As lightning forked through the sky and torrential rain poured down, a group of young Ukrainians danced in the shadow of the bombed-out carcass of the historic House of Culture in the village of Ivanivka.
They’d spent the weekend clearing debris in the northern Ukrainian village, which was pummelled by Russians advancing on Kyiv in the early days of the war. They slept in tents or under the stars at a nearby lake.
The “clean-up rave,” as it has been dubbed, is the brainchild of local volunteer group Repair Together and does exactly what it says on the tin: combining the free and fun atmosphere of a music festival with a working bee for devastated communities.
It is as close as many will get to a real-life rave right now, due to nightly curfews in place across Ukraine for the past five months.
Last weekend, more than 100 young people toiled away across several sites in Ivanivka, in Ukraine’s northern Chernihiv region, to the soundtrack of thumping house music emanating from a set of speakers.
While previous iterations of the “clean-up rave” have incorporated DJ sets into the working bee, this event is a more structured affair: a weekend’s work rewarded by a concert featuring popular Ukrainian electro-folk band Onuka.
Though it probably wasn’t as intense of a summer dance party as most were used to due to the inclement weather, it didn’t deter anyone from the task at hand – the work and the dancing.
Ivanivka, like many villages in the Chernihiv region on the main highway to Kyiv, was indiscriminately targeted as Russian tanks rolled in from the north on Feb. 24, en route to the Ukrainian capital, 130 kilometres to the south. Bombed petrol stations and residential homes still line the highway.
As winter approaches and questions linger over when temporary homes will be built, villagers across the region are rushing to repair and rebuild.
Groups of young people across the country are now eager to help out — accompanied by a set of turntables and the echoes of electro-folk music sounding across the countryside.
Thousands remain homeless
On a sweltering Sunday afternoon, the bare foundations of what was once a two-storey house played host to dozens of young volunteers. It’s a cacophony of sound – hammering, the scraping of shovels of concrete, the idle thrum of a tractor and trailer waiting to be loaded with debris and the house music emanating from the speaker system.
The damaged house was brought down at the start of the weekend clean-up on Saturday. Volunteers have spent the ensuing time stacking bricks and shoveling debris.
The homeowners, Oleksandr Pylypenko and his son Vlad Pylypenko, worked alongside the volunteers.
“Many thanks to these people, I simply have no words,” Vlad says. “We cannot imagine that there is still so much good left in the world.”
When the village was shelled on March 3, the Pylypenkos’ home was hit by burning debris and much of the second floor went up in flames. Vlad was inside, sheltering in the basement with his pregnant sister and her husband. His parents were in a neighbour’s basement.
During the five months since, they’ve lived with friends in a nearby village. They’re waiting to move into one of the modular houses being built across the region, before they focus on rebuilding their old home.
The first modular houses opened in early June in Borodyanka, with the help of the Polish government, to house people whose homes had been destroyed by war, but none have been yet built in Chernihiv.
About 3,500 buildings have been destroyed in the Chernihiv region due to the war — 80 per cent residential housing — according to statistics released in May by head of Chernihiv regional state administration, Vyacheslav Chaus.
“We hope that somehow we will survive this winter,” Vlad Pylypenko says.
For now, at least, the family has a fresh base to rebuild from. Shovels and sledgehammers in hand, volunteers make light work of the pile of rubble that was once the Pylypenkos’ home. By 2pm, it is all but gone as volunteers trudge off to lunch, cheering and whooping loudly.
For the people behind Repair Together, founding a new organization that planned ‘clean-up raves’ wasn’t exactly a stretch from their pre-war day jobs. Before February, they were a group of seven friends who organized trips around Ukriane and “parties in nature.”
“We’re party-makers,” co-founder Tetiana Burianova says. “And now our skills can help us help other people.”
In recent months, Burianova says they have built a “huge community.” The musicians that the group enlists to play at the events perform for free because they want to be involved.
The group has cleaned up three villages already and last weekend helped 15 families fix their homes in Yahidne. The aim is to get around to all of the damaged villages in Chernihiv and to start focusing on rebuilding homes.
“We don’t want to stop and the music and these people inspire us so much and we’re so proud of our volunteers,” Burianova says, rain dripping down her face, her clothes soaked.
A group of people behind her are holding hands and dancing in a huge circle as Onuka plays under the awning of the destroyed House of Culture. The storm hasn’t bothered the ravers — some are poncho-clad, others not — as they jump up and down excitedly.
But it’s not just about the free concerts.
Kovalenko is shirtless, wearing a red cap. He’s spent most of his day chiselling grout off bricks so they can be reused. An English teacher and karaoke conductor by trade, Kovalenko now spends his weekends volunteering. This is his third trip.
“I need to be here and to help my people, to help Ukrainians,” he says.
His grandfather and grandmother remain in his home village in Donetsk, which is now under occupation. He worries for them, but he also worries for the livelihood of people such as the Pylypenkos. He says he watched the family’s expressions as their home was demolished and it “cannot be expressed in words.”
It has strengthened his resolve to continue to spend every weekend for the foreseeable future on these trips.
“I cannot stay home knowing I can be helpful with such work, because if not us, who else?” he says.
Volunteers fly in to help
While most of the volunteers have come from Kyiv, or from other Ukrainian cities such as Vinnytsya and Lviv, some have travelled from abroad to help. Sunday’s event featured volunteers from the United Kingdom and Poland.
Darka Harnyk, who has lived abroad for three years and was most recently living in Ottawa and working on Parliament Hill as a researcher, flew in a month ago to get in with rebuild efforts.
“If you live abroad you’re very unattached from everything that’s going on out here. You’re more afraid when you’re abroad then when you’re here,” says Harnyk, who is from Kyiv but spent her younger years in Luhansk.
“You don’t believe what’s going on, it feels like a movie setting. It doesn’t seem real. But then you touch this brick and you realize it’s real.”
Like many of the ravers, Harnyk is dressed the part. As she moves bricks and shovels debris, she’s dressed in a bright gold, satin blouse and shorts, a flowing golden headscarf covering her hair.
She says she owes it to her country and her peers to help out.
“A lot of my friends, everything they keep thinking about starting from the moment they wake up is should they go to the army today? Should I, like, join this or join that?” she says.
“This is what’s really disturbing to me.”