How the War Came to Kalynivka

How the War Came to Kalynivka

These refugees from Luhansk thought they were leaving the carnage behind. Instead, it followed them west, making the path to recovery long and uncertain.


Kalynivka, Ukraine—When Alexsander Doroshenko and his wife arrived in Kyiv after fleeing their home in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine at the beginning of the Russian invasion in 2014, he thought they were finally finished with war. Then, at 2:30 in the morning on March 24, he awoke to a phone call from the owner of the fish processing plant in Kalynivka, a small town southwest of Kyiv, where he worked as the head engineer. There had been a fire, and he was needed right away. He hopped in his car to make the roughly 20-minute drive from his home, in another suburb of Kyiv.

When he arrived, the flames were still shooting skyward, beneath billowing plumes of black smoke. The neighboring military fuel depot had been turned to rubble, and the warehouse of his fish plant was also in ruins. He immediately realized it was not just a fire, but the results of an explosion from a Russian rocket attack. One rocket had missed the depot and struck the warehouse—the plant’s owner found the shell on the property. Doroshenko, a veteran of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, calmly surveyed the damage. It reminded him of what he had left behind in Luhansk. He thought to himself, “Oh, no, not again.”

Doroshenko’s boss had long been planning to reopen on the day the rocket struck. The plant had temporarily ceased operations when the invasion began in February. About 30 of the roughly 150 employees had been sleeping in the small and spare living quarters there, meant for night-shift workers, because they were unable to return to their family homes in occupied cities in the east and south. Amazingly, none of them were injured. But now they had nowhere to work and nowhere to go.

The fire was extinguished eight hours later, and Doroshenko faced a decision: to scrap the warehouse and start over from scratch, or have some of his men and women try to salvage whatever might remain of the fish, and work to get back open as fast as possible. He decided to divide their duties, having some haul out the rest of the frozen fish and others sweep away the mangled metal remnants of the warehouse. It was all he could do.

Meanwhile, Russian military officials told a state-owned propaganda agency that “Kalibr high-precision sea-based cruise missiles” hit the fuel depot, claiming it was “the largest fuel base remaining in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, from which fuel was supplied to military units in the central part of the country.” There was no mention of the destruction of Doroshenko’s fish plant.

The bombing had filled the air with fumes and dust, and residents of Kalynivka could see the flames for miles. Some in this town never thought the Russian invasion would happen, much less reach their quiet streets. But because of the fuel depot and an Air Force base less than four miles away, Kalynivka found itself an unlikely target of Russia’s air assault. Meanwhile, ground troops threatened to invade from occupied towns like Bucha and Irpin, which sat just 40 miles north.

The beginning of the invasion in Kalynivka was marked by shock and awe. On March 12, two weeks before the fuel depot was destroyed, Russian rockets destroyed the air base in Vasylkiv. And on February 28, a residential street in Kalynivka was directly hit by rockets, leaving at least two people dead, turning homes to rubble, and rattling the bodies of civilians who took cover on their living room floors, praying to make it through the attack alive.

A Florist Cuts Her Losses

When I visited Kalynivka on Tuesday, May 10, the main square was bustling. Bicyclists and buses passed through, street vendors sold flowers and fruit. Soldiers mingled with civilians in line for kabob. It seemed the specter of war had found a new home, somewhere further east and south.

At a narrow and eclectic shop selling a variety of goods, everything from Barbie dolls to painted tea kettles, Oksana Scherbina sat behind the register, showing me video on her phone from a security camera trained on her house in Kalynivka. Her nails were painted blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

The video showed bright flashes and particles of dust falling from the sky like a light rain. There was a ball of fire in the corner of the screen, behind her house; she turned up the volume and played it again, and there was great roar from the explosion as the camera shook violently. On March 24, she explained, she was at her home about 700 meters from the fuel depot, when the rocket hit.

She said there was no warning, no whirring of a jet engine, no whistling of a rocket, just a great, big crash. She ran to a hallway in her home, away from the windows. “I just fell down to the floor and prayed,” she said. “‘God, please bless us, please help our family.’ I cried.”

The pressure of the explosion was so great, she said, that her heart felt like it was going to explode. Goosebumps formed all over her trembling body. The sound was so loud that she temporarily lost her hearing. Clouds of smoke darkened the sky above her home.

After that, Oksana decided to leave town. She’d already lost nine kilograms because she was too stressed to eat, and had only been sleeping two hours a day for the previous month, afraid of missing a rocket attack. She had only recently returned when I met, and it was her first day working at this shop. Before the war, she was a florist.

We left the store, and my translator, Valeria Vinyukovav, and I crossed the railroad tracks and entered the village. We saw what appeared to be a log cabin, its yard wrapped by barbed wire. As we got closer, we saw it was just a fake wallpaper covering that wrapped a regular building. There was also a mural of a tank on one wall, and a replica of a bomb hung in the sky above the yard, held up by thin wires. It was a World War II museum.

We passed a small clinic, and outside stood an older woman named Nadezhda, which translates to “hope” in English. She said that after the first rocket strike, she was so scared that she couldn’t talk for three days. Nearby, along the railroad tracks, another elderly woman walked by with a cane. Her name was Valentina. She said that when the fuel depot and fish processing plant were struck, she was up and awake, watching Russian television, which had been common for locals before the war. Her television screen suddenly turned to static. She walked outside into the street, suspecting foul weather, but felt no rain. Then she saw the massive fire in the distance. “It was fucking scary,” she said.

Further into town, the streets were paved and lined by fences; there were cherry blossoms in full bloom, and delicate white petals swam in the breeze. Evidence of the devastation was still fresh. In one neighborhood, we saw at least a half dozen homes that appeared to have been damaged by explosions, some with caved-in roofs, others with their windows blown out, and toppled wooden fences.

Outside one of the homes, a middle-aged man who only gave his first name, Alexsander, stood in sandals. Next to the house, curled up on a fallen fence next to a pile of debris, a cat slept peacefully, surrounded by the soft white petals from the cherry blossoms. A plastic tarp was draped over the frame of Alexsander’s roof, and he explained that he was here working on replacing the windows of his summer home.

He had only just finished putting on a new roof when, on February 28, bombs exploded nearby, destroying the roof and blowing the lock off his front door, which still doesn’t completely shut. Based on the blast radii, Alexsander said that two 250kg bombs appeared to have been dropped on the village (because of the proximity to the Air Force base, many people with military experience live in the area). He described his house as sitting between two craters.

Alexsander and his wife, who stood next to him outside, wearing pink lipstick and teal earrings, were both away when the bombs struck. He said most people had left the village by that point, four days into the war. But two people were killed in the explosion after one of the bombs directly hit a house on the next block over. Alexsander said their corpses were discovered in the street in front of his house: the headless body of a woman, and the dismembered remains of a man. A report by the State Emergency Service of Ukraine confirmed the strike, noting the death of the woman.

At the site of the bombing, only rubble remained. The singed chassis of a minivan sat in what was once a garage. A ring of gold garland, leftover from a New Year’s Eve celebration, was still draped around the frame of a doorway above the crumbling stump of yellow brick stairs. A small fir tree leaned to one side. There was a yellowed scrap of a newspaper, with a headline quoting President Zelensky’s promise to keep Ukrainians safe. Nothing else in the pile of rubble was recognizable. Nothing else remained.

Free Fish

We took a short walk to a block of Soviet-style apartment housing nearby, where mostly military families live. There was a large crater in the earth where one bomb had struck, surrounded by flower beds and vegetable gardens that had just begun to sprout some onions. Plastic bags and wooden boards covered most of the windows of the adjacent apartment building, which appeared to have been badly damaged by the bombing. At a playground nearby, two women sat on a worn wooden merry-go-round, as their two little toddlers played with sandbox toys.

Later that day, at the fish processing plant, Doroshenko’s men and women were busy at work. He had begun reconstructing the plant just four days after the fire. Doroshenko described teams of volunteers who arrived in the days after the bombing to help rebuild. In one day alone, he said, 16 cars full of volunteers showed up to help.

Of the 1,000 tons of fish stored at the warehouse, about 40 tons were saved, still frozen beneath the debris and the flames. Doroshenko announced that he was giving away free fish. In the following days, scores of people from town, some members from a local church, and even a van full of kids from a nearby orphanage all stopped by to grab the frozen seafood. He handed some out to the soldiers manning checkpoints in the area. Two men tried to steal some fish, according to Doroshenko; one ran away, but the other is allegedly still in police custody.

Sitting in his office on Tuesday, Doroshenko, quiet but proud, showed me photos of the damage, and videos of him handing out fish to the timid orphans in their winter hats, who looked suspiciously at the slippery, scaly creatures. Doroshenko’s generosity perhaps comes from his own experiences in Luhansk, where he spent two months without running water or electricity before fleeing to Kyiv. He showed me photos of his wife posing before a Russian tank back before they left the east. He said he’d taken more photos, but deleted them before leaving for Kyiv. He was afraid that he’d be killed if the Russians found the images on his phone.

As we toured the fish plant, workers were hauling off scraps of metal, scrubbing walls, painting, and installing electrical appliances. One refrigerator room should be operational within a few days, Doroshenko said, allowing him to try to sell enough fish to start to tackle the more expensive aspects of the reconstruction. He’s well short of the amount of money needed to fully rebuild—Doroshenko estimated it would cost $10 million—and, even with all of that money in hand, it would still take four months. For Doroshenko and the rest of Kalynivka, a long and uncertain road of recovery lay ahead.

Valeria Vinyukovav contributed reporting from Kalynivka.

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