SINGAPORE – On his second trip to Ukraine in August, architect Rudy Taslim, 38, almost wandered into a forest of pine trees, before he was yanked by his collar to a halt by his local guide.
Pointing to a nondescript sign with “mine” in Ukrainian written in black paint, barely visible amid the foliage and rubble of the war-torn countryside, Mr Taslim realised that he had nearly lost his life venturing into a field of landmines.
“Although I could have lost my life that day, this is just part of the everyday landscape for Ukrainians,” he said.
He and his wife, Ms Lam Bao Yan, also 38, are two Singaporeans working in Ukraine to build new bomb-resistant emergency homes for the millions of citizens affected by the war with Russia.
To date, the couple have built 200 homes with local partners in the region since the war started in February.
The couple went to the country twice, in May and August, to assess the situation on the ground and build homes for a few weeks each time. They expect to roll out a total of 500 homes by winter in November.
With the winters in Ukraine getting as cold as minus 20 deg C or lower, Mr Taslim said: “If these homes are not up by winter, the cold could kill these people even before a bullet does.”
Ms Lam, who works with Mr Taslim in their firm Genesis Architects, said: “When the war struck, we knew that only some fraction of the population comprising able-bodied women and children were allowed to leave… This means that men, people in rural villages and those with severe mental health conditions and physical handicaps would have likely slipped through the gaps.”
During one of their trips, the couple had heard about three children living alone in a ravaged home in the village. The trio were bereft of their parents, and the youngest – a five-year-old girl – had cerebral palsy and was being taken care of by her brother, who was only 15.
The middle child, a girl who was only eight, was vulnerable to the risk of sexual exploitation by opportunistic predators.
Ms Lam said: “These are the people still left behind without support, who have become invisible as the world moved on from the war in Ukraine.”
While the trio have since been funded by the couple to go to school and directed to local help, Ms Lam said most homes had also been completely destroyed, forcing residents to live in bomb shelters or makeshift tents made of tarpaulin.
Ms Lam added: “Many of these people just live for weeks on end in bomb shelters and leave only to collect food outside. But it really is no way to live – it is dark, damp, dusty and windowless… It’s as if they’re not even human.”