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Fearless Kyiv utility workers keep the city running under Russia’s shelling

March 24, 2022 10:00 amby Anna Myroniuk
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Roman Kryvokhatko, a heating network repairer, stands next to a shell crater in the Vynogradar district of Kyiv on March 21, 2022. The funnel was formed after parts of a Russian rocket had hit the ground damaging the house and a heating pipe. (Anna Myroniuk)

As Russian bombs and rockets land on Kyiv’s residential buildings, the city’s utility services’ workers drudge overtime to clear the streets of the damage, debris and garbage left behind in the wake of Russia’s attacks. 

As many as 4,000 homes across Ukraine have been damaged by Russia’s military since the full-scale war broke out on Feb. 24, according to the latest estimate by the State Emergency Service.

Russia’s scorched earth tactic in Ukraine aimed at destroying everything that stands in its way has provided a lot of extra work to street cleaners, garbage collectors and heating network repairmen.

The Kyiv Independent talked to three brave utility service workers who are doing what they can to keep a city clean that is under frequent shelling. 

Each of them said: “If not us, then who?”

‘We do not want Icelandic geysers on the streets’

Roman Kryvokhatko, a heating network repairer, stands inside a shell crater in the Vynogradar district of Kyiv on March 21, 2022. The funnel was formed after parts of a Russian rocket had hit the ground damaging the house and a heating pipe. (Anna Myroniuk)

Roman Kryvokhatko, 31, is a heating network repairman.

At first, he wanted to sign up for the territorial defense, but his district unit was packed with volunteers. Eventually, he decided that the best way of helping Ukraine amid the war would be by simply doing his job. 

“We need to keep the networks in decent condition. Otherwise, in two to three weeks geysers will be everywhere. We do not want that,” he said.

He now takes on extra shifts since many of his coworkers joined the military or territorial defense force and there is a shortage of hands.

“Honestly, at times I am scared,” he said standing next to a shell crater, “but the work must be done.”

This was exactly his approach when he rushed to inspect a pipe on March 18 following a shelling. 

That morning Kryvokhatko was cycling to work when he heard a loud pop. He fell to the ground. 

The sound was of pieces of a Russian rocket hitting the ground two kilometers away from him killing one and injuring 19 people. 

As it turned out, rocket parts hit the ground near a residential building, heavily damaging it and a heating pipe nearby.

Roman Kryvokhatko, a heating network repairer, stands inside a shell crater in the Vynogradar district of Kyiv on March 21, 2022. The funnel was formed after parts of a Russian rocket had hit the ground damaging the house and a heating pipe. (Anna Myroniuk)

The pipe was deep underground, so Kryvokhatko and his colleagues started digging down the shell crater to find the pipe and contain the damage.

Part of the pipe hit was beyond repair so they substituted it with a new one. They worked for two hours, late into Kyiv’s curfew, in order to get the work done. 

“If we hadn’t patched it on time, there would have been a fountain of hot water and people would have gotten burnt and welted,” he said. 

Wake up shell

Inna Kuchynska, a street cleaner, removes glass, wood, and bricks from the yard on March 21, 2022. Four days earlier parts of a Russian rocket hit and damaged the building in the Pozniaky district of Kyiv. (Anna Myroniuk)

Inna Kuchynska, 49, is a street cleaner. 

Almost every morning since the war broke out, she has been waking up to Russia’s shelling at 5 a.m. sharp. 

“I open my eyes and say: ‘Good morning to you, too’,” Kuchynska said.

The morning of March 17 was no different. This time, however, Russia’s rocket hit close to her home. The shockwave blew open her window. 

“It scared me…I even saw the flash in the sky,” she said. 

She immediately got dressed and headed to the site of the shelling. 

“I did not need my boss to call me and say to go there. It goes without saying. That’s our job,” Kuchynska said.

Parts of Russia’s rocket hit one building, but the shock shattered the windows of almost a dozen buildings. This meant a lot of work for Kuchynska.

“Window frames, glass, bricks. It was awful,” she said.

“Residents came out and helped us clean…They picked up brooms and came to sweep the ground,” she went on. 

Parts of a Russian rocket hit and damaged the building killing one and injuring three people in the Pozniaky district of Kyiv on March 17, 2022. (Anna Myroniuk)

Five days after the attack, Kuchynska and her colleagues were still cleaning up the debris. 

“War or no war, we keep working. That’s it,” she said.

Speaking of her job as a street cleaner, Kuchynska said: “My mission is to bring joy to people.”

‘Some fight with Russians, others with litter’

Igor Oveshkov, a garbage truck driver, goes on route to pick up litter around Kyiv on March 19, 2022. (Anna Myroniuk)

Igor Oveshkov, 53, is a garbage truck driver. 

As his huge vehicle deftly avoided anti-tank hedgehogs down Kyiv’s narrow streets, he said, jokingly: “Slalom driving”

“I do not remember turning the steering wheel around this much, even at driving school,” he went on. 

Since the war started, he has had just two days off, but he doesn’t complain. 

“It needs to be done,” Oveshkov said, “what keeps me going is responsibility, I guess.”

After the shelling, garbage truck drivers come by the addresses of damaged buildings to pick up construction debris like window frames and broken furniture. This truck picks up construction garbage near the damaged building in the Obolon district of Kyiv on March 19, 2022.

On the first day of Russia’s war on Feb. 24, he went on his regular route. Soon after the first siren sounded. 

“Boss called me and said: ‘Come back.’ I replied: ‘No, if it gets me, it gets me, whether I am here or there. Now I can at least drive away,” he recalled.

On that day Oveshkov completed his route. Ever since he has been driving his truck no matter what. 

Igor Oveshkov's coworkers, Serhiy and Viktor, pick up containers and load garbage into the truck as it drives around Kyiv on March 19, 2022. (Anna Myroniuk)

The first days of the war were the most intense. The paradox, he said, is that people left but the amount of garbage multiplied.

He, however, found an explanation: “People panicked. They started throwing everything away, all the perishable products.”

“When we arrived, there were, say, three full containers and next to them a hill of garbage that would fit into three more containers,” Oveshkov went on.

Now it is easier, he said, but there is no time to relax. This job likes consistency.

“Some fight on the frontline while others fight with litter,” Oveshkov said. 

“It is a tough fight. One day of delays and the garbage wins,” he went on.

He stopped to check his to-do list, and told his colleague: “This one, if no one picks it up, we will.” 

“If not us, then who?” he replied.

Anna Myroniuk
Author: Anna Myroniuk

Anna Myroniuk is the head of investigations at the Kyiv Independent. Anna has run investigative projects on human rights, healthcare and illicit trade. She investigated presidents and oligarchs. She has written for New York Times, Washington Post, Coda Story and OCCRP. Anna holds a Masters in Investigative Journalism from the City University of London. She is a Chevening Scholar, a finalist of the 2020 Thomson Foundation Young Journalist Award, an honoree of the 2022 Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe Media & Marketing list, and the runner-up in the investigative reporting category of the 2022 European Press Prize.

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