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Ukraine: returning like a bird to its empty nest

Image of a stork standing atop greenery with sky in background.

A stork on a nest, a symbol of returning to an abandoned home. All photos: Halyna Bilak/CARE

A stork on a nest, a symbol of returning to an abandoned home. All photos: Halyna Bilak/CARE

In a small southern Ukrainian town, birds have built nests in the large holes recently made in the walls of an apartment building. The town is Luch. The holes were made from shrapnel.

In Spring 2022, the front line passed through the town, and active fighting lasted for months. Today, not a single house survives undamaged.

Image of a half-crumbled wall of a two-story home, a pile of rubble in the foreground.
A destroyed house in the town of Luch.

“We lived in the basement for more than a month, and only in the morning, when the shelling subsided a bit, we would run to the apartment to take a shower or get some of our things,” says Kateryna, 37. “We slept on pallets, along with all the neighbors. There were 12 of us living in a [160 square foot] basement. But we did not want to leave until the last moment. We fled Donetsk in 2014. We started life from scratch here, and it was very scary to lose everything again.”

But when the house was damaged and the shelling intensified, Kateryna, her husband Serhii, 52, and daughter Yevheniia, 15, finally left.

Medium-framed image of two people, a dark-haired woman, and grey-haired man, standing in a kitchen.
Kateryna and Serhii in the kitchen of their apartment.

“On the way, we learned that a piece of shrapnel had hit our garage,” Serhii adds. “If we hadn’t left that day, we would have had no chance of leaving, because the car would have definitely not survived.”

They lived in the Lviv region for almost a year, and in June 2023 they decided to return home

“When we got back to our apartment, we didn’t have a single window left,” Kateryna says.  “There were pigeons on the balcony. A piece of shrapnel flew through the entire apartment and landed in the child’s bed. By some miracle, it did not catch fire, otherwise we would have no place to go back to.”

Image of a dark-haired woman gesturing with her arm at a wall.
Kateryna shows how the shrapnel flew through their apartment.

CARE, together with partners from the Response Consortium, supported by USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA), is replacing windows in Luch.

“We selected three communities and assessed the damage,” says Anna Vaslyenko, regional coordinator of Stabilization Support Services in southern Ukraine. “Unfortunately, a lot of buildings need major repairs, and we are only doing light repairs to replace windows and roofs. We have identified 12 apartments in this town.”

Image of two workers framed against a bright window.
Craftsmen are installing a new window in Kateryna and Serhii's apartment.

Current challenges

According to local coordinator Svitlana Ginzhul, people are only returning — slowly — now that they have some help repairing their homes, as well as help with living expenses.

“Now we have electricity and gas back, and water is being brought in,” she says. “The Internet connection is being restored.

“However, the school and kindergarten here are destroyed. Public transportation runs very rarely because there are no passengers. There is no work here, and people cannot get to the city because they have no means of transportation. Therefore, humanitarian aid and pensions are the only way to survive here. About 25 percent of the people who return do so because of [CARE] support.”

Image of a sunny street, with partially destroyed homes on the right side and a person walking in the distance.
One of the streets in the town of Luch.

Leonid, 81, has come to Luch to look at the new window that was recently installed in his apartment. He opens the window and listens to the birds singing.

“I live alone, I get a small pension, and I definitely could not afford new windows,” he says. “And you can’t stay in a shelter for long either.”

He says he hopes to return to live here for good soon.

Image of an older man standing indoors, next to a window.
Leonid stands in front of the new window in his apartment.

But he hasn’t yet returned home. He is still living in Mykolaiv, where the cost of his commute alone is 800 hryvnias (roughly $20), a quarter of his pension.

CARE and partners are working to improve the humanitarian situation in the region and support all those affected. The scale of the destruction here, the financial and emotional exhaustion caused by prolonged displacement, and the instability of the front line, still hold people back from returning. Since March 2022, CARE has restored nearly 2,000 Ukrainian homes, like Leonid’s.

Outside his new window, the birds continue to pierce the plastic and build homes where no families are nesting. Not yet.

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