Lena Rozvadovska has been living in Slovyansk for a little over two years. She travels to the frontline and talks to the children. She calls herself a volunteer, because she has to call herself something.
At the end of 2014, Lena still lived in Kyiv and worked as a spokesperson for the Ukrainian President's Ombudsman for Children's Rights. In early 2015, she left her job, packed up her things, took her off-season clothes and books to her relatives, sold the rest and moved to Slovyansk. Only for a short time, it seemed then, just a month or two, until the end of the war.
[L]"You see," Lena explains why it was necessary to do so, "in 10 years we will have a generation of Ukrainians who have grown up during war and whom no one will understand."
She wants to understand, and she has many children here. In Avdiyivka, Zolote, Zaytsevo and Krasnohorivka. And the place I was with her.
"I saw something crawling around the garden," Lena Rozvadovska told me, who found a little girl with cerebral palsy living in Stara Avdiyivka.
And not just in "Old Woman", but in the "Pit" - a dangerous area in a dangerous area of a dangerous city.
Alyonka was "helping" her grandmother in the garden. She likes to help, but rarely gets to go to the garden because of the shooting. So when there's no shooting, for Alyonka it's like a double jackpot.
|© Dan Archer
When Lena introduced me to Alyonka, it was July 2016.
Then Alyonka's life was like this: they live in a large family, her grandmother Natasha, her grandfather, mother Oksana, Tolik, Alyona's brother, and Uncle Sasha, her mother's cousin.
- When I was digging for potatoes, grandpa laughed at me. I went to work in the morning when it was all real quiet. Then I heard machine guns firing. I dropped to the ground. Grandpa says: I was watching you, you were lying on the ground and picking the grass. Well, what else was there to do? I was lying, I had to do something, - says grandmother Natasha.
In order to allow Alyonka to play outside, they built a reinforced sandbox for her. The tires that block Alyonka's sand corner stop the bullets.
Natasha tells me that she and Tolik, Alyonka's elder brother, will plant a grapevine above the sandbox to provide some shade in the summer. And they will make butterflies and bees out of plastic bottles and hang them from the grapes. They read on the Internet how to make these things, now they plan to decorate and want it to be beautiful.
In July last year, Alyonka lay in plaster. Lena collected money for an operation. Alyonka had the operation on one of her legs.
- The first week she shouted "I want to get up" and kept saying "Grandma, let's go to the garden". We sang songs with her. "A cossack is walking along the Don" and "Two oak trees on the mountain", - says Natasha.
- And "Frosty frost", - says grandpa. - Because that's my favorite!
I thought Natasha was a teacher, but she just laughed, saying she was a crane machinist, who worked in a foundry shop in Donetsk.
She teaches Alyonka poetry and songs. She watches "Cousteau's Underwater World" with Tolik. Makes things with her hands.
- The Internet is a good thing, you can find anything, - says Natasha.
There's Internet when there's electricity. Until the day before yesterday, there was no light. There wasn't any water for four days. These were all results of the bombardment. Now there's just machine gun fire.
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Why don't you leave this place, I ask.
- I grow everything myself here. Cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage... I don't like asking for anything. I like it when it's all mine, - she explains.
A lot of people explain why they stay under bullet fire with cucumbers and tomatoes, their houses and the old folk wisdom about defending walls and houses which are like fortresses.
Oksana, Alyona's mother, also thinks so. They've left once. Later they came back. They say it was very difficult. Here they have their house. And Oksana's sister also lives nearby. She also left, and also returned.
Tolik's class has 6 children. Before the war, he says, there were more children, and it was better in general. He was allowed to go outside on his own to visit his brother.
- We have some new bullets, - Natasha shows the stool, on which they lay out the bullets. - That's just from the courtyard. There's all kinds of calibers here. This one flew directly into our window. This one struck iron with such force that it got flattened...
- Grandma, let me count them, - says Alyonka. She lies under the canopy like a real princess. She can't move. The plaster on her two legs goes up to her waist.
They don't allow Alyonka to count the bullets. She counts pencils and candy. And she promises Lena that she will dance.
When we leave, Lena is terribly upset. Because she dragged the family into this story with the operation. And that maybe she should't have...
There's constant shooting. Lena says: "She is completely helpless now. Before, she could at least crawl away..."
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... May, 2017. Alyona is waiting for her second operation.
- Back then I thought that I would raise the money for the operation, and that's it. But it was just the beginning. There was the postoperative period, rehabilitation, a new wheelchair because Alyonka couldn't sleep anywhere! Then I bought her an armchair at the Avdiyivka Rehabilitation Center because they wouldn't let her stay otherwise. We left it there. I won't take it. Other children need it...
Now Lena says that she's not worried about Alonka any more. And not just because the money for the last operation has been successfully collected, but because the family - the mother, Tolik, Alyonka and Uncle Sasha - no longer lives in Avdiyika. They are in Lyman. And now Lena is buying them a house. Well, she found a house and some sponsors...
Near this new home there's a forest, a football field, a library. And, most importantly, there's no shooting in Lyman.
- It's good that they've moved. They could have stayed in Avdiyivka on free humanitarian aid. A lot of people do that, - says Lena.
We know of such examples. In Avdiyivka, too. "Lenchik, I'm out of diapers", "Lenchik, come over, we need baby food", "Lena, bring me a pair of boots, size 37...", - volunteers receive a lot of calls from people who believe that the world owes them for "sitting under the bullets".
But this is a separate story, and this story is definitely not about Alyona's family.
... They hung on to their house as long as they could, but in February, 2017 Avdiyivka was heavily bombarded, shells hit the city's main water pipe, and the house was completely flooded. The level of water was at half a meter.
- I woke up in the middle of the night to add some wood to the fire, - grandmother recalls, - there was water everywhere. We tried to collect it...
Lena took them out. First, to their relatives in Dymytriv, and then on to Lyman. These are safe cities in the Donbas. There is no war there.
Lena says she only paid for the car, and their relatives found them a house in Lyman, where they only pay for utilities.
- I see that their faces have lit up - the little one just flies all over the place, Oksana's face is glowing, Alyonka responds better to everything... Tolik is now at school, and Alyonka is at the rehabilitation center, - Lena tells us about the Lyman stage of their family history.
|© Dan Archer
Then they began to think of staying and buying a house...
They found a house on the very street where they live, for $ 3500. The money for this purchase was provided by the Emmanuel Mercy Association.
- I didn't want to collect the money for their home from people. Two circumstances stopped me: first, it was a very large sum and it would take a long time. Second, both Oksana and Sasha can work. So why should other people buy them their home? It's not treatment, - Lena explains her position.
She also says that all her volunteering is when her friends help her other friends. What does she do? Nothing. She is simply friends with "Emmanuel", and "Emmanuel" has a housing program...
Lena raised the money for Alyona's operation via Facebook. Andriy Tsaplianko, remembers Lena, saw her request and sent some money to her credit card, also Serhiy Karaziy and other journalists. Commander Volodymyr Rehesha (codename Santa) made a repost with a plea for help, and then the money really started pouring in.
- I especially liked one comment to the money transfer "From the sappers of the city of Avdiyivka", - laughs Lena.
People sent dollars from the United States, acquaintances with whom she had not talked for a hundred years responded, her cousin, soldiers, friends. Although many, says Lena, are not at their best financial situation.
- I was nervous about every penny. UAH 50 from a stranger who believed in my FB post was a great responsibility. Often, journalists or my friends' friends simply send me money with a comment "this is for your children", - says Lena.
... Oksana likes her new home. They still live in their rented house, but they've already planted their new garden at their new place at Partyzanska, 66. Oksana has already planted carrots, potatoes, beets, corn, radishes, cucumbers... It was Lena who brought the seeds, through a program of the "Pope for Ukraine" fund with which Lena now collaborates on one of the programs. But that is also a separate story. There are many stories about Lena.
|© Dan Archer
While I talk to Sasha and Oksana, Lena draws a circle with Alyonka.
- Circle, - says Alyonka.
I have a beautiful photo of Sasha with Oksana in Avdiyivka last summer, They're holding rabbits. I ask them if they will have rabbits here in Lyman.
- Rabbits, - recalls Alyonka.
Oksana likes embroidering and wants to embroider Lena some flowers.
- You've already done that, - Lena laughs. - I may open an exhibition soon...
Lena carefully stores Oksana's pictures and poems. Here, in Lyman, Oksana began to draw.
- I have a request, - says Sasha, turning to Lena. - When we get settled in our new home, carve out one day so that we can sit down and talk without hurry...
- And go to the forest, - Oksana invites.
- Circle. I drew it, - says Alyonka again.
In Lyman, the family has a serious problem: Oksana cannot arrange social and DP payments for herself and Alyona. Until they've bought a house, they are still considered displaced persons (as of today, the problem has been resolved, but in May, it seemed, the situation was at a standstill - LH).
- It's taken them 2 months to trasfer their documents on social payments from Avdiyivka to Lyman! The cities are within one area. This is a very poor family, they can't get by without these payments, because they have nothing. I'm tired of sending them money! - Lena is furious.
Even if it's such a long procedure, she says, why can't it be accelerated if the family has arrived from the front line with a disabled child?!
Oksana receives assistance at the school where Tolik studies. The parental committee collected some tinned food for her. Grandma brought flour from Avdiyivka.
- It's a problem! - says Lena loudly, when we discuss the situation on social payments with Oksana.
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- I have a problem, - Alyona says, echoing.
- What problem?! - we react with surprise to such an unexpected participation by Alyonka in our social dialogue.
But Alyonka is worried about other things:
- The problem is I'm afraid of doctors.
This really is a problem. Oksana says that they were strictly warned at the Kharkiv hospital, where the operation will be performed, that if the child cries out during their visit, then there will be no operation.
- A person is afraid that they'll give him a shot, - says Alyona.
- But you have to do the operation, - I say very seriously. - Should we fix the other leg? What do you think?
- Pencils, - says Alyonka strictly and draws another circle.
Lena will go with them. But first the house, then social payments, then off to Kharkiv.
Tolik comes home from school.
- I love Tolik, - Alonka informs.
Tolik says that today he had geography, drawing, history, a classroom hour, and he still needs to go to the library.
There are 27 children in his class in Lyman, in Avdiyivka there were only 6. The small classes and teachers allowed the children to sleep after nights of bombardment. There is no such thing here.
Alyona also studies. Teachers come to her rehabilitation center. She is on an individual study.
Oksana wants Alyonka to go to music school. Later. First the house, then the operation, and then music school.
Oksana shows her new house. The garden. The summer kitchen.
- The summer kitchen is really big, - grandma and grandpa who stayed in Avdiyivka, will say later. - We could fix it and maybe also live there, with them...
For now the old couple will stay in Avdiyivka. First, there's the garden and second, someone needs to guard the house. It could get robbed. In the Ukrainian war, most elderly people send young people away from war and guard their homes. From marauders.
|© Dan Archer
Oksana says that she likes it in Lyman, but she misses her home. She misses Avdiyivka. Her mom, dad, rabbits and years of her life are still there.
- We must find gasoline for them, they can visit the children, Lena says. That's 120 km to here and back. The old couple's pension is UAH 1500, you won't get far on that... So, she needs to find gasoline.
We say goodbye, and Oksana takes Tolik to the library to register.
Lena says: this is a resourceful family, and it's a joy to help them.
I find the word "resourceful" unjustified, but Lena disagrees: they take care of their children and plant their garden.
- People who plant, they want something, - Lena says.
She also says she's finally calm now.
- I kept running around and looking for something all the time: another operation, that's 5000, a trip to Kharkiv - another 2000, the purchase of a house... Now the purchase of the house has already been agreed upon, the money for the operation has been raised... I'm calm. They'll get the furniture themselves somehow... I'm done, - she exhales.
[L]- And where is the limit of necessary aid? - I ask.
- Basic needs. You can't spoil them. A roof over your head is a basic need. Medications, surgery — no questions asked. Food, psychologist. The rest is up to them. There are many families with disabled children, you can't help everyone... It's necessary for people to learn to take care of themselves, - her words are hard, as if she is anothe Lena, although in fact it's the same one.
... Oksana is going to cook jam from green cones. It's a local delicacy here in Lyman. She promises to make some for Lena.
- This is the next stage, - Lena says. - "Come for a visit," "Let's have tea sometime". This is much harder for me than to raise money for a house... Because I am, in fact, an introvert and a sociopath ... - says Lena and I believe her.
No, not that she's a sociopath. That's just talk. I believe it's hard for her.
Oksana and Tolik presented Lena with a large bouquet of lilacs as a goodbye gift. Lena thanked them very sincerely. And then, when we left Lyman, she stopped and said: sorry, I will plant the lilacs, because I have an allergy.
She's terribly allergic to flowers.
But she needs to accept them. You can't reject a gift from a person who wants to thank you.
Lesya Ganzha, text
Project undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through the Global Affairs Canada.