Yitomir, the Ukrainian city that tries to recover normality under the bombs | International
94 families lived at 72 Pushkin Street in Zhytomyr. That was before March 4, when a Russian missile fell 50 meters from the building, on School number 25 in this city in northern Ukraine. The school was razed to the ground and the blocks of flats on Pushkin Street damaged. Today about 20 tenants continue to reside in the building, says the Horovetz family. Most left the place.
The Horovetzes are the only ones who last Tuesday morning sought shelter in the basements of the block when the alarms sounded of a possible air attack. “Just a week ago, the shelter was full with the few of us who are still here, but most have returned to work, it is what the mayor asked for,” said Mikhailov, the father.
Yitomir (about 266,000 inhabitants) is located 130 kilometers west of the kyiv front, the capital of Ukraine. 40% of its population fled the city to the safer regions of the west of the country or abroad. To the north of Zhytomyr province some of the most intense armed confrontations of the war against the Russian invader have taken place.
The city has suffered devastating attacks in its urban area, such as the one that left Alexandr Korniichuck homeless on March 2. If someone doesn’t believe in miracles, Korniichuk says, he should visit the site of the two-story house he inherited from his parents. He and his wife were in the building, now in ruins. His 12-year-old son had moved shortly before to live with his grandparents in the countryside. They were rescued under the rubble, a master wall saved them. In what was the courtyard of the neighborhood community, his car is overturned and destroyed. His wife has hearing problems due to the explosion and he was three weeks without work. He returned to his job as a technician for the Lifecell mobile phone company a few days ago: “I was born again on March 2, now what I need is to deposit money, and my country needs telephone connections.”
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Serhii Sukhomlin, the mayor of Yitomir, is a retired military man who lavishes patriotic messages on his social networks. On the table he has a rifle and on the back of his chair, his bulletproof vest. His mission today is for his fellow citizens to return to the chopping block. The president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, has insisted on the same thing: economic activity must function wherever possible.
In Zhytomyr, the bus and trolleybus public transport network was put back into operation last week. Every few hours the service is interrupted by air raid alarms, but the citizenry stoically accepts it. Sukhomlin and his team settle in a hallway on the first floor of City Hall when sirens sound. “People are adapting, notice that now many do not even go down to the shelters,” explains Víktor Kliminskii, secretary of the municipal plenary.
Kliminskii moves around the city in a camouflage uniform and a kalashnikov shoulder slung He gives the example of the municipal market, which is progressively recovering its stalls. “Battles are also won here,” he says, confirming that little by little there are more residents returning to the city. Sukhomlin advances that they want to begin the construction of houses as soon as possible for those who have lost their homes and especially for the thousands of displaced families from the east of the country who will settle in the area. “Many of them will not return to their provinces, which are the ones that will suffer the consequences of the war the longest,” says the mayor.
The music of a rock band thunders in the evangelical temple The Commandment of Jesus Christ. The lyrics they sing are patriotic litanies in which they ask God to help them defeat evil. The Evangelical Church has a significant presence in the provinces around kyiv and in Zhytomyr it has a thousand parishioners. There are only 400 left, summarizes Kostia Dekhtiazenko, assistant to the pastor, but his services have gone from being weekly to daily due to the need of the population to meet again. Dekhtiazenko believes that people are less afraid: “Now, when a missile falls, we immediately return to activity; a month ago, we were blocked”.
DJ Maughfling is a British businessman who could be at home in Slovakia, where his wife lives, or in the United Kingdom, his country, but prefers to continue in Zhytomyr. On the outskirts of the city he has the production plant of his company, Supersprox, a company that makes sprockets and chainrings for motorcycles. The day the Russian-provoked hostilities began, February 24, Maughfling was in Slovakia. The next morning he set out for Zhytomyr. “This is a small family company, we all know each other, we know about our lives.”
Supersprox is one of the few factories in the region that did not stop production. Its financial director, Viktoria Polishcuk, lists five foreign-funded companies that have restarted activity following her example. “We could not stop because this is not a rich country, it is not like the European Union, which distributed millions of aid with the coronavirus pandemic,” recalls Maughfling. “Here, if they don’t collect payroll, they have nothing, and if the State doesn’t pay taxes, it won’t be able to face the conflict either.” This British businessman admits that the situation gives him respect, and it is not for less: the neighboring Izovat factory, a giant in the thermal insulation sector, was partially destroyed by a Russian missile. “We have to control fear. Those who work here know that the situation is dangerous, but they believe that it is better to be busy than at home all day watching the news, driving yourself crazy.”
Of the 74 employees that Supersprox had, there are now 40 active; those that are missing are enlisted, volunteer, or have left town. Production has only fallen by 30%, says the management, because the rest of the departments, from designers to laser technicians, have joined the production line. They have few months of aluminum and steel stocks left. Its main steel supplier is in Mariupol, the city hardest hit by Russian aggression. They also have three aluminum containers blocked in the port of Odessa, in Turkey and in China. They don’t know how they can get them to Zhytomyr, Polishchuk concedes, but they know they will. “The pandemic instilled in us the mindset of pulling forward,” she says. “They also told us that we would not find trucks to transport our products to Poland, and we have already made two shipments,” adds Maughfling.
The city council confirms that the companies that continue to operate, some with up to 3,000 employees, must follow strict security measures: employees cannot have their mobile geolocator activated because if the enemy detects a high concentration of people at a specific point, they can identify it as a target. The shielding elements of facilities that cannot fail to be guarded by personnel, such as a paper factory in the demarcation, have also been reinforced.
Military roadblocks or search for saboteurs are also an obstacle for the transport of goods. The ones who are saved are the farmers: the tractors go from one side to the other in the direction of the fields, avoiding the controls with a greeting, as if they were old acquaintances, without stopping their route to sow a flat and stitched landscape with endless plantations of cereals.
The cleaning brigades that prepare the city every morning also stop the activity during the repeated warnings of a possible air attack and then resume it. Teams of volunteers clear and clean the banks of the Teteriv River, the city’s green lung. “People need to feel useful, and when they meet more people like them, it becomes a kind of therapy,” says Sukhomlin. The mayor stresses that the citizens have accepted that they have just begun “a stage that will last a long time”, that of living with the war.
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