When Ivanka Siolkowski arrives as a volunteer in Bucha – a ruined suburb of the Ukrainian capital – she meets a man who says she lost everything in the Russian invasion. Her son was killed. His house was bombed and set on fire. “There’s no joy left for me in this town,” the man known as Sasha told her, she recalls.
Although Russian troops are no longer occupying Bucha, where the brutal scene of the civilian genocide was exposed, Sasha told Siolkowski of Canadian descent that the streets of her cherished neighborhood no longer feel the same. “The bullet holes in my fence remind me of what I lost,” he said, according to Siolkowski.
“That’s when I came up with the idea,” Seolkowski, 39, told the Washington Post in an email on Tuesday. “His words broke my heart.”
Seolkowski, who originally flew to Poland after the war began to help refugees of Ukrainian descent and fleeing across the border, said he had asked Sasha about his favorite flower. Sasha replied that she and her late son both liked daffodils.
Pointing to the ground where the yellow daffodils were growing, he said: “Small signs of life in the shadows of war.”
Equipped with five colored cans and two paintbrushes, Siolkowski began painting Sasha’s fence – to swell bullet holes. “Mother Nature started to work.”
At first, he was worried that people might not appreciate his work or that they might find it offensive.
Russian forces’ pullbacks have shown a lot of horror from their 27-day control – scenes where soldiers have been beheaded, burned, sexually abused and civilians have been shot, according to the Washington Post. More than 200 bodies were found in shallow graves, others lying abandoned on the streets. Signs of atrocities prompted President Biden to identify Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “war criminal.”
“Every time someone walked up to me, I was scared,” said Siolkowski.
But when he was drawing, he had an audience – and some helpers. Across the street, a 4-year-old girl named Ania also looked out the window and asked her mother if she could go outside to say hello.
“I gave her a brush and she helped me with a few flowers,” Siolkowski said. “When the neighbors saw Aniya helping me, people started asking me to draw their fence.”
Russian forces have returned from Kyiv, expressing the horrors of war
Siolkowski went to paint five more houses. She drew flowers for their shot-up trips – sometimes with the help of her little apprentice.
Together they painted long-stemmed daffodils and daisies, red poppies and humble forget-me-nots. There was also the bright yellow sunflower – the national flower of Ukraine – which has become a global symbol of resistance and hope since the invasion of Russian troops in late February.
“Of course, I should have actually taken a picture or something to work on, since the first few flowers I painted didn’t look like daffodils,” Siolkowski said.
“But I got better with each bullet hole – and there were many more,” he said.
Siolkowski explained that his mother and grandparents were Ukrainian – and that it was his Ukrainian roots that motivated his decision to move to the country amid the conflict. “It was my duty to come and help my people,” he said.
Siolkowski was in Poland for more than two weeks before he contracted pneumonia after sleeping in a car in cold weather, after the start of the war, to help unaccompanied minors move safely in and out of Ukraine. He returned home healthy, but decided to return to Ukraine as a volunteer in the city. His plan was to “provide assistance and move forward” while in Bucharest. But then he met Sasha.
The sunflower, the national flower of Ukraine, is becoming a symbol of global solidarity
Siolkowski’s work on social media has also followed suit.
“It’s beautiful,” read one of the many compliments Post On Twitter. “Thank you for helping to heal this place, one fence at a time.”
On Facebook, a Ukrainian scout organization thanked him for helping the country “thrive” in the bombings of major Russian cities.
Siolkowski, who loves art as a hobby but is a productivity consultant by profession, said: “It was never about making a masterpiece. It was about bringing some joy to the city. “
But now Siolkowski says he will have to return home to Toronto for work soon. He plans to return to Ukraine in the summer, although he is not sure if he will still draw flowers.
“My hope is that all the people of the previously occupied town will draw flowers on their journey,” he said. He has already seen flowers blooming in other places. “People want to move on from injury, and they’re doing what it takes.”