In the morning in early May 2014, armed people in military uniforms seized a cafe at the crossroads, where the Mariupol and Kharkiv highways converge near Sloviansk town in the Donetsk oblast.
The next day, resident of the house next to the cafe, Maryna Korneva watched as these uninvited guests barricaded themselves and dig trenches at crossroads, and then placed and masked guns there.
In a few days the cafe, which turned into a militant base, together with Maryna’s house and her closest neighbors, became a target for the Ukrainian military.
A few days later, Korneva and her family moved to their relatives in another district of Sloviansk.
A week later, they left for Kyiv taking only summer clothes.
Only in July, Maryna learned that there was nothing left of her house, when a few days after the liberation of Sloviansk and their village Semenivka - one of the hottest spots in the city - the local residents were finally let to return. On the deserted yard there was only a battered one-room house where Maryna's grandmother lived.
Looters in a matter of days "cleared" the yard not only from metal, but also from the brick.
There was nowhere to return for Korneva, like for many other inhabitants of Sloviansk.
All that was left of the estate of Maryna Korneva. Nearby is her neighbor's house, rebuilt by volunteers and the Czech humanitarian organization People in Need
In the first half of 2014, there was a cafe
Three years after those events, Semenivka still licks the wounds. Many yards, especially on the outskirts of the village, continue to frighten passers-by with ruins, burnt-out walls, patched roofs and fences ruined by mine splinters.
The restored Sloviansk could have become a glossy picture on a propaganda leaflet for residents of the occupied territory - about life in the liberated territory. Could have...
"There have been many of you here! You earn money, but for us nothing changes!" - a woman tells the journalist in Semenivka and bids farewell to her neighbor to avoid further questions.
Kyiv: How to give money which will not be received
"Sloviansk was the first victim of this war, and fortunately it became the first liberated town. When I became acting mayor, I told the residents: "This is our kind of happiness", - recalls Oleh Zontov, who had been on the post of acting mayor for a year. "And I told the Prime Minister deputy Hennadiy Zubko that Sloviansk should become a "brand" picture of the restoration of life in the liberated territory, so that the people who stayed in the occupied territory saw that Ukraine does not abandon its citizens, that it supports them".
According to Zontov, 224 out of 600 apartment buildings suffered because of hostilities, 40 of them were seriously damaged. About a quarter of the private sector was damaged, 134 houses were completely destroyed.
By the autumn of 2014, the town authorities managed to somehow restore the communal infrastructure and isolate the destroyed entrances of high-rise buildings to maintain heat, water and electricity supply. This was done with the help of humanitarian aid from other regions of Ukraine and the meager means of the city budget and international humanitarian organizations.
"A promised subvention of $11.7 million never came to the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts", - the former mayor of Sloviansk said. "And we had to survive at the expense of the local budget, which was half empty in 2014. We activated all city services, signed contracts for deferred payment. The mechanism for allocating a subvention to the town began to work only in May 2015. On April 29, a special resolution was adopted by the Cabinet on the implementation of these subvention money, and $5.8 million were allocated to the Donetsk oblast. We actually got only $650 thousand, but this was also a show, because a special schedule was approved for such subventions. For example, they began to send funds in May, and most of the money came in November and December. I personally visited the Minister of Finance Natalia Yaresko, saying that this is nonsense. We cannot hold a tender until there is no money, at least for a 30 percent beforehand payment to the contractor".
"While I was in charge of the town, we did not receive this subvention until November 2015", - Zontov sums up. "That is, all that we managed to do was done at the expense of the local budget. In connection with the decentralization process, from January 1, 2015 we began to leave excise duties in the local budget: additional $1.1-1.4 million for the restoration of infrastructure and apartment buildings. But we had no right to finance private housing from the local budget".
Dozens of damaged or completely destroyed houses were restored or replaced with the help of international humanitarian organizations ADRA, Luxembourg Red Cross, Caritas, People in Need, young volunteers from other regions, as well as pastors and parishioners of the local Protestant church.
On one of the streets of "lower" Semenivka
Charity funds could not help everyone, therefore they established their criteria for selecting the most needy.
The majority of those whose housing was still subject to repair received building materials.
But only the most needy, lonely old people, families with many children, disabled people and single mothers could count on new houses in the place of the destroyed.
Families of average prosperity remained with those few suitcases that they took with them at the end of May-June 2014, thinking that they were leaving home "for a week or two".
In 2014, they received $200 charitable aid from Caritas. In 2015, $670 were allocated by the city council of Sloviansk. That was all.
Residents, who could not confirm the ownership of the destroyed housing, remained with nothing.
Ruins of a private house on the same street
A brief story of restoration
In 2014, Ukrainian media had an abundance of solemn reports and stories about the restoration of Sloviansk by self-organized volunteers from the west of Ukraine and local Protestant churches. Then the topic outlived itself and there was an illusion that the town was restored and pacified. But the real peace did not come to Sloviansk: it is still full of ruins, which have remained there, it seems, for centuries.
Protestant Chaplain Hennadiy Lysenko recalls that the volunteers had to collect the resources for restoring the town: "People in Need, for example, had wood, plywood, roofing material and slate, and we used it. We tried to repair as many damaged houses as possible. Until PIN appeared in Sloviansk, we had a volunteer movement in Western Ukraine, so they brought us seven trucks of slate. People united into brigades, covered the roofs of those who could not do that by themselves, and we gave them materials for that".
Only the foundation and three beaten walls remained from the miniature house of Mikhail, the neighbor of Maryna Korneva. He was able to buy used brick and sand to rebuild the walls, but he did not have the means to hire workers. Mikhail asked for help from volunteers of the public initiative "Let’s build Ukraine together", led by Andriy Levitsky from Lviv. The roof was later made by builders from the Czech organization People in Need. Mikhail is sure that thanks to Andriy and the volunteers, he now has a place to live in. However, the house is almost empty inside.
The restored house. Dark bricks are the remains of the old house after July 2014
The harvest of 2014, which Mikhail still gathers in his backyard. The soil in Semenivka is still full of debris
Yevhen Skrypnyk was one of the volunteers who joined "Let’s build Ukraine together" initiative in Sloviansk. He says that, like other organizations, they could not help everyone who needed help or asked for it. "We did not have a huge amount of money, so we could do only minor repairs", - he recalls. "Sometimes Caritas addressed us. They allocated money to the displaced residents for new pipes, a bathroom boiler, but they did not have people who would install them. We had people. Every charity funds knew that it is possible to address us".
In 2015-2016, Ukrainian Red Cross Society with the support of Luxembourg Red Cross built 30 and rebuilt 23 more houses destroyed by the war in Sloviansk and nearby settlements.
"Most of all, we helped senior citizens, families with many children and single mothers — those people who are not able to rebuild something by themselves, — Olha Vysotska, coordinator of Luxembourg Red Cross projects, tells. — We tried to help the disadvantaged. There were a lot of refusals".
Nurse from the kindergarten Natalia is one of those Semenivka residents, to whom the Red Cross built a new house in the place of the former ruined. The house of Natalia was destroyed by missile exactly the day of liberation of Sloviansk, on July 5. A year and a half, she lived with her husband in a tiny summer kitchen.
The mother of many children, Hulia from Semenivka, recalls that she was told at the city council, where she had asked for assistance, that she could reckon only on herself. "At first, it was a pity that our house was destroyed, then it became all the same, to be honest. The main thing is children to be alive", — Hulia says.
New house for this family was also built by Ukrainian Red Cross Society with the support of Luxembourg Red Cross. But the old one had three rooms and a kitchen, and the new one — one small room: the Red Cross has a standard project, one for both single old people and a large family.
One of the houses, built by the Red Cross
That is why a resident of Semenivka Yuriy, whose family of four people, like Maryna Korneva, reject the opportunity to receive a new house from the Red Cross. The walls of Yuriy's house were preserved, albeit they were badly-burnt, and these are the walls that his father built, he says, so he would not want to destroy them for a new home. Caritas and People in Need helped Yuriy with building materials at the amount of just about two thousand dollars, and this is not the amount that can restore the ruin, so the work is progressing slowly.
In the yard of Yuriy. The house was completely burnt out inside
Every home and every family here has its own story. A local resident Olena says that her family did not intentionally look for help, but Caritas installed the windows for them. They somehow laid the damaged roof by themselves, because the new one is not cheap, and there is no money for it yet. According to the standards of Semenivka, one can say that Olena's house did not suffer, and the property was preserved thanks to the neighbors who, during the whole period of hostilities, remained almost the only residents of the whole street, protecting the temporarily left houses from plunder. The neighbor died in one of the last days of the battle for Sloviansk, when a shell exploded in his yard, catching him on the porch.
Natalia from the neighboring street did not leave her house in Semenivka too. "At first, we were sitting in the neighbors' cellar. They had two men — it was not so scary", — she laughs. Her house was damaged by the fragments of three shells at once: one hit her vegetable garden, two — the neighbors. The family of Natalia installed new windows and doors itself in the summer of 2014: they applied for help, but they decided not to wait long for it. Natalia also says that the most massive shelling of the village was on July 5 — the day when Igor Girkin's gang was already leaving Sloviansk. Until then, the blows of Ukrainian military were mainly on the territory of "lower" Semenivka at the checkpoints and the hospital.
Almost all the fences in Semenivka are such
Ruins of the regional psychiatric hospital, from which "upper" Semenivka begins, are the largest and the darkest monument to this war. The buildings of this medical institution were occupied by militants in the spring and the early summer of 2014, so that they mercilessly fired at them, as well as at adjoining residential buildings.
Destroyed buildings of the regional psychiatric hospital in Semenivka. The abandoned territory is gradually captured by bushes and young trees
Now the building of psychiatric hospital for patients with tuberculosis for 40 people works on this territory. It was repaired by the hospital staff and private donors, and Ukrainian Red Cross with the support of Luxembourg Red Cross, as well as the money of German GIZ, put it in order. The project was the most necessary, because the patients of this department had no other shelter, they lived in the damaged building without leaving it. Now the Red Cross restores the children's building for 30 stationary places at the expense of the same donor funds.
Semenivka contrasts. In the foreground — restored building for mentally ill patients with tuberculosis
Building of the children's department of psychiatric hospital, which is being restored
And this is what its stationary patients will see from the windows of their rooms and the playground
Children's playground is also being restored by Luxembourg Red Cross
The final completion of this project depends, however, not on international humanitarian organizations, but on the Donetsk Regional State Administration. Under the agreement with the Red Cross, it had to run a mini-boiler room for the children's building of hospital. The administration was supposed to fulfill its part of the obligations until February 2017, but today the place for the boiler room is still a waste land.
Place where a mini-boiler room should be located for seven months. Elevation facing yard of the future children's department
The state of the hospital territory also depends on the regional administration. Ruins that carry a potential danger and do not create a positive attitude, especially for people with a broken psyche, should be disassembled, but no one even talk about it today. Builders who work in this area have already found unexploded shells several times, the last one — in early July, right on the playground near the restored department. And this is after the mine clearance team from the Ministry of Emergency Situations worked here.
It will take a long time to wait
"I know that there are families who have not received anything, it is true, — Hennadiy Lysenko says. —People have remained on their own".
OstroV wrote earlier about the house and the garden center of Anastasia and Illia Lazariev. In the beginning of May 2014, militants expelled them from a newly built two-story house off the road to make their own mini-base out of it.
When the young family returned to Sloviansk, their house was almost completely destroyed. Illia and pregnant Nastia had to protect it from the marauders. The Lazarievs agreed for building them any small house in the place of the ruined one, because since 2014, they have been living with a newborn daughter in rented apartments, but all their requests were rejected, as the humanitarian organizations considered the house near the garden center as "business". Volunteers whose main building material was slate were powerless in this and similar situations, Hennadiy Lysenko and Yevhen Skrypnyk note.
What Illia and Nastia do not talk about any more, but what other OstroV's interlocutors are well aware of, is the rapid continuation of this story when on the ruined house of the young family that has already become not even a local, but a national place of interest, a banner with the text "Dear President and Prime Minister of Ukraine!!! Are you not ashamed of your empty promises to restore the housing?" appeared. Employees of the Security Service of Ukraine visited Illia and Nastia and browbeaten into removing this banner.
Lazarievs’ house with a famous banner
The Lazarievs were still trying to get compensation for the destroyed house in court, but their lawsuit was put in some sort of endless circuit in the courts, taking a lot of money from the family, so they eventually stopped the process.
But Maryna Korneva was more fortunate. In Kyiv, she, like a number of other victims from other cities, was able to obtain free legal assistance from Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union. However, her process also lasts from 2014 and the claim is still under consideration in the court of the first instance. Yuliia Naumenko, the lawyer of UHHRU, already has several court victories of this kind, but the defendants from state bodies dispute all positive court decisions, so the final word will be for the European Court of Human Rights, and this is a question for more than one year.
In "lower" Semenivka
Meanwhile, a new story is already developing in Semenivka — just a plot from Dead Souls. About six months ago, some people began to ring up the owners of houses destroyed there, offering to buy out "a site with ruins". Maryna and her neighbor, who received such calls, refused the offer without inquiring the details. Who and why needed this land and what remained on it from the houses of its owners, remains a mystery.
Yulia Abibok, OstroV
The project is carried out with financial support from the Government of Canada via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Canada