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Young Ukrainians are spreading joy by organizing cleanup parties


War is awful, but war cleanup - one grassroots organization in Ukraine is trying to make it fun by bringing young people from the cities into villages destroyed by fighting. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf has more.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Sixty-six-year-old Hanna Yurchenko carries a basket full of apples freshly picked from the trees next door. It's a drizzly afternoon on one of the first cool days of fall. She walks around what was once her home, now not much more than a foundation littered with broken brick and shards of glass. It's a grim setting, but the mood is light. Techno blasts from a Bluetooth speaker. People laugh and dance. Hanna hands apples to the workers shoveling piles of debris into metal buckets, clearing away the destruction so that the house can someday be rebuilt. She can't rebuild until it's been cleared.

HANNA YURCHENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LONSDORF: On the 7 of March, she says, she watched as not one but several rockets hit her home. This is the small village of Kolichivka in northeastern Ukraine, which was under heavy attack in the early weeks of Russia's large-scale invasion.

H YURCHENKO: (Through interpreter) I came to this cleanup by myself, but I'm just so grateful for these kids.

LONSDORF: The kids Hanna is referring to are the dozen or so 20- and 30-somethings clearing away the rubble. They rhythmically sway and shuffle to the music. One woman cuts through old pipes with a power saw. Twenty-seven-year-old Roman Tarasiuk shakes his hips on top of a trailer as he empties buckets of debris to be hauled away. He's wearing overalls and a bright blue shirt, his long hair pulled back in a ponytail.

ROMAN TARASIUK: Volunteering in Ukraine - it's become a part of our everyday life.

LONSDORF: Twenty-year-old Viktoria Seetovska brings over a bucket she's filled. She says this festive atmosphere is necessary.

VIKTORIA SEETOVSKA: We all feel anger and a lot of destructive emotions.

LONSDORF: Listening to music, she says, helps push those feelings away so they can work. That's the idea behind this whole event, put on by a group called Repair Together. Marina Hrebinna is one of the organizers.

MARINA HREBINNA: The scale of destruction - it is really huge.

LONSDORF: This all started with a group of friends who went to help a different village in the spring. But there were so many places that needed help. So they invited their friends, who invited their friends and a group. Now all the volunteers pay a small amount to rent buses, and they work with local authorities to determine where they're needed most. Today they're cleaning up six houses.

HREBINNA: We're not builders here. We are all just normal people. But we have our arms, our bodies and our, like, physical health.

LONSDORF: She says most of all, it's about helping people, but it's also about making everyone feel less alone in all of this, building community.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: (Singing in Ukrainian).

LONSDORF: Down the street, a boombox blasts Ukrainian music perched on the foundation of another bombed out home. Two young people throw bricks to each other, stacking them as they go. Tetiana Vereshchahina shovels alongside the volunteers. This was her family's house.

TETIANA VERESHCHAHINA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LONSDORF: She says all of this was a surprise. She had asked the local authorities for a trailer and found out just the day before that a whole team was coming to help. Her 9-year-old daughter Anastasia jumps around and dances nearby.

ANASTASIA: (Laughter).

VERESHCHAHINA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LONSDORF: She's been helping, too, Tetiana says, making tea for everyone. Volunteer Liza Kochubei says just because she's out here helping today doesn't mean she isn't paying attention to what's happening. In fact, it's the opposite.

LIZA KOCHUBEI: (Through interpreter) Look. There are seven days a week. Like, five days a week, we read the news and get really sad about what we read. And then we have two days when we gather together and we get distracted by work.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Singing in non-English language).

LONSDORF: A short walk away past some cows grazing by the road, 60-year-old Katya Yurchenko keeps watch over her destroyed property, where more young volunteers are packing up at the end of the day.

KATYA YURCHENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LONSDORF: She says she was born in this house, lived here all her life. Cleaning it up has been too emotional to do alone. She says this group of workers finished in one day what would have taken her months, even if the music isn't really for her.

K YURCHENKO: (Through interpreter) They're young, and they like music, so I don't mind. But honestly, I don't have any music in my soul right now.

LONSDORF: And then she pauses and says...

K YURCHENKO: (Through interpreter) You know what, though? The music is much better than the bombs.

LONSDORF: As Katya talks, a sunset fills the entire horizon - bright pink, orange, purple. It bounces off the gold dome church next door, reflects in the nearby stream. A few volunteers start packing up to take selfies and then continue stacking equipment. Katya thanks them. They wave, heading down the dirt road, carrying the Bluetooth speaker, still blasting.


LONSDORF: They turn a corner. The music fades. The village is quiet again. Katya walks over, standing in what was once her kitchen. Now, she says, she just needs some help to rebuild. Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News, Kolichivka, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ITALO SONG, "MISCHIEF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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