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Dispatch from Kharkivshchyna Near the border with Russia, Ukrainian villages confront displacement, destruction, and death 

Source: Meduza

Dispatch from Kharkivshchyna Near the border with Russia, Ukrainian villages confront displacement, destruction, and death 

Source: Meduza
A destroyed monument to fallen World War II soldiers in Slatyne, Kharkiv region
A destroyed monument to fallen World War II soldiers in Slatyne, Kharkiv region
Yakiv Liashenko

Story by Fabrice Deprez for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

It’s been 21 months since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Winter weather has arrived in Kyiv and across the frontline, just as Ukrainian forces in the Kherson region have gained a foothold on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River and Russian forces have started attacking on multiple fronts. In the Kharkiv region, Russian troops are continuing their assaults in the direction of Kupyansk. The Ukrainian military liberated the city from occupation in September 2022 as part of a surprise counteroffensive that forced a rapid retreat of Russian forces in the northeast. But due to their proximity to the Russian border, towns and villages in Kharkivshchyna (as the region is known in Ukrainian) have faced unrelenting attacks. Be that as it may, thousands of displaced locals have returned home as their communities attempt to repair the damage that war and occupation have done. In a sweeping dispatch from the Kharkiv region, freelance journalist Fabrice Deprez reports for The Beet.

This story 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.

When Natalia Chykhichyna first arrived in Slatyne, she thought the village was a scary place. Located 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) north of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and roughly 15 kilometers (nine miles) south of the Russian border, Slatyne found itself in the gray zone between Russian and Ukrainian forces last year. Although never formally occupied, it was under shelling for months, leaving its modern, recently-renovated school a hollow, ravaged shell and the few vendor stalls in the town center a pile of warped, rusted metal sheets. 

Some 1,200 buildings were damaged and close to 200 entirely destroyed, the village head, Yevhen Ivakhnenko, told The Beet.

The train station in Slatyne. The graffiti on the front wall reads “Welcome to hell” and “Welcome to Ukraine, bitch.”
Yakiv Liashenko
A destroyed school in Slatyne

More than a year into the full-scale Russian invasion, Natalia — a woman in her 40s with short blond hair and puffy red cheeks — had never witnessed this level of destruction before. Her own native village, Udy, sits just five kilometers (three miles) from the Russian border but had been quiet during the first few weeks of the invasion, as Russian forces bypassed the hamlet in their rush to seize the regional capital, Kharkiv. (They did not succeed.)

When the shelling eventually reached Udy in mid-April 2022, Natalia, who was working as a cook at the local kindergarten, immediately fled with her sick mother and 15-year-old son. “Then, on April 29, I got a call from a friend who still lived there [in Udy]. She just told me, ‘Well, you don’t have a job anymore. Your kindergarten is burning down,’” she recalls, sitting on a bench in the center of Slatyne. 

In the year that followed, Natalia lived in the nearby village of Bohodukhiv and then in Vilshany, outside Kharkiv, when the fighting got closer. The family moved to Slatyne in April 2023 and quickly settled into a house left empty by acquaintances who had fled abroad. In August, Natalia buried her mother in the local cemetery. 

“She was sick before the war, of course. She had a really bad heart condition,” Natalia explains. “But the war really crippled her. It crippled everyone.”

A Slatyne resident stands next to her destroyed home, where only the chimney and cellar remain
Yakiv Liashenko

‘We want to go home, but it’s not going to happen’

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has profoundly upended hundreds of towns and villages in the Kharkiv region. Some found themselves under occupation in 2022, while others are under the constant threat of shelling because of their proximity to the Russian border and the frontline. People who had lived their entire lives in the same quiet settlements were forced to flee — to the nearest safe village, to Kharkiv, to somewhere else in Ukraine, or even abroad. 

Many came back only to find partially deserted streets, neighbors gone, Ukrainian soldiers billeted in houses while on rotation from the frontline, and nearby woods and fields littered with mines and unexploded ordnance. Even far away from the front, the fighting still looms constantly, often in the form of regular, distant explosions.

Olha Kryvochenko, a retired nurse, finally returned to Slatyne in June after months of running from the war. The 70-year-old initially went to Western Ukraine, before moving to the northeastern Sumy region, and then to Kharkiv. Her husband, who died last year, was buried in the Sumy region.

Back in Slatyne, she discovered that her apartment — where she and her husband had lived since 1978 — had been damaged by shelling and left open to the elements for months. Olha and her 51-year-old daughter had to move to a two-room house down a gentle slope near the end of Vulytsya Myru (Peace Street). Here, as well, shrapnel from a nearby strike lightly damaged the roof — enough that humidity stains started eating away at the ceiling, revealing the wooden beams above. 

Yakiv Liashenko
A Slatyne resident stands in an apartment damaged by shelling and bad weather
Yakiv Liashenko

The war has impacted every settlement differently. Some border villages have been destroyed entirely. Udy was virtually erased from the map, and not a single one of its 1,500 inhabitants still lives there, according to a July report by the Ukrainian TV network Channel 24. “They don’t let you go there now. It’s a closed village,” says Natalia. “We want to go home, but we know it’s not going to happen; we understand that our village isn’t going to be rebuilt.” 

Other settlements appear untouched. Down a battered track linking to the strategic road from Kharkiv to Kupyansk, the village of Spodobivka found itself under occupation “from the first day” of the full-scale invasion, says Tetyana Bobrus, the village’s 48-year-old head. But the Russian presence was minimal, and there was no shelling. The village, perched on the edge of a lake half-hidden by a thick layer of reeds growing in its shallows, escaped the horrors experienced in nearby towns like Kupyansk, Shevchenkove, Vovchansk, and Izyum, where Russian occupation forces detained, tortured, and, in some cases, executed hundreds of people.  

The damaged road leading to the village of Spodobivka
Yakiv Liashenko

As the Ukrainian counteroffensive pushed back the Russian military in September 2022, a dozen families arrived in Spodobivka from Kupyansk, hoping to escape the fighting while remaining as close as possible to their newly liberated homes. Bobrus says “nothing has really changed” since the liberation. The well-stocked local shop never stopped working, while none of the 500 or so villagers have left since the war began. 

“For more than six months, the Russian military used this road to send convoys to Izyum,” Bobrus recalls. Located 40 kilometers (25 miles) south, Izyum was a crucial logistical hub for Russian forces during the occupation. “Column after column of heavy vehicles went through this road, and they simply destroyed it,” the village head says. “But generally, nothing has changed,” she repeats. “Except maybe the fear.” 

Just 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) away, close enough for the sound of distant shelling to become a routine background noise, Ukrainian forces are still fending off Russian assaults near the railway town of Kupyansk.

‘It’s always possible to rebuild’

The situation is practically the opposite in Lebyazhe, a village 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Kharkiv. There, a smooth layer of asphalt laid down just a few weeks ago runs past destroyed wooden houses and the ruins of the local school. Like Slatyne, Lebyazhe narrowly escaped occupation but found itself just a few hundred meters from Russian positions for more than six months. 

The nearest combat zone is now more than 50 kilometers (31 miles) away. Yet, on a bright autumn morning, a single powerful explosion in the distance still manages to shake doors in their frames.

On an isolated street away from the main road, past a cultural center peppered with shrapnel and a memorial tended with red chrysanthemums in honor of a Ukrainian military unit that defended the village, Roman Chubach is still mulling whether to leave Lebyazhe and join his family in Kharkiv for the winter. 

Roman Chubach
Yakiv Liashenko
An icon in Roman Chubach’s room
Yakiv Liashenko
Roman Chubach with a relative in Lebyazhe
Yakiv Liashenko

A timid, 53-year-old man sporting a thick, graying beard reminiscent of an Orthodox priest, Roman currently lives in a dark, cramped room. Sitting on his bed, he can see through the window — and almost touch — the crumbling brick wall of the house where he, and his parents and grandparents before him, used to live.

Roman spent the early days of the full-scale invasion in a Kharkiv hospital, watching over his wife and two children who were bedridden with the coronavirus. He doesn’t remember exactly when he learned that a shell had landed directly on his house, setting it on fire (sometime in July of last year, he thinks), or when he finally came back to the village to see the damage for himself (some three or four months later). A year on, he contemplates what’s left of the house where he spent his summer vacations as a child: a couple of charred brick walls and a few windows that miraculously survived.

Roman Chubach stands inside the remains of his destroyed home in Lebyazhe
Yakiv Liashenko

In September, the authorities accelerated the “eRecovery” program in the region, which allows Ukrainians whose dwellings were damaged or destroyed to file for compensation through the all-encompassing government app “Diia.” As of mid-November, authorities in the Kharkiv region had received more than 22,800 such requests, after more than a year of humanitarian organizations and volunteers largely shouldering the burden of repairing damaged homes.

Like many, Roman is still waiting to hear back about his own application. Given that his home was all but destroyed, he may be entitled to enough compensation to purchase a new one anywhere in Ukraine. But he doesn’t want to leave Lebyazhe and says he’s leaning towards rebuilding. “You know, it’s always possible to rebuild, but you need a lot of resources. That’s what it’s all about, and I don’t know how much [compensation] I’ll receive,” he says.

For now, without a job or a car that would allow him to sell the vegetables he grows in his garden in the nearby town of Chuhuiv, Roman struggles to make ends meet. 

Artem, age 14, fishes on a destroyed bridge in Lebyazhe
Yakiv Liashenko
The village of Hroza, Kharkiv region
Yakiv Liashenko
A monument to Soviet soldiers who died in the battle for Hroza in 1943
Yakiv Liashenko

‘Some people changed overnight’ 

An hour’s drive from Lebyazhe, the village of Hroza had survived the occupation and enjoyed an entire year of relative quiet. On October 5, however, a Russian Iskander missile struck a local cafe where more than 60 people had gathered for a funeral lunch. The 59 people killed in the strike were all civilians, according to a U.N. report

Ukraine’s Security Service (the SBU) has accused two brothers from the village of helping to coordinate the strike. According to the SBU, Volodymyr and Dmytro Mamon joined the Russian police during the 2022 occupation and fled to Russia after Ukrainian forces liberated the region. But they maintained a network of local informants who, according to the investigation, told them about the coming funeral for a Ukrainian soldier from the village.

Details of how the strike unfolded have only deepened the trauma in Hroza, a village where the occupation had already left a climate of suspicion in its wake. Yevhen Pirozhok, a 41-year-old farm worker whose parents died on October 5, remembers some of his more pro-Russian neighbors reacting to the Ukrainian military’s liberation of the village with fits of crying — prompted by fear and despair, he claims. “They died too,” he adds, referring to the casualties from the missile strike.

When a neighbor comes over to chat, the conversation quickly turns to the war’s emotional toll. “It’s a shame, of course. But you weren’t there. There’s a lot you don’t know about the occupation, about how some people changed overnight,” Yevhen tells the neighbor. “It’s a shame,” the neighbor nods in agreement.

Yevhen Pirozhok
Yakiv Liashenko
The cemetery in Hroza and the graves of those killed during the Russian missile attack on October 5, 2023
Yakiv Liashenko
Yakiv Liashenko

The trauma is everywhere, mixing over time with gripping uncertainty and fear that Russian troops may come back someday. In Lebyazhe, Nadia Agosta, an energetic, fast-talking pensioner in a bright coat, breaks into tears when she recalls the early days of the war: an all-too-familiar story about hiding in a basement for several days as Russian forces shelled the village. After a shell hit Nadia’s house — landing just meters from her and knocking out one of her teeth — she fled to the Carpathian Mountains in Western Ukraine. Her husband Ivan stayed behind, only to see their house shelled a second time in August 2022. 

The psychologist she saw once while in Western Ukraine was no help, Nadia says. “He told me, ‘Nadia Grigorievna, you need to love yourself.’ How am I supposed to love myself?” she sobs. “I didn’t understand.” 

In her small house in Slatyne, Olha also begins to cry when she recalls the month and a half she spent hiding in a cramped basement with a dozen other villagers at the beginning of the war. After a few weeks under near-constant shelling, the children sheltering in the basement started yelling, vomiting, and losing consciousness, she says. “That’s when we knew we needed to leave, to save the children.” 

Nadia and Ivan Agosta stand inside their destroyed home in Lebyazhe, which they are now trying to rebuild
Yakiv Liashenko

‘Nobody’s risking building things from scratch’

According to locals, Slatyne hasn’t been shelled once since Russian troops retreated from the Kharkiv region last fall. The village head, Yevhen Ivakhnenko, reports that around 2,000 people live there now — a far cry from the pre-war population of 6,000 but a noticeable jump from the few hundred people who remained hiding in their basements when bombs fell on Slatyne daily. 

Train service to Kharkiv has resumed, allowing displaced locals staying in the city to return for the day to tend to their gardens or start repairing their homes. Natalia Chykhichyna quickly found a job at the local social services center. “People have been warned that it’s still dangerous to come back,” says Ivakhnenko. “But people come back anyway, and we have to deal with this reality.” 

The mayor’s small office building, damaged in a nearby strike, has been crawling with workers for weeks now. The building should be repaired by the end of the year, Ivakhnenko says. 

Children playing in Slatyne
Yakiv Liashenko

Across the village, humanitarian NGOs have been helping locals fix roofs and replace broken windows, careful to repair what they can while delaying larger, more perilous projects for fear of renewed shelling. “Nobody’s risking building things from scratch; it’s too dangerous,” Ivakhnenko concedes. Making the local school usable again would take three to four years, he thinks, and who knows what the situation will be by then?

Olha Kryvochenko wants to file for compensation for her damaged apartment but says she lacks the proper documents. “I’d need to go to the notary, and I’ve been told it would cost me about 8,000 hryvnias [about $220], but I don’t have that kind of money,” she explains.

According to media reports, authorities in the Kharkiv region have had to reject hundreds of applications for “eRecovery” compensation due to a lack of proper documentation. A shortage of construction specialists has also complicated the rebuilding process. Many of these workers have been mobilized into the military.

A man looks out of a damaged house in Slatyne
Yakiv Liashenko

The village has changed in other ways, too. The nearby woods are still mined, making it impossible to gather wood for the stoves. The traditional celebrations and sporting events that marked the passage of time no longer take place. Train service has resumed, but the station remains without a roof, its edges burned black. Stability is a fragile state — Natalia has already started a new life, but she still lives in a house that isn’t her own. 

Young people have no interest in coming back because of the proximity to the border, complains a woman in a nearby park watching over a pile of wet leaves slowly burning down. She jumps when a chestnut inside the pile explodes with a muffled pop. That morning, the entire village woke up to the distant sound of artillery echoing on the horizon.

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Story by Fabrice Deprez for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart

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