Charred houses, cratered lawns and an epic clean-up on road to Chernihiv

Galina Muzyra moved around her front garden as she cleaned up the mess left by occupying Russian soldiers. “They parked two armoured vehicles on my lawn,” she said, pointing to a flattened blue fence next to her neat vegetable patch. Nearby, amid blackcurrant bushes, was a large crater. Her yellow-painted dacha was perforated with holes.

Shrapnel had wrecked the wooden summer house too. It was a birthday gift from her late husband Nikolai, Muzyra explained. “We don’t understand why the Russians did this. We are a small quiet country. If it wasn’t for our president I don’t know what we would do,” she added, throwing splintered branches and other rubbish on to a spring bonfire.

Muzyra and her son, Denis, live in Zalissya, a village on the highway between the capital Kyiv and the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv. For 20 days, between 8 and 28 March, Russian troops took over her home, sleeping on top of her kitchen stove. The property survived better than many others. The house next door is a charred, roofless shell. A burned-out Lada sat in its courtyard, next to a ravaged vine trellis.

Across swathes of territory vacated by Russia’s armed forces a great clean-up was under way. Homeowners were tidying up and counting the cost of a devastating month-long occupation. Ukrainian army sappers collected left-behind munitions and defused mines – a vast ongoing job. They swept Muzyra’s garden where a rocket landed amid daffodils and a blossoming apple tree.

A few doors down the road workers from Ukraine’s Dtek energy company were busy restoring the electricity supply. “We’re trying to help people,” one shouted, speaking from the top of a damaged pole. Russia’s invasion left 1.5 million Ukrainians without power. Emergency crews have recently reconnected more than 980,000 households to the grid, the firm said.

Farther north in Chernihiv, residents were celebrating Easter after a traumatic 25-day siege. Russian forces advancing from Belarus bombarded the city. Several hundred people died. A couple of shells landed in front of Chernihiv’s gold-domed St Catherine’s church, one of an ensemble of ancient buildings dating back to Kyivan Rus, Ukraine’s original medieval dynasty.

Worshippers carrying Palm Sunday willow branches crossed themselves inside the 11th-century Transfiguration Cathedral, where an Orthodox service was under way. Others enjoyed secular pleasures. Vyacheslav Radchenko and his wife, Marina, were fishing from the bank of Chernihiv’s picturesque Desna river. Above them pedestrians and cyclists crossed the city’s damaged and only surviving bridge.

“This is the first time we have been fishing for six weeks, since the war started,” Marina said. “It was a terrible time. The worst moment was when Russian warplanes bombed us. My hair went white. But we are optimists. Life goes on.”

Vyacheslav said the city’s internet and electricity supply were back but there was a shortage of glass to repair broken windows, and a lot of damage.

Harder to fix were the city’s relations with Belarus, whose president, Alexander Lukashenko, facilitated Vladimir Putin’s attempt to seize Kyiv and to topple its government. Belarusians came to Chernihiv to go shopping, Vyacheslav said. He was hoping to catch bream and roach, he added, but had had no luck so far. “Our biggest fear is that the Russians come back,” he admitted.

In his latest video address, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, pledged to modernise urban areas destroyed by Russia. The priority was to find temporary housing for citizens forced to flee their homes, he said. They would be given money or materials to rebuild, with the plan subsequently expanded to all affected cities and communities. Veterans and state workers would be a housing priority, he said.

Outside Chernihiv, the years-long scale of this ambitious project was grimly apparent. The road south threaded through matchstick-like trees shredded by Russian missiles. Several bridges had been blown up. Enemy armed vehicles destroyed in a Ukrainian counterattack littered the road. One was marked with the letter “O”, the symbol of Russia’s Chernihiv offensive.

In the village of Ivanivka most houses were trashed, as if by tornado. One resident, Yulia – who declined to give her surname – said Russian soldiers killed her brother-in-law and her neighbour, a veteran from the Soviet war in Afghanistan. The soldiers lived in her house for 25 days, she said, taking over her bedroom. She and her 13-year-old son, Zheniya, slept in the candle-lit basement.

“I asked them why they had come here. They told me: ‘We are here to liberate you from your government and from Nato.’ I explained that we voted for our government every five years and didn’t need liberating,” Yulia recounted. “They told us we lived in an elite village, which is a little hilarious. I’m not sure they had seen proper roads.”

Yulia said the soldiers stole most of her belongings including her son’s mountain bike. They confiscated her husband’s mobile phone and shot it. After the Russians left the family fixed up their windows with plastic sheeting and plywood. Repairing the holes left by bullets would take money, which they didn’t have, she said, adding: “What happened here was a terrible dream.”

Over in the village church the priest Georgy Petrosuk was preparing for his first post-occupation prayer service. He said a team of volunteers had cleared up. He was hoping to complete the dusting in time for Easter, he added, as he frantically wiped down icons and pictures of the holy family with a wet cloth. Someone had peppered the building with machine gun rounds. His parishioners had fitted a new door, he said.

Further down the road, the neighbouring settlement of Yahidne was in a pitiful state. Russian units had taken over most properties, marking them with a V. They had herded several hundred people at gunpoint into the basement of the village school. There was little oxygen. Eleven people, including a 13-year-old girl, died there, amid choking darkness. Medical investigators on Sunday had parked outside.

One resident, Nina Alexeevna, said she had spent an entire week cleaning the mess left by soldiers who squatted in her home. They had occupied the flat of her neighbour who had not yet returned. Alexeevna showed off the bedrooms and kitchen – a feral jumble of clothes, upturned drawers, and scattered books. “This is Russky Mir,” she said ironically, referring to the idea of a Kremlin-dominated Russian-speaking cultural world.

Alexeevna said her “soul” felt better after her epic clean. There were a few other tentative signs of normality. In the neighbouring street Katya Balanovitch had tidied and hoed her large garden plot, previously smothered by a Russian tank. She was burning corn stubble in preparation for the summer growing season. “I will sow carrots and tomatoes,” she said.

Amid the horror and large-scale vandalism there was a symbolic return. The white stork, Ukraine’s national bird, had taken up residence as usual along the road which the Russians had used in their unsuccessful and apocalyptic advance towards Kyiv. Several storks sat on giant nests, built on top of telegraph poles. One soared high above over the carcass of a Russian armoured vehicle.

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