With Bakhmut at Heart

“Bakhmut Community Development Agency” CSO was founded in 2021. The organization has been steadfast in its mission to foster a conducive environment in Bakhmut across various sectors: social, ecological, and economic.

This entailed creating a business-friendly atmosphere, promoting the transition to green energy, and ensuring transparency in the decisions made by the authorities. The agency took its first step by introducing online broadcasts of the Bakhmut City Council meetings, enabling the residents of Bakhmut to stay informed about the local authorities’ decision-making process.

In January 2022, the CSO secured funding for a pivotal project: the establishment of an entrepreneurship school for the youth of Bakhmut. However, the full-scale invasion disrupted its implementation. In the initial months, the agency’s team was instrumental in assisting the local residents by distributing humanitarian aid. But as the situation worsened, it became perilous to remain in the city.

“There were people who stayed and helped the residents till the last. But the general trend was towards evacuation. Our organization followed suit. Whenever someone relocated to another city, they would inform the rest of the team. I believe everyone had left by the fall of 2022,” Yulia Kozachenko, the project coordinator of the “Bakhmut Community Development Agency” CSO, recounts.

The dispersion of the team across different parts of Ukraine posed challenges to the operations of the civil society organization. However, this did not deter them from cooperating, and in December 2022, they began designing and implementing their first projects to assist the Bakhmut residents who had relocated to Dnipro.

Dnipro: A New Sanctuary

Yulia reveals that Dnipro has become a new home for approximately eight thousand residents of Bakhmut, accounting for 10% of the city’s population. The entire team of the city council has also relocated here. Consequently, it’s no surprise that the city authorities have established a community hub here, affectionately named “With Bakhmut at Heart”.

“This hub hosts various events to support the community. Any resident of Bakhmut is welcome to participate in project implementation or simply seek assistance,” Yulia explains.

Initially, a portion of the agency’s team volunteered at the hub, providing help wherever and whenever necessary. During a two-week program of psychological support for internally displaced persons held at the hub, Yulia served as a coach. This hands-on experience and direct interaction with people facilitated a deeper understanding of the needs of Bakhmut residents:

“Sometimes I look at photos from the events. I can just have a look at a person. I don’t know them personally, but I know their needs. We all share similar living conditions, and I am cognizant of what I need or lack. This insight makes it easier to conceptualize the main idea for a project.”

The project “Joint Actions – Capable Bakhmut Residents”, part of the Together We Shelter program funded by East Europe Foundation and the Ukraine Humanitarian Fund, was conceived in this context.

This project was specifically designed to assist people with disabilities, and to provide help to low-income households and multi-child families. The staff of the “With Bakhmut at Heart” hub and representatives of the Bakhmut City Council in Dnipro were eager to contribute to its implementation. As Yulia emphasizes, “we are all in the same boat.”

“Collaborating with the Bakhmut City Council was straightforward. They consistently update lists of incoming and outgoing residents who require our assistance. They also maintain a list of people with disabilities and large families who need our help. As a result, we have a comprehensive understanding of the situation of all Bakhmut residents,” Yulia adds.

Implementing Joint Actions for Empowered Bakhmut Residents

The project began its preparatory phase in the summer of 2023. Yulia was entrusted with the task of designing and leading it. She recalls the initial apprehension about the feasibility of the project:

“The communications officer, the accountant, and I were in constant contact with the Foundation. The head of the CSO frequently inquired about our progress in the chat. Ultimately, we were successful.”

The implementation of the project commenced in November 2023. The primary phase – the distribution of household kits among Bakhmut residents – was carried out from December 11 to 15.

Each kit contained essential household items: a pot, pan, spoons, forks, cups, blankets, pillows, bed linen, and towels. The “Bakhmut Community Development Agency” had planned to distribute 150 kits. However, the contractors who offered the most competitive price and free delivery enabled the distribution of an additional 52 kits. A total of 699 individuals received aid, including 231 people with disabilities.

“During the distribution of the kits, we received over 170 positive feedbacks, both about the organization and the quality of the kits. It’s not uncommon for a kit to be of poor quality, and there’s little one can do about it. While here it’s quite the opposite: we continue to receive positive feedback. I work as a teacher, a lead tutor. One of my students, whose mother is disabled, also received a kit. She later sent a photo showing that they had received everything and used it for cooking. She expressed her gratitude. Such stories truly warm the heart,” Yulia confesses.

“Analyze the Present and Build the Future”

The team at the “Bakhmut Community Development Agency” is actively seeking projects to implement in 2024. Their focus areas include education, psychological support, and non-food aid, acknowledging that not everyone has yet achieved financial stability. However, the most pressing question for both Yulia and all Bakhmut residents is: what’s the next step?

“I’m aware that a significant number of people wish to return to Bakhmut to rebuild it. I also know others who share this desire, but understand that it could take several decades. Firstly, we have no place to return to. Secondly, we need security guarantees and victory. But even if we imagine Bakhmut rebuilt, it will forever be a place marked by war, grief, and pain,” Yulia reflects.

In her view, Bakhmut residents face a difficult choice: to settle where they are now or to relocate elsewhere. Both options present their own challenges.

“Sometimes, we sit with our family, talk, and realize that we yearn to go home. It brings us to tears. There’s a sense of not owning anything. In your hometown, you know where and what to buy. In unfamiliar places, you have to ask, search, and spend time on this. But that’s life, and there’s nothing we can do about it,” she observes.

Nevertheless, Yulia remains optimistic, believing that life goes on and that the best days are yet to come:

“If you dwell in the past, nothing good will come your way. We should analyze the present and build the future. If one day we can return to Bakhmut and feel at home there, it would be wonderful. If not, we still have our lives, our families, and the Bakhmut community, which is now spread across Ukraine.”

The Together We Shelter Program is implemented by East Europe Foundation with financial support from the Ukraine Humanitarian Fund. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of East Europe Foundation and Ukraine Humanitarian Fund.