Fragments from a War Diary, Part #132
The other evening I had the privilege to meet a young person who had established one of a number of NGO’s in Ukraine with the mission of rebuilding homes destroyed in the Russian occupation of northern Ukraine early in the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, when the Russian Armed Forces were planning a lighting capture of the country’s capital Kyiv. On the very first day of the war, the Russian Armed Forces entered Kyiv, Chernyhiv, Zhytomyr and Sumy Oblasts in the northern part of Ukraine with a view to an assault upon Kyiv, rolling the world’s longest ever column of armour towards Kyiv, a city of many millions of people. These images shocked the world, as the Russian Armed Forces progressed towards a city of almost three million people and the prospect of an extended and bloody street-to-street battle appeared likely. Horrifyingly, it appeared that the Russian government was preparing to recreate the Soviet Union. Thousands of pre-printed Soviet passports were found after the end of the invasion of northern Ukraine, which in the end lasted only until early April due to the stiff and heroic Ukrainian resistance.
The Russian Armed Forces realised that notwithstanding their huge column of armour, they were in fact risking virtually the entirety of their armed forces capacity in an assault upon Kyiv that was not in any sense going to be a lightning attack but would become protracted. The Russian Armed Forces found themselves bogged down in specific battles in towns outside Kyiv, including Irpin, Bucha and Hostomel, amongst many others, and they withdrew. However the territories they withdrew from, they laid to waste to in acts of thinly veiled vengeance. There were some shocking scenes of the Russian Armed Forces committing war crimes, shooting civilians at random in the street; they also took away nuclear and radioactive material from the site of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. This extremely dangerous zone of radiation seemed to be used as a recreation site by the Russian Armed Forces occupying it, entering the zone of extreme radioactive danger without adequate protection equipment. The world was suddenly exposed to the reality that the Russian Armed Forces were a monumental, ill-disciplined and malign occupying force with an insidious if half-baked plan for the recreation of the Soviet Union and with scant regard for the welfare of the areas of Ukraine they were occupying.
Map of Ukrainian territory currently and formerly occupied by pro-Russian forces during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The regions in light blue represent territories from where the Russian Armed Forces have retreated, including to the north and east of Kyiv.
When the Russian Armed Forces finally withdrew from the northern region of Ukraine they had briefly occupied with a view to advancing on Kyiv, they left in their wake mayhem and destruction. Hundreds of thousands of mines had been left by the departing Russians all across the region, and although I understand that the United States Government has allocated tens of millions of US dollars to the job of mine clearance in the area the task has barely begun - in large part due to lack of coordination and lack of expertise. All of the civilian populations of these regions who could do had fled; many of the buildings were damaged, including tens of thousands, at the least, of civilian homes. Infrastructure had been disrupted and the government was no longer able to provide basic services because government offices had been occupied and marauded. In such circumstances it is hard to persuade internally displaced people to return to their former homes because there is such chaos and destruction. The NGO member I met had been working on projects to restore infrastructure and rebuild homes, and I am in contact with a number of NGO’s undertaking similar sorts of work in the north of the country.
These enthusiastic volunteers have had been under-noticed and their work is essential. In fact it should not have been performed by volunteers at all. Rebuilding homes is a matter for professional house-builders and construction experts. Instead these young volunteers, many of whom had no construction experience of any kind, were undertaking this work with micro-grants issued either from international NGO funding organisations or even from budgets within the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), a much underrated branch of the United Nations bureaucracy that works with small organisations, NGO’s and civil society to pursue development initiatives overlooked by others. Nevertheless these volunteers, I was told, had to learn all their skills by researching on the internet. They had no formal training. Everything from buying the right kinds of bricks, to rubble clearance, to mixing cement, installing electrical wiring, connecting the electricity wires to the mains, creating electrical outlets for lights and devices, connecting new buildings to the water mains, installation of thermal cladding: all of these tasks were learned by hand and there was nobody to train them.
In the end the NGO, despite all the volunteers’ good intentions and the support of UNDP, rebuilt only a few dozen homes. This is a wonderful outcome for the twenty or thirty internally displaced people who are able to return to their homes in consequence; but it is barely the tip of the iceberg the size of which is truly unknown. There are, even by conservative estimated, tens of thousands of homes in the region that have been destroyed, and probably a similar number again in the regions to the north and east of the city of Kharkiv in the east that are in need of reconstruction after a similarly abortive attempt to seize Kharkiv by the Russian Armed Forces in the early weeks of the war. But in truth we have no idea of the quantity of the destruction. Nobody has done the counting. The statistics and figures are simply not available to understand how much there is to be done to rebuild these areas formerly under Russian occupation, and therefore we cannot possibly plan for the massive reconstruction project necessary if we are to stand any hope of persuading internally displaced people to return to these regions and therefore to reintroduce a sense of normality into Ukrainian society.
This surely should be an international community priority. If we want Ukraine to enter to the Euro-Atlantic community of nations as a full and responsible member, then we need to solve the problem of internally displaced peoples roaming around the country and leaving the society so fragmented and chaotic. And we can only do this if we give these poor, benighted people homes to go back to. Reconstruction of civilians’ homes is often overlooked both during and in the aftermath of war, but it is enormously important to reinstate a sense of normality. Substantial proportions of destroyed housing have not been reconstructed in Bosnia and Herzegovina, almost 30 years after the end of the war in that country, and you can still see blown out buildings in almost every corner of post-war Bosnia. This leaves a permanent sense of moral damage scarred upon the eyes of the people who look at it every day, and keeps them in a wartime mode.
Yet reconstruction of people’s homes is so easy for the international community. There are international housebuilding companies who are specialists in such things. All they need is budgets and funding and they can get to work. It ought not to lie in the hands of volunteers having to learn how to wire in houses using YouTube videos and working a dozen houses at a time. This is - and I mean the volunteers who did this painstaking work every respect and admiration - an irrational use of resources. Reconstruction of destroyed homes benefits from economies of scale and professional international companies to undertake the work with modern excavation and construction equipment. We should be asking ourselves why this has not taken place so far, and what the structural failings are both within the international community and amongst domestic Ukrainian institutions that mean that civilians’ homes are not being promptly rebuilt.