Ukraine rebuilds: Schools, roofs, water, lights – and citizens

by Scott Peterson, CSM Contributor from Lyman and Sviatohirsk, Ukraine

151706Ukrainian teacher Olha Lytenko works with students in a hybrid classroom that combines teaching and online learning, as local officials seek to restore services in areas that had been occupied by Russian troops, in Lyman, Ukraine, April 25, 2023. Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor

May 4, 2023

Not far from the active front line of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas, within earshot of artillery duels between Russian and Ukrainian forces, a school building shows little outward sign of life.

But inside, a single classroom has been lit, heated with two stoves, connected to the internet, and hung with bright and hopeful accoutrements of learning.

It’s an unexpected sanctuary for students who made it through five months of Russian occupation, and it’s one kernel of what Ukrainian officials in the town of Lyman hope will become part of a newly reinforced post-war patriotism.

A teacher oversees several primary-age students writing in their notebooks, while several high schoolers follow online classes of the Ukrainian curriculum, using laptop screens to connect with fellow students and teachers who are spread across Ukraine and Europe.

After Ukrainian troops forced a Russian retreat from the area around Lyman last October, educators say they had to go door to door and basement to basement, searching for remaining students in a town where 90% of the buildings have been damaged or destroyed.

“I did not think school would be possible; we had no electricity, light, or internet,” says 10th grader Yelizaveta Romenska, whose classmates fled Lyman, like 75% or more of the pre-war population. “I didn’t realize any kids were still left.”

Ukrainian pedestrians pass residential buildings damaged by a war that is still just a few miles distant, in the previously Russian-occupied Donbas city of Lyman, Ukraine, April 25, 2023.

151706Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science MonitorUkrainian pedestrians pass residential buildings damaged by a war that is still just a few miles distant, in the previously Russian-occupied Donbas city of Lyman, Ukraine, April 25, 2023.

Last autumn, the bespectacled Yelizaveta emerged from sheltering into a world transformed by war. It’s a world in which Ukrainian officials – in Lyman, as well as across swaths of liberated territory where pro-Russian sympathy has long been common – have been racing to provide services, from food and utilities to home repairs.

Their goal: to give residents reasons to be more patriotic citizens, and increase their trust in Kyiv.

“Pro-Russian thinking”

Indeed, residents of liberated territories say that while the heavy hand of Russian occupation often exacerbated divisions in their society, by forcing many people to choose sides, in the months since liberation some have also experienced a newfound sense of unity and national purpose.

Among the tools are the 10 single-classroom schools for the nearly 400 school-age children that remain in Lyman and 39 surrounding settlements. In this classroom, written on a whiteboard, are the words: “We’re holding the educational front line of the Donetsk region.”

“They are very grateful and very happy to come here” to the revived school, says Nadiia Didenko, head of the Lyman education department. She describes how, when she was appointed in 2018, three local schools still taught in the Russian language. Her first step was to shift teaching to Ukrainian – a move that was fine with children, she says, but “radically opposed” by some parents, who sued her in court but lost each time.

151706Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science MonitorNadiia Didenko, head of the education department for Lyman, in a classroom in Lyman, Ukraine, April 25, 2023. Behind her is a poster warning children about hazards, including grenades, IEDs, and unexploded ordnance, from a war that is only miles away.

Ms. Didenko and the entire Lyman administration worked outside the city during the Russian occupation. But she was surprised when a senior colleague, whose “very active, and very pro-Ukrainian” stance proved to be “just fake,” collaborated with Russians, was elevated to the department head, and tried to recruit other teachers to work.

That teacher and those she recruited ultimately fled to Russia, Ms. Didenko says.

“Today, I hope after this [Russian invasion] it will be possible to completely break this pro-Russian thinking,” she says. She expects children to become “more conscientious citizens,” and their parents, too, noting, “I think what they saw here was not so sweet.”

Trying for “normal”

Helping them make that shift in thinking are systematic efforts across liberated zones by Ukrainian officials cognizant of the need to demonstrate a better vision of a shared future.

On top of making damage assessments in Lyman, for example, Mayor Oleksandr Zhuravliov speaks of efforts to revive a musical school and rebuild the Lyman women’s soccer team.

“With our actions, we want to convince people that Ukrainian lawful power ... after the complete destruction of our energy, gas, and water infrastructure, that we have started to restore those vital things,” the mayor says.

He ticks off statistics for water and electricity supplies for each area, and says volunteers two days earlier brought eight tons of food. Covering damaged roofs are also a priority.

“We are trying to bring back life. … We are trying to get back to normal,” Mr. Zhuravliov says.

151706Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science MonitorLyman Mayor Oleksandr Zhuravliov lists multiple projects to restore normal life to local residents, but says the close proximity to the war presents a major challenge, at his office in Lyman, Ukraine, April 24, 2023.

What is the biggest hurdle? “The war – what else could it be?” he says without hesitation. “You have a million projects in your head, the roads, the roofs, houses, the hospital has to be rebuilt. But we cannot rebuild everything, because the war is not too far away from here.”

A similar conclusion is made by Ihor and his wife Tetiana, whose 2-1/2-year-old daughter Valeriia clutches several red tulips while riding a toy car on an early spring afternoon. They are beside a multistory apartment building, where running water has not yet been restored ­and the glass is often missing – smashed by a Russian rocket that landed nearby last February or by explosions from any of the other frequent Russian attacks.

“Since Ukraine gained independence [in 1991] I heard only promises,” says Ihor, who asked that his family name not be used. The only change is that city workers have started to remove garbage that piled high for months.

“It’s possible to buy new windows, but there is no point; they could be blown out again,” he says.

151706Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science MonitorUkrainian parents who gave the names Ihor and Tetiana, and their daughter Valeriia, are among residents trying to carry on with daily life in the Donbas city of Lyman, Ukraine, April 24, 2023. Water has yet to be restored to their building.

Building trust

The issues faced by officials and residents alike in Lyman – including grappling with residual pro-Russian sympathy – are mirrored in Sviatohirsk. It’s a town renowned for its 16th-century Orthodox monastery 16 miles west of Lyman that was occupied by Russian troops for three months and is widely damaged.

“When we came here after de-occupation, we saw that every person had lost 20-25 kilograms of weight; the Russians just didn’t bring humanitarian help here,” says Volodymyr Rybalkin, head of the Sviatohirsk military-civilian administration, who was appointed to the post by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

151706Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science MonitorA cyclist passes a destroyed Russian tank near the Cathedral of Saints Vera, Nadezhda, and Liubov, an Orthodox Church loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate, in Sviatohirsk, Ukraine, April 22, 2023. Three months of Russian occupation left the city severely damaged and with just 550 residents remaining of a pre-war population of 4,000-plus.

He says those who stayed under occupation – some 550 people out of a prewar population of 4,000 plus, often citizens who “decided Russia is not a bad thing” – and those who are now returning should be treated equally.

“It is important to show these people that their government is taking steps to take care of them,” says Mr. Rybalkin, a former mayoral candidate who, before the war, lost a local election to a member of a pro-Russian party.

“With our deeds, we will show that they can trust us, and we can build on that trust,” he says. “We will see the results as time passes.”

Mr. Rybalkin speaks as local officials mark Earth Day with a first post-liberation gathering at a central park. It has a festive atmosphere, with municipal workers cutting the grass for the first time in months, music playing, and locals mixing around free coffee, tea, and food, provided by American and Dutch charities.

Parked nearby, too, is a metal container that provides hot showers, toilets, and laundry machines. The U.S. Agency for International Development is listed on the door as one donor.

“From our side, we try to make such events, to have people work with us, to socialize, because we need to get them together,” says Mr. Rybalkin.

“Installing Ukraine”

When asked about the prevalence of pro-Russian sympathy before the war, he notes that the former mayor, Volodymyr Bandura, very publicly collaborated with Russian occupation forces and fled with the Russians as they retreated.

“We are installing Ukraine here,” Mr. Rybalkin says. “I feel society is more united now, because everyone saw the real face of Russia. Even those who decided to leave with the Russians, they are complaining now to relatives here that they are not living an easy life there.”

151706Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science MonitorUkrainian volunteers with the American charity World Central Kitchen hand out some of the 600 meals they distribute daily in Sviatohirsk, Ukraine, April 23, 2023.

Residents may appear more relaxed on the street, but are often wary of speaking to a foreign journalist, and frequently refuse to allow their photograph to be taken, citing video and images taken by Russian journalists during the occupation that landed those featured in trouble.

“I see now that we started melting a bit, because [the occupation] was a very hard time that put us on different sides, and made us angry toward each other,” says a retired teacher of the Russian language, who wears a red jacket, carries a basket of food at the community gathering, and gives the name Liubov.

“Now we can see each other,” she says. “We will be unified, but not soon.”

Residents say they are still in shock at how Russia defied their expectations.

“I know a lot of people who changed their opinion,” says Liubov. “These people just saw with their own eyes the way we were ‘defended’ by Russia. ... It was very hard and painful that this ‘brotherly nation’ came to destroy us. We were not expecting that.Bottom of Form

“I can say that as soon as Ukraine came back here, from this moment we felt cared for,” she adds. “Let God help us get everything stable, and for life to return to normal.”

Oleksandr Naselenko supported reporting for this story.

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Page created on 5/5/2023 12:27:16 AM

Last edited 5/5/2023 12:51:31 AM

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