For the first time, I came to Bilopilla — an ancient city in the Sumy region that has existed since the days of Kyivan Rus — at the end of 2017. The purpose of the trip then was Ryzhivka, a village of the Bilopillia community located nearby, almost on the border with Russia. Then, in the yard of one of the village's residents, the Russians demarcated the border and installed a metal fence. Halyna herself blamed the US for this — then she was brainwashed by Russian television.
If before the full-scale invasion, one of the main problems with information on the border was the Russian television content and its consumption, now the emphasis has changed. Russian television is no longer watched here; instead, there are problems with the delivery of newspapers from Ukrposhta. In addition, many villages are permanently or periodically without electricity and mobile communications due to shelling.
"From two to five seconds"
It is not difficult to get to Bilopillia, despite its proximity to the Russian border — the fast express Kyiv-Sumy goes from Kyiv to the city. We arrived at the Bilopillia railway station already in the evening. We will return here later to see more evidence of Russia's crimes against Ukraine in the light of day — on March 24, 2023, the Russians launched a massive attack on the city, completely destroying school No. 4 and killing a school guard.
Mayor Yuriy Zarko says that such shelling is not uncommon here. Due to the proximity of the border with Russia, the locals have practically no time to even hide. From two to five seconds pass when you hear the sounds of shelling from the territory of Russia. That is, there is not enough time to make adequate decisions, hide, or go to a shelter. There are no minutes to spare when the air raid alarm sounds. However, people find a way out — they try to spend less time in crowded places. There are very few people in the city center. This brings additional business problems — many shops and various services have closed.
Zarko adds that with the start of the full-scale war, the population of Bilopillia fell sharply: "I am afraid to announce these numbers now. I just don't know them. We can judge by certain secondary signs: for example, out of 16 thousand, perhaps eight to ten thousand now live in the city. Many people left the part closer to the border. Many residents of five-story buildings left."
It was the five-story building that was hit the last time. The mayor shakes his head and adds that the people there miraculously survived. However, not everyone is lucky. On June 22, during shelling, a man and his young son were killed just outside their house. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the Russians have killed 20 civilians in the community.
Zarko explains that people go to Sumy, to other villages — "where it is at least more or less safe to spend the night."
"There are not enough children. Children's laughter is missing. This is not pathos. It really is. In peacetime, we would be holding events and holidays dedicated to City Day on September 21. Instead, we have to solve the problem when children cannot study offline or online," says the mayor.
Ruined plans and new hopes
Now, in addition to Bilopillia, there are 53 more villages included in the Bilopillia city community. Five districts are located directly on the border. In some villages, no one lives at all. About 500 houses, apartments, and various buildings were damaged in one way or another in the community. It is difficult to rebuild what was damaged so close to Russia when it's only 10 kilometers from the city center to the border and from the outskirts — only six.
"Now it is important for us to provide the border villages with a supply of products for the winter. In some places, the road can pass very close to the border, sometimes even 50 meters away. It is clear that everything is shot through, and we cannot release public transport to clean the snow. This will mean these territories will be cut off from civilization for a certain time. Therefore, it is necessary to provide as much food, generators, and fuel as possible so there is enough for at least a week," says Zarko.
Today, saving the lives of community residents is its main focus. But until February 24, 2022, they were thinking about economic development, the future, and investments. In 2021, a community development strategy was created. It provided for, in particular, the green energy project.
In addition, a base for servicing agricultural machinery, a regional mineral fertilizer base, and elevators were located in Bilopillia. Now the mayor sighs: the proximity to the border with Russia ends relations with investors — at least while the war continues.
"Last year, we already made a plan to restore the community," the mayor shares. "But now we understand that after another year of war, it must be changed."
Our conversation is interrupted by a phone call from the mayor of Yuzhne, Odesa region. Bilopillia is constantly in touch with other cities and communities — they often support the city. Vinnytsia recently donated an excavator and a crane.
Zarko says that now the future of Bilopillia is the land: "This is something that no one will take away from us. The soil, thank God, is fertile, black soil." Although now many lands are mined and littered with explosive objects.
"We need to ensure that people return to the villages where they lived to get some work, restore livestock, and dairy herd. That is, to create conditions for people to do the work they lov and know how to do. It is necessary to develop the cooperative movement," adds the mayor.
Zarko shows us the artifacts stored in his office: old bricks, pottery pieces, rockets, and projectile remnants. Among other things, there is a Norwegian newspaper because the mayor recently visited the city of Arendal in Norway and negotiated assistance with reconstruction.
Zina Ivanivna is one of those who suffered from Russian shelling. Her house was completely destroyed on March 24, and the hostess herself miraculously survived. In addition to everything, the resident also has a specific problem — her house is registered to her son, who lived in Russia and died a few years ago. Currently, no one actually owns the house, so Zina Ivanovna cannot receive compensation from the state.
Only the beams remained from the roof of the house. So the woman had to look for a solution — in the end, with the money she saved for years "for the funeral and the hospital," she hired workers who built a small house for her — only a few square meters. Zina Ivanivna plans to spend the winter there. Now, she needs to insulate the ceiling and make the floor.
Nina Ivanivna says that, fortunately, she has a vegetable garden and a cellar to store the harvest — this will also help her survive the winter. We go out to the yard, and the peppers still ripen here. On its edge is a large, neat vineyard. Each bunch is carefully wrapped with a net against insects and bees. Zina Ivanivna treats us to it: it is impossible to refuse one such bunch — the hostess will be offended. This is not the first time during the war that people who have lost everything treat others to what they have grown or cooked.
Books, football, and aerial bombs
We stay to spend the night in Bilopillia. The night passes relatively quietly — surprisingly, there is no shelling.
We are heading to the village of Novi Vyrky, some seven kilometers from the border. On the road, the driver points to houses in the distance — this is already the territory of Russia. But Ukraine is ahead. The road gradually leads us to the border village.
We are going to the village library. Natalia, a librarian, conducts a tour. She says that nowadays, she writes off many old Russian books, but there are very few new incomes. However, there are also few readers — people try not to go out too much. Before the full-scale invasion, events were regularly held in the library, and people came here to chat, take a book, and read. Natalia says that today, books help the local people to break away from the realities of the war, even for a short time.
Olena Volina, the head of Novy Vyrky, is waiting outside. Shelling, teaching children, issuing certificates, setting up the shop, distributing humanitarian aid — the head has many tasks. The village has "almost zero" money, according to her. Because of the war, there is no work in the village, except for work in state bodies, such as the head office, a cultural center, a medical center, and welfare facilities. But there is hope that the store will open soon — the village managed to negotiate with an entrepreneur from Bilopillia, and he even promises to hire a few locals to work there. This is very important for the village because it is both new jobs and access to products and household goods. The only bus to Bilopillia goes once a week, and not everyone has a car.
We approach the school — it is in the center of the village; next to it is a club, an administrative office with a library, and an old and already dilapidated church, which in Soviet times housed a club and a gym. On the school's facade is a memorial plaque to Volodymyr Volin, who died in the city of Shchastya in 2014. In front of the school is a Soviet monument to those killed in World War II. The school windows are broken — the consequences of the recent strike of an aerial bomb in the village. A horse is grazing nearby.
On the way, we talk with the older woman about relatives and acquaintances that the locals have in Russia. This is not uncommon on the border.
"People have changed. They don't communicate because they don't believe we are at war," says Volina.
– Don't believe?
– They don't believe.
– So they are sitting here next to each other and do not believe? But do they also see how, say, a projectile flies at you from their side?
The village head shrugs her shoulders and says maybe they don't want to believe.
How the war unleashed by Russia became a "matter of faith" for its residents on the border with Ukraine is beyond our imagination.
Cows graze in the nearby stadium — playing football here is too dangerous. Until February 24, the village had a powerful mini-football team that consistently won prizes at district and regional competitions. The gymnasium for training and competitions was renovated in the cultural center. Now, unfortunately, there is a break in training.
Mykola Chubko is the director of the cultural center, and he is conducting a tour for us. Chubko is active and cheerful and tells about the many events that took place here until February 24, 2022. He shows us the renovation of the gym. In the end, he even tells a joke and laughs loudly.
This is the strength of the locals — to continue life, not to lose resilience and thirst for it, even during war, at home, on their land.
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