'Nothing to come back to,' says Ukrainian woman in Canada, her beloved home destroyed
IRPIN, Ukraine — Oleksandra Verovkina and her son, Danylo, would stroll half a block through the back alley behind their apartment to a large forest. They would walk hand in hand beneath the tall trees, the air filled with the scent of pine resin, until the three-year old lost steam, and then return home.
The bright orange dining room in their fourth-storey apartment soaked up the sun streaming in from the skylight in the roof. Oleksandra would place a cup of hot chocolate on the child-sized table where Danylo worked away on his favourite puzzle, a map of the world.
When they did not feel up to a walk they would venture outside to the parking lot beside the white stucco building, where her son played on a bright yellow, metal play structure with a slide and swing. They were often joined by his best friend, who lived two floors below.
Oleksandra, 36, had dreamt of leaving Ukraine for Canada since 2014 when separatist forces first seized the Donbas region where she lived at the time. But she put that idea aside in 2020 when she and her husband bought the relatively newly built apartment in Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv. It was the first home they owned together.
"When we landed in Irpin I fell in love with the city. It's amazing," she said, wearing a traditional embroidered Ukrainian blouse called a Vyshyvanka, with her blond hair in a bun.
"You can feel this spirit of community."
The family does not live there anymore.
On the morning of Feb. 24, 2022, Oleksandra woke up to the sound of her buzzing phone. It wasn't until she shook off the sleep that she heard the explosions in the distance.
"When we woke up, we started hearing the bombs and military flights, helicopters," Oleksandra said.
Russian forces invaded from Belarus. Tanks rolled south toward the capital city of Kyiv. Airstrikes hit across the country in the early morning hours.
On the phone, her brother was asking her what they were planning to do. She did not have an answer.
Her husband, Oleksii, did. He had been paying attention to reports about enemy forces amassing on the border between Ukraine and Belarus to the north. Though most people in their lives did not believe news stories about an impending attack, Oleksii had started to get ready.
Together they packed a few essentials: toiletries, some clothing, and toys and books for their son. Oleksandra'sfavourite sweater was still in the laundry machine. She left it behind.
Given the massive amount of people trying to get out of the city, they knew they had a long journey ahead of them.
But when they heard bombs drop down on the nearby Hostomel Airport, they knew it was time to go.
"We got scared," she said. Oleksii urged them to leave at 7 p.m. They buckled Danylo in the back of the carto begin the 12-hour crawl through stop-and-go traffic to the home of her brother's girlfriend in Khmelnytskyi, in southwestern Ukraine.
Before they pulled out of the parking lot, Oleksandra ran back inside to take out the trash; she didn't want the house to smell by the time they returned.
She did not pause to take a last look at the home she loved.
Now, on a day just a year after the Russian invasion began, the scent of pine from the nearby forest mingles with that of burnt metal and dust.
The roof above Oleksandra's unit, where the skylight lit the dining room, is gone.
The sand in the playground where Oleksandra pushed Danylo on the swings is still scattered with broken glass. Coffee mugs and ceramic flowerpots on the burnt-out windowsills and balconies hint at how quickly neighbours picked up their lives and fled.
This time last year, the family spent a month together in a cramped, two-bedroom apartment with Oleksandra's brother, his girlfriend and his girlfriend's daughter. All six of them would eat around a small table, shoulder to shoulder. At night, when air-raid sirens went off, Oleksandra slept in the hallway with her son, away from the windows, in case a rocket landed nearby.
She felt lost and indecisive.
The suburb they left behind became a battleground. Russian soldiers occupied Irpin and nearby Bucha outside of Kyiv in an attempt to take the capital city. Returning home was not an option.
She still was not keen on leaving Ukraine, but now for a different reason. Men ages 18 to 60 were banned from leaving the country as part of the conditions imposed under martial law shortly after the invasion.
Leaving Ukraine meant leaving her husband, too.
"I was thinking that it's better to stay together, like family," she said.
But when Oleksii learned of a special three-year Canadian visa for Ukrainians fleeing the war, he dug out the application forms.
She hated the thought of splitting up her family to travel across the world, but the longer the conflict dragged on, the clearer it became that they would not be able to go home any time soon.
She applied on the first day the program opened and received a response right away. Within a week, she and Danylo were on their way to Romania to be fingerprinted and photographed as part of Canada's immigration process.
On March 26, 2022, days after making the wrenching decision to leave both her country and her husband, she found out the home she loved in Irpin was gone.
Oleksii had found a post on the social media app Telegram about a fire in their apartment building.
"The roof was on fire," she said, almost a year later. "It was very obvious."
Ukraine recaptured the suburb a few days later, but Oleksandra had already decided that her life in that country was over.
"We have nothing to come back to. We have nothing in Ukraine," she said, sitting in the sunny living room of the rental house in Ottawa.
She lives there now with her son, her parents and a friend, while Oleksii lives in Kyiv, where he plans to work until he can join his family in Canada.
The two talk on the phone twice a day.
Though Oleksandra says she has accepted what's happened to her home, her breath still catches in her throat when she sees it now.
"It looks horrible," she says softly as she scans photographs and videos taken by The Canadian Press during a recent visit to Irpin.
The white stucco siding is blackened and burned, the windows are blown out and twisted sheets of metal hang off the roof and balconies. The parking lot is full of debris, and small pieces of the building fall from the four-storey building with every strong breeze.
It is unclear what happened to it, because most neighbours were not in the suburb at the time. Those who have since returned to the area believe it was hit by a missile. Pockmarks in the side of the building suggest it was also hit by shrapnel from nearby explosions.
Damage to the building next door was mostly limited to blasted-out windows, which have since been repaired. Neighbours come and go, stepping over the sharp rubble scattered around Oleksandra's apartment building on their way in and out.
For those who have returned, the empty building is a reminder of what has been lost.
Oksana Kucheryna, an older woman who lives in a nearby building, walked by on her way to the shop on a day in late February, plastic bag in band. She says she often stops to take a long look at the crumbling building as she passes by. She wraps herself in her winter coat, kerchief tied neatly around her head, as she makes her way through the same alley Oleksandra and Danylo would take on their forest walks.
"Now we are used to looking at it, but at first, it was horrible to see it," she said, her eyes watering as she stared up at the charred building.
"I want to cry watching all this. People worked hard to buy these apartments. And at one point, all of it was gone."
Rebuilding efforts have been underway in Irpin since Ukraine retook the community last March, but the buildings that appear to be beyond repair, such as Oleksandra's, have been mostly left as they are: black and hollowed by the violence of the past year.
Craters in the pavement show where projectiles landed outside homes, shops and schools.
Outside the grocery store, a crowd of people — mainly seniors, teens and mothers with strollers — wait in line as volunteers hand out meals and small bags of food to take home for the week.
The toll of the war is on the faces of the people who have returned to the community, many of whom keep their eyes cast down to the sidewalk as they make their way past the wreckage.
In Ottawa, Oleksandra sometimes still feels a pull for the things and places she left behind. Often it's small things she yearns for, like the cosy, second-hand sweatshirt with the NASA logo, her favourite on cold days, that was in the laundry machine while she hastily packed her suitcase last year.
Not everything in Irpin is lost.
Near Oleksandra's former home, a mother and her son could be seen walking hand in hand through the towering trees.
Oleksandra cannot imagine returning now. She feels that even in the aftermath of the war, the community would be dangerous for her son.
Oleksandra is rebuilding, too, her life now in Ottawa.
"I feel like I'm Canadian," she says. Now that she is safe, she feels like she and Danylo can adjust to the new environment.
Volunteers have helped her furnish her new home. The table and chairs are almost the same as the ones she left in her bright orange dining room in Irpin.
A three-minute walk from her rental home in Ottawa, there is a forested lot full of maple trees where mother and son can go for a stroll.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2023.
Laura Osman, The Canadian Press