Izyum races to rebuild and forget Russian occupation
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Apart from the blown-up tanks and plants singed by seven months of war, the road leading to Izyum -- once nicknamed "highway to hell" -- could be a normal road in Europe.
The asphalt paving machine has been past and the bomb craters have been filled in.
A team of workers in orange reflector vests has painted white lines on the road surface to indicate where it is safe to pass a vehicle.
Five weeks after the re-capture of this small but strategic town in eastern Ukraine, a new battle for reconstruction is taking place.
An army of construction machinery and builders is busy rebuilding what is left of the infrastructure and erasing any sign of Russian occupation as quickly as possible.
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Ukrainians have started by making use of what Russian forces left in their wake -- like the remains of a pontoon bridge on a tank marked with the letter "Z" lying in the Donets River.
"We're going to recycle every piece, re-shape them and use them here or somewhere else that we need it," said Lieutenant Denys Ponomarenko, a 27-year-old military engineer.
At the entrance to the city, a board with the yellow and blue colours of the Ukrainian flag carries the message: "Friends, you are free!"
And now Izyum is coming out of its long isolation.
Roads and rail links are working again and the 4G mobile phone network was partially restored a few days ago.
But essential services like water, gas and electricity were devastated, leaving residents dependent on humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations.
Out of a pre-war population of 46,000 inhabitants, only 8,000-9,000 people remain.
'Doing what we can'
In the city's central square, which President Volodymyr Zelensky visited on September 14 to raise the Ukrainian flag once again, a queue has formed of people hoping for aid.
"Apart from this, nothing is working," said Ivan Zakharchenko, a 70-year-old resident, who said he hopes buses will be restored so he can go and get his pacemaker checked.
Nearby, a worker on a telescoping ladder is nailing chipboards to the empty windows of the church, which was built in 1648, that same year as the town's fortress.
"The restoration of the church is a symbol of the restoration of the town," said Semyon, 48, the local Orthodox priest.
The rest of the town is largely in ruins.
"I have some water at my house but I live on the third floor and the pressure is very weak. I also have electricity but we have no gas or heating and we do not know if we'll have any for the winter," said one resident, 47-year-old Nadiya Nesterenko.
"My daughter lives above me on the 5th floor and she still has a missile stuck in her roof. And her kitchen and bathroom are open to the elements," she said.
"Nobody has come to take it away. We have seen nobody," Nesterenko said.
Izyum mayor Valery Marchenko told AFP that local officials were focused on repairing damaged apartments "to heat them this winter".
He said they were being helped by "volunteers" but admitted no major reconstruction work could begin before spring.
"We are doing what we can," he said.
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