In the rubble of a home destroyed by Russian shelling in the northern Ukrainian province of Chernihiv, young volunteers cleaned up the damage to the rhythm of music. It was a scene of joy amid devastation.
The crowd of young Ukrainians, who before Russia’s invasion spent their time organizing bar crawls and parties, are now trying to bring that spirit to the difficult job of clearing debris and restoring buildings damaged by Russian attacks.
The group, a volunteer initiative, is known as Repair Together. Music pours from portable speakers wherever they go. On Saturday, before an afternoon of cleaning, they cooked to techno, and later ate borsht and bread to pop-rock under chestnut trees.
“The concept is that we want to make our volunteering not hard work. We want to make it a cultural event. It’s more interesting for young people,” said Oksana Huz, 28, a volunteer organizer with Repair Together. “We wanted to make it like a lifestyle.” She said the group started its work five months ago and has cleaned up around 160 destroyed homes so far.
Before the war, Ms. Huz and other members of her team organized bar crawls for tourists, at their favourite places in Kyiv. When the same group started volunteering to help clean up homes destroyed in the war, they decided to put their own spin on things. “All of the members of our team, we liked raves and parties before the war. Now it’s impossible to have fun,” Ms. Huz said. The group knows how to organize, she added.
Ms. Huz explained that local government officials give Repair Together lists of damaged buildings, and the volunteers choose to help people with the most acute needs, such as elderly people who don’t have family.
Ivan Kulaga’s house in the village of Kolychivka was on the agenda that day. The 79-year-old stood at the gate of his property as volunteers, mostly twentysomethings, fired up music and got to work.
Mr. Kulaga was sheltering in a neighbour’s home with his wife, Maria, when a shell hit his house, killing his dog Rex and burning everything he owned. Tears streamed down his face as he spoke.
He walked to the back of his yard and leaned against a slab of concrete. A nearby crush of metal used to be his work equipment. He’s a construction worker, but also builds on his own, at home. “Everything I had burned down,” he said.
In the centre of the cleanup effort, Justin Bieber played as Oksana Malevych, 29, surveyed the destruction. She said the group would clean everything and sort out material that could be reused. “Even in time of full invasion, of war, there are a lot of people who are willing to help other people and they spend their weekends, and spend their money and free time to help,” she said. “I think this consolidation of the nation is really important and inspiring.”
During a lunch of borscht and sliced bread, Ievgeniia Sharapaniuk, 33, said that after the day’s cleanup the volunteers would have a small party.
“Every day there is horrible stuff going on, people dying, and you should somehow cope with that. And that’s why you should have free time and this small party,” she said. Ms. Sharapaniuk said she’s not sure if people in other countries understand what Ukraine is facing. “It’s terrorism. Total terrorism,” she said.
At a school in a nearby village, which volunteers used as their headquarters that night, Ms. Huz swung open a door to a warm kitchen and announced that “borsht is ready.”
Later that night, about 150 volunteers would sleep at the school – but first they would gather at a cultural house across the street. The building had been damaged by a shockwave from an explosion. It was there that the party would take place, complete with a DJ spinning tracks.
“It’s fantastic,” Ms. Huz said.
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