Workers quickly shovel piles of rubble off the beige carpet into wheelbarrows, then dump them down a makeshift chute. They leave only a dusty stack of children’s books before moving on to the next room.
“I really feel like we are one now. We know that Ukraine is our home, and all Ukrainians understand that we need to recover,” said Andriy Kopylenko, co-founder of the District 1 charity.
110 days have passed since the invasion of Russian troops in Ukraine. First, they attacked and occupied several suburbs of Kyiv before the Kremlin withdrew its forces from the outskirts of the capital to concentrate in the east of the country. Even as violent street fighting continues to rage there, the people of Kiev say it’s time to recover and return.
The city’s population dropped from 4 million to just 1 million at the height of the conflict. It has now risen again to 3 million, according to local officials.
District 1 posted on social media a call for volunteers to join cleanup operations. Hundreds of people registered in a matter of days and quickly dispersed to the devastated suburbs of the capital to clear the rubble and restore hope.
“We are all different, different ages, different interests, but we work here together as one, and it makes me feel good,” said volunteer Dmitry Niktov, marketing manager in his daily life.
One of the charity’s projects is aimed at restoring a six-story residential building in the tiny village of Myla, not far from Kyiv. It became a front line in early March, locals say, as Russian tanks moved east toward the city, firing directly at the building where families were still inside.
Civilians were killed even as they fled, and CNN teams witnessed bodies strewn across the highway, some still lying next to their vehicles.
A 77-year-old resident, Maria Popova, witnessed the horror.
“We were very scared and took refuge in the basement,” Popova recalls. “We called the firemen, but the Russian troops started shooting at them and they left. We sat and watched our houses burn.”
By early April, Russian troops had completely withdrawn from the areas around Kyiv, but left a trail of death and destruction in their wake. The atrocities shocked the world and sparked an ongoing investigation by Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office into thousands of alleged war crimes.
As the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is mired in war on the eastern front, reconstruction efforts are now dependent on the help of volunteers.
“The army has a job, and we also have a job,” Kopylenko said. “It’s like you’re on the front lines because when you’re here you see people every day who were close to war and you talk to them. It’s very hard mentally.”
Volunteers from around the world have also been enlisted in the recovery effort, including Colorado native Karl Voll.
“I don’t have military experience, so I thought I could contribute to the humanitarian realm,” Fall said. “First of all, this is practical work that I do, but I also just show Ukrainians that people in other parts of the world care about them.”
But some in Kyiv fear that the peace is temporary and that Russian President Vladimir Putin may try to launch another assault on the capital.
“We know that this can happen again,” Kopylenko admitted. “Now we need to understand that we live next to a country that can start a war any day. But we need to live.”
With Russian artillery bombarding the country every hour, simply staying in Ukraine seems like an act of defiance. Millions of people who were forced to flee their homes as a result of the violence remain displaced, mostly in neighboring European countries.
Popova was the first to return to the damaged residential building in Mil. Her house on the second floor was almost unscathed.
“When I returned, my windows were broken and there was a lot of rubbish. (But) the roof and upper floors were completely destroyed,” Popova said.
“But no matter how hard it is, there is no place like home,” she added. “When you’re at home, the walls calm you down.”