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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

In Ukraine’s Bucha, one woman is painting flowers around bullet holes

By Jennifer Hassan Washington Post

When Ivanka Siolkowsky arrived to volunteer in Bucha – a devastated suburb of Ukraine’s capital – she met a man who said he lost everything in Russia’s invasion. His son was killed. His home was bombed and burned to the ground. “There is no joy left for me in this town,” the man, known as Sasha, told her, she recalled.

Even though Russian troops are no longer occupying Bucha, where brutal scenes of civilian massacres were uncovered, Sasha told the Canadian-born Siolkowsky that the streets of his cherished neighborhood no longer felt the same. “The bullet holes in my fence remind me of all that I’ve lost,” he said, according to Siolkowsky.

“That’s when I came up with the idea to paint the fence,” Siolkowsky, 39, told the Washington Post in an email Tuesday. “His words broke my heart.”

Siolkowsky, who is of Ukrainian descent and initially flew to Poland after the war broke out to help refugees fleeing across the border, said she asked Sasha about his favorite flower. Sasha replied that he and his late son both loved daffodils.

He gestured toward the ground where yellow daffodils were growing, she said: small signs of life among the ashes of war.

Armed with five cans of paint and two paintbrushes, Siolkowsky began painting Sasha’s fence – to turn the bullet holes into flowers. “To continue the work mother nature had started.”

At first, she worried that people might not appreciate her artwork or that they might interpret it as offensive.

The pullback of Russian forces revealed so many horrors from their 27 days in control – scenes where troops beheaded, burned, sexually abused and opened fired on civilians, as the Washington Post reported. More than 200 corpses were discovered in shallow graves while others were abandoned in the streets. The signs of atrocities prompted President Joe Biden to label Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal.”

“I was scared every time someone walked up to me,” Siolkowsky said.

But as she painted, she had onlookers – and some helpers. From across the street, a 4-year-old girl named Anya had also been watching from the window and asked her mother if she could go outside to say hello.

“I gave her the brush, and she helped me with a few of the flowers,” Siolkowsky said. “When neighbors saw Anya helping me, people began requesting that I paint their fences, too.”

Siolkowsky went on to paint another five homes. She painted blooms into their shot-up fences – sometimes with the help of her small apprentice.

Together, they painted long-stemmed daffodils and daisies, red poppies and humble forget-me-nots. There were also bright yellow sunflowers – the national flower of Ukraine – that have become a global symbol of resistance and hope since Russian troops invaded in late February.

“Admittedly, I should have actually taken a picture or something to work from, as the first few flowers I painted didn’t look much like daffodils,” Siolkowsky said.

“But I got better with each bullet hole – and there were many,” she said.

Siolkowsky explained that her maternal and paternal grandparents are Ukrainian – and it was her Ukrainian roots that sparked her decision to visit the country amid the conflict. “It was my duty to come and help my people,” she said.

Siolkowsky was in Poland for more than two weeks after war broke out to help with evacuations, going in and out of Ukraine to help unaccompanied minors cross to safety before she caught pneumonia after sleeping in cars during the cold weather. She returned home to recover but decided to get back to Ukraine to volunteer in cities. Her plan was to “deliver aid and move on” while in Bucha. But then she met Sasha.