STARYI SALTIV, Ukraine – Families move around, greeting each other, exchanging messages, or sitting around picnic tables laid out with candy, Easter eggs, and freshly baked bread, reviving country life in an unlikely place: a cemetery.
The village of Staryi Saltiv lies beyond the checkerboard graves in the cemetery, where flowers are adorned on Sundays and children run around collecting sweets.
“You can see that people are returning to clear cemeteries, and villages are coming back to life,” said Natalia Borysovska, a tailor whose house was destroyed last year. After fleeing, she was left homeless – but still had a family to care for.
Sunday is a traditional Ukrainian day of remembrance called Provody. Every year on the first Sunday after Orthodox Easter, families spend time at the cemetery, cleaning graves and leaving food and flowers for dead relatives.
The tradition of life and death in eastern Ukraine continued this year, even in villages devastated by war, forcing residents to disperse.
Shura Portyanko, 70, a retired store worker displaced by the fighting, returned Sunday to visit and pay her respects at her husband’s grave.
“We cannot live without our village,” she said. “Of course, I’m here to clean up and say hello.”
Destroyed villages, some no more than a collection of jagged brick walls, fragments still flitter about the streets and dot the open landscape of the country’s eastern rolling plains. As the front lines shifted during the 14-month war, it left behind dozens – perhaps hundreds – of such places, a bleak scene of empty streets, bombed churches and countless destroyed homes.
But even as the fighting continues, there are signs of recovery. Aid groups such as the United Nations and the Red Cross are assisting with replacing windows and making other repairs.
Paradoxically, cemeteries are the first places to see revival, with well-ordered graves hinting at the intention of displaced residents to return and rebuild on land near where their families are buried. Because Ukrainian villages are cradles of a language and culture deeply rooted in rural life, they have a way of recovering from disaster.
“This is my father, this is my grandfather, this is my grandmother,” Ms Borisovska said, pointing to the grave. She’s trimmed weeds, picked up leaves and branches, and dusted picnic tables on the family plot. Her house, by comparison, remains charred brick.
A week after the more festive Orthodox Easter holiday is celebrated at home, people mark the day with Easter eggs and bread. The spirits of the dead are said to visit the homes of loved ones at Easter, and then in Provodi, the living visit the dead at the cemetery.
Families sit around small tables in the cemetery and sometimes talk to deceased loved ones.
“Hi, Dad,” Ms Borisovska said at the grave of her father, who died of illness last year.
“I talk to him, I bring things he likes and some things I bake for him,” she said of the chocolate candies she left behind. “I said hi and said I really miss him, but I don’t want him in my dreams.”
Ms Borysovska evacuated last year to Kharkov, about a 40-minute drive away, but she hasn’t forgotten her village, which is picturesque with brick houses and apricot orchards, perched on a cliff overlooking Sieversky Donets River.
“You spend your whole life building, you save money to build for yourself, for your kids, and then in a split second, boom, that’s it,” she said of her destroyed home. She said she plans to rebuild and will plant her garden next to the ruins this spring.
Bees buzz around a blossoming almond tree in the pale sun. In one place, a carpet of yellow wildflowers grew beside shell craters.
Ukrainian villages have previously recovered from war, famine and collectivization. Their resilience is crucial for Ukraine. Throughout the 20th century, the village retained Ukrainian language and culture, while the city was largely Russian-speaking, until a revival of interest in Ukrainian after the Orange Revolution and the pro-Western government came to power in 2005.
Villages are so important to Ukrainians, in fact, Ukraine is sometimes caricatured as a country of rednecks devoted to gardens and pastoral landscapes. In fact, two-thirds of Ukrainians today live in vibrant urban centers such as Kiev, Lviv and Odessa, although they still love rural areas.
“For Ukrainians, the soil is very important because it carries their blood and sweat,” Ukrainian historian Vitaly Skalsky said in an interview. Tendency to recover from misfortune. “They fight for it, and they profit from it. That’s why people are so attached to the soil.”
A Russian invasion last year nearly wiped out Staryi Saltiv, but it wasn’t the first time. In World War II, heavy fighting took place both inside and outside the village. The Sieversky Donets River, just to the east of it, formed a natural line of defense in eastern Ukraine, separating armies during the two conflicts.
Russian troops occupied the east bank from May to September last year, while Ukrainian troops took control of the village. During World War II, Soviet troops controlled the east bank while Nazi soldiers controlled the village. In both wars, artillery bombardment of the river largely destroyed Staryi Saltiv.
Lidiya Pechenizka, 92, who has lived in the village her entire life, said, “It was horrible, we had to go through” World War II. She recalls hiding in the cellar with her little brother, as the resident had done last year.
“We rebuilt after the war and we will rebuild now,” Ms Pechenizka said.
About 40 percent of houses in Staryi Saltiv were damaged last year, and another 40 percent were completely destroyed, said Kostyantin Hordienko, a member of the village council. Schools, clinics and town halls were damaged. Only about a quarter of about 4,000 people before the war had returned, he said.
But for Provodi, the village comes back to life on a day to honor the dead.
Displaced families gather to walk around the cemetery, carrying flowers and plastic bags of food, stopping to visit acquaintances and exchange pleasantries.
After the family leaves the grave, children collect sweets there as part of an annual tradition. They run around with bags on Sundays looking for goodies.
Liubov Oleksiivna, 73, was born and lived her whole life in Staryi Saltiv before she had to flee. She intends to return if she can find a way to restore her home. “I was stitched to this land,” she said.
Traces of war and even scarred cemeteries. Cannons knocked over tombstones and left deep craters in some plots. One of the coffins was blown apart.
Ms Borisovska, who was visiting her father’s grave, said she would definitely move back. She recalled summer nights with moonlight reflecting on the river. “How can I forget all this and never come back?” she said. “I slept really well here.”
Anna Lukinova contributed to the report.