrow, the man and his buckets would disappear back through the gate. This was a scene that was playing out in hundreds, if not thousands, or flooded properties across the city, as residents cleaned out what was left of their homes.

When the meeting ended, the man appeared once again with his buckets, and after dumping their contents, began chatting to one of my colleagues. After a few minutes she looked at me and said: ‘This man would like to show you his house’. I shook the man’s hand, and he told me his name was Vasily. I followed him though the blue gate and into his yard.

Vasily spoke a little English, and with this and plenty of body language, he took me on a tour of his property. His house was split-level, built on a block that sloped down towards the river. Guiding me towards an open door, he told me the flood had completely submerged the lower level of his home. Through the doorway was an impossible chaos of mud, ruined furniture, peeling wallpaper and broken household items. The buckled ceiling had partly collapsed, and there was a strong smell of mud, mould and mice. I looked at Vasily, shaking my head. With a resigned look he raised his eyebrows and nodded.

Next we went up a flight of external stairs to the uppermost section of the house. Vasily showed me where the water had reached on the first floor, about knee height, which had destroyed the carpets and some furniture but thankfully spared other fittings and belongings. I followed him to the bathroom, where he reached inside the washing machine and spun the barrel, which turned with a grinding sound. ‘Mud inside the motor?’ I asked, and Vasily nodded.

We moved upstairs, which had thankfully been untouched by the flood. Vasily showed me where debris from two rockets had entered the room, one from the east and one from the west. Protruding from one wall, near a chest of draws decorated with children’s stickers, was a piece of shrapnel. Vasily moved to a window and pointed upriver to a bridge. He explained that when the battle for the city was raging, he watched from the window as the Ukrainians and Russians exchanging heavy fire across the span.

Back outside in the yard, Vasily proudly showed me the flowering rose bushes that his wife had planted, which were placed high enough to survive the flood. His large vegetable garden and fruit trees hadn’t been so fortunate, having been swamped with mud and refuse. I pointed to a trellis that still held a vine with vibrant green leaves, but he told me there had been no grapes this year.

My colleague joined us, and via her translation, Vasily said he had a present for me. I was a little taken aback, and watched as he hurried away into the house, returning soon after with a bottle of wine. He explained that he had made the wine himself, from the grapes in his garden. Vasily told me it was a batch from two years ago, before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It was, quite literally, a bottled time capsule from a time of peace in his city.

It has been nearly two months since Russia destroyed the Nova Kakhovka dam. When the water around the city receded, Vasily began to remove the mud and ruined belongings from his house by hand. He piled the precious memories of his peacetime life onto the roadside, to be scooped up violently by a roaring loader, dumped into a truck, and taken away. Yet despite losing so much, he wanted to give a gift to a stranger from the other side of the world, who had spent but a few minutes with him in what remained of his house. He wanted nothing from me but to look and to listen, to try to understand how Russia’s crimes had affected his life.

Moved by his generosity, I thanked Vasily for the wine, and we made our way back to his large blue gate, passed the grapevine and his wife’s resilient rose bushes. He grasped my hand in both of his, and we said goodbye and wished each other well.

Later that day we opened Vasily’s wine, which was full of flavour and, in the tradition of Ukrainian home fermented beverages, plenty strong. I imagined Vasily’s life before Russia brought the war to his house with blasts of red-hot metal and surging floods of water and mud. Resilience and stoicism are Ukrainian traits that I see every day, typified by Vasily’s quiet determination to reclaim his home, two galvanised buckets at a time.

If you liked this post, you may also like The Kindness of Strangers IV, The Kindness of Strangers III

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