29 March 2023
Anna Bowles is a pro-Ukrainian activist from the UK, and from 23 March to 6 April she is in East and South Ukraine, with her friends from the Freefilmers NGO, interviewing local people – especially women in rural communities – about their experiences and survival strategies. Anna is blogging about her trip here – we are also republishing some of her blogs on Rights in Russia, but please also visit Anna’s site. You can donate here to support the people Anna meets.
A laptop for a medical student
Would you buy a used laptop from this man-and-moose duo? Well, no need to, it’s free! (NB: video contains swearing.)
Two of the most important things that Freefilmers are able to supply to people in need are medicine and computer equipment. I went with Sashko and Ksiusha to deliver medication to a woman who is recovering from an operation, and a laptop to her student daughter. Names have been changed, and photos omitted, to preserve their privacy.
Olena and her two daughters are originally from Komyshuvakha, a town to the south-east of Zaporizhzhia city that has suffered serious damage from shelling: according to media reports it was struck 18 times in one day in May 2022. They now live in the Kosmos district of Zaporizhzhia, in a high-rise estate set around modest gardens – the most common arrangement of Ukrainian housing.
Their flat is a Krushchevka, a 1950s design that was used all around the Soviet Union to create a lot of cheap housing stock, fast, and it had a layout identical to that of one I’d already seen in Kyiv. The front door opens onto a short hallway, with a bathroom, toilet and kitchen opening to the left; the sitting room is head with the balcony opening off it to the left and the only bedroom to the right. Space is cleverly used, with details like the capacious shelf over the front door.
In the Krushchevki I’ve seen, and I suspect others, the woodwork and internal fittings are durable rather than elegant, and have the appearance of having been given half a dozen coats of paint without any of the previous ones being scraped off. The key feature of the Krushchevka is the front door. The door is nothing special to look at – the point is that it exists. Until this new design of home, most people in the Soviet Union lived in communal flats, meaning that any word of dissent that you spoke in your family’s cramped single room could be heard by the neighbours and reported to the authorities. And often was.
It’s been a while since criticising the Kremlin would get you into trouble in (unoccupied) Ukraine, but Krushchevki are still a familiar sight, run-down but habitable.
Olena works as a crane operator at the Dnepropetsstal metallurgical plant. This is a common occupation for women in the east; when first learning Russian, I had a textbook about a conventional nuclear family in 1980s Moscow who were visited in later chapters by a sturdy emancipated young aunt who worked as a crane operator in Vladivostok. The respectable family did not know quite what to make of her, but the simple, instructive texts seemed to take the attitude that she was a useful contributor to society, and the Soviet family and by extension the bourgeois Western reader should bravely overcome their natural hesitance and accept Vera – I think that was her name – as she was. Sadly I no longer have this book.
Like Tetiana’s husband from my earlier post, Olena is on two-thirds pay because there’s so little work at the moment. Her living room was furnished only with two sets of shelves, a sofa on which she sat, and three stools on which we sat. Klavdiya leaned against the wall to listen. Her younger sister was out.
The Freefilmers handed over Olena’s medicine, and then we broached the interview: how did the war lead you to the situation you’re in now?
Olena began to laugh and cry at the same time. ‘Sorry, I start having hysterics when I think back to it!’ During the first days, she said, ‘we were constantly running to the bomb shelter, which was near our flat. There was no bread, as nobody was bringing any in then. My husband was out looking for it all the time. When we found some, the shop gave us ten loaves because they knew we have a lot of children. I dried them and kept them as breadcrumbs in a pillowcase! Stuff was flying overhead, and I was cooking and running around.’
It was clear they couldn’t stay in Komushyvakha, especially when shrapnel damaged the roof of their house. But they didn’t come straight to Zaporizhzhia. ‘I was in Kyiv for an operation, and then we went to Poland. My husband is still there, but we didn’t feel welcome.’
This feeling came to a head when Olena’s youngest daughter, who uses a hearing aid, suffered a serious ear infection. ‘Me and Klavdiya spent days phoning around hospitals. The infection was already bad, but nobody would see us. They just said, “you don’t have a problem”.’ Olena snorts. ‘Here in Zaporizhzhia, we have our own doctor, a good specialist, who’s known our daughter since she was three.’
After life in Komyshuvakha, the relatively occasional shelling suffered by Zaporizhzhia city was no deterrent to Olena in deciding to come back here. ‘This is home! I love Zaporizhzhia because I was born here. I grew up here, I work here, I got married here, I had children here. And the town itself is beautiful, with the dam and Khortytsia Island, where there’s lots of places to walk in the woods.’
Klavdiya agrees: ‘I absolutely love my city. Zaporizhzhia is peaceful and calm, and you can always go up to someone and ask them something, and have a laugh together. People are quite relaxed. If there’s a community event like litter-picking, people join in. There used to be yoga, fitness sessions, pilates… people, strangers, come and join in.’
This community spirit has only strengthened during the past year, says Olena. ‘The fitness centre has opened free courses for refugees, and at one of the ju-jitsu clubs they train refugee children for free. Like every city in Ukraine, there’s corruption – the war hasn’t changed that. The air is dirty, and the Dnipro is dirty, but that’s down to the authorities. People, society, have united and become friendlier.’
Maybe in most ways, but Olena points out that they don’t always like large families. ‘They say, “you accept help, but you don’t help anyone!” Well, I say they shouldn’t talk about things they don’t understand. When we left Komyshuvakha, we brought a family with many children with us. We paid for their taxi and bought them 5,000 hryvnias’ (about £110) worth of groceries. We let soldiers use our house.
‘My social group is always sending money to our guys. We knit socks and sew underwear to the boys – soldiers from Zaporizhzhia. We buy them food and medicines, and everyone gives what they can. Our family isn’t passive either. Maybe it’s only 200 hryvnia, but we give what we can. Once, Klavdiya went home when soldiers were already living there. She bought a big cake, and they still remember how big and delicious it was. And we say to them: thank you for defending us!’
So it’s all about mutual aid? Klavdiya was an ambulance volunteer before the war, and in Poland she gave massages to our refugees almost for free. Even now, back home, ‘I only take the minimum from our soldiers. In return they bring me so much tushonka [cheap canned meat often eaten by soldiers] and fish that I don’t have enough room in the fridge! And one man brought me a heating pad for my hands, as he knew they were freezing.’ Soldiers in the trenches often use heating pads for warmth.
The war brought a lot of change, very fast, and not all of it was bad. ‘When the war first started, I opened a chat and there were offers of help from clients and from strangers,’ Klavdiya remembers. When she wanted to go back to Komyshuvakha to retrieve a photo album so as to have a memory of her home, ‘one client said, “I’ll take you there, because it’s not safe and there might be shelling.” It’s things like that you don’t expect.’
Animals as well as humans have suffered in the chaos and mass movement, but some have found safe haven. A few weeks ago the family found a small black cat wandering the streets and took her in. I’d set my phone on the floor to record the conversation and the cat tried to press the stop button, but paws aren’t suited to iPhones.
Olena’s story is oddly similar to Tetiana’s, from Olena’s work difficulties to the question of hearing aids. And they both have the same attitude: pride in the Ukrainian state health system, but it will only take you so far. Her youngest daughter’s treatment is expensive. But it was her older daughter who we were able to help out. Klavdiya is a medical student, and we provided a laptop for her studies.
Having graduated from basic medical training, Klavdiya is now studying at the Faculty of Rehabilitation and Physiotherapy at Zaporizhzhia University. ‘In Poland I worked as an assistant surgeon, a nurse, but I realised that sort of thing is not for me: it’s important that I see results. And in massage and rehabilitation, you get that. People can’t walk, they’re just lying there, then after a while their legs are working normally and they can move around.
‘I had a boy in rehabilitation with chronic bronchitis. He couldn’t even speak, and he was choking because there was so much mucus. Then after two sessions he started to speak my name.’ Klavdiya smiles. ‘When I see results, that gives me a high!’
Klavdiya will have to study for another year before she’s fully qualified. The family’s living situation is unlikely to improve during that time; but hopefully having a computer of her own will make Klavdiya’s life a little easier. Our next job is to provide one for her younger sister, who attends special classes for pupils who are hearing impaired. Online, of course, like almost all Ukrainian education now.
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