I spent ten days in a Ukrainian squat full of young people

I am a French-Ukrainian photographer of 22 – born in Kiev and based in Paris. Every year in August, I have the same ritual: I pack my suitcase, sit on the plane for three hours, and then I’m home. But this year was different: there were no more planes Ukraine. The only way back was by bus that dropped you off in front of the border and it was extremely difficult to get a seat. It was as if everyone was trying to do the same thing: go home, see family and visit loved ones left behind.

I called some friends and one of them gave me the number of a Ukrainian minibus driver who found a seat for me. Drivers like him can often be found under the Bir-Hakeim bridge in Paris on weekends, taking passengers to Ukraine, delivering packages and selling Ukrainian products. Since war they have become a lifeline for many broken families.

On Sunday, August 7, around midday, I boarded a minibus with three other passengers and two drivers. The vehicle had no windows and I spent much of the journey slept.

More than 24 hours later, I finally arrived in Lviv, where I met Malik Kadi, a friend I met in Kiev in 2021, and his partner Varvara Chorna. Originally from Kharkov, Malik fled in March to Lviv, a city located in the country due to its western location. less affected because of the war.

His only source of income is his art, but paintings and exhibitions are of little interest in wartime. In addition, house prices in Lviv have become too high for him, so he has decided to settle in a place called ReZavod (factory is Ukrainian for ‘factory’).

If you look up the address – 31 Zavodka Street – the building, which used to be a medical goods factory, is advertised with a number of spaces for rent and a night club called “Ganok”.

It is a place where people live, work and make things; where culture and refuge meet. Workplaces of up to 120 square meters can be rented at a lower price than an average apartment, so for many people it is simply a place to live. even though i the owners have not met, it is clear that someone is making money by renting out the rooms.

ReZavod consists of two four-story buildings – one red and the other gray – separated by a large courtyard with two clubs and a number of former shops. Each floor houses a number of art studios, some of which are inhabited. You enter through the cafeteria in the gray building, where there is a sign with the Ukrainian text “Everything will be Ukraine”. It looks like your average Soviet building designed to house a lot of people, but with a hipster twist.

The red building is set up as a workshop. The studios in this building are larger, allowing for the storage of large pieces of metal and wood. It’s more lively, but also dirtier – while the showers are also there.

Many people ended up in ReZavod purely by chance: some came to party here, others were simply in the area looking for a place to live. It is a meeting place for all kinds of people: well-dressed women, lonely men with their computers, yogis, artists who work here. Each floor has about seven studios, but it is difficult to estimate how many people actually live here, because many of them come and go.

I ended up staying there for a little longer than ten days. I arrived on a Monday evening and was welcomed by the sound of club music. In the evening, ReZavod comes to life, but due to the curfew that starts at 11 pm, there is never a problem with noise.

I stayed with Malik and Varvara on the first floor (people don’t live on the ground floor in Ukraine), located between all sorts of workshops and studios. There is no water supply in the sleeping quarters, so you have to walk down a long and grueling corridor to use the toilet or brush your teeth.

The walls in Malik and Varvara’s room were covered in Styrofoam; it must have been a music studio in the past, but now the holes serve as storage for keys and brushes.

They had asked me to bring some cheese from France. There was no fridge in the room, so they put it together with a basin of water and a hammer to keep the cheese in cold water.

On August 14 at 2 o’clock, I met Nazar while I was in the room making noodles – he had just come home from work. He used to be one of the building’s security guards, but now lives in a park where he occasionally drops by to use the showers. As we talked, Varvara stopped by to charge her disposable vapes—something she’d learned from YouTube videos about “lifehacks for poor people,” she said.

On August 16, while standing in line for the shower, I met Assaya, a young woman from Kherson who was staying in the room with all the yogis. I had heard a lot about those yogis but never met any of them. Assaya asked me how the toilets were in the other building. “Even worse,” I said. While we were waiting, we saw a puppy named Bibamboep patiently waiting for his owners in front of the entrance to the showers. When it was finally my turn, the water was cold. Another lesson learned: oddly enough, you have a better chance of hot water later in the day.

A sort of makeshift thrift store was set up in the basement, where volunteers brought meals and clothes to people who had fled at the start of the war. Now all that was left was a huge pile of clothes and a few boxes of food to unpack.

Another night, my friend Malik brought Dima, a former acrobat and dancer who had lost his job due to a medical condition. He told me that he has to work ten hours a day on a construction site for a meager salary that cannot pay for his treatment, so he has to do without. And the longer it goes on, the more the construction work worsens his condition, but he doesn’t really have a choice.

That evening the neighbors invited me over and I met ArtBobchik (his stage name). His room was full of carpets and he showed me a whole lot of bottle caps and paints. “Do what you want, how you want,” he told me.

I didn’t quite understand what he was trying to explain to me, but ArtBobchik is trying to make ReZavod a more sustainable place. According to him, everything is possible here. One of his architectural designs was painted on the floor, showing what one of the floors would look like after it had been reused.

In the end, each resident showed me a different side of ReZavod. There is very little comfort to be found here and many people suffer from this situation and cannot wait to leave. But ReZavod is also a place of great resilience and endless possibilities. For a great many people who have lost everything, or perhaps had very little to begin with, this place offers a unique opportunity to really make something out of their few square meters.

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