Maxim Edwards | Return and Rebuild · LRB 28 April 2022

As Russia has concentrated its offensive against eastern Ukraine, border crossings in the west have slowly become a two-way street once more. Eighty per cent of the five million Ukrainians who have fled their country say that they would like to come home. On 14 April, Ukraine’s State Border Guard estimated that 870,000 citizens had entered the country since the war began.

Following Russia’s ‘strategic deployment’ out of northern Ukraine, two-thirds of Kyivans are back. The low-cost German coach firm FlixBus recently announced it will resume routes to the Ukrainian capital, even while the government issues air raid warnings for the entire country. The mayor of Kyiv, Wladimir Klitschko, has warned of the continued risk of rocket attacks and mines. Today, another rocket attack hit the city’s Shevchenko district. Ukrainian soldiers securing villages north of the capital have reported finding grenades strung to tripwires in abandoned homes. In Bucha, they found the inhabitants’ corpses, too.

Several Ukrainians I know are indignant when asked if they will return, even to towns like Bucha. For them, the question implies doubt in their country’s capacity to rebuild and flourish – and, more pointedly, in other countries’ readiness to help it.

Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine may have destroyed as much as $30 billion of private housing. Housing is the only significant property many families own – should they lose it, wages are far too meagre for them to rent easily elsewhere.

Better wages were the main reason Ukrainians were heading west en masse long before the bombs started falling. The eastern half of the EU has long run on precarious Ukrainian migrant labour. With a low birthrate and low immigration, Ukraine was already one of the most rapidly depopulating countries in the world.

Chernihiv is a hundred miles or so north of Kyiv; in February, the Russian army subjected it to a vicious siege in which dozens lost their lives. When I went there in 2019 to report on the demographic crisis, Zhanna Deriy, a local demographer, showed me around the city. She took pride in Chernihiv’s restored churches, its neat parks, repaired pavements and filled-in potholes.

Instead of potholes, her city now has missile craters. She is now in Romania. We spoke again recently. ‘Before the war, the city had a population of 285,000,’ she told me. ‘Today it’s estimated that there are about 88,000 residents remaining. More than half of our people have become refugees, asylum seekers or internally displaced people … Our population hasn’t fully “adapted” to life abroad. But to cite a personal example, three of my colleagues are already abroad. They’ve enrolled their children in schools and one is already applying for work there.’

Under a bill that has been submitted to Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada, the government will offer compensation for all destroyed homes. It would take a lot of money. The World Bank predicts that Ukraine’s GDP will decrease by 45 per cent this year; President Zelenskyy has demanded that Russia pay for what it has broken. That looks fanciful – to put it mildly. It is now up to the EU not only to support refugees, and to help rebuild homes that can be returned to, but to rebuild a country worth staying in. Cancelling Ukraine’s foreign debt would be a good place to start.

Some Ukrainian refugees could stay in the countries they’ve fled to. But many more may eventually return. After the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia came to end, hundreds of thousands of Bosnian and Croatian refugees returned to their homelands – but not necessarily to their hometowns.

‘In the liberated villages of Chernihiv region – Ivanivka, Lukashivka, Yahidne – there’s a tendency to leave,’ Deriy said. ‘These people lived under occupation; they saw their relatives and friends executed. Their psychological state is quite difficult, which encourages them to look for a safe place to live elsewhere.’

There are seven million internally displaced people in Ukraine, and the number will only grow as Putin’s assault on the Donbas sets more homes ablaze. If there’s an enduring demographic consequence to this war, it could well be domestic. The country’s economic centre of gravity may shift yet further west of the Dnieper. Even if Ukrainian troops can hold the frontline in the east, and a ceasefire freezes it, returnees will have little cause to rebuild too close to the Russian troops and artillery on the other side.

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