From a bunker, an acting mayor keeps her front-line Ukraine town alive

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
Svitlana Mandrych, the acting mayor of Orikhiv, in a bunker under what’s left of city hall with residents who came to register for aid on Monday.

ORIKHIV, Ukraine – It was the only time of day when the Russians weren’t shelling, so the people of Orikhiv rushed toward city hall, looking for the woman in charge.

They found the acting mayor, Svitlana Mandrych, where she always is, in the building’s basement, running what is left of her town from a cramped bunker.

Much like the rest of Orikhiv, the city hall’s battered walls looked as if they were falling apart.

Its second floor was blown out; the windows and doors were all shattered or badly damaged. The building has been hit by artillery fire so incessantly that 51-year-old Mandrych was forced to move her office to a cold, concrete-walled room underground, lit by a single lightbulb.

Residents packed the passageway outside Mandrych’s bunker-office, pleading with her for help: boards to cover up their bombed-out windows, money to repair their roofs, firewood to heat their homes, water to cook their food.

Misery was setting in here in Orikhiv, now a skeleton of a town not quite three miles from the front line in the Zaporizhzhia region, which Russian President Vladimir Putin claims to have annexed. Mandrych was one of the only people left who could try to keep the town, once home to 20,000 people, from collapse.

A former kindergarten teacher turned deputy mayor, Mandrych took over leadership of the town when the mayor moved to the city of Zaporizhzhia a few months ago along with much of the city council. She spends her days underground fielding nonstop calls with the help of two remaining council members and the company of a dog named Bullet.

“Everybody has a different fear tolerance,” she said. “I cannot leave the people of Orikhiv behind.”

Mandrych embodies a remarkable resilience that is playing out in towns and cities across Ukraine, as ordinary people work in extraordinary conditions to survive a full-blown war that a year ago seemed almost unimaginable in 21st century Europe. They struggle to subsist, unsure what each day will bring.

After months of war, Orikhiv is on the cusp of becoming unlivable for the 2,000 residents left.

Virtually all of the town’s 56 apartment complexes are damaged or destroyed, and 70 percent of homes are damaged, Mandrych said. Most of the day, its streets are practically empty; residents spend most hours underground or near a bunker, emerging only to seek humanitarian aid in the mornings, before 11 a.m., when the shelling usually subsides.

There is no power, water, or gas in town. There’s no longer a hospital or ambulance in the town. Residents must rely on the military to rush them to a field hospital when missiles – or illness – strike.

And there’s no end in sight to the constant shelling by Russian forces surrounding the area. Last week, missiles hit a school in town, where 10 people were packing bags of produce to give to residents. One person died, and another was critically injured.

Some Ukrainians hope their military will launch its next big offensive here, pushing south through the Zaporizhzhia region. But after the liberation of Kherson city, analysts doubt Ukrainian forces can pull it off soon. The Russians have dug into more fortified defenses, and muddy terrain is slowing all movement.

“We are waiting for this offensive to happen,” Mandrych said. “We wish it could happen sooner.”

Mandrych and her small team have managed to give out 600 wood-burning heating units to residents and have ordered 350 more, but that will still be short of the nearly 1,300 they estimate are needed to heat all remaining households. She worries people will fall through the cracks, especially those in remote areas.

“I fear forgetting about them and not getting them enough attention,” she said. With the cold winter ahead, she said: “People could die.”

On Monday morning, Mandrych was being asked to do many things at once: A woman came to her with a list of residents requesting food. Another showed her a list of addresses of people needing blankets. A man with a cigarette asked her how to deliver financial stipends to residents.

There are so few people left to serve the town that Mandrych has had to devise creative solutions. A former city hall custodian is now a secretary. A city-employed driver delivers humanitarian aid. The car owned by the mayor’s office was bombed – what’s left of it is still parked outside – so the driver uses her personal vehicle.

Daily life depends on leadership, and so much of the work falls on Mandrych. She sleeps only three to four hours a night. Whenever she gets to go home to her husband and adult son, they live in a basement.

“It’s a good thing my mother taught me to be tough,” she said. “We will relax after we win the war.”

Raised by a widow, Mandrych has spent her whole life in Orikhiv, studying in the town’s now-destroyed school and working for the government since she was 17.

The Ukrainian soldiers based nearby gave her the call sign “Angel.” At one point, early in the war, she was helping them build concrete barriers on Orikhiv’s outskirts when shelling began. A soldier shouted: “Angel, get down!” They asked later whether she was afraid. She said she was not.

The shelling is getting louder and more frequent, residents say. One man waiting in line in the city hall bunker to report damage to his home was Oleksii Belik, 67, a mustached retired engineer who returned alone to Orikhiv after evacuating with his wife earlier in the war.

Belik said he came back to protect his belongings. He doesn’t have a proper bomb shelter; his basement ceiling is about an inch thick. He said he brought a couch down there to sleep on, but it grew moldy after two days. So he stays upstairs, where half the windows are bombed out and the city-provided heating unit warms just one room.

There’s no electricity to watch the news, but Belik said he sometimes manages to listen to the radio. He heard about Kherson city’s liberation, he said, giving him hope for his own region.

“We can only live with hope,” he said. “It keeps us alive and sane.”

In line in front of Belik was Eleonora Syzonenko, 44, who wanted help fixing the windows, door and roof of her home. Doing so required extensive paperwork, and she was frustrated by the chaotic process in the cramped, understaffed basement hallway.

So, like many other people at the city hall on Monday, she went looking for the acting mayor.

“We don’t have a representative from our neighborhood, we don’t get information about the aid and when it will be delivered,” she told Mandrych. “Right now, I want to get some more water, but because there is no one responsible for my neighborhood, I don’t know what to do.”

“That’s simple: just make a list of people, and go get the water,” Mandrych replied, explaining the process.

The woman thanked her. On her way out, she told a reporter: “These people are very good. They help us with everything. It’s just too many people here at the same time.”

By the time she got back in line to continue her request, the crowd had thinned. Residents were returning home as their unofficial 11 a.m. cutoff for life above ground approached.

The acting mayor listened closely to the skies, hoping for a quiet afternoon.

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
Orikhiv residents wait to register for humanitarian aid in the city hall bunker Monday.