As temperatures drop in eastern Ukraine, Sergiy Khmil says he has no choice but to use the stacks of ammunition boxes left behind by retreating Russian forces for firewood this winter.
Without the wood, Khmil says he will likely freeze to death amidst the ruins of his devastated village of Kamyanka.
“The hardest part is getting enough wood,” Khmil explains. “There is a huge queue to get the donated wood from volunteers.”
With his house largely destroyed by shelling, Khmil is still hard at work converting his summer kitchen into an improvised winter shelter – now filled with blankets, ammo boxes and a stove assembled from Russian shell casings.
“I need to cover the walls with another layer of insulation,” adds Khmil as he scans the modest room he hopes will get him through the winter.
In March, the village came under fire and shelling from helicopters before infantry and tanks stormed the area as Russian forces advanced south from Izyum in the early days of the invasion.
After occupying the area, the Russians settled there — confiscating buildings, looting homes, stealing alcohol and driving drunk, local residents say.
“They started breaking into garages and houses and partying drunk overnight,” says 53-year-old local resident Volodymyr Tsybulya during a break from repairing the roof of his sister’s house.
“They used to throw grenades for fun. I came home to find my bathroom destroyed by a shell.”
And so it went on for months, until a lightning offensive by Ukrainian forces in September smashed the Russian northeastern flank, routing their troops and sending them farther east in disarray.
In the wake of the retreating army, a trail of destroyed villages was left in ruins, including Kamyanka on the outskirts of Izyum.
In the weeks since regaining control of the area, Ukrainian officials have scrambled to dismantle the pieces, uncover mass graves and take stock of the damage in the formerly occupied areas.
– “The war pursues us” –
Izyum Deputy Mayor Mykhaylo Ishyuk says the situation is dramatic at the start of winter, with nearly 30 to 40 percent of the city’s roofs destroyed by the fighting.
A shortage of building materials and construction equipment, as well as a shortage of workers, have made much-needed repairs all the more unlikely as the cold sets in. Temperatures are expected to drop below freezing in the coming days.
The situation in Kamianka is even worse, he admits. Almost all the roofs of the 550 houses and buildings in the village were damaged or completely destroyed.
“We are closely monitoring the situation,” he adds.
He points to the increase in power outages following waves of Russian attacks on infrastructure sites across Ukraine, which have left Izyum and the surrounding areas with less and less electricity and heating.
In Kamyanka, Lyubov Perepelytsya vacillates between recounting the horrors she experienced during the Russian occupation and sharing her fears of the coming winter.
“They literally ransacked everything. It’s such despicable behavior,” the 65-year-old resident said through tears as she described the destruction of her home and the looting of her valuables.
“How could you treat people so badly?”
Most of the village’s 1,200 residents have left the area, but Perepelytsya and her ailing husband will join a few dozen others who plan to settle down in Kamyanka for the winter, come what may.
“I cried a river. This is our sixth place (during the war). It seems like the war is following us everywhere,” says Perepelytsya.
“I just don’t know how we’re going to get through this. I dont know.”