Anna Bodrova and the SAVE UA MEDIA team
It’s been nine months since the frontline moved away from Ukraine’s southern Mykolayiv region - along with the attention of the media, many aid organizations, and state authorities. Then the flooding in the neighboring Kherson region after the Kakhovka dam collapse on June 6 swept dozens of shattered communities here even lower down the list of priorities.
Some 80–90% of the private houses in many villages are damaged or destroyed. In others, like Blahodatnoe, located 20 miles northwest of Kherson city, up to 100% of the homes were devastated. Yet, incredibly, people are returning to live there. "Home is where your heart is, even if there is no physical home anymore," says Oleksandr Silenko, 61, whose house is in this former settlement of less than 1,000 inhabitants.
"Home is where your heart is, even if there is no physical home anymore," says Oleksandr Silenko, 61, whose house is in this former settlement of less than 1,000 inhabitants.
The couple left when the fighting began and lived in Spain with their daughter until they came back to the village in April. Oleksandr's health immediately took a turn for the worse when he saw what was left of his house.
He and his wife Svitlana now sleep in the open air on camp beds after numerous Russian projectiles reduced much of the roof, walls and floor to rubble. A piece of debris from a missile still sits in their garden.
Unexploded mines and war debris are a big problem in the village. Tatiana Kuznetsova, 46, and Slava Kim, 60, also found that their home was almost nonexistent when they came back to Blahodatnoe in the end of May. Still, they are trying to clear the rubble, and while doing so found an unexploded mortar shell in what used to be their kitchen.
"I called the demining unit, but they say they will only be able to come over and look at it in a few days," says Kim. They never came back.
The area around Blahodatnoe is heavily mined, and a few people have already died after stepping on or driving on the devices. Mines can even be found stuck in the middle of the road in the village, where children play.
"We got used to this, we even dig them up with a crowbar sometimes’, says Slavik, 10, who is visiting his parents in the village, all smiles and proud of himself.
"Only about 20% of agricultural fields are de-mined near our village, we are craving for deminers," adds Oleg, 40, from the neighboring village of Myrne.
As instructed by the State Emergency Service (DSNS) of Ukraine, people marked the locations of possible explosive devices in recent months, and little was done about it.
Now the grass and crops are high and nothing is visible anymore, increasing the danger for the locals trying to eke out a living from agriculture before winter comes. "All our storages have been destroyed," says Oleg. "We would have to sell it for lower prices as there is nowhere to keep it."
"We know about the problem with mines, but the demining team is overwhelmed with work, understaffed, and doesn’t have enough vehicles," a source in the local branch of the DSNS said.
The entire infrastructure in villages like Blahodatnoe is destroyed as well, meaning that in most de-occupied former frontline villages there is no centralized water supply, gas supply, or electricity.
Some more fortunate villages were reconnected to the power and gas lines, but the situation with water is still critical. Most of the region’s water pipes were built in Soviet times and were made from asbestos.
This means if a miles-long pipe system is fractured in one place, the whole system needs to be replaced due to the carcinogenic threat from asbestos contamination. So the current outlook for repair or replacement is bleak.
But what is heartening are the determined attempts of small operators to tackle issues like the water shortage. The British Expeditionary Aid and Rescue (BEAR) team, consisting of two Britons who prefer to be identified only as Jonnie and Elisabeth, is one such presence in the area.
"We have installed 1,000- and 500-liter water tanks [locally] and we have a 2000-liter tank in our van," says Elisabeth. "Since April this year, we have been delivering good-quality drinking water to more than 1,000 people in ten villages."
The severity of the situation struck them when they first came to the village of Novohryhorivka, also in Mykolayiv region, and installed the water tank: "People were so thirsty that they came with their cups and were drinking water cup by cup on the spot."
The couple and others working in the area understand that this is only a short-term solution. The Britons were joined in recent weeks by Sergey Panashchuk – the founder of the charity fund Save UA Media - and Canadian volunteer Eric Fairlie, who has lived in southern Ukraine since before the outbreak of full-scale war last year.
"Mykolayiv and Kherson oblasts have suffered heavy destruction after being the locations of both extreme frontline fighting and Russian occupation," says Fairlie. "Following the Ukrainian southern counter-offensive in [autumn] 2022, large areas that were liberated desperately need support to survive and, ultimately, to rebuild their homes and lives."
After working with charities that delivered humanitarian aid across the Odesa, Mykolayiv, and Kherson regions, he realized that much humanitarian aid does not fit the requirements of individual towns and villages or is not distributed to those who really need it.
"While some organizations are operating in the area, most efforts, both in terms of needs assessment information and humanitarian aid planning and execution, are unsynchronized and therefore have less impact", he says.
Together with the media fund, he and others want to create a larger network with a keen understanding of what is most effective in the struggle to rebuild life here.
The independent operators are now conducting questionnaire-based surveys in de-occupied villages, getting to know people and learning about the hazardous local territory.
"From what we see, they don’t receive sufficient humanitarian help, some of them are on the verge of humanitarian crises, and some, like Blahodatnoe, face humanitarian crises on their own," says Panashchuk.
Government institutes are understaffed and have too many problems to deal with each village on an individual basis. There is some help from NGOs, but it is uncoordinated and insufficient."
As a result, people and whole villages are forgotten, partly because no journalist steps foot in many of them, he adds. "It is dangerous; a large part of the area is not demined yet, but by traveling the roads and walking the paths the locals do, we can experience the fear that they feel, and it helps us to understand them better."
What they are feeling, however, is increasing anger among the civilian population about being left to face the unexploded Russian ordnance alone.