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A family in Ukraine celebrates Orthodox Christmas amid the ruins of their home

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The smell of oranges and roast duck wafted through the metal door of a small barn as Oksana Kovtun put the finishing touches on her family’s Christmas dinner.

As she rushed from the outhouse into the warmth of a small modular home carrying the bird to the table, a light dusting of snow settled on the collapsed walls and debris strewn in the center of her yard.

It is all that remains of his family’s home in Makariv, destroyed by shelling last spring as the Russians tried to seize the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, some 30 miles away.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Christmas this year fell on Saturday – the church still uses the Julian calendar, rather than the new Gregorian calendar – and the family meal takes place on Christmas Eve. Friday was the first Christmas Eve the Kovtuns spent at war, now living next to the ruins of their home in a donated temporary building.

With one of her sons in the army in the east and without a permanent home, the past few months have been difficult at times, said Ms Kovtun, 49.

“But there is nothing else to do, we have to hold on,” she added. “You can sit down and cry, but then you get up and go to work. And that’s how. »

The Kovtuns were among countless Ukrainian families celebrating the holiday under new circumstances. Many damaged houses; many others have been displaced entirely or have fled the country as refugees.

Even in areas that have never been close to the front lines, celebrations have taken place amid hardship and uncertainty, after weeks of attacks by Russian forces on critical civilian infrastructure that have crippled the ability of Ukraine to supply electricity, heat and water on a constant basis.

Such conditions can turn Christmas Eve dinner into both an act of defiance and a show of resilience. In the Kovtuns’ modular house, the electricity went out two hours before dinner was due to start. But flashlights were handy.

The youngest of the family, Ms Kovtun’s 7-year-old grandson David, struck a match to light candles on the table with the quick hand of someone for whom it has become a nightly ritual.

“You can’t really call it a house now,” Viktor Kovtun, Ms Kovtun’s husband, said of the tiny prefab building, which had been split into three rooms. Without its electric heater, it would cool quickly, said Mr Kovtun, 53, turning on a gas heater instead. “But we will rebuild,” he said of the family’s lost home.

It won’t be the first time they’ve rebuilt their nearly three-decade-old home. “When we bought it, it was just walls and a roof, no windows, doors or floors,” Ms. Kovtun said of the house they bought in 1997. “And we built and built.”

They raised their two sons there, then made room for their daughter-in-law and eventually their grandson – three generations under one roof. They had more work planned when their son Mykhailo, 22, was due to return from military service last year. He had joined the army in 2021.

But just days after finishing renovating their kitchen in February, Russian forces occupied Makariv as they invaded Ukraine from the north. Battles between Ukrainian and Russian troops quickly engulfed the area.

“There was no siren, no alert, we just heard the shelling,” said Tetiana Kovtun, 30, who is married to the couple’s eldest son, Vitalii, also 30. They barely had time to grab a few things during their escape.

A few weeks later, on March 16, artillery fire ripped through the wall of the elderly couple’s bedroom. A second rocket hit another wall. The bombardment and subsequent fire nearly leveled the house and the family dog ​​was killed.

But elder Ms. Kovtun’s grief over their loss is mixed with optimism. She had escaped the city safely before the devastating attack, along with her husband, Vitalii, Tetiana and David. Weeks later, the Russian forces were ousted and the family eventually returned to assess the damage.

They found their house in ruins, but an outbuilding – a barn with a small kitchen – had survived. The couple therefore settled there for a while.

“When we arrived and had to live in the barn, I was like, ‘It doesn’t matter what conditions we live in if this is our home,’” Ms Kovtun said. “Home is home.”

Their modular building arrived in November, donated by a Ukrainian charity under a program called Nest that has built 585 homes in the Makariv region alone. This allowed the family to live on site while they attempt to rebuild.

Just before Christmas Eve dinner, Ms. Kovtun’s phone rang. It was Mykhailo. His father’s face lit up and David rushed to the phone to shout Christmas wishes to his uncle. Mykhailo – who is a chef in the army, his service now extended for the duration of the war – described the dinner he cooked for his fellow soldiers.

When her sons were young, Ms Kovtun said, she would send them outside to look for the first Christmas star in the sky before they started their meal, an Orthodox tradition. Now David, Ms Kovtun’s grandson, has started the search as the family gathered for their dinner.

A few days earlier, on New Year’s Eve, the family had watched the night sky together in horror, their eyes drawn to the unmistakable buzz of several Iranian-made drones launched by Russian forces. They were most likely destined for Kyiv, part of a major Russian attack early in the new year. Many were intercepted, however: Vitalii showed videos of the explosions on his mobile phone as the family gathered in the small kitchen.

The usual 12 dishes served on Christmas Eve cluttered the Kovtuns’ modest table, and David helped his grandmother count them one by one. The first one they served was kutya, a traditional dish made with grains of wheat, poppy seeds, nuts, raisins and honey.

Some of the plates used by the family were taken from the ruins of their home, among the few things that survived.

The family cookbook was lost in the fire, so this year Ms. Kovtun prepared many traditional dishes from memory.

Next year, Mr Kovtun said he hopes his family will spend Christmas at their newly rebuilt home. They plan to start work in the spring.

It is this work that keeps the family busy and distracts the Kovtuns from what they have had to endure. Ms. Kovtun reassures herself that the house may just have been the price her family had to pay in this war.

Maybe that will prevent something worse.

“But when we rebuild the house, we will have a big party there. I will get drunk and then I will start crying and I will scream all the pain, every last drop,” she said. “Now there is no time to cry.”

Oleksandra Mykolyshyn and Natalia Yermak contributed report.

nytimes Gt

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