Ukraine is rebuilding cities as fast as Russia destroyed them

BUCHA, Ukraine – The mere sight of a child here – wearing sunglasses, pulling a scooter, pestering his mother to buy him candy – was enough to impress Petro Trotsenko, owner of a stall in a Bucha market who reopened last week.

A little over a month ago, the market was bare, looted of all its goods, cut up by shrapnel. The nearby glass factory where Trotsenko, 74, worked in his youth was used as a torture chamber by Russian soldiers occupying this kyiv suburb. The bodies of 22 people from his neighborhood, summarily executed during the month of March, lay where they fell in the streets. Almost every yard was filled with rubble, burnt-out vehicles and makeshift graves. Almost all the families with children had fled.

Trotsenko and his wife, who hid for weeks in their basement, burned wood from the fence that surrounded their house to boil rainwater. This is how they cooked the porridge that kept them alive.

But in about the same time as the Russians occupied Bucha, the town rebuilt itself. The market is open and Trotsenko has restocked. Huge divots in the roads where the shells fell were paved over. The suburban train to Kyiv is working again. Water and electricity have largely been restored. Families return.

President Volodymyr Zelensky has said it will cost Ukraine at least $600 billion to rebuild what was destroyed in Bucha and across the country during the Russian invasion. But local officials and ordinary citizens are not waiting for a new Marshall Plan. They clean up and rebuild their cities, even as the question of when the war will end remains unanswered.

The reconstruction effort is imbued with a sense of optimism that Ukraine will survive the onslaught from Russia. Volunteers mainly do this, which allows government funds to remain focused on the war.

In places where the scars are still fresh, like Bucha, or still inflicted, like Kharkiv and other cities in eastern Ukraine, the engine of reconstruction is the determination of Ukrainians to prove to Russia – and to themselves – that Ukraine is anything but defeated.

In Kharkiv, Stas Bocharnikov, director of a distribution company, felt so restless about getting back to normal that he could only endure a week in a bomb shelter at the start of the war. Since then, he has spent nearly every day arguing with volunteers to clear debris from strike sites – work that frees up more specialized crews to demolish or rebuild damaged structures.

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second most populous city, is just 40 kilometers from the Russian border. For more than 70 days it was battered by artillery and aerial bombardment, and most buildings in the city at least lost their windows to the blast. But Bocharnikov now has enough volunteers to fill the buses with them, sending them to different parts of the city every day.

Once Bocharnikov is notified by the local emergency services unit that an area has been cleared of cluster munitions, the teams get to work, sometimes with artillery detonations in the background.

The risk is worth it for one simple reason, he said: “I don’t want to live in shit.”

At a recently damaged culinary school, volunteers ranged from women in their 60s to a 12-year-old boy. They threw bricks strewn into piles of rubbish, but carefully preserved cookbooks and utensils that had survived the explosion.

People are not being paid, Bocharnikov said; all he gave them was cigarettes or a free meal prepared by other volunteers in the city.

“When people one day talk about how we rebuilt Kharkiv, I want to tell my children or grandchildren that I helped,” 19-year-old Darina Potapenko said.

The next day, the same group of volunteers were working in another part of town – a residential area where a burst of mortars had crashed through doorways and ceilings. Wearing orange gloves, Marina Smelianskaia, 53, a former lab worker, dug her shovel into a pile of rubble to free it from the building’s porch.

On the bus ride to the neighborhood, Smelianskaia was demoralized by the number of buildings still damaged in the area – and by the fact that she barely made a dent when Russian rockets again destroyed homes each evening. She kept shoveling.

“People worked here about two weeks ago – they’ve already cleared this area – and it’s been hit again,” she said. “Now we are cleaning it again. So that sense of accomplishment is not there for me yet.

Continued shelling in Kharkiv did little to deter volunteers. Tulips were planted throughout downtown, and city workers were cutting grass in hard-hit neighborhoods.

In front of the destroyed building of the city’s regional administration, 73-year-old Valentina Orlova hastily planted yellow pansies early last week. It was around noon and the work should be finished by 2 p.m.

“That’s when the shelling usually starts, so we have to finish quickly to get home,” she said.

If an ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive succeeds in Kharkiv, the fighting could end in the coming weeks, giving volunteers more time to rebuild more meaningfully. If that happens, the efforts of residents of kyiv’s suburbs, including Bucha, Irpin and Hostomel – all of which have been largely demolished – could serve as a model.

In Irpin, a suburb that was once home to 100,000 people, city workers worked half pay to fix dozens of water and sewage pumps.

“We worked day and night without a day off,” said Artur Zahodirenko, the director of the municipal water service in Irpin, which relied on equipment provided by aid agencies.

Around 16,000 people have returned to Irpin in recent days, Mayor Oleksandr Markushin said. If progress in restoring services continues, he said, he will officially invite all residents to return on May 15.

Last week, a bank reopened, as did many kindergartens. The completely destroyed road bridge between Irpin and Kyiv, infamous as a place where many were killed by snipers as they tried to flee during the occupation, is now passable by car.

The revival has coincided with the arrival of spring in northern Ukraine, and the outskirts of kyiv are blanketed in a blanket of dandelions and fresh grass. Brightly colored laundry sways in the gentle warm breeze. Two boys carrying skateboards passed a friend, her hair newly dyed pink, in one of Irpin’s many parks.

Markushin, who never left Irpin during the occupation, recently issued an open call for architects, designers and engineers willing to lend their services free of charge to help rebuild the city. He expected a dozen responses, but instead he was overwhelmed.

“We thought few people would come, but 121 specialists came today. Just imagine! 121! We were shocked,” he said. “Today we visited several locations and in a few weeks they will provide their first plans.”

Sergii Mukaieliants and Maria Avdeeva in Kharkiv, and Serhiy Morgunov in Bucha and Irpin contributed to this report.

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