DEMYDIV, UKRAINE (AFP) – More than a year after the Ukrainian military flooded his village to halt Russia’s lightning march on Kyiv, Ivan Kukuruza’s basement is still submerged and his patience is running out.
Authorities sacrificed his hamlet of Demydiv, 35 kilometres north of Kyiv, last February by blowing up a nearby dam in a bid to bog down Russia’s invading army.
And while the last-ditch effort helped spare the capital a Russian takeover, the authorities’ clean-up efforts have proved much less ingenious and much less speedy.
“Just lower the water levels by half. Even then, no tank could pass through here,” Kukuruza, 69, told AFP.
Ukrainian officials have been reticent to intervene, fearing a new Russian assault from the Kremlin’s ally Belarus further north.
That has left locals to their own devices, but with little to show for their efforts. For instance, the pumps that Kukuruza bought to drain his property broke because of cold winter weather.
And the UAH20,000 (USD540) he received as compensation has not ultimately changed the fact that his basement whose shelves are lined with canned pickles is still filled with half-frozen, stagnating water.
Despite the difficulty of living in water-logged bog land, like many elderly residents of Ukrainian regions scarred by Russia’s invasion, Kukuruza said he isn’t going anywhere.
In fact, according to Demydiv’s Mayor Volodymyr Podkurganny, none of the dozens of residents of Demydiv and the surrounding area whose homes were damaged have accepted a government offer of resettlement.
And he sees both sides of the story. “The original goal was to keep Kyiv, to defend Kyiv,” he told AFP during a recent interview. The Ukrainian military did just that by detonating explosives planted on a barrier at a huge reservoir near Kyiv, sending millions of litres of water into the nearby Irpin river that overflowed its banks.
It took two attempts, one on the second day of the invasion, February 25, and a second effort two days later to destroy the dam and make crossing the river nearly impossible for the Russian troops pushing for Kyiv. The move bought Ukrainian troops just enough time to regroup and beat back Moscow’s forces caught in the heaving bog around the river.
Officials in Kyiv are lobbying for the waterway to be recognised as a “hero river”, a reference to Soviet-era “hero cities” that held out against Nazi Germany’s invasion.
While the strategy worked, Podkurganny recognises that there is another side of the story, the one where the victory came at a cost.
“There were consequences for the population. Two hundred households were flooded. It’s clear that people suffered from this,” he said.
And it’s clear to him that this suffering is continuing as locals plead with Podkurganny to act.
“I could show you the piles of letters I got, asking me to do something about it,” he added. Yet, not everyone wants action.
Environmental activists said that leaving things as they are could have huge benefits for the region, which was originally a vast wetland that was drained during Soviet times.
The Irpin river, they said, is only now coming back to life.
“Vegetation and real wildlife have come back over the past year,” said a biologist and founder of the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group (UNCG) Oleksiy Vasylyuk.
“The best thing to do would be to let the valley remain as flooded as possible and let nature recover,” he said. For Valentina Osipova, it was painfully clear that the flora and fauna of her home had changed dramatically.
Standing in her now-barren garden that used to produce berries and cauliflower, the animated 77-year-old recounted how last summer beavers took up residence there instead.
“Beavers! They were sunbathing! We actually became friends in the end,” the retired language professor said. The quiet idyl of her modest home, connected to the outside world by a dirt lane, has been replaced by the drone of motorised pumps straining to dry out her corner of the world.
But still she has hope for the future. “When all the water is pumped out and our land is returned to its former state, it will be paradise again,” Osipova said. Kukuruza agreed.
And he believes that, while the rising waters played their part in holding back Russian forces, they cannot ultimately take credit.
“The Ukrainian people rose and stopped them,” he said. “It’s not the water that did that.”