We cannot escape the stench as we stand in the two-roomed shed that is home to 31 year-old Alla and her five children. The children, black with grime, huddle together on the wrought iron bed in one room, clothes so dirty the best washing powder would struggle to get clean are piled on the floor in corners. Two small, blackened rugs are making a pitiful attempt to cover the worn, grimy, wooden floor. In the other room Tony Budell sits comforting granny who is breaking her heart at the arrival of these 'angels' who are promising to help.
Next to the 'sink' (water for which comes from a well in the garden – when it's not frozen) stands a bucket of excrement, the main source of the stench. Victoria met Alla and two of her children on one of Chernigov's trolley buses. She thought she needed help and told Alla about Aratta. But Alla, who has teeth missing and a face wrinkled from her hard life, hasn’t come to the centre and so Victoria decided pay a visit to the family.
Alla's husband turned to alcohol after a long period of unemployment, then one day as Alla worked in the field with two of her children and the others were being cared for by a relative, he fell into a drunken coma while smoking and set fire to the house. With her husband dead and her own parents dead, Alla moved into her garden shed, while she began the slow and expensive task of repairing her house.
The fire was in August. Alla has already had the house rewired and repairs have been started on the ceiling but this is as far as she's got Relations with her parents-in-law have, completely broken down. Through an interpreter the mother-in-law tells Tony Budell that Alla is lazy, but Tony and Victoria agree that it is help not criticism that Alla needs. The next day an assessment of the damage is made and Alla is taken with her eldest daughter to Aratta where they fill boxes with clean clothes for the children. The intention is to get the pair a taxi back to their home but unaware of the plan they struggle back through the snow and the crowded trolley bus. The process though has at least begun.
The above story is typical of the plight of many in today’s Ukraine. There are none of the social services and benefits that we take for granted and the complete collapse of the economy, due to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the disaster at Chernobyl 50 miles from our centre in Chernigov, has led to unemployment on a massive scale. Many people, particularly those in the villages, merely exist. In these, they grow their vegetables if they have land, tend their animals and collect fuel for the next hard winter. Some never handle money from one year’s end to the next. Provisions are obtained, by barter, from the lorries that tour the villages and allow people to exchange their beetroots for someone else’s eggs. Even in the towns only a few have mains water and less have mains drainage.
Life is hard in Ukraine and with little hope of help in the immediate future many of the men seek solace in home made vodka. The effects are often fatal and suicide by other means is not uncommon. Women outnumber men by 8-1 and Ukraine is the only country in the world with a falling population.