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‘We survived another night’: In a crumbling suburb, solace in a small community

SALTIVKA, Ukraine — On a recent Saturday morning, Yevhenia Botiyeva weeded the flowerbed outside her apartment building, a routine she’s picked up since returning home in late spring.

She worked methodically, seemingly oblivious to the apocalyptic landscape of burned buildings, shattered windows and the occasional sound of artillery that surrounded her.

Her husband, Nikolai Kucher, who had survived Covid-19 and a heart attack and was now suffering from cancer, would soon come out of their first floor apartment to make a wood fire to heat water in a kettle blackened for coffee. But for now, it was just Ms. Botiyeva, 82, tending to the overgrown lilies.

It was an oddly comfortable scene for a warzone – a testament to how even the menacing and surreal begin to feel normal given enough time.

“Tea or coffee?” Ms Botiyeva offered, pouring hot water from a plastic thermos as she sat at a folding kitchen table placed outside the building. A vase filled with orange lilies and dark yellow heliopsis paid homage to an image of the Virgin Mary affixed to a nearby wall at the entrance to the building.

“Mother of God protect us,” she said serenely, urging her guests to try their “war candy” – salty crackers topped with creamy honey spooned from a jar.

Conceived in the 1960s as a dormitory community on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, Saltivka was once a neighborhood of half a million people. Now, in largely abandoned buildings that once housed thousands of people, there are now only dozens.

Ms Botiyeva, a retired ophthalmologist and her husband, a retired engineer, said they would rather endure the hardships than join the millions of displaced Ukrainians who rely on the kindness of strangers while waiting for the end of the war. In the process, they created a community with the others who stayed.

Every visible building has burned walls and broken windows. Stores still standing were condemned. Nearby, an apron and other clothes are hanging from the high branches of a tree, swept away by an explosion, according to the inhabitants.

Playgrounds are deserted, families with children have fled.

There is no running water, no heating and no security against continued Russian attacks.

But few residents are leaving the apartment complex because most of the suburb is so badly damaged and there are no buses running – and the nearest grocery store is now an hour’s walk away.

A message scribbled on an abandoned van blocking part of the road leading to the apartment complexes warns that there is no civilian access to the area. This security ban, imposed at the height of the bombardment, has now been lifted. For the most part, however, only security forces and volunteers delivering food come here.

“We survived another night,” neighbor Halyna Zakusova said as she hugged Ms Botiyeva after walking out of the sixth-floor apartment she shares with her son.

Ms Zakusova, 65, sat at the outside table and petted a black and white cat, Musa, who had jumped into her arms.

The two women, casual acquaintances before the war, became friends. Ms Zakusova, a retired city worker, moved into the building 31 years ago during the chaotic collapse of the Soviet Union.

Because their apartment building – number 25 – is on the edge of the complex, police and volunteers drop off food donations nearby and residents distribute them to neighboring buildings.

“We take what we need and give the rest to other people. When we don’t have something, we can go to them,” Ms Botiyeva said. “Life is like a boomerang: how you want to be treated, you have to treat others, even people you don’t know.”

The two women meet every day for coffee, Ms Botiyeva said, and when they do something nice, they share it. A few days ago, Ms. Botiyeva made cherry vareniki: dumplings filled with sour cherries picked from a nearby tree, cooked on a griddle.

Outside the building next door, another woman, Larysa, sat at a dented wooden table, pitting cherries to add sugar and freezing them for the winter. “They have vitamin C,” Larysa said. Suspicious of foreign visitors, she did not want to give her last name.

“Some of our neighbors went abroad, some went to western Ukraine and some went to other regions,” said Lyudmyla, 67, a retired accountant sitting next to she. “Those who had no money stayed here.”

Lyudmyla showed off the fruit trees she planted when she first moved into the building in 1991. She also declined to give her last name for privacy reasons, but handed out handful after handful of cherries sour.

Near the cherry trees there are apricot, walnut and apple trees.

There are also flowers “for the soul”, said Mr Kucher, Ms Botiyeva’s husband.

In addition to packaged food, police are dropping off dog and cat food donations for abandoned animals. Outside Building 25, minutes after a stray tabby finished eating from a bowl of dried food, two pigeons came forward to finish the rest.

Every other day, Ms Zakusova’s son, Oleksandr Ihnatenko, 37, drags himself to the edge of the compound with a bucket of grain to feed dozens of racing pigeons in a two-story dovecote for an absent neighbour.

Ukrainian artillery targeting Russian forces echoes in the background. After Russia failed to capture Kharkiv in the February invasion, Ukrainian forces pushed them back – in some places to the Russian border. But Ukraine’s second-largest city is of such strategic importance that Russia should eventually launch another all-out assault on it.

After the terror of the first days huddled in the basement, the remaining residents have become experts at recognizing spooky noises, Ms Botiyeva said.

“At first you’re scared, you’re confused, you can’t accept the situation,” she said. “Now we understand what goes out, what goes in. We are not afraid of all sounds. Now we have experience. But it is better not to have this experience.

Ms Botiyeva and her husband left the apartment for a few months after the war started, not because they were afraid but because they were cold, she said. They stayed with friends and when spring came, they came back.

Mr. Kucher said they exhausted their welcome. His wife gave a more ethereal reason for returning.

“A home should feel that it is loved, that it is not abandoned, that it is not left behind,” Ms Botiyeva said, adding, “So that she can welcome us later and that we can live here in peace”.

Mrs. Zakusova and her son stayed all winter despite the sub-zero temperatures. She said they would pour boiling water into hot water bottles and bury themselves under piles of blankets to keep warm.

As the summer wears on and with what could be a bigger Russian offensive looming, peace seems elusive.

“We thought we would be a generation that wouldn’t experience war,” Ms Zakusova said. Her mother, 88, survived World War II but is now trapped in a village in the Russian-occupied Kherson region.

“We can’t reach her by phone, we can’t go there,” she said. “We have no idea what is going on. Does she have food? Does she have any medication?

Ms Zakusova said that if the war was still raging when winter came, she planned to go find her mother and stay with her. His son would stay.

“He will survive, but not my mother,” she said.

“Everything will be fine,” she declared, not only with conviction but also with a remarkable serenity considering all the difficulties she had to face and which were probably still to come. “We’ll be fine.”

nytimes Eur

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