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Dispatch from Demydiv North of Kyiv, a village flooded to stop the Russian advance in February fears a wet winter
Story by Fabrice Deprez for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.
Nine months ago, as Russian troops poured across the border in a full-scale invasion, the Ukrainian army destroyed a dam on the Irpin River to halt their advance. The river water surged into Demydiv, a village north of Kyiv, inundating 50 houses and re-flooding vast wetlands that Soviet authorities drained more than half a century ago. In the end, Russian forces failed to hold the Kyiv region for very long, and soldiers retreated in late March. However, much of the floodwater remains. Now, as temperatures plunge, locals who have spent months trying to drain basements and cellars fear that the dank water will freeze and crack the foundations of their homes, or that unpredictable winter weather will trigger another deluge. For The Beet, journalist Fabrice Deprez and photographer Pavel Dorogoy traveled to Demydiv to report on the lasting consequences of the flood that helped save Kyiv.
This article first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.
It was early November when Svitlana Marchenko noticed that the water had reached her garden once again. The 57-year-old resident of Demydiv, a village around 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Kyiv, had already seen her property flooded in the early hours of Russia’s invasion, nine months ago, after the Ukrainian military blew up a nearby dam in an attempt to slow advancing troops.
The water receded over the summer, leaving behind what looked like an imposing river just behind the fence that marks the end of Svitlana’s garden. “And now it seems that the water is rising again,” she said, pointing at small green leaves emerging from the muddy soil. “I bought and planted these strawberries because I thought there wouldn’t be any more flooding, but the water came again, and the state doesn’t help.”
The Ukrainian military’s decision to destroy the dam on the Irpin River on February 25 secured Demydiv’s place in the history of the war. The water overtook historical wetlands that the Soviets drained in the 1960s and quickly reached Demydiv itself, flooding around 50 houses. The public by and large praised the daring move, which earned Demydiv the informal title of “hero village” in the Ukrainian media. More than seven months after the last Russian soldier left the town, however, frustration is growing among the locals stuck living with the flooding’s lasting consequences.
When The Beet’s correspondent visited Demydiv, once in late October and again in early November, the floodwater had mostly receded from the village itself, but vast swathes of water still surround it. A dike running along the village’s eastern side prevents most of the water from reaching Demydiv proper, leaving instead a large lake dotted with trees and bushes. “Before, you had grass, cows, people walking there,” said Andrey, a local resident who stood fishing on the floodbank’s sandy shore. “It was better before.”
‘They put tanks next to the playground’
The flood didn’t impact everyone in Demydiv equally. West of Kyivska Street, the village’s main road, the houses and apartment blocks were left untouched. More than seven months after the Russian occupation, even traces of war are hard to spot here: broken windows on a building facing the section of Kyivska Street where a missile landed, and a patch of fresh asphalt where the crater used to be; a burned out car tucked away near a house and covered by a sheet; a “bomb shelter” sign written in bold, black letters on the wall of a building in the village’s central square.
Unlike other towns in the Kyiv region like Bucha or Irpin, Demydiv was spared the worst of the fighting. “When the war started, we stayed in the basement for two weeks; it was scary,” recalled Viktor, a Demydiv resident. “There’s a playground 200 meters [218 yards] from my house, and they put tanks next to this playground and just started firing.”
On the western side of the village, the soccer field remains pristine enough to host, on a late October afternoon, a second-division match between a team from the Kyiv region and one from Mykolaiv, a city in southern Ukraine that remained on the frontline for months.
“Life is still the same here, except that there’s no work and no money,” Viktor told The Beet bitterly. Viktor, who is fifty years “and a few kopecks” old, declines to give his full name because he still has family living under Russian occupation in his native Luhansk region.
Watching the soccer match, the former professional player reminisces about the first days after the Ukrainian military liberated the village, in early April. “I was one of the first to come back [...] When I entered my house there was this feeling like it was abandoned, like Chornobyl,” he recalled. “The house was intact, but the street was empty, the village was empty [...] there was no light, no people.”
As Viktor spoke, an air-raid siren forced the players off the field. He says his wife still fears a renewed Russian offensive from Belarus, and she was spooked in October when kamikaze drones flew over the village on their way to Kyiv. But their house remains untouched by the floodwater, and Viktor doesn't plan to leave “unless the electricity is completely cut.”
‘The house could crack’
The regular blackouts — a consequence of Russia’s continued missile attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure — aren’t what worry Volodymyr Artemchuk. His house, which is now located just behind the dike, was among those most affected by the flooding. His basement remains underwater, and rolled-up pump hoses sit outside his front door.
“The power is cut periodically, [for] around four hours every time,” Volodymyr explained, standing in front of his house on Irpinska Street. “But that’s not the scariest [thing]. What’s scaring me is that the house could crack. It was built in 1955, and the foundations are weak. Newer houses hold up well but mine…not so much.”
Indeed, for the Demydiv residents living in the quaint houses along Irpinska, Sadova, and Vasylieva streets — those most heavily impacted by the flooding — the threat now comes from underground. Basements and cellars filled with water that has remained stagnant for nine months now endanger the buildings themselves.
“In March, about 10 people with children were there, hiding from the shelling,” Volodymyr Kastuchenko said, showing The Beet’s correspondent the cellar next to his garage, which is now flooded up to the two top steps. “Pumping [the water] out is useless, it just comes back,” he added.
In the first weeks of November, the temperature in the Kyiv region remained at a bearable 10 degrees Celsius (50 Fahrenheit). “But when it freezes…” Volodymyr said, before mimicking the sound of an explosion.
Like Svitlana (whose basement has also been completely flooded since the beginning of the fulll-scale invasion), Volodymyr Artemchuk fears that the winter could coincide with a new rise in the water level.
“We’ve had an electric pump since August, provided by the local authorities, but it’s been working non-stop for three months already. When the first frost comes, we’ll have to take it out, and the water will come to our house again,” he explained. “We pump out water every day. It's like water flowing from a tap, and you’re covering it with a sponge.”
* * *
The situation in Demydiv is a story of what comes after the battle is won. None of the residents The Beet spoke to criticized the decision to blow up the dam. On the contrary, many take pride in the role their village played in Kyiv’s defense. “I think yes, it had to be done, it’s just that now…” Svitlana trailed off, looking towards the body of water next to her house.
Few expected that they would still have to deal with the consequences of that decision, going on nine months. And they now feel like, after being handed 20,000 hryvnias (about $500) in compensation, they’ve been forgotten. “There isn’t much time left until winter, and the basements on Irpinska and Sadova streets are full of water, the houses are damp, and we have gas heating but it’s expensive, so we have to burn wood” said Svitlana. “If some local official lived here, they wouldn’t let the water reach this level,” she concluded bitterly.
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