In the midst of war, gardening gives us hope


When the sun rises over the front village of Veselyanka, Svetlana first prepares breakfast for her two daughters. After that, she puts the girls, aged 7 and 13, to work at the kitchen table: the local school has been closed for over a year, so their education happens online. Then the woman starts working in her vegetable garden. On the piece of land near her house she grows the standard repertoire of every Ukrainian villager: potatoes, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, raspberries, currants, apricots, apples, pears and plums. She spends the whole day digging, sowing, hoeing, planting and watering. “In these difficult times it is even more important to plant good potatoes. I want to make sure that we have enough food.”

“In this difficult time, we ask for hope”

To get to Veselyanka from the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia you have to pass through 3 army checkpoints. Fortunately, chaplain Maksym Prokopenko knows the password: the heavily armed soldiers step aside and raise their hands in salute. The front is about 10 kilometers from the village. In the distance you can hear dull thumps – which no longer surprise the villagers. “In this difficult time, we ask for hope”, prays the army chaplain at the central community center, where about sixty people are already waiting for help; the village was also part of the project last season. “Protect this village and our soldiers. Give us a peaceful sky and a peaceful land.” Then the chaplain arranges those present in two rows in order to distribute the bags of potatoes and seeds.

“They told me that the seed potatoes are so great. I couldn’t wait”

Most recipients receive the potatoes and seeds for the first time. However, they have all heard enthusiastic stories before. A woman, whose son hobbles around at the distribution point, says that she has fled from occupied territory. Because of that, she has also lost her vegetable garden; the imminent arrival of the seeds motivated her to start gardening in Veselyanka again. Another man, loading the potatoes into his bicycle basket, had heard from his brother that the potatoes were doing so well. “They told me that the seed potatoes are so great. I couldn’t wait,” says Svetlana.

She badly needs it. Her husband, who was the breadwinner, now serves as a soldier at the front. There is no transport to the city, and there is hardly any work in the village itself. Meanwhile Svetlana not only has to feed her children, but also her mother and mother-in-law, who fled to Veseljanka from a less safe place. With the money she has left over thanks to the given seeds, she wants to buy ducks for eggs and meat, to exchange the proceeds for sugar and bread. In two weeks, her husband will be on leave for the first time in three months. “When he returns safe and sound, I will cook for him. Then I will prepare all the good foods I have”, beams Svetlana.

“You walk to your vegetable garden and you think: is it safe or not? You look at the sky, and it looks empty. You pick up your spade, you get to work and… BOOM.”

Growing your own fruit and vegetables is common for the residents of Veselyanka. But it takes courage in these times. “Sometimes they shoot at night, sometimes during the day. It’s unpredictable. It happens when it suits them,” says Lyudmila, a 78-year-old woman who has the bag of seed potatoes lifted in a wheelbarrow. “You walk to your vegetable garden and you think: is it safe or not? You look at the sky, and it looks empty. You pick up your spade, you get to work and… BOOM.” Recently, an explosion happened so close that she fell face down to the ground. “It felt like the grenade landed next to me.” There is no point in hiding in the basement for Lyudmila and her 80-year-old husband: the underground canning store next to their house is too small and too old. “If it collapses, it will only make things worse.” So the elderly couple waits in the hallway, between the thickest walls of the house, until the shooting stops.

Her neighbours asked why she even grows vegetables, while ev

Lyudmila also thanks the chaplain warmly for the seeds and seedlings. “What would we do without them?” They can’t go to the store with their meager pension. Lyudmila’s husband has difficulty walking. Her daughter and ten-year-old grandson fled to Germany in the early days of the war; she talks to the boy by phone every night. “Hello Androesya, how are you?” The couple stayed behind. “We thought about leaving, but we don’t know where to go.” They do their own gardening. Sometimes a relative comes from Zaporizhia to help, but sometimes they are not allowed to go through the checkpoints. Her daughter asked her the other day if she isn’t afraid to plant. “Yes, I am very scared, I said. Then we cried together.” Her neighbours asked why she even grows vegetables, if a rocket could hit any minute — their garden has weeds up to a meter high. “It gives us hope. We put the seeds in the ground and say to each other: it will end soon, it will end soon. And we will have food.” Then the retired woman grabs her wheelbarrow and walks home. “We pray that the war will end soon,” she added over her shoulder.