Local residents stand as they recently returned to their damaged house in the village of Bohorodychne, eastern Ukraine, on December 20, 2022. – Bohorodychne is a village in Donetsk region that was heavily attacked by Russian forces in June 2022 during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On August 17, 2022, Russian forces captured the village. The Armed Forces of Ukraine announced on September 12, 2022 that they were regaining control of the village. Some residents came back to rebuild their destroyed homes and live in the village. (Photo by Sameer Al-DOUMY / AFP)
Little has changed in Bogorodychne since then, highlighting the bumpy road for the frontline villages looking to fully recover after the Russians are driven out.
“I think I’m the first one to come back and live here,” the 54-year-old told AFP this week, a blue beanie pulled over his emaciated face.
His only other company, aside from the cats, is “a mother and son who never left,” he added.
A year ago, about 1,000 people lived in Bogorodychne, but almost all fled, some even before the first shots were fired in February.
Ponomarenko foresaw heavy fighting and sent his own wife and daughter to Poland in the run-up to the war.
He, too, fled as hostilities drew near, hopping from one city to another in eastern Ukraine in search of somewhere safer.
Bogorodychne changed hands several times until the Russians finally left the village in September.
Upon hearing that it had been liberated, Ponomarenko decided to return.
“I felt like I had to come back, I just had to,” he said.
The return was initially only possible with soldiers, as land mines littered the landscape.
But a week ago, he decided to return full-time to the place where he’s spent most of his life.
The transition wasn’t easy.
For now, he has temporarily taken up residence in a small room in another building, where he uses bricks to trap heat.
Inside this ad hoc shelter, the thermometer reads 18 degrees Celsius (64 degrees Fahrenheit), offering some respite from the freezing wind that blows through the ruins outside.
– ghosts –
Beyond Ponomarenko’s house, the ravages of war are all over Bogorodychne.
The blue walls of the church that once overlooked the village are riddled with shrapnel.
Its golden domes have fallen down.
In streets littered with rubble and wrecked cars, even animals resemble ghosts — stray dogs circle endlessly around visitors without ever barking.
One particularly unfortunate cat, whose head was stuck in a sharp-edged jar, meows in desperation before ducking down in fear.
The view inside the still standing buildings is not much better.
For example, the school’s floor is covered with damaged desks, scattered books, and military rations.
Russian soldiers appear to have used the school as a makeshift base, leaving behind a dirty mattress and a uniform.
Other Russians settled in the garage owned by Viktor Skylar’s brother.
Skylar, a 50-year-old with piercing blue eyes, returned this week with his wife and young daughter to retrieve what could be salvaged from his brother’s home.
“Those Russian pigs… I think there were three,” he says, pointing to the floor, which is covered with discarded ration cans.
Everything in the house had collapsed and been destroyed – or looted.
Skylar laments that soldiers stole a TV, a microwave, some clothing, and a wood chipper.
But those losses paled in comparison to what he found in the garage: the body of the family’s beloved dog, apparently killed by the soldiers.
“It was a St. Bernard,” says Sklyar, clearly upset. “Our St. Bernard.”
© Agence France-Presse