– Her yard is pocked by craters from wayward bombs, the vegetable garden lies in ruins and her bees have abandoned their hives.
But Vira Chernukha, 76 and now the sole resident of a northeastern Ukrainian village bombed and depopulated by Russian invaders, has no intention of ever leaving Dementiivka again.
When Russian forces bombed the village on the day of their invasion last year, she woke up in a hospital just across the border inside Russia. It took months and a 4,000-km (2,500-mile) odyssey across five countries to get home.
Nowadays, she keeps busy fixing the damage to her yard and tending to a monument to Ukrainian soldiers who died defending the village.
“I’m not afraid any more,” she says. “I’ve lived my life.”
All she remembers from Feb. 24, 2022, the day the Russians invaded, was waking up a neighbour at 4.20 a.m. to news of war.
Then the missile hit.
“My kitchen door was open, I was standing next to the stove. I looked through the window, the glass shattered, the door frame flew away and (there was) a black cloud, the earth was lifted up,” Chernukha recalled, clad in a pink blouse and white kerchief.
“I only remember I jumped back into the house, it was still standing. I was all covered in blood…I crawled into the street and then I have no idea who found me.”
When she woke up, she was in a hospital room in Belgorod, a city just over the Russian border.
She spent a month there, often in tears, as local officials prepared documents for her departure to a refugee camp.
“I said ‘I will not go anywhere, I will sit here in Belgorod on a bench near the train station,'” she said. “But then my daughter-in-law found me and with the help of volunteers they took me away.”
An attempt to cross the border failed, so they looked elsewhere.
“We travelled via Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to Lviv and then Vinnitsya,” she said, referring to two western Ukrainian cities.
“Seven days of riding buses, but I did get back to Ukraine. There are still five people (from this village) who are in Russia, I do not know where they are.”
Ukrainian forces retook much of the country’s northeast last year in a lightning counteroffensive that caught Russian troops off guard.
Chernukha said she had endured bombs, missiles, even phosphorus bombs that “shone like little lights”.
Once back in Dementiivka, she considered leaving her village for Kharkiv, the region’s main city, which never fell under Russian occupation.
“I walked past what used to be the gate, I stopped and I thought: ‘Old lady, I managed to come back. Now, what is going to happen, will happen?” she said. “And I turned back.”