Most of the men I meet in Bucha look as if they have been drinking for the last month and a half. Their faces are red, their speech passionate and not always clear. Sergiy, who lives in Bucha, is a veteran of the war in Donbas who was drafted into the army immediately after the Russians invaded. He received a one-day leave to visit his home and that of his parents. He says that even if some of them were inclined to drink in the past, most of them aren't like that. For the entire Russian occupation of Bucha, alcohol helped the men who remained there stay sane. Sergiy himself defended his hometown, but retreated with his comrades toward Irpin, where the Ukrainian soldiers managed to stop the Russian army’s advance.
“We left when their armored cars roared into the city, otherwise we would have been buried there. The commander said: ‘There's nothing we can do against armored vehicles.’ If it had been infantry, maybe. We have assault rifles, we could have fought. Our artillery couldn’t help because it was a built-up area, narrow streets, a lot of people. It seems they took advantage of it – they knew that our artillery wouldn’t ‘work’ in the city." He says. "So we withdrew to the Giraffe Mall in Irpin. It was very hard for them to advance there – there was only one relatively wide road there, and we had Javelins [anti-tank missiles] and RPGs. So they couldn’t advance any further than that.”
Vokzalna Street – the only one leading from Bucha to Irpin over the bridge that crosses the Bucha River – has become a monument to the failed Russian attempt to advance on Kyiv. Burned out armored vehicles are still littered along the road, and wandering among them are journalists and a few locals, who came out of hiding in their basements to catch a bit of sun after a frozen March of darkness and fear.
Sasha, a boy of about 13, is leaning on one of the Russian vehicles, smiling a little. They say he became a local hero because he wasn’t afraid to leave the cellar where his family was hiding to get food from the neighboring houses. “He’ll get the Bucha medal,” his father says proudly.
But far from the famous street, which now symbolizes the local victory over the Russians, the mourning, shock and fear do not dissipate. Sergiy discovered that his house was left undamaged and that even his dog, Belka, was fine – the neighbors fed her for the entire occupation. In his parents' home, the windows were smashed, and one of them was knocked out along with its frame, but it was otherwise untouched. Nothing was looted.
A grenade in the bedroom
Elsewhere in town, a few of his neighbors’ homes became killing fields. When the war began, Petro took in his wife’s sister and his mother-in-law, who he calls “grandma.” They lived near the Hostomel Airport, which became the first center of fighting near Kyiv. Chechen soldiers reached their street on March 6, says Petro.
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“It was seven in the morning,” says Petro. They tried to break into the house, but did not manage to do so, so they shot at the windows. At first, they fired a burst from an assault rifle and hit the window of the room where grandma and the sister were sleeping. As a result, a closet by the window went up in flames. At the same time, a grenade exploded in the next room.
Petro and his sister-in-law Tanya tried to put out the fire. Grandma, who is blind, screamed and asked them to get her out of there. When Tanya tried to reach her mother to help her, one of the Chechen fighters threw another grenade – this time into the room they were in. The soldier, it seemed, was standing next to the window and placed the grenade inside. It exploded under the radiator.
Shrapnel hit grandma’s hand, and she died a few hours later, likely from blood loss. Petro dug a pit in the garden, wrapped his mother-in-law’s body in plastic sheeting and buried her there. He hopes that when the calm is restored, she can be buried properly. Tanya was hit by shrapnel as well. “Her whole back was wounded,” says Petro. “A piece of flesh was torn away, her entire bottom was injured. The doctors saw her and said we need to take her to Kyiv, have an operation, remove the shrapnel.” Only a month later, when the Russians left Bucha, was Tanya brought to the hospital.
For now, it has stayed quiet, but Petro still sleeps in the cold basement of his neighbor's home – the inhabitants fled to Canada at the beginning of the war. There is no point in returning to his home. It is now windowless, its ceiling is covered in bullet holes and its walls are cracked from the explosions. Like most of the people living in Bucha, they cook their food on an improvised grill in the yard.
The smoke from the grill almost gave them away when the Russian soldiers came back for a second time. “They drove down the street, saw smoke, their [armored personnel carrier] made a U-turn. They fired a burst from an assault rifle. I yelled at them: ‘Don’t shoot, I’m coming.’ They asked: ‘How many of you are there?’ We said: ‘Three.’ They asked: ‘Do you have phones?’ My wife answered: ‘What phones do pensioners have?’ They said: ‘Okay, don’t walk around here and don’t shine flashlights,’ and left.”
Maksym, who lived with his elderly, disabled parents in the house across the street, was not as lucky. He, too, cooked outdoors at the same time, and the soldiers who saw the smoke called for him to come out from the yard. “We come out to here,” he says, at the gate in the fence that surrounds his house. “They forced me to my knees and explained it saying that four people with bags entered my house. I swore on my parents' and children’s lives that there was no one there.
"I told them: ‘You can go inside and see.’ They shot next to me with an assault rifle. They aimed the guns at me – first at me and after that at the house, a meter and a half from me. I said: ‘If you want to, shoot. If you don’t want to, don’t shoot.’ After that they asked if we had cellphones. I took out two phones for them. I said: I need them for the light, they’re a flashlight after all.” Later, Maksym walked to the Russian checkpoint to ask for the phones back. They returned broken, but the flashlights still worked.
Like most Bucha residents, Maksym is wearing what he wore at the end of February. On the first day of the war, he was at the airport where he worked – and hopes to continue to work – as an engineer. “I was maybe the last to our Mria,” referring to the huge Antonov cargo plane, which was the world’s heaviest aircraft before it was destroyed in the fighting at the airport. “I think they will restore it, it is still our pride, and I hope we will rebuild the airport,” he says. When the airport came under attack, he managed to escape in his car, even though all of his tires were flat. Now the car sits in his yard, pierced with bullet holes. Maksym and his parents use it to warm themselves on especially cold days.
But what about the money? After all, even during wartime, you have to make a living. “We don’t need money now,” says Maksym. “We gotten used to living without gas or water lately. Thank God we have a well. The water is dirty, but you can boil 10 liters on the fire, and after the dirt sinks – we drink. To warm up, we fill bottles, put them between our legs and sleep that way. We eat mostly potatoes that we grow in the garden. Before the war, I tried to convince my mother to get rid of the garden; now I understand that we still need it. We have everything – cabbage, cucumbers. We also pickle them. But mostly, potatoes. We cook them with the skin. At the beginning, I would still remove the peels, but now I’m sick of it and I eat it all together.”
This week, many more bodies were added to Bucha's well-known mass grave. Some were wrapped up in black plastic bags. Some are laid down, covered with a thin layer of earth, with limbs protruding. Taras Shapravsky, secretary of the Bucha City Council, stands on the edge of the grave with a delegation from the United Nations.
“The number of dead people who were buried like this is about 280," he says. “The Prosecutor General’s Office ordered that the bodies be exhumed and sent for forensic examination and DNA tests to be identified. We plan on beginning this work tomorrow or the day after, because temperatures are rising, and it is becoming urgent. After the tests, the bodies will be buried in separate graves, with all the appropriate respect.”
Even before Bucha begins to properly bury its dead, the city also has a number of urgent needs to attend to. Svetlana approaches us in the middle of the street and asks for us to evacuate her from the city along with her family, including two young children. They have been living in a shelter in a kindergarten along with another 10 people since February 24, when the invasion began.
Ivan, one of the people accompanying me, promises her that he will come in the next few days to help. “It’s impossible to express this pain, the suffering of the soul,” she says in tears. Even now, after a month and a half of never-ending bombardments and shelling, she doesn’t believe it. “How is it possible to treat a brother nation this way? Who could even have imagined it? After all, our roots are intertwined.”