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In Kharkiv, a widower tries to repair his bombed apartment building

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

As Ukraine continues to fight off Russia, it has also been trying to rebuild what has been destroyed - bridges, roads, train stations, hospitals, schools - but the country's finances and services are stretched thin, and many homes are still in ruins, so some residents have taken matters into their own hands. NPR's Joanna Kakissis has this postcard from the northeastern city of Kharkiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: The towering apartment buildings in the district of Saltivka bear all the wounds of the front line - gaping holes, exposed wiring, seemingly every window shattered.

That's all burnt up in the front, broken glass.

I'm walking through the neighborhood with a cheerful, lanky DJ named Vitaly Gulden.

VITALY GULDEN: Because I know here every meter. Before war - was growing. And when all construction projects was complete, war. All was destroyed.

KAKISSIS: Until the war, he lived in one of these apartment towers.

GULDEN: My floor is five.

KAKISSIS: So one, two, three, four, five.

GULDEN: What - two windows from right.

KAKISSIS: The building looks abandoned, but Gulden says one person still lives inside - a 58-year-old widower named Ihor Dudnik. There's no cell reception, so Gulden just calls out his name.

GULDEN: Ihor. Ihor.

KAKISSIS: Gulden says Ihor Dudnik is a superhero. Dudnik has been reconstructing this apartment building door by door, window by window, for months.

Hi, Ihor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

GULDEN: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

KAKISSIS: Dudnik is compact and quiet. He wears three sweaters and a weary smile.

IHOR DUDNIK: (Through interpreter) I guard this building. I am a janitor, a security guard, a plumber and a handyman for all occasions.

KAKISSIS: He says he's fixed countless windows and doors and replaced pipes using donated supplies. He swept away rubble and broken glass. He motions us to follow him inside the building, up several flights of stairs.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

KAKISSIS: The apartment building has no electricity, so he guides us with a hand-powered flashlight which makes this clicking sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLASHLIGHT CLICKING)

DUDNIK: Yeah.

KAKISSIS: Your house.

DUDNIK: My house. Mine.

KAKISSIS: He stops at his old apartment where he and his wife used to live. It's now missing its front wall. I look down.

Oh, my God. There's a huge, huge drop. It's where the building has collapsed. Yeah, it's just outside his door.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS BREAKING)

KAKISSIS: Dudnik's wife, Inna, died of heart failure in December while they were living in temporary housing. So he moved back to a neighbor's apartment that was less damaged.

DUDNIK: (Through interpreter) I'm trying because sitting at home doing nothing hurts me.

KAKISSIS: He sleeps in the kitchen, warmed by a wood stove. Each day he gets up to fetch water from a pump outside. This building also has no running water. Then he gets to work and also watches for thieves.

DUDNIK: (Through interpreter) At first I used to fight off looters on my own. Then I started calling the police.

KAKISSIS: Kharkiv's mayor said earlier this week that more than 6,000 buildings in the city have been destroyed, including many residential high-rises, and that local and national authorities have only managed to restore 200.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLASHLIGHT CLICKING)

DUDNIK: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Dudnik says he can't wait for someone else to fix his building. He says he wants his neighbors to come back, and after all his neighborhood's been through, it would feel like a victory.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kharkiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis
Joanna Kakissis is an international correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she leads NPR's bureau and coverage of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.