Galyna Kios was sheltering with her family and neighbors in a gloomy basement, where they cooked on a makeshift wood stove, when Russian soldiers invaded her village.
Russian troops were stationed 20 miles from Mala Rogan, on the northeast border with Russia, but two weeks after the invasion began, they decided to occupy the town.
“You have to go, we need the whole street,” Kios recalls a soldier telling him just before the Russians occupied his two-story house.
But the occupation was short-lived: the Ukrainian army expelled the Russian troops after two weeks of heavy fighting, which left Kio Street in ruins.
“I’ve seen what they did to my house, what’s left of it. But material possessions aren’t worth a life,” the 67-year-old widow, mother of four, told AFP.
“So I am happy with God’s will. I am alive. I only lost material things and they can be rebuilt.”
Since then, she has picked up the rubble and cleaned her house, sometimes alone, sometimes with her family, like thousands of Ukrainians returning to their liberated but dilapidated homes in the east of the country.
– Battle scars –
In the Kharkov region, with 2.7 million inhabitants before the war and where Mala Rogan is located, 90% of the houses in the liberated areas are destroyed, local media quoted the governor as saying in May.
Nearly every house on the street where Kios lives bears the scars of the battle: collapsed roofs, facades pierced by shrapnel or gunshots, and chunks of homes ripped out.
High on a hill, a house is so consumed by flames that the remains appear as volcanic rock among the boots of Russian soldiers and personal belongings.
Burned-out vehicles are parked in two other houses where they have painted “death to the enemy” in Ukrainian.
Not far away, the remains of a Soviet-era T-72 tank lie with its turret ripped off.
As Kios cleans his house, six explosions resound some distance away, probably from artillery.
Nadia Ilchenko brought her new-year-old daughter and granddaughter to Mala Rogan since the war began.
It seemed to him that they would be safer in this town than in the outskirts of Kharkov, where they were before, but he confesses that he soon realized his mistake.
– “Burned” –
When the shelling began on Mala Rogan, this 69-year-old woman fled with her family on March 19.
During his absence, he saw a video of his house burning, with the garage destroyed.
“I came back on May 19, and my husband and I have been cleaning the house for two months,” says Nadia Ilchenko.
They have the help of volunteers but there is still a lot of work ahead.
“The Russians moved into our house, and there are so many things that they have burned, destroyed, that can’t be used anymore,” says Ilchenko.
“The only thing that makes me happy now is the flowers in the garden, even if there is a Russian tank parked next to it.”
Ilchenko recounts his granddaughter’s horrified reaction when they returned home to find it in one piece, but ransacked by intruders.
“Why have they done this to us?” the young woman wondered.
“I explained to her that I didn’t know and she became hysterical,” says Ilchenko, “I couldn’t make her stop crying,” she adds.