Hardship remains for Ukrainian town emerging from occupation

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Margaryta Tkachenko, 29 years old, feeds her 9-month-old daughter Sophia in the recently retaken town of Izium, Ukraine, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

IZIUM – Rainwater is for showers and dishes. Scavenged wood is for the cooking fires. But almost nothing keeps out the autumn chill in homes without windows.

Russian forces controlled Izium for six months before being forced to retreat two weeks ago in a Ukrainian counteroffensive. On one of the last days of the battle, a grad rocket exploded in Margaryta Tkachenko’s yard. Its carcass is there still, something of a novelty for her children and a reminder of the terrible six months the family has endured.

The house was damaged beyond recognition months ago.

“I remember planes flying, how mines whistled, cassette (rockets) exploded,” said her son Mykyta, the oldest of three.

“We came out of the basement and the house was gone,” Tkachenko said. She kept the children in the basement and did her best to clean up the damage above.

“The children had not washed for many days,” she said. “We hadn’t eaten for several days. The little one ate a spoonful of honey and the boy ate a spoonful of rice. I didn’t eat anything for two days.”

Her roof is a charred shell, and the upstairs windows that overlook the Sievierodonetsk River are open to the weather. She and her three children — ages 9 months, 7 and 10 — now live in a darkened downstairs corner, sleeping together on a mattress that takes up the entire bedroom and fumbling around for what they need once the sun goes down.

The town has had no gas, electricity, running water or internet since March. No one has been able to predict when that might change, but regional officials have urged residents who left in the early days of the war not to return. Too difficult and — with countless mines strewn about — too dangerous.

But Tkachenko was among the thousands who waited out the Russians.

As dusk settled in on Sunday, she hoisted the baby on her hip, told her daughter to fetch drinking water and with her unoccupied hand crumped paper, carefully piled kindling, lit the fire and placed the kettle on the grate. The smell of wood smoke filled the air. Her older daughter slowly transformed a slender stick into embers, taking the point out every few seconds to watch it burn in the growing darkness.

The warmed water went into a bottle with some formula, then it was time to milk the goat.

The little vegetable garden has a handful of cherry tomatoes on the vine, but mostly the family relies upon humanitarian aid to get by. At night, once the fire died down, her 10-year-old deftly pulled out a finger length of cotton stuffing, twisted it and poured sunflower oil over it to soak on a plate. With a few wicks already in place from other nights, the makeshift oil lamp was almost bright enough to read by.

Tkachenko has no idea when her two older children can resume studies. Many of Izium's schools were used as bases by the Russians and all have some kind of damage. At least three were completely destroyed by Ukrainian missiles as they tried to seize back the town.

“I can’t predict what will happen next. Winter is the most frightening. We have no wood. How will we heat?” Tkachenko asked. She had no answers.

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