26 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.
Our first project: a hearing aid for Ivanna
On Saturday we visited one of the internally displaced families benefitting from the money donated to the fundraiser attached to this blog. Tetiana lives with her husband and two children in a single room in Lukasheve, a village outside Zaporizhzhia city. Her four-year-old daughter was recently diagnosed with hearing impairment.
‘Ivanna can hear basic sounds, and if you speak loudly she can make it out, but she can’t pick up on normal conversation,’ explained Tetiana, a small, confident young woman dressed in pink. ‘She was diagnosed a year ago, and we think her hearing was probably damaged after she had a tumour removed when she was one.’
Will it get worse? Tetiana shook her head uncertainly. ‘We don’t know. Obviously we hope not. She’ll have to be monitored long-term.’ And both Tetiana’s children have frequent health difficulties. ‘Fortunately there’s good basic treatment for free at the state hospital in Zaporizhzhia. But you have to pay if you want anything more.’
While we talked, Ivanna herself was playing in a sandpit behind us, ignoring the pointless adult chatter as kids do whether they can hear it clearly or not. We were standing in a grassy playground with the classic, if small-scale and slightly rusty, set of climbing frame, roundabout, swings, sandpit and slide. Playgrounds are a big feature of village and estate centres in post-Soviet countries, as they were one of the genuine benefits of the utopian vision.
‘This is a good place to live,’ Tetiana agreed. ‘The children can play safely, and there’s plenty to do. There’s art classes in the village hall, for example, though it’s too chilly at the moment for my daughters to attend. They catch colds easily.’
School is a more difficult matter. ‘It’s all online. Four hours of lessons a day. But at least they’re learning. And they have special gymnastics training, that they’re really into.’ I’m not sure how you can teach that kind of thing effectively by Zoom… but apparently you can, as the video Tetiana showed me on her phone, of Ivanna bending backwards, placing her hands on the floor and nearly becoming a circle before flipping over to stand, was impressive.
So they have to use a laptop? ‘No, they do it all on this.’ Tetiana held up the phone again. ‘I actually don’t want a tablet as I’m trying to limit their screen time. It’s better for them to run around outside.’
There’s plenty of room for that, as, unlike in most English villages, the play-space in Lukasheve isn’t squashed onto a village green. The houses are widely spaced, with substantial yards. A few are positively smart, though those often have tall, brightly painted fences blocking the view from the road. Other properties are humbler, or actually tumbledown.
Safety is the main attraction of Lukasheve, but another important factor is the friend who lets Tetiana’s family live in her house for free, though all four of them have to share one room. They are still paying rent on their flat in Zaporizhzhia city, and Tetiana’s husband, who works at the metallurgical plant, is on partial salary as there is so little work at the moment. ‘Of course, we hope the war will end this year,’ said Tetiana, ‘but realistically we know we’ll be living here for a long time.’
I asked if the children understand why they had to move out here, and about the war in general. Tetiana says she and her husband are as open with them as they can be. ‘We don’t gloss over the truth. They know what war is, and why we had to flee. They see the soldiers. And they hear the explosions.’ She pauses and laughs. ‘Well, Ivanna doesn’t! That’s one advantage of impaired hearing.’
After I’d finished talking with Tetiana, she discussed some practicalities with the Freefilmers and I wandered off to stare at something that was totally unremarkable to the locals but fascinating to me – a horse-drawn cart, doing a genuine job of work. The cart was filled with – well, what exactly is that in the picture? Rubbish, or is it firewood with a couple of tyres to give the conflagration an especially piquant scent?
Whatever the horse was drawing, it had an attitude. Once its owner parked it and headed into the shop, a dog bounded out of the house behind the fence and stood there barking at the horse. The horse shied back a bit, but then began to crop the grass. The dog realised it was losing the upper paw and barked louder, then gave up and ran around the end of the fence, through an open gate, and alongside the horse. But the horse just gave it a pointed look and went back to eating. The dog finally ran off, to show that it totally hadn’t been interested anyway, so there.
We gave Tetiana 17,000 hryvnia (£375/$460) to buy a special hearing aid for Ivanna. The carter came out of the shop with, amongst other things, a Mars bar, which he hopefully did not give to the horse.
Here’s the fundraiser. 100% of money donated goes to people like Tetiana and Ivanna.