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13th Apr 2024

Feature

In Novohryhorivka — everything is gone except hope

  • Natalia Sydor standing outside a temporary community centre where the International Rescue Committee is helping children (Photo: EUobserver)
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Andreii Sydor places two Russian tank shells onto a concrete slab of what is left of his two-floor house at the very end of Druzhby street.

The tanks had appeared at the tree-line some 400 metres across a dirt field, in a village where almost every house is totally destroyed. The small pastel-blue school had also been shelled.

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  • The IRC's child support programme in action (Photo: EUobserver)

His wife Natalia remembers the day well. "My house was the first to be destroyed in this village," she told EUobserver on Monday (29 January).

It was around lunchtime, the sun was out, and the family was in the yard. The tanks arrived on 14 March 2022, less than a month after Russia had launched its full-scale war against Ukraine.

The Russian march towards their village of Novohryhorivka was part of a larger desperate attempt to seize Mykolaiv, Ukraine's premier ship-building city, 20km away.

The Russians had already been pushed back from Mykolaiv only days into their invasion in late February. And on 5 March, Mykolaiv's governor, Vitaly Kim, of Korean descent, had announced a premature total defeat of the invaders.

The Russian flag warship Moskva, a late Soviet-era guided missile cruiser, had been built in Mykolaiv only to later be sunk by the Ukrainians. The Russians had also lost two top generals in their efforts to take Mykolaiv amid intense fighting and shelling that continued well into March of that year.

Air sirens

The frontline is now some 35km away from Novohryhorivka. But the sounds of war are ever-present amid constant air alerts due to Iranian-made Shahed drones. Eight had been shot down throughout the day, some targeting the region of Mykolayiv.

During a brief visit to the village, sirens were triggered multiple times. Further in the distance, a ballistic missile was fired from Kherson towards Russian territory.

Closer still, a large plume of black smoke billowed up in a field less than 200 metres from Natalia's destroyed house. A local aid agency is de-mining the field, she said. Such explosions are so common, that they are hardly noticed anymore.

"We have lived here for 30 years. This house that is destroyed, my husband and his father built," said the 49-year-old school teacher, when asked why they don't leave.

There is already a new house among the ruins and devastation, erected for a 14-year old boy brought to fame in a music video by American pop rock group, Imagine Dragons.

But Novohryhorivka, which was once home to 460 people, is clearly struggling to rebuild.

Most have left for other towns and cities, while others are doing their best to erect new roofs, with some support from the state.

Today, fewer than 150 remain, including at least 30 children under the age of 16.

Among them is 13-year-old Misha, who dreams of possibly playing football for his favourite team, Kyiv-based FC Dynamo.

"We have a special field, it's already de-mined so we can play," he said.

Along with the other children, they had gathered at what remains of a small church erected in the name of Saint Panteleimon.

Nadja Kiseliova, the 72-year-old acting mayor of Novohryhorivka, wipes away tears at the destruction.

She had spent 17 years caring for the small church. When it was shelled, part of her died with it, she said.

But next door, in a church room turned into a temporary community centre, the sounds of excited voices and laughter of children can be heard.

"When I die, I want to know that everything is okay. That the school is there, a library, and that the children can go there. I am hopeful," she said.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC), an aid agency, is trying to make that dream possible and has been present on the ground in Ukraine since February 2022.

On Monday, it had gathered Misha and the other children around a large colourful tapestry to bounce a ball as part of their child protection services.

And Novohryhorivka is among the many areas under its remit, also spanning Odeska, Dnipropetrovska, Kharkivska, Zaporizka, and Donetska Oblasts.

But the issues and problems are widespread.

"The lack of sufficient income to cover basic needs has resulted in people making high-risk decisions," noted an IRC brief. Among them are people returning to homes in areas still under temporary occupation and too close to the frontline.

The International Rescue Committee/ECHO is reimbursing travel expenses for EUobserver's trip through Ukraine.

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