Picking her way through charred ruins with a flashlight, Tetiana Bezatosna returned to her apartment after it was pummelled by Russian bombardment. The Ukrainian mother-of-two has little hope it will ever be rebuilt.

Her home in the northeastern city of Kharkiv is among hundreds of thousands of war-damaged civilian properties in Ukraine, with recovery at vast expense expected to take decades.

Fixing the colossal damage -- unlike anything seen in Europe in decades -- is further complicated by the non-stop bombardment of Ukrainian cities as Russia grinds through the second year of its invasion.

Highlighting what residents call the slow pace of recovery in Bezatosna's Saltivka suburb –- a hellscape of shell-pocked buildings and ravaged shops -- jackhammers and cranes hovering over the damaged sites lie largely idle.


"We are not expected to return here soon," Bezatosna, 44, told AFP as she walked up to her ninth-floor apartment.

"It's very hard and painful to look at all this."

Broken glass crunched under her shoes as she walked past scorched apartments, pointing her phone's flashlight at the possessions residents had left behind -- abandoned books, mold-covered kitchenware, Lego toys.

On one floor, a makeshift column propped up the staircase where the concrete had been riddled with holes.

Tetiana Bezatosna, 44, stands in front of a heavily damaged by Russian strikes residential building where she lived, in Kharkiv's Saltivka district on August 6, 2023. SERGEY BOBOK / AFP

- 'It's dangerous' -

Bezatosna fled Saltivka, a once-thriving Kharkiv suburb with hundreds of thousands of people, after it bore the brunt of Russia's initial assault when the invasion started in February 2022.

Her family returned when much of Kharkiv region was liberated last September. Forced to rent another place, they plucked whatever they could salvage from their apartment, including a half-burnt washing machine and a bathtub.

A sign hung at the entrance of the building read: "Do not enter, it's dangerous."


Displaced residents, who put up the sign mainly to ward off burglars, were torn between two difficult options.

Some are desperate to move back despite the hazardous conditions and urged the government to make urgent repairs. Others, including Bezatosna, are demanding that the unstable building be torn down and a new one built in the same place.

"Ukraine must start rebuilding during the war to support its home front," Orysia Lutsevych, deputy director for the Russia and Eurasia program at the London-based Chatham House, told AFP.

"Despite daily missile strikes Ukrainians are not leaving the country in large numbers. To remain in Ukraine they need housing and jobs."

Along with homes, the war has also obliterated thousands of schools, hospitals and factories along with critical energy facilities, granaries and seaports.

A destroyed apartment in a heavily damaged residential building following Russian strikes in Kharkiv's Saltivka district on August 6, 2023. SERGEY BOBOK / AFP

- Ballooning costs -

Earlier this year, the World Bank said the cost of Ukraine's reconstruction over a decade would be $411 billion -- 2.6 times its GDP in 2022.


As the war inflicts new losses with each passing month, billions are added to the estimate. At a conference in London in June, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmygal said the overall cost of reconstruction "will grow".

Ukraine, whose war-battered economy shrank last year, desperately needs funds just to make emergency repairs. Long-term reconstruction aid hinges on how much money allies including the United States and European Union are willing to put up.

The country is seeking to entice private investment, with post-war reconstruction expected to turn Ukraine into what observers have called the world's largest construction site.

Companies from around the world are expected to attend the second "Rebuild Ukraine" trade exhibition in Poland in November.

"The recovery of Ukraine becomes the largest economic project in Europe of our time," President Volodymyr Zelensky is quoted as saying on its website.

In Kharkiv, close to the border with Russia, Mayor Igor Terekhov told AFP the war had left around 150,000 people homeless with about 5,000 buildings damaged. Around 500 multi-story buildings among them are so badly wrecked that they cannot be restored.

He put the estimated cost of reconstruction at $9.5 billion, calling the figure "very approximate".

- No corner is safe -


To wait until the end of war to rebuild is not acceptable, he said, adding that "citizens need to go back to their homes."

But many fear Russian air raids, which they believe are aimed at making their cities uninhabitable and hampering already scant reconstruction efforts.

"I don't know how you can rebuild" amid the ongoing war, said Bezatosna.

In Saltivka, residents have returned to apartment blocks that were spared the ravages of war, but no corner is safe due to random strikes.

Bezatosna said she had renovated her apartment just a month before it got smashed. Her friend in Kharkiv, she said, had managed to repair her war-damaged house but it got knocked down by another strike.

"So tell me, what's the point of rebuilding?" she said.

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