February 3, 2023

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During the war, Ukrainians look for mushrooms in forests with mines

ZDVYZHIVKA, Ukraine — Deep in a pine forest north of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, a beautiful mushroom warmed its brown cap in the soft autumn sun — it was an almost irresistible sight for Ukrainian mushroom hunters.

But danger was all around. Rows of trenches from last winter’s battle for Kyiv, countless mines and duds ran through the mossy forest floor. Balancing the risk of mines and the lure of their quarry, thousands of Ukrainians hunted for mushrooms in the first mushroom season since the Russian invasion.

Now in the post-harvest phase of the season, they count their haul and set about preserving it for the harsh winter ahead. The risk may seem extreme for what has long been viewed as a pastoral pastime, but Ukrainian mushroom hunters see it differently. They are delighted with their peaceful walks in the forest, seeing them as a sign of Ukraine’s resilience and a way of preserving normal life in times of war.

“I wanted to return to a peaceful life,” said Dmytro Poyedynok, 52, a yoga teacher from the Kiev suburb of Bucha, who was out mushroom picking on a late autumn day.

He said he sees such mushroom excursions as “symbolic to me as it is a peaceful hunt” in a forest that has seen so much violence. In the clearings and meadows blown up tanks are rusting. While looking for mushrooms in early autumn, he came across a child’s makeshift grave.

People who have experienced the horrors of war often find great comfort in routine. But many have now lost their jobs and rely on mushrooms to make money and preserve food for the winter. Mushroom hunters may have lost loved ones, but they weren’t willing to lose the glimpses of their past lives they found in the misty, damp autumn woods.

As the war drags into a 10th month, the Ukrainian government and people remain defiant even as electricity flashes, taps dry up and homes hover around freezing from lack of heating while Russian missiles pound infrastructure targets.

Ukrainians, many of whom have second homes in villages and feel connected to the country even if they live in cities, said they would not kneel for anyone – but would do so to pick potatoes or photograph mushrooms.

And so Mr. Poyedynok rode his bike into the pine forests around Bucha, carrying some plastic bags, something he has done all his life.

He lived through the occupation of Bucha, a month of horrors in which Russian soldiers shot civilians and left their bodies on the streets. He said his uncle had been killed and that he himself had been arrested and threatened with execution.

The forests in occupied territories are still heavily mined. Mines and duds cover thousands of square miles of Ukrainian land, according to Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky.

The Ukrainian government has appealed to people not to pick mushrooms, and the Forest Resources Government Agency has imposed formal restrictions on walking in forests in nine Ukrainian provinces, including the region around Kyiv, where Mr Poyedynok is walking.

However, experts say it will take at least a decade to clear the forests – and many Ukrainians were not willing to wait that long before returning to their favorite hobby.

Reports of mushroom hunters stepping on mines came regularly from all nine provinces where forest walking was banned. The numbers aren’t very high for a war that is said to have killed tens of thousands: Three to four people per region have stepped on mines and died or lost legs while foraging for mushrooms, local officials said.

“In general, people are cautious, but not all,” said Viktoria Ruban, a spokeswoman for the Kyiv provincial emergency service, which has responded to calls when mushroom pickers are stepping on mines.

Mr. Poyedynok used to teach many yoga classes, but few of his students have stayed in Ukraine. With the drastically reduced money he can earn through teaching, mushrooms, as so often happens in times of famine or distress in Ukraine, have lent a helping hand.

He said he could pick 550 pounds of mushrooms. His family kept much of the winter bounty for themselves, giving much to friends and family. They also started selling mushrooms.

Some of the buyers are mushroom pickers, craving the sensations of pastime but too cautious to enter the forests.

“Those who always go mushroom picking but are afraid now, came to us just to smell and look at the mushrooms,” said Mr. Poyedynok’s wife, Yana Poyedynok, “and eventually started buying them.”

The family made about a thousand dollars that season selling mushrooms.

“It’s not much,” said Ms. Poyedynok, 44, “but covered some small expenses.”

Most of the time, Mr. Poyedynok went mushroom picking alone.

After the trip with his family, when he came across the child’s grave, his wife and son became afraid of the woods and now rarely come with him. They only go into the forests they have already been to and those they deem safe.

In general, as Russian soldiers withdraw from parts of Ukraine, the celebration is proving to be short-lived. Soon the bodies are found and reports of atrocities against civilians surface. But those are deaths over. The dangers in the forests threaten death today and for many tomorrow.

When most of the Kharkiv region in the northeast was reclaimed in September, the mushroom season was just around the corner. Within weeks, reports were coming in of mushroom pickers stepping on mines. Three were mutilated in the newly captured forests in October, local officials said.

In a forest on the outskirts of Izium, a city in Kharkiv, investigators found hundreds of graves containing civilians and a mass grave where Ukrainian soldiers appeared to be buried, officials said.

Next to this forest lives Raisa Derevianko, 65. In September, she watched the human remains being exhumed from a bench in front of her house. Now she can watch mine clearance.

Mushroom season came and went, but never made it to the forest.

“It’s all very terrible,” Ms. Derevianko said of the mass graves. “But most of all I want them to cut down my forest. I miss mushrooms so much.”