Struggle to rebuild Ukraine and unyielding spirit in aftermath of Russian aggression

Ongoing construction of Romanivsky bridge. [Courtesy]

Taras Shevchenko still stands in Bucha as he did in the whole of Ukraine, over 150 years ago.

The eminent figure of Ukraine gazes upon the now globally renowned satellite town adjacent to the larger capital, which gained infamy in April 2022 for its pivotal role in the Battle for Kyiv during the full-scale Russian invasion.

During the Russian attempt to seize Kyiv, the toppling of the statue of a man who had resisted Russian oppression dating back to the 19th century was integral to their military strategy, as stated by Ukrainian officials.

As a writer, I had the privilege of standing at the statue of this indomitable man, who even in death remains undefeated, impervious to the might of modern Russian military power, given that he predates the nuclear era.

The Russian shelling from last year only managed to create a hole in Shevchenko’s head, which now tilts slightly. The shells also inflicted cracks on the marble structure in the lower portions of the statue.

Social and national oppression

As we delve into the narrative of Ukraine and its complex relationship with Russia, currently marked by disdain in Ukrainian society—an animosity permeating from the highest echelons of leadership to the common citizenry, fuelled by what is termed as colonialist tendencies—we discover that Shevchenko holds a position in the hearts of all Ukrainians akin to the reverence Kenyans have for the fathers of Independent Kenya.

Remarkably, Shevchenko did not brandish a gun; rather, he wielded a pen, employing it through poetry, and a paintbrush that graced award-winning canvases in his era, solidifying his status as one of Ukraine’s eminent painters and poets.

Among the cherished poems by Ukrainians, both within and outside the country, “Dream,” composed in 1844, bears the most enduring message. It eloquently delineates the social and national oppression faced by Ukrainians under the Russian upper classes during the era of serfdom.

Ukrainian historian Vissarion Belinsky, in his memoirs, recounts that after Tsar Nicholas I read Shevchenko’s poem, he chuckled while perusing the section about himself. However, his mood swiftly transformed into bitter animosity upon reading about his wife.

Shevchenko had derided her appearance and facial tics, which had developed due to apprehensions about one of the planned uprisings. In response to this passage, the Tsar, in a fit of indignation, remarked, “I suppose he had reasons not to be on terms with me, but what has she done to deserve this?” writes Belinsky.

Subsequently, Shevchenko was arrested, charged, and convicted. Tsar Nicholas I personally ratified his sentence, appending to it the directive, “Under the strictest surveillance, without the right to write or paint.”

Enduring the unyielding spirit of the man who commands moral authority over the country, even in death, Ukraine has embarked on a process of rebuilding, attempting to cleanse the bloodshed of its people, as the world-watched war transitions from a conventional conflict to a war of attrition.

Frozen conflict

President Volodymyr Zelensky, in a meeting with journalists from nine African countries last week, characterised the situation as a frozen conflict—indicating a war now waged through unconventional methods resembling a game of hide and seek.

The uncertainty prevails, with the enemy’s attacks unpredictable in terms of timing and location.

For instance, on Friday night, Ukrainian air-defense anti-missile systems successfully intercepted a substantial launch of 50 drones by the Russian military over the city of Kyiv alone.

The Kyiv state administration noted that this marked the most extensive drone attack on the city since the commencement of the full-scale Russian invasion.

According to a brief preliminary report from Ukraine’s State Emergency Department on Saturday, several residential buildings in Kyiv were destroyed, resulting in a few injuries; however, no fatalities have been reported.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Energy, in its report, stated: “After the shelling this night in Kyiv, 77 residential buildings and 120 institutions lost power. Restoration work is ongoing.”

Despite these challenges, the process of rebuilding the country is underway.

The individual entrusted with spearheading the rebuilding efforts is Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, an administrator whose demeanor differs from that of his superior, President Zelensky.

‘Protecting our land’

Shmyhal is characterised as less easygoing but remains polite and auburn-haired, a trait seemingly shared by many Ukrainian government officials we encountered. Shmyhal opted to deliver a statement first before allowing “one question from every country of Africa represented by the team of journalists because of time.”

“When Russia invaded us, they hoped to conquer us in three days’ time,” Shmyhal asserted. “However, it has already been 630 days since we started protecting our land. We have successfully liberated 60 per cent of the territories that were previously under occupation, and our counter-offensive continues.”

Shmyhal highlighted Ukraine’s achievements against the Russian military, citing that, through the Ukrainian counter-offensive, they have gained control of 300,000 war-related assets, including military hardware, soldiers, and various gadgets.

“Almost half of their thousand tanks and armored vehicles have been lost to our resistance, along with many other weaponry that did not match the capabilities Russia had claimed,” said Ukraine’s Prime Minister.

“We successfully liberated the key town of Kharkiv and the entire region on the border with Russia. This represents half of the territories that were earlier under Russia’s control.”

Despite facing challenges and pressure from Moscow, Kyiv has not abandoned hope of joining the European Union, which is perceived as one of the contributing factors to the difficulties imposed by Russia. Russia has sought to prevent former Soviet states from aligning with Western power associations.

Shmyhal sees EU membership as an integral part of his country’s rebuilding process.

“We are now on the threshold of commencing negotiations to join the EU, which will open up numerous prospects for us to access various markets and vice versa,” he said. “We believe this is not only possible but will also facilitate high-level cooperation with other entities, including the African Union.”

War monuments

Today, as Ukraine embarks on the path of recovery and undertakes the reconstruction of its damaged infrastructure, President Zelensky’s administration has transformed all locations that endured Russian military brutality into war monuments, with the satellite town of Bucha taking precedence.

The most ferocious battles in Bucha persisted from the onset of the invasion until March 31, 2022, culminating in the withdrawal of Russian forces from the town. After Ukrainian forces regained control of Bucha, revelations of Russian war crimes surfaced.

According to various official sources, between 501 and over 700 local civilians of Bucha, including women and children, were brutally killed during the invasion.

We are guided through some of the war monuments where pictures taken moments after the destruction of infrastructure and the atrocities are now preserved. These disturbing images depict the aftermath of indiscriminate slaughter, with the bodies of men and women strewn along the streets.

Russian tanks

Vokzalna Street serves as the main artery connecting the three principal towns in Kyiv’s Northern suburbs: Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel. This street gained prominence due to the notorious “jam” formed by the initial 30-kilometer column of Russian tanks, which was subsequently destroyed by Turkish-made drones (Bayraktar) operated by the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Following the liberation of Bucha on March 31, Vokzalna Street became the poignant symbol of Russian atrocities in the area. It was one of the initial locations where the international media gained access to observe the consequences of the battles.

The reconstruction of Vokzalna Street commenced after the de-occupation of the town, primarily led by local groups, including elderly individuals, who diligently cleared the street of debris left by the Russian tanks.

Mykyta Geraschenko, the head of the International Cooperation Department in Kyiv Regional Administration, said Kyiv alone had 28,000 destroyed projects.

“We have so far rebuilt 13,000 structures, encompassing residential houses, bridges, shops, and schools,” he says, adding, “We have accomplished this with assistance from United Nations agencies.” However, he did not specify which UN bodies have been aiding in the rebuilding efforts.

Victoria Danilova, an official of Bucha City Council, welcomed us at the gates of St. Andrews Church, where more than 100 bodies were interred after the Russian military denied residents the right to bury them in the local Bucha cemetery, as that area was still under their control.

Bodies on the street

The community decided to bury hundreds of men, women, and children whose bodies had been collected from Vokzalna Street and other parts of Bucha in the church garden. Today, gigantic plaques listing the names of the more than 100 people slaughtered stand behind the church.

“The territory of Bucha was occupied from March 3 to March 31,” says Danilova. “During that period of occupation, lots of civilians were killed simply with a shot to the head, chest, or knees. Their bodies lay on the street, and that is why we had to do something.”

The residents, who had begun to return to Bucha after Ukrainian forces liberated sections of the town, chose to organise a burial. Despite the liberation of larger parts of Bucha, the town’s official cemetery was still under Russian occupation, and they refused residents the right to bury the bodies there.

The bodies were in a dire state, and some could not be identified.

“That is why we made the decision to create a mass grave here in the territory of St. Andrew’s Church. 116 bodies were buried here, including children and women.

“After the full liberation of Bucha and the withdrawal of the Russian military, all the bodies were exhumed with the help of the international community and transferred to the official cemetery,” says Danilova.

As President Zelensky and his government embark on the rebuilding of Ukraine, one cannot overlook the analogy presented by the Russian military shelling of the northeast satellite town of Bucha, where they failed to topple the statue of Taras Shevchenko.

Ukraine has defied expectations by withstanding the onslaught of a more potent world power for over 630 days, and it may persist in standing tall even as the world’s attention shifts towards other conflicts, such as the Israel-Gaza war, thereby potentially diverting focus away from the Russian war on Ukraine.