U-LEAD with Europe made and continues making significant effort to support Ukrainian municipalities during times of war. We have adjusted our capacity development activities to wartime necessities and for example, since February 24, 2022, provided over 10 thousand consultations which covered almost every Ukrainian municipality. We have stepped up our effort in promoting international cooperation between Ukrainian municipalities and their counterparts in the EU. Last Spring, we have also provided emergency support to 333 municipalities sending them over 2500 generators as well as numerous other tools and material aimed to support the basic function of local public services and the reception of internally displaced people from occupied and destroyed settlements.
Today, one year after the onset of the full-scale Russian invasion, we interviewed the mayor of Trostianets Yuriy Bova. In this interview he will remind us of the terrors his very municipality had to go through, but also of the bold acts of and initial repair and recovery they undertook which stands as an example for the initiative and responsibility of the many local leaders contributing to the resilience Ukrainian statehood.
Trostianets (approximately 28 thousand inhabitants) located in Sumy oblast, was among the first municipalities to be occupied by the Russian invaders.
Mr. Bova, on this day one year ago, Trostianets was one of the first municipalities to be invaded by Russia. While many of our followers are familiar with the case of Trostianets, could you still recall what happened in Trostianets on 24 February 2022?
I found out about Russia’s invasion at around 5:30 in the morning, after receiving a call from the starosta of a village close to the border. He said that there was a battle going on, there was loud gunfire, and the invasion of the Sumy region had clearly begun. In fact, by around 11:00 a.m., more than a hundred Russian vehicles had already entered Trostianets, since the road from the border to the city was unprotected at that time, and there were no troops there. In those few hours, our activists and I only managed to cover one road with wooden logs, but we did not have time to cover the second one because we actually ran into a convoy of Russian vehicles already entering our municipality, so we could not stop them. At least we delayed the second column for two days as, they raked through those piles of trees, fearing improvised explosive devices (IED).
The Russians stayed in Trostianets. A few days in, they occupied all administrative buildings in the centre of the city. As it turned out later, they decided to use Trostianets as their base of a command post of many units.
That is how the occupation of Trostianets began on the 24th of February. It lasted for 31 days, until 25 March 2022.
One distinguishing feature of the Ukrainian resistance and humanitarian support during the past year is that it is very much rooted and organised by local self-government. How did the resistance organise itself in Trostianets?
The first thing we tried to do on the very first day was to gather activists in the city council building, a few hours before the Russians entered the city, and decided to search for weapons. We had about a hundred people who wanted to act, but there were no weapons. There were no military units in the city. One column of our guys went to Sumy to get weapons, but we couldn’t get them there. And the second column went with me to the city of Lebedyn where we tried to get armed. In the evening, we received 4 machine guns
We began to actively provide intelligence to the Armed Forces of Ukraine, which was constantly collected by our starostas, activists, policemen, friends and employees of the city council. As it turned out, this information was useful both for the 81st brigade and for the other units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine that were to liberate Trostianets later. Every day we flew a quadrocopter drone over Trostianets and filmed all Russian positions, checkpoints and headquarters and showed them to our military.
Thanks to our intelligence and radio intercepts, the information we provided to the Armed Forces of Ukraine, a Russian command post was destroyed, and our lead helped to eliminate one of their generals, so they abruptly withdrew from Trostianets to a nearby village of Boromlya on the same day. That is how we together with the AFU thwarted their plans with a pre-emptive strike. On March 25, the Russians completely withdrew from the city, leaving Trostianets with their 137 military vehicles.
During the occupation we also handled organising green corridors for citizens to evacuate. We have organised 4 green corridors, which is drastically different from arranging them in an unoccupied city. For each one, we had to gather people by word of mouth, because mobile reception and the Internet hardly ever worked at that time. I remember the first green corridor. We were told that it was greenlit by the Russians, but as soon as the column left, the Russians opened fire at it, the column was turned back to the city twice. As it turned out, they had no idea the green corridor had been agreed. We then chose to completely change the route and use another road. We took a risk, guiding the convoy by phone. The convoy successfully left the city. We went on to arrange 3 more corridors with a similar route. This way, we managed to evacuate 2500 people from that hell.
How did people live during the occupation?
Naturally, the businesses were no longer operating; the administration was not working. All our deputies have switched to a remote work mode. They lived somewhere else, outside their homes, and did not show up to work in the city council building because the entire square was occupied by Russian tanks. Russian officers were occupying the building, and no one was allowed to enter it.
People stayed at home. Some were afraid to leave their yard.
We arranged the baking of bread in schools and kindergartens and distributed it to the townspeople. Bread was baked, all leftover products from the stocks of educational institutions were distributed to the citizens. There was a catastrophic lack of food and medicine. The only institution that somehow worked was a hospital.
The past year has shown that after having gone through immense suffering, hromadas immediately tried to re-establish a basic function of local public services. What was the first thing local self-government in Trostianets took on after the Russians left?
The surrounding villages had been deoccupied a little earlier, so we brought food there. At the time of the liberation, 12,000-15,000 people were still living in the city, and they were hungry. The first task was to feed people. For this purpose, we collected trucks with food in Hadiach for several days and quickly brought the food to Trostianets. People wept from joy as they held a pack of pasta.
The second task was to take control of all administrative buildings and enterprises to prevent looting. For this purpose, we quickly formed a more powerful territorial defence unit, recruited additional people, issued weapons, set up checkpoints and guards at enterprises and government buildings.
The third task was to ensure the safety of people and safe movement around the city because the Russians left a lot of mines and IEDs around. Our task was to check everything with the military and demine buildings, areas near roads and cemeteries. Reporters were met, escorted and accompanied to keep everybody safe.
The fourth task is to quickly restore the water and power supply. Apart from gas, nothing worked in the city at that time. Utility workers had to work quickly.
The fifth task was to organise the work of our humanitarian headquarters to receive aid and distribute it to people.
Finally, we also had to quickly start addressing the housing issue: someone had to be settled in a hotel, some were accommodated in a dormitory. So, we began to put people back to work, to clean and clear up the city.
To what degree was municipal infrastructure destroyed?
In our municipality, a total of 1,552 buildings were damaged, and some were completely destroyed. The hospital was seriously damaged; the railway and intercity bus stations were destroyed; 15 schools and kindergartens, as well as libraries, a stadium, waterworks, administrative buildings received damages. For instance, we threw away 4 tons of heating scrap metal from the city council building alone, all of which had to be cut out and replaced because the pipes had burst when nothing had been working in the freezing weather. And the situation was like this at most facilities.
And we needed to find office equipment for each facility since the Russians had stolen all the computers from the city. In the first days, volunteers managed to assemble from individual parts a single computer that could be used by the city council.
What about the heating season in the city now?
We managed to repair everything over the summer and started the heating season on time. We restored all boiler rooms. Heating was started on October 15. Only one school and one kindergarten are not operational, as they were seriously damaged.
Among other things, we managed to replace 720 windows in the hospital. With our partners’ help, we very quickly started to make repairs in Administrative Service Centres, schools and kindergartens. Generally speaking, to this date, about 70% of the damaged buildings in municipality have been restored.
U-LEAD has also supported Trostianets during the first weeks after occupation. How was the support received?
The first international aid truck from Slovenia was coordinated in close cooperation with U-LEAD. In general, U-LEAD helped in many ways. They gave us three water filtration units and helped with generators, various equipment. They helped us with a forklift, which was godsent at that time and is still very useful to this day. At the same time, we got expert help: U-LEAD brought us in contact with other international funds to receive assistance.
In March-April 2023, the outpatient clinic wing will be built from prefab structures — GIZ helped us with this.
Because of the war many people left their hromadas to find safe places to stay. However, there are also reports of many returning to the deoccupied villages. Now, almost 11 months after deoccupation, how many people returned home?
We do not have complete statistics on how many people left and arrived. I can only estimate, based on the amount of humanitarian aid distributed according to our lists, that approximately 5,000 people left the city (out of 20,000 who lived here). More than 90% of those who left have now returned to the municipality, which had a total population of 29,000 before the full-scale invasion. Most people are returning, but some stayed abroad.
For example, our hospital employed 412 personnel. Now 390 employees work of those who have returned. So, almost everyone came back. 95% of teachers returned to work. We have already resumed the work of some kindergartens since April. Schools have been working again since May.
In fact, Trostianets itself has become a host of many IDPs: There are currently 1506 internally displaced persons here. We continuously provide them with aid, including clothes, food and hygiene items. People come to us from the Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk regions. We are currently arranging six integrated accommodation points for IDPs where we will be able to accommodate about 200 people.
What are the resources you need now to further recover?
Where we had enough resources on our own, we did everything! The city is alive. In fact, in 9 months, we restored all the vital functions of the city. If the damage to the rest of the buildings had not been so bad, we would have restored them too. But a destroyed five-storey building has a reconstruction budget of 36 million hryvnias, and we do not have such funds now. Some sewage treatment facilities were ruined by the shelling — we cannot restore them ourselves. In terms of the cost of repairs, it is extremely expensive. We will need to build new ones nearby. This will cost us about 100 million hryvnias and we have around a dozen of similar situations.
Reconstruction of the intercity bus and railway stations will take tens of millions of hryvnias. And you cannot recover only these 2 facilities and leave many destroyed buildings around. We have to do everything comprehensively, to form a different philosophy of inclusiveness, amenities, a European approach to urbanism and modern planning of these spaces. Our task is not just to restore everything that used to be there but to do it according to the most modern standards so that Trostianets becomes a city of the 21st century. Different transport connections, different sewage networks, etc.
What role did local self-government play over the past year?
Strong local self-government was essential to Ukraine’s resilience. It knows best about the exact needs of a locality. Mayors of municipalities that have suffered from Russian aggression are well aware of all the relevant aspects of the given situation. It is necessary to go to specific sites with targeted — rather than general — help. We are completely open, transparent, ready to report and understand the extreme importance of the situation.
I will say from my own experience: if not for the self-government and active civil society, the state would have had a hard time keeping this territory of the Sumy region. Decentralisation in Ukraine facilitated the development of local self-government as a more responsible and patriotic actor which shows initiative. We received real powers backed by funding and the ability to independently address municipal matters. Less interference by state bodies, more institutional freedom — this is the way to a bright future for Ukraine.
Your message to our audience.
I’m grateful to everyone who helps the Armed Forces of Ukraine. We see tremendous help on all fronts, and we must keep doing these things and do our part. Everyone who helps the military deserves praise!
Secondly, I want to thank our defenders at the front lines. Today, many of them are no longer with us. Rest in peace, our Heroes.
We must remember everyone, and do our best after our victory so that our children and great-grandchildren also remember them — in the names of streets, schools, etc. I firmly believe that Ukraine will prevail. We have shown incredible new things to the whole world. Now Ukraine is fighting for its chance for recovery, rebuilding, an opportunity to become better, and this is already happening.
We can incorporate all the best practices in post-war reconstruction; that is what we are fighting for. We must endure, win and become a powerful European state!