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.
Mospanove: a Frontline Village
The biggest expedition of this fortnight was an overnight trip to the village of Mospanove, halfway between Kharkiv and Izium. It was on the front line for six months in 2022, changing hands several times before finally being liberated when the Ukrainians chased the invaders out of Kharkiv oblast in September.
We brought a lot of donations to Mospanove. Spades, rakes, and secateurs that we purchased from Epitsentr, to help people tidy up resume growing food in their gardens; portable power stations; and medicines and ointments for bedridden elders. Harne Mistse collected hundreds of second-hand crockery and cutlery items for us.
On the road from Zaporizhzhia, we passed through about twenty military checkpoints, where it is not a good idea to take photographs. Most of them just waved us through, but about a third of them checked our documents. However, nobody inspected us more closely, even though as Sashko and Ksiusha remarked, a car containing a foreigner, an IDP from Mariupol and over a hundred knives and heavy-duty secateurs was probably the most suspicious vehicle on the road. (Apparently if you say you’re from Mariupol, soldiers inevitably ask where you are registered now, though it doesn’t actually matter from a legal perspective.)
As we approached Mospanove, the signs of the war became obvious. We passed shelled buildings, a couple of burnt-out cars, and a burnt-out tank. There were red markers by the side of the road warning of mines in the fields. Slow lines of fire were creeping across some of the fields – but this was deliberate. It reveals the mines, and prepares the soil for re-sowing.
More than half the buildings in Mospanove are severely damaged or completely destroyed, including the kindergarten, the village hall and the school. Power has not yet been restored because, although the electricity poles in the village itself have been repaired (by the villagers themselves), the surrounding fields have to be de-mined before cables can be laid reconnecting the houses to the national grid.
Mospanove was also where my ability to follow the local speech, shaky at best, gave out completely. People in rural areas of Ukraine often don’t speak pure Ukrainian or Russian but a mixture called Surzhyk. Sashko did almost all the interacting, and summarised for me afterwards. So there isn’t much direct speech in this report, as there’s too much scope for introducing mistakes. Hopefully the photos will say a lot.
We were shown around Mospanove by Ekaterina, an energetic woman in a green velour tracksuit with exotically painted nails; a look that would fit in on a South London high street. She is involved in leadership locally, and Sashko originally contacted her in February as someone who could advise on the needs of her community.
Ekaterina has a much more varied background than Westerners might expect of a ‘poor villager in Ukraine’. For a while she was the local music and kindergarten teacher; then she did book-keeping for her community and spent some time in the local parliament. Then, inspired by the example of her eldest daughter, she gave all that up for a while to visit Britain, picking strawberries and raspberries in Taunton for two summer seasons. She showed me a picture of herself smiling happily with Tower Bridge in the background.
This is her family home in Mospanove – with a shell crater right outside the front windows. There’s another in their back yard, as well.
Ekaterina told us a little of what people went through during the six months of occupation. Mospanove is connected to the highway by a single road, which by the fourth day of the war was inaccessible as the nearest village, Hrakove, had been captured by the Russians. It was the end of winter, with snow still on the ground, and people had no way to leave except by tractor across the fields. Ekaterina’s three daughters escaped this way, but their parents stayed.
For the next six months, the village was on the front line, and temporarily captured on several occasions. At least twelve villagers died as a result of shelling and violence in Mospanove itself, while three were killed trying to flee, when their car ran over a mine. Some, however, did manage to leave, and once the situation allowed, a Telegram chat was set up to keep everyone in the loop. This is attended by those villagers who have communications equipment, and those who are abroad. The more isolated villagers then often receive local information from their relatives far away, when they make occasional contact.
During brief lulls in the conflict, Ekaterina herself left the village, but only to organise evacuation of civilians and injured soldiers, and bring back humanitarian aid. One load was completely destroyed when a rocket hit the warehouse in the centre of the village.
Ekaterina didn’t tell us about any physical abuse of the villagers by soldiers, but the Russians looted the local shop, and more than once Ukrainians used her house as a base. This is not something everyone talks openly about, but not every Ukrainian soldier is an angel, and she showed us pictures of the mess one group of soldiers left after they trashed and looted it. However, other Ukrainians soldiers were better behaved; Ekaterina is philosophical and concludes that the badly behaved men were from a unit with disciplinary problems. More importantly, they were involved in the liberation of the whole region shortly afterwards.
We left the boxes of crockery and cutlery, and some of the spades and rakes, with Ekaterina for distribution, and headed off around the village to deliver some items directly. The paths around Mospanove are clear of mines now, but it’s important not to stray off them into the scrub and fields.
First we visited 96-year-old Sofia, who lives with her daughter, to hand over a blood pressure monitor and some Sudocream. The old lady remembers WWII and sometimes jokes with her daughter: where are the Germans? It’s hard to keep track of who’s attacking them…
This man (left) lives with his mother, who is very elderly. He apologised that he’d had a little bit to drink before we arrived, but that was to our benefit as it inspired him to give us a jar of pickles in exchange for the gardening kit and Sudocream. His house was one of the smartest in the village, and he showed us the repairs he’d done himself. He also told us about a fishing pond near the village where his friend had caught a four-kilogram catfish. So there’s a little bit of fun and feasting even in Mospanove.
As we were leaving, I was last out of the house. Emboldened by his head start on the vodka, the householder asked me if we wouldn’t stay for a glass. I had to say no, we had to go – there were several more stops and our driver was going to have to cope with the potholed road on the way back to Kharkiv.
The worst living conditions we saw were in a house where four generations of women have to live under the same roof. Previously the grandmother and great-grandmother lived here, and the mother and her three children had a house of their own. But that house was severely damaged by shelling. We gave them a gardening tools, a headlight for walking around safely in the dark, and a portable electric station.
Despite the squalor, there was a positive reason for so many living in one house: the school is reopening soon, so the children will be able to resume in-person education. For now, the electric station should ensure they can stay connected to online lessons.
People whose homes are badly damaged can apply to the Red Cross, who sometimes give grants of 25,000 hryvnia (£550/$680) for repairs to roofs and windows, which are the most typical kind of damage. The charity Caritas sometimes sends crews of builders to do more serious repairs, and families like this one, with a lot of children, can be confident of receiving help – it’s just a matter of when. Other recipients are chosen at random.
Our happiest customer was the starosta, the head of the village (pictured at the top of this post). ‘Smile!’ I said. ‘Hero of Ukraine with a spade!’ And he certainly fits the part. This man is very respected because he stayed all through the occupation, trying to help his community survive. And not only is that obviously an outstanding example of a spade, but he was particularly pleased with our work in general because he doesn’t know of any other organisations who provide tools like this. Food may be handed out, and there may be funds for repairs to buildings, but daily practical items tend to get forgotten.
Also in this house was a woman who looks after two bedridden old relatives while working as a primary school teacher, online at present. We gave her one of our tubs of Sudocream, and she told us that she needs a specific brand of hypoallergenic ointment for the elders. This brand is quite expensive and hard to find, so it goes on our list of items to supply next.
Our next visit was to a woman in late middle age who lives with her mother. The mother is developing diabetes, while the younger woman has high blood pressure. We gave her a blood pressure cuff, secateurs and a spade, as although she has mobility problems she is determined to plant potatoes in her kitchen garden and look after the trees.
A lot of people in the village need medical help, and sometimes a doctor visits, but he can’t get around everyone, so they need to find a way to visit a central point. Ekaterina is willing to drive them, and to bring medication from the nearest town when possible, and even drive people to town so they can apply for humanitarian aid, but the community needs funds to cover fuel costs for her and others to do this.
This was our saddest stop, because the woman’s husband and son were both killed in the shelling. Her husband last summer – and her son a year ago that day. To honour a tragic anniversary like this, the tradition is to prepare delicacies and remember the loved one while you eat. We were given bags of sweets, soft meat rolls and slices of a rather wondrous ‘broken-glass cake’. It consisted of ordinary sponge, but also contained large strips and chunks like jelly sweets, only bigger.
We ate the cake later in Ekaterina’s yard, and the rolls and sweets at the hotel, and did our best to remember someone we didn’t know. But then my Ukrainian friends did know him in a way, as they’ve lost people too – everyone killed in the war is both different and the same.
In February Freefilmers were able to supply the village with a large generator (below), The hope is that it will soon be used to power rebuilding work on the school and village hall. For now, it’s housed in a shed that’s used as a communal space. People can visit and charge their devices, or work there.
Where villagers are mobile, there is a lot of interaction and mutual aid. For example, one man organised water supplies for his whole street, using his generator to pump water from the well. They organise special events to clear the safe areas of debris and unwanted plant growth, and do basic repairs to shell-damaged roads and paths.
Finally we visited an old lady (left) who had fallen down at the start of winter and now can’t walk. Her neighbours are looking after her and proudly told us that she’s on the mend and can take small steps.
The biggest population in the village was that of dogs. They are all mongrels and like barking a lot, but aren’t aggressive. Except there was something about this one, Ekaterina’s own dog. He really looks sceptical about life; and particularly about me. Can anyone interpret this expression more accurately?
Of course, Mospanove was well outside the range of anything I’d experienced before, although we regularly see a parade of trashed rural housing and old people struggling through wreckage under fire in the Western media, and journalists do then sometimes interview survivors for think-pieces. I got to see a whole range of people in a short time without any artificial arrangement of material. Some are struggling with despair because of losses and poverty, yet also making very bright cakes and bags of sweets: that’s a good bittersweet loss-and-courage story package. There are also old ladies who sit very, very still, regarding intruders suspiciously and entirely disinclined to do anything that might furnish a report.
People kept their homes and themselves as clean and tidy as possible given the cramped conditions. The younger ones wear bright, durable clothes of the kind familiar in the West, and the older people have traditional headscarves and floral prints. There were both traditional decorations, such as the icons you can see behind Grandma Sofia, and the rug on the wall behind the picture of Sashko demonstrating the use of a blood pressure cuff, and bright synthetic cushions and framed modern photographs. There were also pragmatic cover-ups, such as the brick-pattern wallpaper that covered the crumbling plaster in the home shared by four generations.
There is a limit to what people can achieve, however. The houses inhabited by old people, which were often fiercely heated by traditional stoves, were often pervaded by a sharp smell of urine, and everyone’s house had a murky unlit hall/storage room just inside the door. Sometimes vital facilities such as the bath or the stove were visibly crumbling, but still somehow in use.
I stood around, cylindrical in my puffa jacket and attempting not to obtrude, though Grandma Sofia detected something unnatural about me. ‘Who’s that girl?’ she demanded (‘girl’ is the best available translation of the polite term in Russian for any woman under about 50, and there is a different word meaning ‘little girl’ for actual children). I responded in my Baby’s First Ukrainian Words that I was called Anna and was from London. This seemed to fulfil her requirements. Pickles man also looked a little wistfully at me, as if aware that this particular brand of alien being was unlikely ever to appear in his garden again, and he wanted to make more of the opportunity to interact. I would have liked to as well – but spade distribution duties called.
So that’s what we did with a just over a dozen spades. Something as seemingly trivial, that cost just 300 hryvnia (£6.50/$8) apiece, can make the difference between struggling to scrape the money together for purchasing food, or relying on neighbours, and growing your own. There’s a reason the starosta looks so chuffed.
We will consult with Ekaterina about our next round of donations, but to start with, we’ll find the hypoallergenic ointment, and more blood pressure cuffs.