Even though Russian troops are no longer occupying Bucha, where brutal scenes of civilian massacres were uncovered, Sasha told the Canadian-born Siolkowsky that the streets of his cherished neighborhood no longer felt the same. “The bullet holes in my fence remind me of all that 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 after the war broke out to help refugees fleeing across the border, said she asked Sasha about his favorite flower. Sasha replied that he and his late son both loved daffodils.
He gestured toward the ground, where yellow daffodils were growing, she said: small 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 mother nature had started.”
At first, she worried that people might not appreciate her artwork or that they might interpret it as offensive.
The pullback of Russian forces revealed so many horrors from their 27 days in control – scenes where troops beheaded, burned, sexually abused and opened fired on civilians, as The Washington Post reported. More than 200 corpses were discovered in shallow graves, while others were abandoned in the streets. The signs of atrocities prompted President Biden to label Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal.”
“I was scared every time someone walked up to me,” Siolkowsky said.
But as she painted, she had onlookers – and some helpers. From across the street, a 4-year-old girl named Anya had also been watching from the window and asked her mother if she could go outside to say hello.
“I gave her the brush, and she helped me with a few of the flowers,” Siolkowsky said. “When neighbors saw Anya helping me, people began requesting that I paint their fences, too.”
Siolkowsky went on to paint another five homes. She painted blooms into their shot-up fences – sometimes with the help of her small apprentice.
Together they painted long-stemmed daffodils and daisies, red poppies and humble forget-me-nots. There were also bright yellow sunflowers – the national flower of Ukraine – that have become a global symbol of resistance and hope since Russian troops invaded in late February.
“Admittedly, I should have actually taken a picture or something to work from, as the first few flowers I painted did not look much like daffodils,” Siolkowsky said.
“But I got better with each bullet hole – and there were many,” she said.
Siolkowsky explained that her maternal and paternal grandparents are Ukrainian – and it was her Ukrainian roots that sparked her 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 over two weeks after war broke out to help with evacuations, going in and out of Ukraine to help unaccompanied minors cross to safety before she caught pneumonia after sleeping in cars during the cold weather. She returned home to recover but decided to get back to Ukraine to volunteer in cities. Her plan was to “deliver aid and move on” while in Bucha. But then she met Sasha.
Siolkowsky’s work has also gained a following on social media.
“This is beautiful,” read one of many compliments posted to Twitter. “Thank you for your effort to help this place heal, one fence at a time.”
On Facebook, a Ukrainian scout organization thanked her for helping the country “bloom” amid Russia’s bombing of key towns.
Siolkowsky, who loves art as a hobby but is a productivity consultant by profession, said: “This was never about creating masterpieces. It was about bringing some semblance of joy back into this town. ”
But Siolkowsky says she must soon return home to Toronto for work. She plans to return to Ukraine in the summer, although she is not sure whether she will still be painting flowers.
“My hope is that people in all formerly occupied towns will paint flowers on their fences,” she said. She has already seen painted flowers springing up in other locations. “People want to move on from the hurt, and they are doing whatever it takes.”