Workers quickly shoveled the rubble off the beige carpet and into a wheelbarrow, then dumped it into a makeshift chute. They left only a dusty pile of children’s books before moving into the next room.
Andriy Kopylenko, co-founder of charity District 1, said: “I really feel we are united now. We know Ukraine is our homeland and all Ukrainians understand that we are. I need to rebuild”.
It has been 110 days since the Russian army invaded Ukraine. They initially attacked and occupied many of Kyiv’s suburbs before the Kremlin withdrew its forces from around the capital to focus on the east of the country. Even as brutal street-by-street battles continue there, people in Kyiv think it’s time to rebuild and turn back.
The population of the city dropped from 4 million to just 1 million at the height of the conflict. Now, it has risen back to 3 million, according to local officials.
District 1 has posted on social media calling for volunteers to participate in cleanup activities. Hundreds of people signed up in just a few days, quickly crisscrossing the destroyed suburbs of the capital to clear debris and restore hope.
“We are all different, our ages are different, our interests are different but we work here together and this makes me feel good,” says volunteer Dimitri Niktov, marketing director in life. his daily.
One of the charity’s projects is to restore a six-story residential complex in the small village of Myla, just outside Kyiv. It became a front line in early March when Russian tanks headed east of the city, firing directly at the building with families still inside, according to residents.
Civilians were killed even as they fled, and CNN’s teams witnessed bodies left on the highway, some still lying beside their cars.
Mariya Popova, a 77-year-old resident, witnessed the horrifying incident.
“We were very scared and took shelter in the basement,” Popova said. “We called the fire service, but the Russians started shooting at them, and they left. We sat and watched our houses burn.”
Russian forces fully withdrew from the districts around Kyiv in early April but left a trail of death and devastation. The atrocities have shocked the world and sparked an ongoing investigation by the Prosecutor General of Ukraine into thousands of war crimes allegations.
With the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky mired in fighting along the eastern front, recovery efforts now depend on volunteers to help.
“The military has a job, and we also have a job,” Kopylenko said. “This feels similar to being on the front lines because when you’re here, every day you see people close to you in battle and you’re talking to them. It’s very difficult mentally.”
The recovery effort was also engaged by volunteers from around the world, including Colorado-born Karl Voll.
“I have no military experience, so I thought I could make a humanitarian contribution,” Voll said. “First the hands-on work I’m doing but also showing Ukrainians that people in other parts of the world care about them.”
But some in Kyiv worry the peace is temporary and that Russian President Vladimir Putin may try to launch another assault on the capital.
“We knew it could happen again,” admits Kopylenko. “Now we need to understand that we live next to a country that could break out at war any day. But we need to live.”
With Russian artillery shelling the country for hours, simply staying in Ukraine feels like an act of defiance. Millions of people forced from their homes due to violence remain displaced, mainly across neighboring countries in Europe.
Popova was the first to return to the damaged Myla apartment complex. Her home in the second story has largely been spared.
“When I came back, my window was blown out and there was a lot of debris. (But) the roof and the upper floors were completely destroyed,” Popova said.
“But no matter how difficult it is, there’s no place like home,” she added. “When you’re at home, the walls calm you down.”