The road from Mariupol to Shyrokne, isn’t long, but it is eerily quiet and devoid of any movement, aside from the military checkpoints and the occasional pheasant. Travelling it somewhat feels like stepping through the wardrobe into another world; one moment you’re working your way through the traffic and bustle of Mariupol’s left bank, the next you’re out on the deserted roads and open fields, with your senses beginning to heighten. Every time I make the journey, I begin to get the same feeling of alertness and wonder.
It makes me think about the people who lived in Shyrokyne when the war broke out, how they must have fled down this same road, bringing only what they can carry. I wonder now, 5 years later, how often they dream of returning home, and what type of life they are able to live now.
This thought is what led me to meet and film interviews for our documentary with 3 such people, Daria, Vera, Galina, who were all elderly residents of Shyrokyne and heavily affected in the initial outbreak. With the majority of ex-Shyrokyntsy now living in Mariupol, it was easy enough to find those who wanted to talk, but harder than I thought it would be to listen to their story.
I met them at their apartments, which gave me a good chance to see for myself the conditions in which they now live. From leaving everything in Shyrokyne, it’s now a life of very little for these ladies. This was even more true with Galina, who was one of the very last people to leave Shyroykne, who only left then because she was injured. As we entered her dark apartment, I could already feel the sorrow coming off her, an unfortunate side effect of living with third-stage cancer, loneliness, and unpleasant memories. A quick observation of her kitchen told me she had nothing. In a bowl in a glass cabinet, I saw the crust of a loaf, 3 oranges and 2 eggs. There didn’t seem to be any other food in the apartment.
Although she welcomed me and my translator in the typical friendly Ukrainian manner, it was clear to see she wasn’t looking forward to recounting her experiences or revealing the degrading manner in which she now lives. However, this is an important story for her, one she believes must be told, which in the end left me with one of the most emotional interviews I have ever taken. Hearing about her refusal to leave, her rescuing of the Shyrokyne animals, and her fall from riches into poverty not only filled me with awe and admiration, but also anger that she’s been left to suffer in silence.
Unfortunately, Galina’s situation isn’t unique among the internally displaced people, something the three women who we chose to feature are able to testify. With little to no pensions, no assistance of accommodation, no belongings and most importantly no documents, there are many cases of ex-Shyrokyntsy languishing about Mariupol, unable to work, unable to claim and feeling as they say, “not wanted here, and not wanted there.” Shorokyne is just one example of the many towns that have been devastated by the war, with thousands of people internally displaced, struggling to piece together their lives.
While the government does provide some aid for the IDP’s, it’s very rarely covers food, and doesn’t stretch to accommodation. Instead they find themselves living on the donations of the various NGO’s that operate in the region, the charity of neighbours, and the hope that the new government might start to see them as citizens, rather than inconveniences. Zelenskyy has promised to end the war and bring peace, but there’s more he can do himself. If he wants to surpass his predecessor and follow through on his commitments to the Ukrainian people, he needs to offer real aid and support to the citizens who have been abandoned for the past five years.
Although I admit, it’s hard to see a happy ending for the residents of Shyrokyne. Although Shyrokyne is now firmly under UAF control, the positions there still receive regular bombardment and fire, which, alongside mines and booby traps left over from the occupation, makes for hazardous living conditions.
And even if the war ended tomorrow, nobody would be able to return instantly. Shyrokyne is a wreck, with little intact infrastructure. Not a single building remains unscathed. It remains the only abandoned village due to war in mainland Europe. While many people people express hopes of returning and rebuilding, I’m worried that only their strong determination won’t be enough. One thing that struck me was how much loyalty and faith these people have in the Ukrainian state, despite being treated so unfairly by it. I can only hope and implore the new government, to step up and offer more support for them than they are currently doing now.