Tom Mutch talks to the owners of a chain of dance studios in Donbas, whose epic journey suggests a brighter future for their war-ravaged homeland
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IRPIN - The last time I saw Oleksiy Ovchynnykov, we were speeding down a narrow road in the Luhansk region at 150 kilometres an hour, as Russian artillery was smashing into the fields next to us. We drove past the remains of a Ukrainian army truck that was in flames after a direct hit from a Russian shell.
Now, he is smiling as he gestures to a group of four young children, three boys and one girl around six years old who are dancing to the instructions of a hip-hop teacher. The studio, owned by his wife, specialises in ballroom dancing, but they also teach ballet, hip-hop and a variety of other classical and modern styles.
A year after liberation, his new hometown of Irpin looks like the affluent commuter town it was before Russia's full-scale invasion. Spring tulips are blooming in the park, the sun is shining on a clear blue day, as he brings us up the stairs into his dance studio. Supermarkets and shops are all back to normal hours, and trendy cafes and restaurants have sprung back open throughout the city.Every so often you can find signs of the fighting- shrapnel marks on a wall, bullet holes in a corrugated iron fence, broken windows and walls that are yet to be repaired. There is little to suggest Irpin had, just a year previously, been the sight of one of the world's most vicious battles.
Russian troops that had rushed towards Kyiv from Belarus had expected to surround the capital within three days and force its surrender. Instead, they had gotten tangled by the dogged Ukrainian defence of the city. After four weeks of fighting, Ukrainian forces, many territorial defence units drawn from the local civilian population, pushed them out of the city.
But seventy per cent of the city's buildings had been damaged, and a mammoth reconstruction effort is now underway. Much will be condemned regardless- at least thirty-seven high-rise buildings, along with countless smaller dwellings, have been deemed uninhabitable.
Oleksiy and his wife Nastya moved from their hometown of Slovyansk in June of last year. Oleksiy had worked for several months as a volunteer delivering aid and supplies to both soldiers and civilians in the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, key targets in Moscow's campaign in the Donbas region last summer. Slovyansk had seen fierce fighting in 2014, when it was the first city in the Donbas region taken over by Russian proxy forces, before being recaptured by the Ukrainian army.
"When we came here, the city was very destroyed," he says, "But Slovyansk was also destroyed in 2014 so I knew Irpin would rebuild."
Before the start of the 2014 war, they were some of the most successful professional dancers in Ukraine. They owned seven studios throughout the Donbas region and had held major shows with Ukraine's biggest artists. One, with the famous singer Monatik in Kramatorsk, had attracted a crowd of six thousand in a city of just 150,000 people.
Now, the studios are all shuttered. One, in the town of Sviatohirsk, was destroyed in shelling by Russian forces. It was a family business - his mother had first opened a studio in 1983, and he had inherited it on her death in 2005.
While Irpin has been mostly peaceful since liberation, it has not been entirely smooth sailing. "We were supposed to open on October 10. Then, the Russians attacked Kyiv with their first drone attacks. We did not work for a week after that."
Then, in December, they closed due to a lack of power and water. It was the most difficult period since they had moved there. "You can manage without power, but after a week of no water and not washing? You feel like an animal!"
It was not just the regular fighting that traumatized people in Irpin. When Ukrainian troops liberated the city in April last year, they found evidence of executions of civilians, both here and in neighbouring Bucha, that constituted grave war crimes. Over 1200 civilians were found killed in the region, 290 in Irpin alone.
For Oliksiy, these horrors are not just the fault of the individual soldiers or Russian military command - it is the responsibility of ordinary Russians. "I can't see how Russian people saw this and approve of what is happening," he says. When we met in Slovyansk, he had similar thoughts. "When Ukrainians had leaders who wanted to be dictators, like in 2004 and 2014, we rose and overthrew them. In 2012, when Russians protested Putin, they had their chance to overthrow their dictator. But they did not try hard enough, and now Ukrainians pay the price for the Russian people's failure to do so."
The bill for Irpin to rebuild is tens of millions of dollars, but in some ways, the city has been lucky. With Russian forces having withdrawn from the area after just a month and the region now being far from the fighting, it has been allowed to rebuild in relative peace. But Ukraine is littered with dozens of towns - Borohodychne in the Donetsk Oblast, Kamyanka in the Kharkiv Oblast, and Posad-Pokrovsk in the Kherson Oblast, have been almost destroyed. Many of these may never be rebuilt and remain husks of their former selves.
The costs of rebuilding will be staggering. The World Bank determines the bill for reconstruction could be up to three hundred billion dollars. Roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, power stations and sewage systems will all need rebuilding.
Yet Oliksiy believes that with perseverance and determination, Ukraine will emerge from the conflict (they always say 'after the victory') stronger and more resilient than ever before. "For every town in Ukraine it will be the time of opportunities" he says. "I know so many people from Slovyansk, who, after 2014, went on to open their businesses, to develop successfully." Instead, it will be a period of flowering for the whole country.
Looking around Irpin, seeing the return of peaceful family life, and children playing in parks that were recently battlefields, you can understand the desire of Ukrainians to fight so hard for their country. They want all the cities in Ukraine, especially those still occupied or under fire in the south and east, to rebuild and flourish as Irpin has risen from the ashes.
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