Although Russian troops no longer occupy Butcha, scenes of brutal civilian massacres were found there, and Sasha told the Canadian-born Siolkovsky that the streets of his cherished neighborhood no longer felt the same. “The bullet holes in my fence remind me of everything I’ve lost,” he said, according to Siolkowsky.
“That’s when I came up with 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 initially flew to Poland to help refugees fleeing the border after the war broke out, said she asked Sasha about his favorite flowers. Sasha replied that he and his late son loved daffodils.
He pointed to the ground, where yellow daffodils grew, she said: little signs of life in the ashes of war.
Armed with five cans of paint and two brushes, Siolkowsky began painting Sasha’s fence—turning bullet holes into flowers. “To continue the work that nature has already started.”
At first, she worried that people might not appreciate her work, or that they might interpret it as offensive.
According to the Washington Post, the withdrawal of Russian troops has revealed many of the horrors that have occurred in the 27 days since they took control — scenes of military beheadings, burning, sexual abuse and shooting at civilians. More than 200 bodies were found in shallow graves, and some were left on the streets. Signs of atrocity prompted President Biden to label Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal.”
“Every time someone walks up to me, I get scared,” Siolkowsky said.
But as she paints, she has bystanders—and some helpers. Across the street, a 4-year-old girl named Anya was also looking out the window and asked her mother if she could go out and say hello.
“I gave her a brush and she helped me get some flowers,” Siolkowsky said. “When the neighbours saw Anya helping me, people started asking me to paint their fences too.”
Siolkowsky went on to paint five more houses. She painted flowers on their high fences—sometimes with the help of her little apprentices.
Together they painted long-stemmed daffodils and daisies, red poppies and the humble forget-me-not. And the bright yellow sunflower — Ukraine’s national flower — has become a global symbol of resistance and hope since Russian troops invaded in late February.
“Admittedly, I should have actually taken a photo or something, because the first few flowers I painted didn’t look like daffodils,” Siolkowsky said.
“But I got better with every bullet hole — and there were a lot of them,” she said.
Siolkowsky explained that both her maternal grandparents and grandparents were Ukrainian — and it was her Ukrainian ancestry that prompted her decision to visit the country during the conflict. “I have a responsibility to help my people,” she said.
After the war broke out, Siolkowsky spent more than two weeks in Poland to help with evacuation, in and out of Ukraine to help unaccompanied minors transit safely, and then she contracted pneumonia after sleeping in a car in cold weather. She returned home to recover, but decided to return to Ukraine to volunteer in the city. Her plan was to “provide assistance and move on” during the Butcha. But then she met Sasha.
Siolkowsky’s work has also gained traction on social media.
“It’s beautiful,” reads 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 boy scout group thanked her for helping the country “bloom” as Russia bombed major towns.
Siolkowsky, who embraces art as a hobby but works as a productivity consultant by profession, said: “It was never about creating masterpieces. It was about bringing some joy to the town.”
But Siolkowsky said she must return to work in Toronto as soon as possible. She plans to return to Ukraine in the summer, although she is not sure if she will still be painting flowers.
“I hope all the people in the formerly occupied towns will paint flowers on their fences,” she said. She has seen painted flowers blooming elsewhere. “People want to get out of harm’s way, they’re doing anything.”