At the beginning of August, the authorities finally completed the dam's repair. The water is gradually receding from the courtyards, exposing rotted trees, gardens turned into mud, and the foundations of houses that will not be restored soon.
Rubryka journalists visited Demydiv back in July to record at least a small part of the enormous price that freedom costs Ukrainians.
"There, see the black trees?"
After getting on a bus in Kyiv, you can get to a small market in Demidiv. The midday heat seems incredibly dense here. Sellers, tiredly hiding unsold potatoes, tomatoes and cherries, talk about children, bargains, the weather forecast, and snakes.
"There is not much water here—it is over there, further down the village. But snakes and vipers crawl from there without trouble. There are so many of them here! My daughter and I are so afraid; it's scary to take a step, as it's getting a little dark," says one of the saleswomen and points with her hand to the part of Demydiv that suffered the most.
On the way here you can see the meadows. Of course, it flooded. The sky is reflected in the smooth mirror surface—completely cloudless. Treetops peek out from between the reflections. It seems that they are making their way through the sky.
Ivan stands by his plot, watching two small pumps pumping out water. He says he is doing it at his expense because he can't wait.
"Water… oh, see the greenhouse? It was water all the way there. Now two pumps work every day. It is 80 hryvnias wasted every day. About 10 centimeters recede in a day.
In fact, everything that was here has disappeared. There were raspberries here, small nuts. My three nut trees… There, see the black trees? Everything died. I don't know yet if there will be pears. There is water up to the ceiling in the cellar. I pumped it out once, but the wall collapsed. Now the water is dormant again. Is there any point in pumping now? In the second cellar, it's 40 centimeters of water. It is flowing from under the shed. The ground is soaked," says the man.
After the dam was blown up, the occupied village was isolated entirely for more than a month. Communication, gas, electricity, medicines, bread—all this was far away, "on dry land." Demidiv was on the water.
"My wife says that we could have lasted a year. We had everything of our own. But we had no bread or gas supply. They shut down, and there was no gas for about half a month, so it was bad. But I had a gas cylinder because I have piglets (gas cylinders are often used in the village to fatten butchered piglets, ed.). There was half a tank of gas, so we used a little. Not to waste the meat, we canned the meat stew. The large three-compartment refrigerator was completely jammed. We used to go with my wife and give out food to people who had less or had nothing at all," Ivan recalls.
He says that the government is delaying water pumping because it fears a potential attack from Belarus—one more attack. However, the locals, in turn, are afraid that their houses will crumble, and their gardens and fields will become unusable for a long time.
"I agree that the water will be pumped by the end of the summer. But until it dries… I have this problem. However, some people's houses are wet up to the windows. The walls are cracking, sagging. In winter, those houses will simply fall apart," the man concludes and returns to his currants. He says it is the only thing that gives fruit well in Demidiv this year.
"Do you like fish?"
Stork's home is something that certainly comes to mind after the first hour in Demydiv. Storks don't just build their nests here. They walk among people, hunt in their yards, and watch them, perched on the tops of apple trees submerged in water.
The older man we meet calls them "buskas"; that's what storks are called in the Rivne region. At first, the man says the stork bathed here while goats were grazing nearby. Then he tells a long story about his three sons, who are currently at the front, his tiny great-grandson, who was taken abroad by his family, and his grandson, who at 23 received the For the Defense of Kyiv medal. And then he interrupts himself:
"You know, unlike a stork, I didn't bathe here. I was fishing. That's easy to do with your hands. Do you like fish? I'll give you one!" he takes out a still live fish from the bag and quickly holds it out. "Don't worry! I can catch another fish for myself. If 'buskas' catch fish, I will catch them too."
Ecologist Yulia Katyba says that although the ecosystem of the flooded village has already changed in such a way that you notice it immediately, it will recover after the water is pumped out. But it will take a lot of time.
"Any change in ecosystems doesn't go unnoticed. If water suddenly appears in places not characterized by excessive humidity, insects, plants, small rodents, and trees die, and some birds lose their homes. Instead, other animals appear for which these conditions are ideal, and they have adaptations for this.
The ecosystem will eventually return to its previous state if the water is pumped out. However, it will take at least five years," says the environmentalist.
The same happens with soils. Water in such quantities makes them less fertile, and when they can give harvest again depends on when the water finally leaves and how the lands will be cared for.
"Excessive wetting of soils causes siltation, i.e., previously porous and dry soil becomes similar to silt. In such conditions, it is challenging to grow a crop because all the produce we are used to, which we grow in gardens, is not adapted to excessive moisture. Even if the plants have sprouted, they will die due to phytophthora and rotting of the root system.
If the water is pumped out at least until the end of this summer, we have a chance to save the soil. But we must be prepared for crop failure in the coming years. After pumping out the water, it is essential to break the crust that will form after drying so that the vegetable garden does not turn into a stone. During sowing, do not apply a lot of mineral fertilizers so as not to cause further damage.
If the water is not pumped out now, it will take 3 to 5 years in the most flooded areas to restore fertility by at least half," Yulia Katyba explains.
But the locals understand that the harvest will not appear soon. For people who live at the expense of the economy, this is a real problem, which will be challenging to overcome with humanitarian aid.
"One thousand nine hundred and thirty-four!"
As Raisa stands in her yard and recounts the damage, the ground around her feet seems to come alive and pulsate. But if you look closely, you can see tiny frogs jumping around. There are hundreds of them, and the whole yard is covered with them.
"Yesterday there was no water here; it recedes a little, and then comes again and comes again. The floor in my house is already rotting. And here," Raisa points to the neighbor's house, "the homes are starting to collapse, the basements are full of water."
"There was a big pump, and they started pumping, then the water seemed to go away, and look at this. We will not be able to plow the gardens for the following year. What awaits us? Starvation in winter. Well, now we still have old potatoes. And now the prices are so high… We have, as they say, only pioneers here. One pension. Three thousand. My brother doesn't have even three."
The man laughs and says to his sister:
"I have an enormous pension! Don't say I don't have any. I have one thousand ninety thirty-four!"
"I say you have a presidential pension! It is higher than the president's salary," the woman starts laughing, then the laughter turns into a sad smile: "Do you see how stupid the woman is? I told other journalists earlier: 'It's okay, we'll sow rice.' That was stupid to say. I was so pleased that I was being photographed."
The woman desperately waves her hand, asks not to take pictures this time, and invites her to look at her garden, and then remembers that the water has reached it again and you can't walk there without rubber boots.
"There are no relatives. All relatives died"
We meet Maria when we try to find a path to bypass the flooded field. She is 82 and lives with her husband, but he no longer has the strength to leave the house. A woman lets us pass through her yard. The water isn't there, as in many others, but the ground is damp as if it had just rained. The landlady says the soil inside is wet, and the earth does not accept any sprouts.
"It is not flooded, there is no water on top, and inside, all the ground is wet. My whole garden is gone. I planted tomatoes. They sprouted, stayed for three days, and that was it.
The house was flooded with water in the hallway. I climbed through the window to go out. See the broken window? So I asked my neighbor to break it up. Here I climbed, and I couldn't go there. It was only possible to walk in boots. There was water all over the barns, and it ran all over the place. It is the garden. The apple tree is yellow, and the plum is inside, the whole garden is gone… Over there, see? Look, the apricot has already turned yellow. There seems to be no water. I'll show you. It looks like there is no water, but dig, and there is water," the woman briskly heads to the barn to get a shovel.
Then she returns and digs up a few pieces of ground. Then she scoops some soil with a slightly trembling palm and squeezes. Water seeps through old fingers.
"I'll close the hole back because maybe someone else will trip and fall… I still have my grandfather lying there. He can walk around the house but falls when he goes out into the yard. He is dizzy and falls.
That's it. It's all gone a little bit. Our bucket was full of slop, and I thought I would take it away. As I came out, I got stuck and took out my boot. It has already become a little better. The water is sparkling, see?
There was a goat. Yes, there was a war, and shrapnel got in its forehead. That's all. So I pulled it out, buried it, and that was it. The war did that. This life… But whatever you do, you won't crawl into the hole alive. My relatives lived up to 90 years. I'm now 82. I want to live at least a year to see what will happen next. There are no relatives. Relatives all died. And young people say, 'we don't want to know; we are strangers.' And that's how we are here together with my old man."
Maria's right hand begins to tremble more and more. The woman says that sometimes she cannot hold a spoon because of this, sometimes she hits the dishes, and when Maria is nervous, she feels her teeth begin to tremble as well.
"That's nerves. It's all nerves," Maria concludes.
"I named her Myrka"
Demidiv was under occupation for more than a month. Probably very local answers to the question "how was it?" by comparing with Bucha—they say they didn't have it exactly like that.
"We have one man who wanted to stop a column of tanks. They [russians] killed him. He went to the tanks alone with a Molotov cocktail. Another person was speeding and was killed. He was found after the russians left, with a bag over his head and a shot in the back of the head. They first buried him in the garden and then hid him. We also have unknown people. But there was no such thing where people were massively tortured or severely intimidated," says Tetiana.
Her story of occupation and war, in general, is about animals. When we ask if her house was damaged, Tetiana brushes it off, says she doesn't care about the place and takes us to the shed. Inside, there's a bull and two cows.
"They used to have territory here and pastured. Now the animals are standing and suffering. After dinner, there is nothing to breathe with here at all. It's wet here. I can't take them anywhere. So these three are standing here—a bull and two cows.
So far, I am lucky that I have a high foundation. There was water under the house, and so far, everything seems to be okay. I planted tomatoes in buckets. Cabbage is sown; it also sprouts. Let there be at least something. Ducks had ducklings. They swim around my garden together, and it's nice to see them. But you can imagine, we don't have a life. I don't know what it is. I understand that we are alive, we are not being bombed, we are not being shot at, but we are in the water," the woman says desperately.
Four dogs run near her, and a cat stretches on a chair. Tetiana takes another puppy out of the house, a girl. The last two, she says, were born during the war. During the occupation, she also had to take care of other people's animals.
"My neighbors left. They left me chickens, a dog, and a cat. They say we can't take them. But almost everyone has already returned. Only those who are abroad are not in a hurry.
The cat was left at my doorstep—she gave birth to the kittens. I named her Myrka for luck to have peace ["myr" means peace in Ukrainian]. I let her stay; she can eat milk from cows. We have neighbors here; they had ten huskies. Four adults and six children. They threw them away. The little ones ate their toilet. The big ones ate chickens and cats and caught mice. I cooked a little porridge for them, added milk to it, and put the pot outside. I fed them so that they would not die. I go out in the morning, and they are already sitting by that pot. I ran out of grains; there was nothing left to feed. It's good that the russians withdrew that very day, and three days later, the owners came and took them away. It has already become a little easier for me," Tetiana recounts.
Tetiana says that she is waiting for the water to be pumped out, but she does not believe she will be able to plant something in her garden next spring. Meanwhile, the authorities of the Kyiv region decided to allocate 20,000 hryvnias to everyone whose house was damaged by water. But is this money enough to repair and maintain damaged gardens and fields? Hardly.
When we ask the locals if they regret that the occupiers were driven out at the cost of their village, they all say no. But they regret something else—the settlement was allowed to stand in the water for so long after the de-occupation.
Photo Mykola Tymchenko, Rubryka
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