2 April 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.
Arkhanhelske 1: Rebuilding a Deoccupied Village
Arkhanhelske (not to be confused with Arkhangelsk in north-west Russia) was the second deoccupied settlement we visited. It sits on the Inhulets River, north of the Dnipro, and in size, it’s between a village and a town as it has an agricultural college, some five-storey blocks of flats, and a factory that produces limestone for the nearest industrial centre, Kryvyi Rih. It was and is more prosperous than Mospalove, but it was likewise subject to Russian occupation from early March until the liberation of the whole north Kherson area in autumn, changing hands several times. Across the river from it sits Zarichne, which was a kind of grey zone.
Early in the war, the bridge that connected Arkhanhelske and other small settlements in North Kherson oblast was blown up, and in any case it sits closer to Kryvyi Rih than Kherson city, so that’s where supplies now come from.
Many of the houses were damaged or destroyed, especially in the central part closest to the river, and a huge amount of reconstruction work has to be undertaken. As you drive towards and through the village you can see signs of the fight and hundreds of buildings with bright blue roofs. This is a kind of temporary roofing material that keeps the rain out until the house can be repaired properly.
I took a video as we went along. The potholes are more like cauldron holes, but it seems my iPhone has a good image stabiliser.
Earlier in the year, Freefilmers had brought a modest generator, sufficient for the locals to use to pump water from the well and supply the houses located at a distance, up on the hill. They made friends with the community and have been in touch since then, sending several parcels with things like medicine, clothes and tools.
This time around, we brought a more powerful generator, gardening and building tools for reconstruction (purchased by donations to Freefilmers), three bikes (thanks to Bikes for Ukraine and two tablets for the kids, that I had collected as donations in London.
We made two stops, and I’ll start by writing up the second one, because it gives a picture of the situation in the village.
As in a lot of places in Ukraine, the Arkhanhelske local authorities turned out to be largely corrupt or incompetent. Activists stepped into the gap, and one of them was Vasyl, who used to be one of the wealthiest men in the village, owning a furniture store, a grocer’s, and a pigeon farm. The farm was large, and Vasyl’s own enthusiasm is so considerable, that it was famous abroad among pigeon fanciers, including in Russia. He also spoke colourful Surzhyk, so I was again reliant on Sashko for summary interpretation.
Vasyl’s beautifully constructed house was used as a base by the Ruzzians. They detained him several times and tortured him for his pro-Ukrainian position. One of the collaborators in the village denounced him. Eventually he had to flee, swimming across the Inhulets River in late March, in freezing temperatures. The Ruzzians set fire to his farm in revenge and, in an example of pointless cruelty, shot his beloved pigeons and threw them down the well.
Here’s what remains of his house, with a close-up of some bullet scars. Some of the house can be rebuilt, but Vasyl’s shift from business owner to community leader – which appears to be entirely genuine, judging by the projects in progress, and people around him – means that he isn’t prioritising this. Luckily he still has his car, because it was in Kryvyi Rih for repairs when the invasion happened.
And this is how his yard looks now:
A few dozen pigeons evaded the orcs, though they are now afraid of people, and other pigeon-fanciers sent some new birds to Vasyl after the deoccupation. So he now has a couple of occupied pens. The large, colourful bird on the left looks oddly like Freefilmers’ friend Maria.
Vasyl talked a lot about the situation in the village now. From his front yard we could see blocks of flats that were used as sniper positions:
When the invaders retreated, they left behind them difficulties of many kinds. Some villagers had collaborated, in ways from cooking voluntarily for soldiers to denouncing people like Vasyl, who were then arrested and tortured. Afterwards, two were arrested while others fled to Crimea or even to EU countries via Russia. The community decided to give their houses to locals who had lost everything, and to two families arriving from Donetsk oblast, where violent battles continue.
Self-organised groups of villagers have also been visiting houses to check for anything that has been stolen or looted from neighbours. When they do find something, it’s a relief for the owners, but there’s also disappointment that this has been happening. How the social wounds of the invasion can be healed may in the long term be as big a question as the reconstruction is now.
On a physical level, the school, hospital, shops and many houses are badly damaged, so there’s not much economic activity, but some of the men are working as builders in nearby villages which have received government or grant money. We could see cultivated or prepared fields beside the roads on our drive into the village. And Vasyl told us that the limestone factory is working again, though only at 20% of capacity. The Palace of Culture escaped severe shelling, and is now used as a distribution centre for humanitarian aid. The problem is that the village is quite big, so those living on the outskirts have difficulty accessing the aid.
Vasyl is on the left, talking to Sashko:
Vasyl led us to a house on the outskirts which is currently being rebuilt by locals who have united to help, and are teaching each other on the job as well, as few of them were builders previously. They can then go hopefully on to get jobs in neighbouring villages which haven’t been affected as much as Arkhanhelske but still need work. For now, 2,000 hryniva ($54/£45) government assistance is available monthly to people who have lost their homes which goes a lot further in Ukraine than in Britain, but still not very far.
This is their fourth project, and elderly women living alone are being prioritised. This house belongs to an old woman whose son who left to join the army. The team were able to get building materials from humanitarian organisations, but once those beams are up they will have to finished the roof temporarily with the ubiquitous thick blue polythene.We would like to consider helping people with more permanent roofing in the future.
For now, with money from this fundraiser, we hope to help the village with the tools and materials too small to be covered by humanitarian aid: a large supply of nails, an electric saw or perhaps two, and a drill powerful enough to penetrate breeze blocks.