Once nicknamed “the highway to hell”, Izyum tries to rebuild, forgets the Russian occupation

IZYUM, Ukraine (AFP) — Aside from tanks and factories that have been blown up and destroyed by seven months of war, the road to Izyum — once dubbed “the road to hell” — could be a road normal in Europe.

The asphalt machine has passed and the bomb craters have been filled.

A team of workers wearing orange reflective vests painted white lines on the road surface to indicate where it is safe to pass a vehicle.

Five weeks after the recapture of this small but strategic town in eastern Ukraine, a new battle for reconstruction begins.

An army of construction machinery and builders is busy repairing what remains of the infrastructure and eradicating any signs of Russian occupation as quickly as possible.

The Ukrainians began by using what Russian forces left in their wake – like the remains of a pontoon bridge over a tank marked with the letter “Z” lying in the Donets River.

“We will recycle every part, remodel them and use them here or wherever we need them,” said Lt. Denys Ponomarenko, a 27-year-old military engineer.

At the entrance to the city, a sign in the yellow and blue colors of the Ukrainian flag bears the message: “Friends, you are free!

And now Izyum is emerging from its long isolation.

Road and rail links are working again and the 4G mobile phone network was partially restored a few days ago.

But essential services like water, gas and electricity have been devastated, leaving residents dependent on humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations.

Of a pre-war population of 46,000, only 8,000–9,000 remain.

This photograph taken on October 18, 2022 shows a local resident reading a newspaper while waiting to receive a food parcel in the central square of the town of Izyum, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP)

“Do What We Can”

In the city’s central square, where President Volodymyr Zelensky visited on September 14 to raise the Ukrainian flag again, a queue formed of people hoping for help.

“Other than that, nothing is working,” said 70-year-old resident Ivan Zakharchenko, who said he hoped buses would be restored so he could go and have his pacemaker checked.

Nearby, a worker on a telescopic ladder nails chipboard to the empty windows of the church, built in 1648, the same year as the city’s fortress.

“The restoration of the church is a symbol of the restoration of the city,” said Semyon, 48, the local Orthodox priest.

The rest of the city is largely in ruins.

“I have water at home but I live on the third floor and the pressure is very low. I also have electricity but we have no gas or heating and we don’t know if we will have any for the winter,” said resident Nadiya Nesterenko, 47.

“My daughter lives above me on the 5th floor and she still has a missile stuck in her roof. And his kitchen and bathroom are open to the elements,” she said.

“No one came to take it away from us. We didn’t see anyone,” Nesterenko said.

Izyum mayor Valery Marchenko told AFP that local authorities were focusing on repairing damaged apartments “to heat them up this winter”.

He said they were being helped by “volunteers” but admitted no major reconstruction work could start until the spring.

“We do what we can,” he said.

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Michael A. Bynum