In Bucha, Ukraine, an artist paints flowers around bullet holes

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When Ivanka Siolkowsky arrived to volunteer in Bucha, a devastated suburb of the Ukrainian capital, she met a man who said he had lost everything in the Russian invasion. Her son was killed. His house was bombed and burned. “There’s no joy for me in this town anymore,” the man, known as Sasha, she recalled, told her.

Even though Russian troops no longer occupy Bucha, where brutal scenes of civilian massacres have been uncovered, Sasha told Canadian-born Siolkowsky that the streets of his beloved neighborhood no longer feel the same. “The bullet holes in my fence remind me of everything I lost,” he said, according to Siolkowsky.

“That’s when I got 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 first went to Poland after the outbreak of war to help refugees fleeing the border, said he asked Sasha about her favorite flower. Sasha replied that he and his late son both love daffodils.

He gestured to the ground, where yellow daffodils were growing, she said: little 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 that mother nature had begun.”

At first, she feared that people would not like her works or that they might interpret them as offensive.

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

“I was scared every time someone approached me,” Siolkowsky said.

But while she painted, she had spectators – and a few helpers. Across the street, a 4-year-old girl named Anya had also looked out the window and asked her mother if she could come out and say hello.

“I gave her the brush and she helped me with some flowers,” Siolkowsky said. “When the neighbors saw Anya helping me, people started asking me to paint their fences too.”

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Siolkowsky then painted five more houses. She painted flowers in their downed fences – sometimes with the help of her little apprentice.

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

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

“But I got better with every bullet impact – and there were a lot of them,” she said.

Siolkowsky explained that his maternal and paternal grandparents are Ukrainians – and it was his Ukrainian roots that sparked his 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 the outbreak of war to help with evacuations, driving in and out of Ukraine to help unaccompanied minors get to safety before catching pneumonia after sleeping in cars by cold weather. She returned home to recuperate but decided to return to Ukraine to volunteer in the cities. His plan was to “provide help and move on” while in Bucha. But then she met Sasha.

The sunflower, Ukraine’s national flower, becomes a global symbol of solidarity

Siolkowsky’s work has also gained traction on social media.

“Another day of elimination #ballesdebucha and turn them into flowers,” wrote Siolkowsky on Twitter over the weekend, next to an image of his latest work.

“It’s beautiful,” read one of the many compliments post to Twitter. “Thank you for your efforts to help this place heal, one fence at a time.”

On Facebook, a Ukrainian scout organization thanked her for helping the country “flourish” amid Russian bombardment of key cities.

Siolkowsky, who enjoys art as a hobby but is a productivity consultant by profession, said, “It was never about creating masterpieces. It was about bringing some semblance of joy back to this town.

But Siolkowsky says she has to return home to Toronto for work soon. She plans to return to Ukraine this summer, although she doesn’t know if she will continue to paint flowers.

“I hope people in all formerly occupied towns will paint flowers on their fences,” she said. She has seen painted flowers grow in other places. “People want to come out of injury and they’re doing whatever it takes.”

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