Special Project: Mayor of Trostianets, Yurii Bova: A nation so organized is impossible to defeat: it knows what it is fighting for!
An exclusive interview of the mayor of Trostianets, Yurii Bova, within the joint special project of Information Agency Interfax Ukraine and East Europe Foundation “Community Experience” (Dosvid hromad). Its purpose is to show the most outstanding examples of adaptation and integration of internally displaced persons in order to improve the efficiency of local self-government bodies.
Read more about effective interaction with IDPs in the free online course “Adaptation and integration of IDPs: experience and opportunities” on the “Zrozumilo!” online educational platform.
Author: Oleksandr Trokhymchuk
For the period of a month, from the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Trostianets was under occupation. What went on in those first days?
From the beginning, we did not understand the process at all. Even if the russians come in and occupation begins, what would it be like? Will twenty soldiers enter, or a hundred? And when thousands pile in to the city, when two columns of russian heavy machinery comes in, with over a hundred pieces of machinery per column (including around forty tanks in each), you begin to understand that you're defenseless: there are no armed forces in the city, no weapons – nothing.
Right away mobile connection disappears, there is no communication – there is panic all around. We understand that the same situation is happening in other cities, Kyiv, etc. And this wave of stress forces us to solve a multitude of problems at the same time. Many people crowd the mayor, demanding to know what to do. Hundreds of people require an answer, but there isn't one.
The russian amy entered Trostianets at 11 in the morning (24 Feb, 2022 – IF-U). And to the first outlying suburb, even earlier. So from the beginning of the invasion, and their entry to Trostianets only a few hours passed. We didn't have a chance to get weaponry, to bring it from Kremenchuh – we didn't even have the time to get into position.
We didn't understand in those first days how serious it was. Everythone thought a day or two, and it will all end. Because of that, the first month of the war, even the first days, were extremely stressful. We tried, first of all, to calm people down as much as possible. We tried to understand what awaited our city: would they pass through or settle. And when it became evident that they were stopping among us, then the question was what to do with this?
Later, in a week or two, our citizens began to organize. Everything began to fall into place: the president was in his place, leading the country, our armed forces were in position, local communities began to group among patriotic figures, and a real movement began. Cities all over Ukraine – especially Bucha, Irpin, Chernihiv, Trostianets – began to resist, and it turned out that the russians were not ready for that. They were expecting that we wouldn't shoot – but the opposite happened.
How did you coordinate your activity with the Ukrainian Armed Forces?
I understood that the war that occurred in the Donbas region in 2014, had come to our territory. We were told that over a hundred units of heavy machinery was headed our way, a collossal amount of soldiers, tanks. When guys from the local unit came to us with three rifles, I told them that they won't stop the columns, but they can get themselves killed. Then we decided to get in contact with the Ukrainian Armed Forces to perhaps get some weapons. We also needed assignments from the Armed Forces, because up to that point we had coordinated ourselves. And not like a partisan movement named after Bat'ko Mahno. (laughs)
We went to the headquarters of the 81st brigade, which had entered a nearby city a few days earlier. They are not local, and did not know the territory well, and when they found out that we were from already-occupied Trostianets, the commander of the battalion asked to see a map of where and how many of them there were. We agreed to act as their eyes, passing along information.
Praise to our boys, Ukrainian Armed Forces of the 81st brigade! They helped Sumy considerably. By the way, their heroism is rarely mentioned, and this is not fair. Because the defense of Sumy is often spoken about, but not that the first day they were supported by the 81st brigade. They were the ones that led the first battle against the russians in Sumy.
At the headquarters I witnessed how the commander grouped his boys together and told them, “two columns are headed for us, but we will fight.” And the guys in front of him are young – they're all 20-30 years old. And you think to yourself, that you're possibly seeing them for the last time. Because they were heavily outnumbered, around 10:1. And none of these boys even flinched. They listened to the task from the commander, planned, and got into position. It was a very difficult battle, until the late night. In the morning I came to the headquarters and the first thing I asked was, “how many were killed in battle?” The commander smiled and said, “None! That's now what we learned to fight for.”
On the third day,I finally believed that we would survive – and that it was necessary to resist despite the fact that the enemy was obviously much stronger. We began to prepare more actively, to receive weaponry, to create partisan formations, to organize people that were ready to pass along information and to help our side. For example, one guy would fly a quadrocopter daily from the center of Trostianets, to record positions of the russians to target them. It was a unique effort. I think, a nation that is so organized, is impossible to defeat. Because it knows what it is fighting for.
With combined effort (particularly combined with Armed Forces), on our territory, over a hundred units of russian heavy machinery was destroyed. And basically, they did not travel further than Trostianets.
Only a few days after Feb 24, upper management of the western military district (of the russian federation – IF-U), entered Trostianets. Two generals, and many officers were in the city hall building. These were their military elites, the 20th general forces, first tank forces, Kantemirov and Taman divisions. They blocked up Trostianets in such a way that it was impossible to get to the center.
By march 10 we had an understanding of who we were dealing with, their weaponry, their markers – we got a command to figure out where the headquarters was located, and to destroy it. The first russian general killed in this was was in Trostianets: he was hit from a Bayraktar from our targetting. Then the russians left Trostianets and ran toward “DNR”.
I am convinced that the russians won't get a second chance like this, and won't enter our territory again. The Sumy region gave a strong resistance, and did not allow huge columns of russian machinery to pass further inland on Ukrainian territory, and toward the capital. Because if they had passed – and this is thousands of units of heavy machinery – then I don't know if Kyiv would have handled it.
With all this happening, how were you able to respond to the needs of civillians?
Yes, on one hand you must think of the thirty thousand people that depend on you, and on the other, how to help our military.
The first month was a month of challenges: how to organize everything, arrange for aid, assemble people for resistance, because we had no armed forces whatsoever. Our closest military at that time was in Okhtyrka.
But there were other challenger as well – humanitarian ones. People did not realize the magnitude of this war. Some were hiding in their homes and did not see those hundreds of pieces of machinery – and these people need electricity. People did not realize that it wasn't possible to go out into a field and fix the high-voltage lines because along the road there were columns of the enemy. In some villages, the russians would knock down power lines with tanks on purpose, so that the people would be left without power and connection.
Another question was how to provide people with food products. The russians blocked the entire city right away: not a single car was able to reach Trostianets, it was completely occupied.
Civillains needed food. And our task was to maximally ration it. And not everyone was ready to risk their lives and to walk into the nearest school building to receive it. And these were only the first days and weeks of the war. After a month, people began to suffer from hunger. Especially those that lived in apartment buildings and did not have food stocked up.
It was necessary to set up bread bakeries, pretty much in kindergardens, schools, in people's houses. And it had to be given out silently, without announcements in social networks. Because the russians could take notice – and they could kill.
There were volunteers from our chocolate factory, that packaged grain there. One time russians came to them and told them to either leave or be shot – or to work together with them.
There were many risks. And obviously nothing could be done publicly, because we understoof that collaborators were eager to find us, as well as the russians.
What was the situation with collaborators in the city?
We were aware that there were collaborators in the city, that worked with for russia. These people heated the situation as much as two years before the war. It is my understanding that they knew that our city would be occupied.
The russians prepared for this war for years. Because no military action is ever taken without preparation. So in every city there were collaborators that prepared “bread and salt” for them, and then went around the city with them and showed them forest rangers, ATO participants, and representatives of the local government.
Their actions were generally hidden. No one labeled themselves as a collaborator and showed off that they were working with the russians. Therefore, now, after liberation of the city, it is our duty to search out and find them all.
Although some did openly work with the occupants. For example, one guy is on trial now for riding with the russians in their machinery, showing them various warehouses, factories, and food storage areas. Because the russians were hungry too. Besides that, as it turned out, he coordinated the work of government electric and gas services.
During the entire month of occupation, you were not in Trostianets, but nearby. It was known that the russians were searching for you, because on the fifth day, an enemy tank rode into your yard. What other kinds of pressure did they apply?
Already of the first day (of the invasion of Trostianets – IF-U), they had entered my work cabinet, took my photo from a stand, and gave out copies on all of their block-posts: “we're searching for the mayor.” Then they rode into my yard on an armored vehicle, and sat in my house for three days. My neighbors called and told me to not even think about going home because fifteen enemy soldiers were waiting for me. A sniper was positioned on the roof of a neighboring house – if I came close, I would have been killed.
The situation was the same with the deputies, factory managers. They also stayed in different apartments to avoid being found.
The inside of my house was destroyed. I hadn't been there for a month and a half. At that time, we spent our nights in various places: during the day, you drive through the territory of the community (which is 38 towns), and wherever the night fell was where we stayed. I also had a friend with me - a former member of the ATO - and we were traveling to various places for the entire month... We changed probably more than a dozen different places for overnight stays.
Curiously, those who were searching for the mayor never once asked about my family. Only military. They called me simply crazy after learning that my relatives had stayed in Trostianets.
How did you organize evacuation of citizens of Trostianets?
Eventually we organized a “green corridor”. People were afraid to get into the cars. The first ones to go were not local residents, but people who came to Trostianets for work, from other places. No men were afraid to get into the vehicles. Even though, they understood that it could have been a one-way ticket. And when the vehicles went out along the route that was given to us by the regional administration, the russians began to shoot at the vehicles, they stopped them and didn't let them through.
Obviously they couldn't allow for people to see their machinery from the windows of the cars. They understood they people would tell our army. I suggested to go along another route, along byroads. The regional administration said that we could go but if someone gets killed along the way, I would carry personal responsibility for the death of those people. And we decided to go. There were difficulties, but we made it. And three more “green corridors” we went along that same route.
How many people were you able to evaluate in total?
We evacuated 2800 people from the city. When I recall these actions, my voice trembles because at the time it was truly frightening. We had 80 people in evert bus. People rode standing, holding children in their hands, in order to escape from the city.
According to statistics from law enforcement agencies, the russians killed 49 citizens of Trostianets, three of them – tortured. Can you confirm numbers of people abducted from the city?
The russians were furious that they were being shelled: The Ukrainian Armed Forces were nowhere near, but they kept getting hit. That means that someone local was coordinating it. And they began to grab people in the street, shooting them, torturing. Two boys survived the torture. They had been grabbed in the last days of occupation before the city was liberated, and thank god, they were found alive. They had been questioned – where was the mayor, where were the territorial defenses, what roads can be used to leave Trostianets to go to the Poltava region. For this, people were killed. Yes, 49 people were killed, and 13 have still not been located.
Why didn't you leave Trostianets and continue to govern the city at a distance, like some mayors and local administration personell?
Because I had the feeling that I must help people, you know? This is my city, I was born and grew up here. And every day people write me hundreds of messages, I get thousands of calls asking for help.
From the other hand, the russians are very intetrested in mayors, and this had it's own risks. They want for local goverments to cooperate with them, and to create the most comfortable conditions for them. If representatives of the local governments are not interested in cooperation, they get kidnapped. Many mayors have still not been released from captivity.
What kind of damage has the community been left with as a result of russian aggression? How many objects have been damaged or destroyed?
In our community, a total of 1500 buildings have been destroyed completely – 1200 of which are residential buildings. According to expert evaluations, the damages add up to about $108 million, and if you consider stolen agro-machinery, vehicles, furniture, etc., the cost goes up to $120 million.
What is the situation with shelters in Trostianets?
I don't think it differs considerably from other cities. The reginal administations were responsible for the shelters, they had entire departments dedicated to this. The system was ruined but shelters were not built. In city councils there was not a single specialist that could work on the question of safety. This wasn't a concern until the year 2020, even in small cities.
So when we were handed over governing power, it turned out that some objects listed as shelters were completely degraded – they did not exist. However, they are still listed as bomb shelters in State Property Funds. So we are told to go into bomb shelters, we look – but there is no bomb shelter, there is an empty space. Such cynical things go on on our country. Therefore, we took what existed – but it is in degraded condition. In some there were still posters hanging from 1987 about radiation, and they had not been repaired ever.
How how much funding and time is necessary to do it all... In 2021, we had COVID-19, in 2022 the beginning of the full-scale war. And when would local government have time to rebuild it? And was there funding or programs for this? No there weren't. So, unfortunately, that covid year, 2021, took up a lot of local funding that could theoretically have gone to rebuilding sheltering facilities.
So they would not be good for sheltering people long term?
It's possible to spend a day there, but to spend months in those bomb shelters is absolutely unrealistic. That was what it was like at the beginning of the great war. After liberation of the city, obviously, we began to look at it from a different perspective, that safety is a priority.
We weighed how much funding we have and what we can do with it. The first shelters rebuilt were in the center of the city, but we are working on others currently as well. In schools we have made bomb shelters. Let me clarify: In Trostianets, children returned to schools in May of 2022. So in the community that was still under occupation in March, children went to schools in May. And currently 50% of children are learning offline.
On the night of June 1, three people were killed in Kyiv, and 10 people injured. During a russian air attack, they were not able to get to a shelter – it was locked. In your thoughts, how can we ensure the accesibility of shelters?
In any shelter there must be items like a generator, canisters of water, blankets, and chairs. And it is necessary for a worker to physically be present, and not just one because they need to change shifts.
But what can be done during curfew hours, when moving about the city is not allowed at all? Where can people run? At most, to the basement of their building.
Whether shelters should be left open at all times – it's a heavily discussed question. How to find a balance between keeping the shelter from being maraudered, and to avoid the situation like in Kyiv, where people were killed near locked doors?
Right now I am thinking about a very cool thing, and I have given our specialists an assigment to work on it – electronic locks, that can be unlocked remotely. So one official, that turns on the air raid siren, presses a button and all bomb shelters are opened. The factor of human error needs to be removed from this situation altogether. We are preparing a request to our international partners: for funding for this project.
But lets discuss another side of this. It's good when there is a system of bomb shelters in place. Are they located near a bus stop, in a park, where a mother is walking with a baby stroller? Can she get to that shelter if she must run to it, hypothetically, for half an hour? No.
What solution do you suggest?
The government must create a system of small concrete constructions, to release blueprints for projects, and to approve them at the level of the Ministry, and to arrange for construction of these mini constructions at every Reinforced Concrete factory, in every region. And its cost should be approximately 100 thousand uah.
Because occasionally costs reach ridiculous figured, when the building of a bomb shelter can reach 20 million uah. Because they account for plumbing, ventilation, etc. So a community won't be able to build a multitude of such shelters, if they cost 5, 10, 15 million uah. It's not realistic.
But a system of small shelters is realistic, and it covers the subject of people who may be out in the street or on the territory near their apartment building – because not every building has a basement. It is possible to install a concrete structrure that will protect from shrapnel or blast waves.
I am not an expert on civillian safety systems, but we have enough generals, ministers, which can create a system and approve it for the creation in all cities.
Trhe population of Trostianets was 21,000 before the invasion. Were many people forced to leave the city, and how many people have already returned?
At the time of the invasion, Trostianets had a population of 19,800, close to 20,000.
In the first days, some left in their personal vehicles. Then during the time of the occupation, we created “green corridors”, through which we evacuated 2800 people. Some walked through the fields. So it is difficult to say for sure how many people were forced to leave the city and community. I think around 1500 people.
Now 95% have returned. How do I count? For example, I keep track of servicemen, workers of communal services, teachers, doctors. Our hospital employed 400 people, and now there are 396 there. From teachers, only individuals haven't returned.
Besides that, our community has taken in 1600 internally displaced persons. Part of them are our own people who have lost a house in a village. But there are also those that have moved in from different regions, such as the Kharkiv region, Donbas, or Luhansk.
We try to meet all of their needs. We are getting 200-250 quality places ready. But even this is not enough. It would be good to make mini-houses where people can stay for a week or two, or maybe even a month. The wave of migrants that went to the west regions of Ukraine ended a long time ago, but our migrant movement continues.
How does your team learn about the needs of IDPs?
We made it simple: when a person registers at the center for humanitarian aid, we ask
them to fill out a survey in which they mention all necessary information – including details like childrens' shoe size. Then this information is made known to the different institutions.
What kind of employment does your town offer migrants?
Of course, at first they need to settle down, so we give them some peace and quiet for a month or two. After this we offer full employment. We understand that many people will never return to those territories that they came from. Because in the Donbas region there are entire towns and cities that have been completely destroyed. So it is our task, to make these people settle with us. There is a battle for people, foremost.
We do not focus of how many of the IDPs are employed. Because a person can come to work for three days and then quit. I think that while the IDPs are getting monetary support from the government, their interest in looking for a job will be mininal. It is unlikely that an IT worker that moved to our city, from Donbas, will want to work as a janitor.
How do you set up communication with the new settlers? Can you give your recommendations on the subject for other cities?
Again, I would recommend to use the method of surveys to understand the needs of people. It is also necessary to pay attention to how pro-Ukraine they are. Because there are people who come, with pro-russian outlooks. So we monitor the situation closely. In this case we work together with special services.
Overall, I think that the most important part is to give people employment. Because they are our people now. Doesn't matter whether they are with us for a week or for a month, they are our people – period. They are registered here and they have the same guarantees as the other citizens, especially concerning education and medicine,
Our budget was been severely cut by the war, because 99% of small and medium business has been plundered. Many factories have been burned down. Close to 95% small, and 40% medium sized businesses have been destroyed.
How is business renewing today?
About 50% has already been renewed. But some have been completely destroyed – it is very hard for them, because there is no funding. But no businesses have been moved to other regions, they have all stayed within the community. We expected many of them to leave. The chocolate factory, for example. They waited for a long time, because to renew their enterprise 40 km from the border is very risky. They waited for three months, and kept asking me whether there would be another invasion. I don't know whether I inspired confidence, but they began to renew – and now Milka and Korona are ours, not Polish or German.
In over a year since the great war was in Trostianets, new partner cities have shown up within Ukraine and outside of it's borders. How do partnering communities help you rebuild the city?
A very important role was carried out by those connections that had been developed even before the invasion. When the big war began, we turned to our partner cities. And the first shipments came from them. They collected clothes, food, generators, medicines, vehicles, and they helped with various equipment. We had three partner cities: two in Poland and one in the Czech Republic. We are currently advancing this network.
We also have friends inside the country, with whom we communicate through Facebook or at various conferences. But it had always been at the level of “Hello! How are you?” - and that's all. And when a full-scale war began, the mayor of Zhytomyr called me. I won't say that he is a close friend, but he calls and says: “Yuri, I have 20 generators that I can give you.” Then we quickly brought them to the liberated villages so that they would have electricity.
The mayor of Nedryhailiv also called me and asked what kind of help we needed. I said that I was looking for transportation, because people had to be evacuated from the city, since an evacuation was planned in a day or two. It is also important to note that no drivers wanted to go to our occupied city. Later he called back and said he had found several drivers and three buses. Moreover, he also put food into these buses, stuffing them as much as possible with everything possible. The drivers who came from him made three trips to evacuate people. So, Nedrihailiv is the only city that gave us buses for evacuation.
When convoys of people leave, you call different cities - Myrhorod, Gadyach, Lokhvytsa, Nedryhailiv, Poltava - and ask them to take in those people into a dormitory, in apartments, as soon as the cars reach them. And all our people were accepted. Everyone who needed some sort of help, received it.
And this is a huge, you know, synergy of partnerships in the country itself. This is both humanitarian and technical assistance, which continues today.
At the same time, new partnerships are forming. For example, a woman who lived in one of the towns of our community, but has been in Germany for the past nine years, calls and asks what she can do to help. I advised her to go to the mayor of the city where she currently lives. And now we have already signed a partnership agreement with that city. We have already received three aid trucks from there, as well as a powerful generator, a bus, medicines, household appliances, and furniture. We are already starting to think about joint projects for the reconstruction of Trostyanets, for which they are ready to attract international funds.
And somehow we received a call from Austria: the company iC consulenten Ukraine is ready to make a development master plan for Trostianets. Because the city that existed during the times of the USSR must be rebuilt in a modern way, with a new philosophy, urban design, energy efficiency, and sewage. And they organized 12 international experts, who have been working with us for nine months. Two of our own architects were offered internships in Vienna.
How do you generally find partners, and how do you effectively work with them?
To be honest, in order to develop these partnerships and connections, we wrote over 500 letters to various international foundations. Not to mention how many calls and individual negotiations there were. Last year we had 130 partners, including humanitarian aid and transport.
But in those first two or three months, there was no one at all, no international fund. When they heard how close we are to the border with the russian federation, which is 15 km away, they all refused. Now foreigners have gotten used to taking some risks.
And how do you establish cooperation between the government and the public sector, business? Why do you think it is important?
This triangle relationship “government-society-business” is extremely important. Because the government should address the needs of both of these categories. And in order for there to be quality communication, you have to be at the epicenter of events every day.
We must understand the needs of businesses in a de-occupied city. The first is protection, demining of the building itself. Because the police have not yet completely returned to their duties. There are no security companies either. The enterprise is standing, it has a foreign investor or the owner has moved somewhere abroad or to westernt of Ukraine, but asks to keep it. Therefore, it is necessary to make decisions with the owner's consent, to place men with rifles near the object, to organize their shifts. Then you report to him, and he feels: there is trust. Cooperation moves to another level - simple communication. If, say, earlier it was more formal with the new head of the chocolate factory, now we have a different relationship. They began to invest in helping the city more, despite the fact that they themselves still need to rebuild. They have $10 million in losses, but they help repair schools, hospitals, and buy equipment.
In addition, we always had normal communication with the heads of street committees. Yes, on every street of Trostianets there was an elder, chosen by the people, through whom we communicated with the residents.
Thanks to these elders, we were able to distribute food during the occupation. So imagine how you can quickly distribute food to the whole city in one day? Turns out, its very simple! The head of the street committee comes to the humanitarian warehouse in his neighborhood, gets everything he needs and distributes it to his people on the street. And when everyone does it, then literally in a few hours the whole city gets food.
There is no such thing in any city, because we have developed this for years. That is, these bridges of trust were built before the war and continue to perform their function effectively even after the deoccupation.
The interview with the Mayor of Trostianets, Yurii Bova, was prepared as part of a joint special project of the Interfax-Ukraine news agency and East Europe Foundation “Community Experience” (https://interfax.com.ua/news/general/919611.html), launched in support by the Stiykist’ Programme which is implemented by East Europe Foundation within a consortium of non-governmental organisations led by ERIM (Equal Rights and Independent Media, France) and funded by the European Union. Its purpose is to show the experience of Ukrainian communities in the adaptation and integration of forcibly displaced persons in order to increase the efficiency of the work of local self-government bodies. You can learn more about effective interaction with IDPs in the free online course "Adaptation and integration of IDPs: experience and opportunities" on the educational "Zrozumilo!" platform
The opinions and statements expressed in the material do not necessarily coincide with the views of the consortium partner organizations and the European Union.