By Salma Abdelaziz, CNN
Men wearing helmets enter a child’s room decorated with pink wallpaper depicting two bejeweled elephants, one small and one large.
Workers quickly shovel mounds of rubble onto the beige carpet and into wheelbarrows, then dump it down a makeshift chute. They leave only a dusty pile of children’s books before moving on to the next room.
With the roof of this building on the outskirts of Kyiv largely burned due to previous Russian strikes on the Ukrainian capital, the sun is beating down on the volunteers who are working methodically to make the devastated homes habitable again.
“I really feel that we are united now. We know Ukraine is our home and all Ukrainians understand that we have to rebuild,” said Andriy Kopylenko, co-founder of the District 1 charity.
It has now been 110 days since Russian troops invaded Ukraine. They first attacked and occupied several suburbs of Kyiv before the Kremlin withdrew its forces from the capital to concentrate on the east of the country. Even as brutal street-by-street battles continue to rage there, Kyiv residents say it’s time to rebuild and return.
The city’s population fell from 4 million to just 1 million at the height of the conflict. Now it is back to 3 million, according to local officials.
District 1 posted a call on social media for volunteers to join the cleanup. Hundreds of people signed up within days, quickly deploying to the capital’s shattered suburbs to clear debris and restore hope.
“We are all different, of different age(s), of different interest(s) but we are working here together as one and that makes me feel good,” said volunteer Dimitri Niktov, marketing manager in his daily life.
One of the charity’s projects aims to restore a six-storey residential building in the small village of Myla, located just outside Kyiv. It became a frontline in early March when Russian tanks sped east towards the town, firing directly at the building with families still inside, residents said.
Civilians were killed even as they fled, and CNN crews saw bodies strewn across the highway, some still lying near their vehicles.
Mariya Popova, a 77-year-old resident, witnessed the horror.
“We were very scared and we took refuge in the basement,” recalls Popova. “We called the fire brigade, but the Russian troops started shooting at them and they left. We sat and watched our homes burn.
Russian forces withdrew completely from districts around Kyiv in early April, but left behind a trail of death and destruction. The atrocities shocked the world and sparked an ongoing investigation by Ukraine’s Attorney General into thousands of alleged war crimes.
As the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is mired in war along the eastern front, recovery efforts currently depend on the intervention of volunteers.
“The army has a job, and we have a job too,” Kopylenko said. “It feels like being on a frontline because when you’re here, every day you see people who were close to the war, and you talk to them. It’s mentally very difficult.
The recovery effort has also attracted volunteers from around the world, including Colorado native Karl Voll.
“I don’t have military experience, so I thought I could contribute on the humanitarian side,” Voll said. “First there is the practical work I do, but it’s also about showing Ukrainians that people from other parts of the world care about them.”
But some in Kyiv fear the peace is only temporary and that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to launch another assault on the capital.
“We know it could happen again,” admitted Kopylenko. “Now we have to understand that we live next to a country that could start a war at any moment. But we need to live.
With Russian artillery firing into the country every hour, simply staying in Ukraine feels like an act of defiance. Millions of people who have been forced from their homes by violence are still displaced, mainly in neighboring European countries.
Popova was the first to return to Myla’s damaged building. His second story house was largely spared.
“When I came back, my windows had been blown out and there was a lot of debris. (But) the roof and upper floors were totally destroyed,” Popova said.
“But no matter how hard it is, there’s no place like home,” she added. “When you are at home, the walls calm you down.”
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