IZIUM, Ukraine — Rainwater is for showers and dishes. Scavenged wood is for the cooking fires. But almost nothing keeps out the autumn chill in homes without windows.
Russian forces controlled Izium for six months before being forced to retreat two weeks ago in a Ukrainian counteroffensive. On one of the last days of the battle, a grad rocket exploded in Margaryta Tkachenko’s yard. Its carcass is there still, something of a novelty for her children and a reminder of the terrible six months the family has endured.
The house was damaged beyond recognition months ago.
“I remember planes flying, how mines whistled, cassette (rockets) exploded,” said her son Mykyta, the oldest of three.
“We came out of the basement and the house was gone,” Tkachenko said. She kept the children in the basement and did her best to clean up the damage above.
“The children had not washed for many days,” she said. “We hadn’t eaten for several days. The little one ate a spoonful of honey and the boy ate a spoonful of rice. I didn’t eat anything for two days.”
Her roof is a charred shell, and the upstairs windows that overlook the Sievierodonetsk River are open to the weather. She and her three children — ages 9 months, 7 and 10 — now live in a darkened downstairs corner, sleeping together on a mattress that takes up the entire bedroom and fumbling around for what they need once the sun goes down.
The town has had no gas, electricity, running water or internet since March. No one has been able to predict when that might change, but regional officials have urged residents who left in the early days of the war not to return. Too difficult an — with countless mines strewn about — too dangerous.
But Tkachenko was among the thousands who waited out the Russians.
As dusk settled in on Sunday, she hoisted the baby on her hip, told her daughter to fetch drinking water and with her unoccupied hand crumped paper, carefully piled kindling, lit the fire and placed the kettle on the grate. The smell of wood smoke filled the air. Her older daughter slowly transformed a slender stick into embers, taking the point out every few seconds to watch it burn in the growing darkness.