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Some war-ravaged parts of Ukraine try to rebuild as fighting rages elsewhere

Updated May 13, 2022 at 1:02 PM ET

BUCHA, Ukraine — In recent weeks, thousands of people have returned to the site of one of the most intense battles for the Ukrainian capital. Thirty-six-year-old Denis Metrevelyi is one of them.

He and his family fled Bucha to the center of Kyiv soon after Russia's Feb. 24 invasion.

Now he has returned alone to the town on the northwestern outskirts of the capital to try to clean up their apartment.

The eight-story apartment building got pounded with machine gunfire and took a direct hit from an artillery shell. Much of the roof is destroyed and the top-floor apartments are charred rubble.

"This is the temporary roof that we have," Metrevelyi says, pointing to tarps stretched on wood supports.

He and a few other residents have moved back in to the apartment complex — despite it still lacking running water. "But we have electricity and gas," he says optimistically. A few weeks ago, they didn't even have power.

"We are slowly rebuilding as much as we can," he says.

More than 2 1/2 months since the start of the invasion, the war in Ukraine has cost tens of thousands of lives, destroyed billions of dollars in infrastructure and battered the economy. Now, after the battle lines shifted hundreds of miles to the country's east and southeast, residents like Metrevelyi are returning to areas where the fighting stopped and are trying to rebuild their homes and livelihoods. But reconstruction comes with major challenges as the war still rages on in parts of the country.

Bucha saw devastation

Russian troops captured parts of Bucha within days of invading the country, and occupied the area until Ukrainian fighters drove them out on April 1.

After the Russian forces' retreat, some of the most shocking images of the war emerged from the town, including dead Ukrainian civilians lying in the streets, adding to mounting accusations that Russia has committed war crimes.

Hundreds of people in Bucha were killed and more than 1,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed, according to Bucha's mayor, Anatoliy Fedoruk.

After the fighting, he initially asked residents to stay away. Officials wanted time to clear the burned-out vehicles and tanks from the streets, sweep for mines and get power lines restrung before residents came back.

Bucha had a population of about 53,000 before the war, the mayor says. During the worst days of the more than monthlong Russian occupation, he estimates fewer than 3,000 residents remained. Despite his house being destroyed, Fedoruk was one of them.

Now he says it's safe to return — and many already have. "Now we are back to about 19,000 people," he says.

The economy is in turmoil

Ukraine faces a deep economic downturn. Its airports are closed out of concerns that commercial aircraft could be targets for Russian missiles. Its main ports, Mariupol and Odesa, are shut down. Despite cruise missile attacks, the railways still operate but no longer on a set schedule.

And the fighting has driven a quarter of the population from their homes, more than 6 million of them fleeing to other countries.

Hlib Vyshlinsky, the executive director of the Centre for Economic Strategy, a think tank in Kyiv, says the war is expected to slash Ukraine's economy by at least a third in 2022.

The World Bank is even more pessimistic, predicting a 45% contraction.

Ukraine's central bank hasn't issued an official forecast.

But there are some positive signs. Vyshlinsky says cellphone location data shows hundreds of thousands of people who fled Kyiv in the war's early days are now returning.

At one point in March, the city that was home to more than 3 million residents had only about a million people. "Now it's closer to two or two point something million people that are back in Kyiv," he says.

Recently, diplomats from the United States, Canada and many European nations have returned to the capital. This sends a strong signal to both Ukrainians and international companies that Kyiv is now safe enough to live and work in, Vyshlinsky says.

Bucha Mayor Fedoruk cautions that it's too soon to talk about full reconstruction. "It's really hard to rebuild in a wartime," he says. "First we need to finish the war and then we will be able to go with a full-scale rebuilding."

Vyshlinsky believes the war has entered a new phase and that Kyiv and other areas where fighting has ceased could be able to rebound fairly quickly.

Ongoing attacks on infrastructure and Russia's naval blockade of exports will continue to be major problems for the overall economy, Vyshlinsky says. But in this latest stage of the war, he predicts, fighting will continue in some parts of Ukraine while businesses and residents will get back to their prewar work in others.

The International Labor Organization estimates almost 5 million jobs have been lost in Ukraine since the start of the war.

But Vyshlinsky points out that in the work-from-anywhere culture that came out of the coronavirus pandemic, many Ukrainians can return to a virtual office even if they fled the country.

While some parts of the Ukrainian capital have been torn apart by the war, others are unscathed. In downtown Kyiv diners sit outside a pizza restaurant at lunch time.
Jason Beaubien / NPR
While some parts of the Ukrainian capital have been torn apart by the war, others are unscathed. In downtown Kyiv diners sit outside a pizza restaurant at lunch time.

One café attempts a comeback

In Bucha, across the street from Metrevelyi's damaged apartment building, there's a small shopping pavilion with stores selling anything from musical instruments to lingerie to plumbing supplies.

Before the invasion, Sergiy Dromov had been running a coffee shop there for eight years. As Russian troops advanced on Kyiv, two shells ripped through the commercial complex on March 3.

Two shops hit by explosives are still in ruins. Workers are in the process of cleaning up the twisted sheet metal and charred remains.

But around the corner, Dromov last week reopened his café for the first time since the start of the war.

"This café was my father's before me," he says. "So I wanted to return."

Many of the organic products he used to sell are no longer available. Many of his shelves are noticeably bare.

Dromov says the only supplies he can get delivered are his paper coffee cups. Most of the major shopping centers and supermarkets in Bucha were bombed by the Russians.

"There's no malls or delivery here now," Dromov says. "Everything I need, I have to bring from Kyiv directly but I hope that soon it's going to get better."

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Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.