The Invisible People Of Shyrokyne
18 December, 2017

The Ukrainian village of Shyrokyne near Mariupol is the only one in the Ukrainian government-controlled zone where people did not return after evacuation. Hromadske takes a look at where these people settled and how they’re surviving today.  

Think of your home – the sounds, shadows, smells. A cozy chair and a purring, carefree cat lazily trailing after you as you leave for work. A quietly buzzing aquarium on the table and a bunch of fresh violets on the windowsill. Photos on the shelves and favorite books. The family home where you spent your childhood and youth, where you began your life.

Now imagine that you are standing on the threshold of your home. Behind you, people in camouflage with weapons in their hands hurry you, tugging and shouting that you have a minute to take the most important things.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

Shells just exploded around your house. And now, in this fragile moment of calm, you need to run, wearing whatever you are standing in, with little more than a passport clutched in your hands.

They tell you this isn’t for long, but somewhere in your heart you know – they are lying. But in this moment you want to to be lied to. Because you can’t believe that war has come into your home. It has reset your life.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

This is the story of Shyrokyne’s residents. This village, on the shores of the Sea of Azov, near Mariupol, is the only settlement in eastern Ukraine’s government-held zone, where the residents did not return after evacuation.

Hromadske went to Mariupol, where the bulk of Shyrokyne’s former residents – around 1,000 people, according to official figures – settled.

Tomorrow When The War Began

Over the past 3.5 year in Ukraine, more than 1.5 million people have become internally displaced, according to official figures. This is the largest population of internally displaced people in Europe since World War II.

This number includes the residents of Shyrokyne. Before the conflict began, there were about 700 houses and nearly 2,000 residents in the village. More than 100 children attended the local school. Now Shyrokyne, which is on the demarcation line, is completely destroyed and entry to the village is forbidden.

On September 4, 2014 Shyrokyne came under shelling for the first time. Prior to that, only the echoes of the armed conflict were heard there. But then the war invaded their homes too.

In September, some residents left, but soon returned in hope of peace. On September 5 the first Minsk agreements were signed, which included a ceasefire between all sides of the conflict. But most of the twelve points of this protocol remained on paper. Everyone got it wrong. The war in eastern Ukraine was just beginning.

The next mass evacuation of Shyrokyne’s residents happened in February 2015. Then, fierce battles began on the streets of the village, with Ukrainian military and volunteer battalions on one side and armed separatists and Russian military on the other.

It was in those days that most of the residents were forced to leave the village urgently. Their departures were so hurried that most fled with just the clothes on their backs.

Humiliated and Defeated

The small basement on Pashkovskyi Street in Mariupol is empty. Usually, there are crowds on Thursdays – Shyrokyne residents come here every week to share news.

We are greeted by Valentyna Logozynska, one of the residents from the village. She is diligently sweeping the floor. She says Doctors Without Borders are expected to arrive tomorrow. This organization helped them repair the basement, she says.

Valentyna Logozynska Photo credit: HROMADSKE

“The people that sit here aren’t really the sick ones, but the humiliated and the broken,”  she adds, showing us the room where doctors perform medical examinations twice a month.

According to her, the morning meetings are mainly attended by pensioners, because younger people are working at that time.  

There is another pensioner, Liudmyla, who doesn’t want to provide her surname or be filmed. She and Valentyna remember that inconceivable moment, when so-called Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) soldiers came to the village kiosk for cigarettes, as if they were not armed people, but travelers who happened to be in Shyrokyne. At the same time, the Ukrainian military was already building a fortified area on the territory of one of the local children's summer camps. “They were preparing,” the pensioners say.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE
On September 4, 2014, this silence and imaginary neutrality came to an end. After the first shelling, two local men were killed in the village. Then three or four houses burned down. Why the village was suddenly shelled, neither Lyudmila nor Valentyna understand.

“We still traveled along the highway for a while, and to Novoazovsk too, and then what happened went beyond our comprehension. It seems that Ukraine blew up the [DPR soldiers’] trailer,” says Valentyna. “And then it began. They came like storm clouds.”

She recalled her nine-year-old granddaughter was staying with her for the school holidays at the time. She was playing out in the street when suddenly military equipment appeared near the house. “I look out the window and there’s the muzzle [of a gun]! They run, search. I don’t understand anything,” she says. “And behind the house they set up a tripod with something and aim! After they the just walked [around] with automatics, well, what to do, life was like that, we couldn’t influence it in any way. After this, they [the DPR soldiers] even offered to bring us coal. And I said to them – there’s no need to help me, you help me when the shooting stops.”

Photo credit: HROMADSKE
On February 15 street fighting began in the village. A missile landed in Valentyna Logozynska’s yard. Liudmyla recounts how on February 14 her husband was killed before her eyes. An armored personnel carrier (APC) suddenly appeared in the window right across from the house. “And in that second I was thrown back, the fire was so…ukh! The top of his head was instantly taken off,” she recalls.

The body couldn’t even be buried right away because of the shelling – Liudmyla and her relatives were forced to hide in the basement. They buried him in the garden the next day, and on February 18 they left. “Missiles were already flying here and there, a terrible dream,” says Liudmyla. She sought the exhumation of her husband’s body for over a year – because of constant shelling no one wanted to go to Shyrokyne to collect the body.

Valentyna Logozynska tried to leave a few days afterwards, she just had to remove the cast from her arm after a fracture, but says, it was wrapped up by Ukrainian soldiers. “They said that it will be a terrible battle. And I said: I understand, you’re prepared, but how will it be for us? So it was.”

When the evacuation was finally announced, not everyone heard about it. But for those who were leaving, the Ukrainian military ordered them not to bring anything. The residents were assured that it was just for three days.

Leaving was frightening, but the pensioners admit that it was impossible to stay. At this time many homes were damaged, Shyrokyne’s residents were hiding in their basements but when the frost hit they understood that they had no choice: they needed to save their lives, and those of their children and the elderly. “What to take? A small bag with documents. And they were left with what they left with,” says Valentyna Logozynska.

Another resident of Shyrokyne, Olena [name changed upon request] says that despite the military’s assurances, entrance to the village was already closed to those who had been evacuated on February 16. Residents still remained in Shyrokyne and the so-called “korivnyky” sat there until March, waiting for the cows to calve. But then they released the cattle and left as well. The cows, Olena recounts, dispersed and wandered around. Some were blown up in minefields, others were killed by shelling. But some were lucky – they reached the neighboring village, where people sheltered them.

The last group of Shyrovnyke residents, no more than two dozen people, were literally forcibly removed and taken to separatist-controlled Novoazovsk. From there they were taken to Mariupol by relatives.

The Conditional Green Corridor

Although entrance to the village was closed after the February evacuation, some were able to break through by car, at their own risk. Oleksandr Glutskiy and his younger brother also decided to try. Like the majority of their fellow villagers, their parents – Nina and Vasyl Glutskiy – barely managed to grab their passports when the Ukrainian military forced them to leave their house urgently.

Oleksandr Glutskiy with his parents Photo credit: HROMADSKE

On March 6, the brothers got in a car and drove to the village. They were missed at the Ukrainian checkpoint but after that, the road was blocked. Someone opened fire. They turned the car around but one bullet hit Oleksandr’s spine and punctured his lung. He survived, spending a year in the hospital. But after several operations the doctors threw up their hands: now he is confined to a wheelchair.

The younger brother and his family left for Russia, further away from the war, where his wife’s relatives live. Oleksandr’s mother looks after him. His father, Vasyl, just finished treatment – a few months ago he was suspected of having tuberculosis. Though it was not confirmed, the family was shaken. The Glutskiys were forced to live off of Nina’s retirement pension (she was a school teacher) and the disabilities pension appointed to Oleksandr.

Granted, they were allowed to live in a private home belonging to people who left Mariupol temporarily. But the family was unable to formalize the contract and hence, claim a subsidy to pay less for utilities. And if they felt stretched by the “communal” agreement in the summer, then the winter bills will be unaffordable.

A Strange Land

According to Olena the official possibility of visiting the village after the evacuation was presented in October 2015, but not for all of the residents. She returned home on October 19. Then the corridor was opened and for 10-15 days Shyrokyne’s former residents could visit the village. But then an unfortunate incident took place: two local residents were blown up by trip flares. “And since that time the road home was closed for us again,” Olena recalls.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

But in October she could walk through the entire village. It’s obvious that she was crushed and shocked by what she saw. “It was a horror and a nightmare – a strange land, another planet. An inhumane, cruel planet. In a word – frightening. My beloved, blooming, prosperous village had become unrecognizable,” she remembers. “But still many houses and communal apartments were whole, courtyards and roads were overgrown with grass two-meters high. But if everything had have ended in October 2015 and we had returned home, restoring the village would have been realistic.”

She recounts how her granddaughter took the news that their home had burned down. “She ran to me and screamed ‘that didn’t happen, houses don’t burn! My dresses are there, my toys!’” As it turns out – they do burn. Now just one small book, a teacup, and teaspoon found in the wartorn yard are the relics Olena has of the past.

Wake Up Now – It Will All Be Over

The former residents of Shyrokyne resentfully talk about how they sometimes hear from the residents of nearby villages that they’re guilty because they “abandoned their village.”

“How could we not leave?” says another displaced person, Rita Nuikina, tearfully recounting her story. “You sit, everything is pouring down from above, and you think: this can’t be happening, now I’ll wake up – and it will all be over. And tomorrow [you go] to work! And you go to the garden, looking for a connection, and there, they say, a sniper is sitting, can you image?...It’s happening to you, but you don’t believe it.”

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

When Shyrokyne was left without power, she recalls, a generator saved them. Neighbours came to charge their phones and take water from the well. But in the end, the Nuikiniy family surrendered. Their house stood on the edge of the village and their street was constantly shelled. “We left, kissing the walls and bidding the house farewell, like a living person. We asked for forgiveness – forgive [us], [we] don’t have the strength to stay,” says Rita.

Life, she confesses, is divided into before and after. They had to give up everything they had and to some extent help stop the war there, on the Shyrokyne frontier, Rita says. However, no one is making allowances for Shyrokyne’s former residents, they’re just a drop in a sea of other displaced people. Rita confesses that today, many of the procedures they had to go through look humiliating.

Rita Nuikina Photo credit: HROMADSKE

In her words, you never want to tell someone that you’re from Shyrokyne because even those who live in Mariupol don’t know that entry to the village is closed. And this means that they don’t fully understand the situation that the village’s residents are in. “When you say that you’re from Shyrokyne, you immediately get a questioning look: so what’s going on there, you don’t go there at all? People don’t know anything,” Rita says.

Entry Denied

Olena confirms that in the 2.5 years that have passed since the evacuation, their community has yet to gain rights and protections from an institution or department. The former residents of Shyrokyne founded a civil organization called Shyrokyne Salvation, on behalf of which they go door to door claiming that as citizens of Ukraine suffering as a result of the war, they have the right to government compensation for damages by law. “[There’s] one answer: there’s no laws and we should get accustomed to minimum wages and pensions,” says Olena.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE 

So far, all requests for permission to visit the village have been refused with the claim that “the village of Shyrokyne is made up of settlements located on the contact line,” and hence, the rights and freedoms of citizens there can be limited.  Considering the fact that “provocations with weapons are happening systematically on the contact line,” there is no possibility of secure access to property as of yet, they tell the former residents.

According to Olena, they reached out to five institutions, including the Ukrainian side of the Joint Center for the Control and Coordination of the Ceasefire, the head of the representative office of the Russian Armed Forces, the regional head of the Ukrainian Security Services in Donetsk, the OSCE Mission in Donetsk, and the Donetsk Department of Civil Protections, Mobilization and Defense. They approached them with a request to organize travel to the village, if not for all residents, then for a group of three to four people from the street to go to their homes to collect documents, photo albums and see the degree of destruction with their own eyes.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

The Shyrokyne residents indignantly talk about the fact that representatives from international organizations, volunteers, journalists, chaplains and even bikers can enter the village, but not the local residents. “We have a stack of letters where they reply to us: for security reasons entry to the territory of the village is forbidden,” Olena says.

According to the residents, after the evacuation looters used cars to remove what was left in the houses. “If they wanted all of this could have been stopped by blocking the three main entrances to the village,” laments Olena. “We have information that soldiers as well as civilians were looting. Outside of Mariupol in the settlement of Saratana in May 2016 they detained a car of soldiers with coloured household metal from our village. Three local residents identified their things. A criminal case was opened on this incident but there’s no result as of yet.”

Today, Olena says, there’s still the problem that the Shyrokyne residents don’t have an administration, so a lot of their issues go unresolved. The village archives were taken to the city of Volnovakha in April 2017 and will acquire legal force in a year, after inventory.

According to Oleksandr Rudyk – head of the Mariupol Civilian-Military Cooperation Group – Shyrokyne’s former residents could write a request to the group commander and ask them to make a photographic record. That is, to photograph the destroyed house and request that they take out any possessions that could have survived.

Accompanied by this group, Hromadske was able to make a short visit to Shyrokyne. The village looks abandoned and somewhat confused, as if it can’t believe that there are no longer people here. The streets are so destroyed that it’s difficult to identify the houses – in place of many of them only heaps of bricks remain. According to the military, there isn’t a single building here that hasn’t been struck by missiles. The village is shelled every day – it’s the focus of four to five “arrivals” from the separatist side. Our brief stay in the village didn’t go unnoticed: shelling began and we were forced to leave the settlement quickly.

Live Today

However, the village wasn’t completely plundered and destroyed. For some of Shyrokyne’s residents, representatives from the Mariupol Civilian-Military Cooperation Group managed to save some remnants of their things.

A smiling Natalya Logozynska, who we met with at a kiosk in Mariupol where she sells paninis, tells us how she convinced the Ukrainian military to check for what could be saved from her shattered store in Shyrokyne. The military brought Natalya a fridge.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

Natalya’s family – herself, her husband and two sons – also fled from the war. Prior to that, they sat in a basement and escaped under shelling. Even when they reached a safe place, their friends’ house in Mariupol, Natalya says that for half an hour they were too shocked to get out of the car.

A lot has happened since then: they went to work in Austria harvesting cabbage, but they didn’t last long there. Natalya’s husband returned to Ukraine after a month and a half, and she returned after two and a half months. Natalya confesses that after this adventure she couldn’t leave the house for a long time due to a bout of depression. But later she was able to get ahold of herself and started looking for grants for displaced persons, and attended training courses. Finally, thanks to a $670 grant from the International Organization for Migration, she opened first one panini kiosk in Mariupol and then another.

“The war made everyone equal: poor and rich. Everyone struggled regardless of whether they had money in their account or if they had an apartment,” says Natalya. But she immediately adds that she is trying to live in the present and smiles at everyone, even when she herself is hurting.

There are few optimists like Natalya among the former residents of Shyrokyne. It is especially difficult for the pensioners: seventy-seven elderly people have already died since the evacuation. Fifteen villagers were also killed during military operations in Shyrokyne.

But while the children are stepping towards the future, the older generation are still clinging to the past and memories of what they lived through – it’s all they have left. To this day, some of them can see, through the haze from the balconies of highrises in Mariupol’s eastern district, how Shyrokyne is being shelled, how the houses are burning there. Others look at photos of the streets in the media or online, comparing the destruction in 2015, 2016 and 2017. And they all want one thing – to return home.

But if the war knocked the wind out of them, it seems that these people still have their strength. Today, they need so much and so little at the same time – to return to their hometown, to rebuild their homes and heal their wounds.

/Written by Yana Sedova and Illya Bezrorovainyi

/Translated by Natalie Vikhrov and Eilish Hart