How communal cleanups are helping restore homes in Ukraine. From Rubryka.

Rows of houses stretch out in all directions from the large brick church. Here, buildings with their walls battered by debris and windows blown out by blast waves are what pass for whole. They are the minority. Instead, most of the houses have totally crumbled walls, roofs that have given way, and the yards burnt almost to the ground.

This is the situation for Lukashivka – a village in Ukraine’s Chernihiv region that was under occupation for 21 days – in July 2022, three months after Russian forces withdrew.

Around the church, people pour out from several large buses. Seeing the familiar vehicles, locals start waving and smiling. While the arrivals are changing clothes and figuring out whose bags are where, a couple of local women make their way through the crowd, and one exclaims: “Where is my favorite volunteer today?”

Repair Together, a project that aims to help salvage damaged homes, grew out of a group of friends in Kyiv, who one day realized that they could no longer just watch the war, but instead had to go and clean up its consequences.

Since then, the idea has become a project where hundreds of volunteers go to the Chernihiv region on weekends to sort through the rubble that the Russian invasion has left covering over everyday life.

Remnants of war

More than 4,000 houses in Chernihiv have been destroyed during the occupation; the number of buildings left damaged is even higher. Although Russian troops have retreated from the region, they continue to shell it, sometimes firing dozens of rockets per day.

“This was a shed; my husband had a workshop. There was a summer kitchen and a room above. The house is here – burnt – on the left. This was a bathroom. Last year, we renovated the kitchen; we just had to insulate the second half of the house in the corridor,” says Iryna,* looking around her property with despair. With the arrival of the occupying forces, almost all of the family farm was turned to ruins.

Iryna was one of several villagers to lose their homes in the fighting in Lukashivka.

Russian troops entered Lukashivka on 9 March. Locals say the soldiers checked their passports, took their phones away, and forbade them to leave their properties. From the phones they confiscated, the soldiers called their families to tell them that they found themselves in a village that was not on their maps; they did not understand where to go and what to do.

“During one of the shellings, our barn caught fire,” Iryna says. “We ran out of our basement to our neighbors. It was crowded there, ten people crowded in, they suffered terribly. The next day, my husband and I decided to return to our place. When we arrive, five Russian soldiers are sitting in the basement. That’s how they lived in our house until the house burned down.”

Iryna’s house burned down on 14 March. Since then, she and her husband have been living with neighbors. There is nowhere left to go.

There are thousands of such families in the Chernihiv region alone. Compared to the Kyiv region, which was also occupied, fewer volunteers and charitable organizations reach there. Nor can people count on help from the state due to the lack of resources and the risk that any properties rebuilt with state funds, which attract media attention, will quickly become a new target for Russian missiles.

Rubble fills a damaged property.

As for Iryna, she says that she and her husband don’t want to build a new house until the war is won. But if you don’t remove the rubble promptly, before the winter, it is unlikely that you will be able to reuse at least the old foundations and the surviving walls. Damaged walls begin to crumble further during cold weather. Moisture makes them less stable. Then cracks appear. Such a house can collapse and become unrepairable. The worse the weather, the faster the remains of the structure, which no longer have stable supports, will collapse. As a result, people can get hurt.

Meanwhile, a lot of people don’t have another house or the money for it. During the summer they can live with holes in the walls. But not, of course, in the winter.

Tackling the debris

While we are talking, music is playing in the yard; volunteers are dancing, forming a long line and passing bricks along to be stacked. The intact ones are placed on the right. The ruined ones go to the left. Several people continually arrive with wheelbarrows, pick up the debris, and set off again. At least one organizer is always visible amid the activity, distributing gloves, looking for shovels, and sometimes comforting the locals.

Repair Together comes to the Chernihiv region almost every weekend. They work in two villages: Lukashivka as well as Yahidne, another town that was occupied and where most of the buildings were destroyed. Further from the border, these villages are more or less safe from the shelling by now.

Each communal work gathering involves several locations in both villages. The primary purpose is to dismantle the rubble, so most sessions are cleanups. Thanks to these efforts, the number of sites cleaned out between May and July is approaching 100.

Also, by the beginning of July the project had restored the roofs and windows of 13 houses. The project helps individuals purchase building materials and carry out repairs. Some of the volunteers are skilled in trades such as carpentry, while in some cases the owners of damaged houses know what needs to be done and give the volunteers instructions themselves. The plans are to start actually rebuilding the homes of Ukrainians that the war destroyed.

A volunteer takes part in one of Repair Together’s cleanups in Lukashivka.

We asked one of the project co-organizers, Daria Kosiakova, how it all started. When the initiative launched, she left her job as a creative leader in an IT company and now takes care of the project’s communications as part of a main team of less than ten people.

“We were sitting at home with [co-founder] Sasha Kuchynskyi. Dima Kyrpa [another co-founder] came to us and said he couldn’t work as usual and wanted to start volunteering. But we didn’t understand which organizations already had lots of people and which needed help.

“Then, Ukraine liberated the Chernihiv region, and the guys decided to go on a survey mission to see what was happening there. Then they came back with an idea. I said, ‘let’s design.’ We started making posts on Instagram, announcing ourselves and inviting people to spend the weekend at the communal work gathering. And everything turned around,” says Daria.

Since then, the process has gone like this: on Repair Together’s Instagram page, they make a call for people willing to help, create a chat for volunteers, and explain how to prepare. Then on Saturday morning, several buses pick up people from Kyiv (100 to 200 volunteers each time) and take them to villages in the Chernihiv region where the volunteers work. The organizers provide food. While volunteers can choose to return to Kyiv after one day’s work, most spend the night in tents and work throughout the weekend.

Sometimes two days are enough, sometimes not. But volunteers also have jobs and families to get back to, so the work is planned in such a way to take two days.

Dozens of volunteers now take part in each of Repair Together cleanups.

Before that, there’s also a preparatory stage. Daria clarifies: “Dmytro [another organizer] appeals to the village council. They are able to collect a list of people with a very problematic situation because they know everyone here. They know if someone is seriously ill and if there is someone who had a harrowing experience during the occupation.

“When we get to the village, we try to reach out through the local authorities to people who need help and cannot help themselves. Even in Yahidne, there are houses where people say, ‘We will do everything ourselves, just bring us the materials.’ And we bring them. We often choose to help older people whose children or other relatives cannot help for one reason or another.

“For example, we have an older woman, Nadia, who brings us dumplings and compote every time. She is so lovely! When we came to scout last time, as we do before every communal work session, we stopped by her place, and she said: ‘sleep at my place. Why do you need those tents?’ Some people don’t ask for anything, but we just want to help them. So, we also include them in the list.”

The project aims to help those who stay in their village, don’t have the financial capacity to hire workers, and have nowhere else to expect help from. There are millions of such people in Ukraine now.

Salvaging solidarity

The Church of the Ascension sits in the middle of the village, right between the objects the volunteers are cleaning this time. The walls are hemmed in with debris, machine guns, and other traces of war. Burnt-out Russian equipment stands nearby. Local children climb on it, run through the ruins, and play with the remains of Russian ammunition. There is plenty of it here; the Russians used the church as their warehouse.

After the liberation of Lukashivka, not only the Russian forces’ rations, weapons, and personal belongings were found within the church walls, but also the bodies of village residents. It is not known how many people died in Lukashivka at the hands of the invading forces. Russian soldiers didn’t touch most of the locals unless the residents left their homes. However, locals say, some of the less submissive ones were shot.

Children’s voices ring out near the house of worship. “We just need a plan for what to do with Putin!” one calls.

“Should we burn Moscow?” The six-year-old boy thinks for a while, then continues a little louder: “I’m ready! They burned down my house.”

Russian soldiers used the village church as a warehouse, which drew fire from Ukrainian forces.

The children run into the church. Inside, they wrestle with something heavy, obviously made of iron. There are piles of it around now. The Ukrainian military had to fire on the church in order to liberate Lukashivka. It was the only way to leave the Russians without fuel and provisions; they stored everything there.

Near the church is the only shop in the village still operating. The current assortment is tiny: bread, meat, and various dairy items. Nina, who works there, explains that there is no point in stocking more products: people can barely afford the essentials.

Nina’s house was also destroyed. The volunteers now fill her yard. There is also music, cheerful sing-alongs, and sad sighs when someone comes across the remains of Nina’s chickens, buried under the rubble of the house.

Yurko Didula is the head of another volunteer organization, Building Ukraine Together, which has been rebuilding houses destroyed by the war since 2014. “In general, many similar projects emerge,” he says. “There are not too many of them. There is more work than initiatives and volunteers willing to participate in reconstruction – more than the organizations that can somehow meaningfully include in the reconstruction. Our organization is trying in every possible way to strengthen such projects. Even if we talk only about the demolition of rubble in the Chernihiv region, work like that lasts about half a year. It is a critical stage, and it is important to pass through it quickly.”

Yurko says that he also went on a trip with Repair Together. The volunteers thoroughly cleaned several areas in two days. Though the work may not be the grandest, it is important not only for practical reasons, but also for morale.

“The locals who see that people are coming to them and starting to dismantle the debris, have hope they will not be left behind and that they will restore their houses. From the point of view of solidarity and hope for people, it is a vital format,” he says.

Repair Together brings volunteers from Kyiv to rural areas of the Chernihiv region.

Yurko’s own organization arranges week-long camps for 20 to 30 volunteers and, besides construction work, adds a mandatory educational program. He says that Repair Together’s more informal approach has its advantages.

“It seems to me that, to some extent, this format is even more interesting than what Building Ukraine Together usually does. It makes it possible for more people to join. There is no complex informational or cultural or educational element. That is, people come, hang out, have a freer schedule,” Yurko explains.

‘Cleanup raves’

One of the volunteers with Repair Together, Stas, is at a communal cleanup for the second time. When asked why he decided to travel from Kyiv to take part, he says: “Because I want to help people. Nothing else is needed. At first, the volume of collapse is shocking. It makes a depressing impression. But the impressions of what you do are still very positive. All these people are here because they are good. And that’s cool. It’s inspiring,” he says.

The organization usually involves between 100 and 200 people like Stas in its work sessions. Volunteers often work to music: DJs accompany them and arrange raves during the demolition of rubble, with videos of the “cleanup raves” flying around the Internet.

It is expensive to gather so many people, feed them, and provide decent enough conditions that they come another time. Thus, Repair Together has developed a transparent approach to financing.

“In the past, all the food was free for us because volunteer organizations like us provided it,” co-founder Daria explains. “Venues [in Kyiv] like Jacuzzi Cafe, Kosatka, and Volonterskyi Pryvit did it. We bought the products ourselves this time, but GastroArmy of Kyiv provided us with buses and cooks. It’s like a collaboration with us.

“We mainly pay for the buses through small contributions that we ask for from volunteers. In fact, they pay the fare. Many people chip in more, saying that they are paying for another volunteer. And as soon as we have a more considerable amount, we buy gloves, equipment, all the things people need for comfortable work.”

The work sessions also have a social aspect.

Daria says the organization’s goal is to move away from donations from Ukrainians and switch to funding and partnerships. It is a more reliable way of financing the work, and less risky than voluntary donations.

“For example, we recently had a partnership with [technology company] Lenovo. From each sale of a laptop, they transfer money to us so that we can repair houses,” she says. “We really want to go to the international level. We don’t want to take money from Ukrainians because they first have to spend it on the Ukrainian army, and we don’t want to take money from the army. Although the goal of our organization is to restore houses, obviously the highest goal is victory,” says Daria.

Repair Together has a lot of work to do. They have announced an ambitious goal: to rebuild at least 12 destroyed houses and repair 25 more by winter. To do so, the initiative is looking for partners to provide possible funding, materials, food for volunteers, skilled construction workers, and other assistance.

Yurko, whose organization already has experience in this area, says restoring any house is expensive and time-consuming. Still it is a priority task, because both Ukrainian soldiers and displaced civilians must have somewhere to return.

Repair Together’s ultimate goal is to totally rebuild houses destroyed in the war.

“In 2014, we restored a house almost from scratch. One wall remained there. My partners and I managed to do this in three months of non-stop work. That is, I say three months, provided there is money, craftspeople, and volunteers. In three months, you can not only raise the walls and put on a roof but also make interior repairs and prepare the house for habitation,” says Yurko.

So Repair Together has set an ambitious target for the months ahead. However, the organization’s main focus remains on the most urgent task: to rebuild the house, you must first tear down the rubble.

Maria Smyk is a reporter for Rubryka, which specializes in solutions journalism from Ukraine. All photos by Nick Tymchenko/Rubryka. Reprinted with permission.

*Some surnames have been withheld at the request of interviewees.