The opening frame from drone footage over Irpin

Rebuilding one street in Ukraine

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A Google street view image of the front of the intact Giraffe mall before war broke out.

On his daughter’s first birthday, Vitaly Farenyk took his family to the newly opened Giraffe mall on Soborna street in Irpin, a comfortable suburb half an hour from the centre of Kyiv.

“It’s a very fond memory,” he says. “You had this lovely playroom, you could leave the children there with each other, drink coffee and just enjoy life.”

A photo of the now-destroyed mall in the aftermath of fighting in Iripin. The same facade from the first image can be made out, but the windows and walls are blown out and rubble lies in front of the building.

Today, little is left of Giraffe other than rubble. A Russian air strike hit it in the early days of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February. The mall was on the front lines of the war as Russia’s forces attempted to break through Irpin on the route to Kyiv.

After a month of brutal street and artillery combat, Russia withdrew from the area in late March — leaving the people of Irpin to pick up the pieces.

An image of the inside of the destroyed Giraffe mall. Rubble is piled up next to a destroyed staircase and escalator. Parts of walls and ceilings are missing.

When Andriy Dublenko, the mall’s owner, first came to inspect the damage, the remains of an armoured personnel carrier were still outside. He found the corpse of a Russian paratrooper trapped under the debris of the mall.

A screenshot placeholder for a video of the exterior and interior of the destroyed Giraffe mall.

“The first floor’s still intact, but we need to completely rebuild the second and put a new roof up. The bowling alley, cafés and cinemas have all burned down,” he says. He estimates the damage at $2mn.

“We’re looking for western partners who’ll give money to restore it,” he says. “The city’s slowly coming back to life, but people don’t have any money.”

A screenshot placeholder for a video overlooking a section of Irpin, showing a number of buildings with destroyed roofs or walls. A street in the middle has light bike, and car traffic.

Before the war, Irpin was a desirable place to live for Kyiv’s middle class — a relaxed and affordable commuter town.

Now Irpin has become a symbol of the destruction of Ukraine’s towns and cities. According to the Kyiv School of Economics, the Russian invasion has already caused at least $95.5bn in damage to Ukraine’s infrastructure.

Drone footage from Soborna street reveals just how scarring Russia’s invasion has been — and the enormous task that rebuilding it will involve.

A screenshot placeholder for a video showing the destruction of the cultural center in Irpin, captured from a drone slowly moving upwards with flags in the foreground.

Just over 100 metres down the street from the mall, Irpin’s House of Culture lies in ruins. A Russian artillery strike destroyed the roof of the listed building. The walls are covered in marks from shrapnel and mortars.

A screenshot placeholder for a video showing a walkthrough the Irpin cultural center, starting at the front doors and moving through the damaged interior.

A neoclassical Soviet concert hall built in 1954, the building was one of the main hubs of life in the town, hosting concerts, exhibitions, school events, and dancing classes for children. Engineers will examine the House of Culture’s load-bearing structures for damage to determine whether it can be repaired or will have to be rebuilt from scratch.

A photo of Farenyk, deputy head of Irpin’s emergency services department.

“I’ve been here so many times with my family,” says Farenyk, who is deputy chief of Irpin’s fire and rescue department. He still visits the building regularly — but only to clear away debris and any remaining explosive material.

A photo of Firdozi Khankishiev in front of a car in Irpin

The battle for Irpin

The buildings on Soborna street were destroyed during a fierce battle.

A few hundred metres north from the Giraffe mall is Bucha, a suburb where Ukraine says Russian troops raped, tortured and killed hundreds of civilians.

Firdosi Khankishiev, an Azerbaijan-born former Soviet and Ukrainian army major, was manning a checkpoint by the mall.

Soldiers take up position outside the mall

Soldiers take up position outside the mall

The dead line the street as battle rages

The dead line the street as battle rages

When the Russian troops attempted to enter the city, Khankishiev saw an officer commanding a Russian paratrooper division “no more than six metres away from me” outside the mall. “They saw me, they started hunting after me, and we returned fire,” he recalls.

Two residents walking past the visibly destroyed Giraffe building.

“They were shooting absolutely everywhere. There’s nothing but residential buildings around here and the play centre,” Khankishiev says. The Russian troops fired on civilians who tried to escape. “They’re ordinary people, they’re not part of [the fighting] at all, but they were aiming straight at them.”

A large pile of rubble in Irpin.

As Farenyk and his colleagues rushed to evacuate the civilians, Ukrainian defence forces hit a Russian armoured personnel carrier outside the Giraffe. They also laid anti-tank mines along Soborna street, the main road leading from Bucha.

The Russians initially broke through the defences, but the Ukrainians eventually drove them out of Irpin several hours later following a street battle. “The paratroopers’ bodies were lying under the rubble,” says Khankishiev.

A screenshot placeholder for a video showing the destruction of the Irpin cultural center and the surrounding buildings.

The rebuilding process

Even as the war rages in other parts of the country, the rebuilding in Irpin has begun. On the first day after Russia’s forces withdrew, Yuri Fefelov received a phone call telling him to come back to work in Irpin’s traffic service.

Fefelov and his son-in-law went back to inspect his apartment on the top floor of a nine-storey building to find the roof was missing, the floor half-flooded with rainwater. After spending a chilly night there, they took a walk around the centre of town. “There were damaged houses on every street and power wires scattered around everywhere,” he says.

Vitaly Fefelov stood in front of a pile of rubble

Fefelov and his son-in-law, accompanied only by their German shepherd, were struck by the eerie silence. “It was like I am Legend,” he said, the 2007 film in which Will Smith wanders an empty post-apocalyptic New York.

Town authorities put a tarpaulin over Fefelov’s roof, and he is now supervising an improvised garbage dump across the street from the Giraffe, where workers are hauling detritus from the Russian assault.

Two people work together to remove rubble from the street in Irpin.

There is so much debris in Irpin that not everyone is prepared to wait for municipal services to take it away: people ready to do it for money have stuck flyers on telegraph poles across town.

“We really hope the west will give us some money for reconstruction,” Fefelov says. “Because we won’t cope ourselves. There are government programmes, but you know how it works. They want one piece of paper, another — it takes a really long time.”

The front of Natalia Melnyk's shop.

On the first day of the war, Nataliya Melnyk and her husband fled Irpin for safer ground in western Ukraine. When they returned, they discovered their pie shop on Soborna street no longer had any windows. A friend who went back to Irpin before them taped garbage bags around the window frame to keep out the rain.

Natalia Melnyk placing a pie in a bag

When the couple arrived, they spent the first day cleaning the debris and then immediately set to kneading dough for pies. “After that, people started showing up. But still now the condition is not very comfortable,” Melnyk says.

Natalia Melnyk working in the kitchen

Business is slowly picking up again. Local authorities restored the water supply to the shop shortly after Russia’s troops withdrew, and turned the electricity back on a few days after Melnyk arrived. But she and her husband are reluctant to reinvest in the shop while the financial situation is so uncertain.

Close up of Natalia Melnyk

“Nobody will help as long as the war’s going on. I don’t think the government will pay anything in the near future. I haven’t seen any cases where the state has allocated money for repairs.”

Her customers are also struggling financially. “People are coming back a little bit, but it's still not what it used to be. Now you can't set a higher price, because you understand that people don't have money. So you could earn more, but now flour is getting more expensive, sugar too.”

Close up of Halyna Yaremenko.

Halyna Yaremenko, 80, has been selling refreshments at the local football stadium since it was built three years ago to supplement her meagre pension. When Russian troops began trying to force their way into Irpin, she handed over all 25 crates of bottled water at the Champion Stadium to Ukraine’s defence forces.

With the help of an inheritance, she had moved into a rundown old house with a garden behind it. Last autumn, she had the roof redone, installed windows and plastered the walls.

Close up of Halyna Yaremenko's destroyed house.

The fighting cut off water supplies, forcing her to start taking water from the only well in the neighbourhood — before it turned yellow. An artillery strike knocked out her kitchen, so she burned wooden logs to cook in her fireplace.

Halyna Yaremenko in her yard.

One day in March, she was out in the yard chopping firewood when she heard an explosion. She looked up: her gate and much of her ground floor had been destroyed.

Yaremenko took 1,000 hryvnia ($34) in her wallet, left her remaining 40,000 hryvnia in savings at home, and went to one of the bomb shelters by the Giraffe while her son hid in a nearby basement. A week later, artillery fire destroyed what remained of her house — including all her savings.

A close-up of Halyna Yaremenko surrounded by pots.

After the Russian troops retreated, Yaremenko moved into a half-finished concrete house in the same yard. She took a stool with her from the bomb shelter, bought two pots, and found a kettle and a bucket on the street.

People whose houses have been damaged by the fighting can file reports that the city then uses as the basis of requests for compensation. Yaremenko filed hers in late May. “They took photos and left,” she says.

A soldier takes a grenade out of a bush and places it in a cordoned area

The risk to residents is not just from damaged buildings, but also from explosives. Emergency services workers trying to make Soborna street livable again start by inspecting every damaged building for mines and unexploded ordnance. If they find a dangerous object, they seal off the territory and use special equipment to remove it or destroy it onsite. Technicians have special equipment to detect munitions buried under the ground.

A close up of a grenade on the street

The process of demining Irpin is long and painstaking: one deminer can examine about 10 square metres a day on average, but difficult areas with large amounts of unexploded ordnance can take much longer.

But Irpin’s emergency services have been racing to make the city safe as quickly as possible. “It’s really inspiring — they’ve cleared an astonishing amount of space,” says Oleksandr Lobov, a demining specialist from the UN Development Programme.

A screenshot placeholder for drone footage of children playing football over the damaged pitch.

The years ahead

Slowly, a semblance of normal life is returning. Amateur football players are taking to the pitch at the Champion Stadium behind the House of Culture once more after emergency services cleared it of debris and mines.

Local authorities are planning to rebuild the damaged stands in full. And in time, residents are confident they will be able to return to the mall and cultural centre as well as the stadium.

However, the total damage to Irpin’s infrastructure is at least $922mn, according to the Kyiv School of Economics, and normal life remains a long way off: only about half of the city’s pre-war population of 60,000 have returned.

In Irpin alone, as many as 8,651 buildings — half the total amount in the city — were damaged in the fighting, with a further 2,501 partially or completely destroyed. The damage to Irpin’s housing stock amounts to 17.7bn hryvnia, while the town’s social infrastructure sustained a further 3.7bn hryvnia worth of damage.

With the war now mostly concentrated in the Donbas region hundreds of kilometres to the east, Irpin has become a compulsory stop for foreign dignitaries visiting Kyiv, who look on aghast as Ukrainian officials show them the damage.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy promised in May that “every Ukrainian who lost their house or their apartment as a result of fighting or shelling that the state will restore matter what the losses are”.

But the huge cost — the Kyiv School of Economics estimates Ukraine’s economy has taken a total $600bn hit from the war while the fighting continues to rage in the east — means that process will likely take years.

After surviving Russia’s onslaught, Farenyk thinks anything is possible.

“With our indomitable Ukrainian spirit, it’s easy to rebuild a building like [the cultural centre],” he laughs. “It just gives us hope that they won’t attack it again tomorrow, and if they do — the residents of the city will stand together to take turns rebuilding it brick by brick.”

Visual Storytelling team: Dan Clark, Alexandra Heal, Helen Healy, Sam Joiner, Sam Learner, Caroline Nevitt

Videos: Taras Hreskov. Photography: Andrew Kravchenko

Additional research: Niko Kommenda, Aendra Rininsland, Matt Taylor

Sources: Satellite imagery of Irpin provided by Planet. Satellite imagery based building damage assessment in Irpin by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research

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