March 5. 2024. 12:44

The Daily

Read the World Today

‘We are a country at war ... we have to fight and rebuild at the same time. You can’t keep it like a war museum’

Much of Bucha is now noisy with the crash and clang of construction, as new walls and roofs replace the ruins left by Russia’s occupation of a year ago, but for many people here the echoes of that time still deaden the sound of recovery.

Russian troops trying to seize Kyiv were stopped in Bucha by Ukrainian soldiers and volunteer fighters, and as their plan to seize the capital in a few days crumbled, they turned on residents of what was a quiet commuter town 25km northwest of the city.

Many people in Ukraine – and the country’s western allies – thought it had little hope of withstanding an all-out invasion by its huge neighbour, possessor of a million-strong army and a vast arsenal of tanks, artillery, warplanes and missiles.

Yet in the very first hours of its full-scale attack on February 24th, 2022, Russia’s elite paratroopers met fierce resistance at Hostomel airport outside Bucha, and three days later a column of armoured vehicles was obliterated by Ukrainian artillery on Vokzalna Street in the town centre, and became a burning symbol of a nation’s readiness to fight.

READ MORE

The truth behind the Chinese balloon may remain cloudy but the fallout is clear


‘We are a country at war ... we have to fight and rebuild at the same time. You can’t keep it like a war museum’

‘We are a country at war ... we have to fight and rebuild at the same time. You can’t keep it like a war museum’

Zelenskiy urges West to speed up arms deliveries to Ukraine

Zelenskiy urges West to speed up arms deliveries to Ukraine

Ukraine says eastern defences holding amid Russian raids and deadly air strikes

Ukraine says eastern defences holding amid Russian raids and deadly air strikes

When Russian soldiers finally managed to occupy Bucha in early March, they knew the Kremlin claim that a warm welcome awaited them in Ukraine was nothing but propaganda, and they would make the town’s people pay dearly for their country’s refusal to surrender.

“From February 24th we hid in the cellar nearly all the time,” says Zoya Khanaeva, in her small home close to where Yablunska Street meets Vokzalna.

“When it calmed down a bit we’d go back to the house, but later we couldn’t really even do that because it was so badly damaged,” she adds, looking across the kitchen to where a wheel from an armoured vehicle smashed through the wall.

“There was gunfire from the windows of houses all around here. We shut all the doors and lay down in the hallway because bullets were flying all over and there was non-stop shelling, mortars, shrapnel. Our little house was shaking,” she recalls of the home she then shared with her only son Andriy and her younger sister Lesya Kokubenko.

Andriy (36) was a builder and handyman who was drafted by Ukraine’s army after Russia annexed Crimea and fomented fighting in the eastern Donbas region in 2014, but failed his medical because his spleen had been removed. Lesya (53) suffered lifelong epilepsy and needed regular medication to control her seizures.

The Russians told us just to put her body out on the street ... We had to persuade them to allow us to bury her in the backyard

Facing a far deadlier fight than expected and with only a tenuous hold on Bucha and part of neighbouring Irpin, the Russians began to terrorise civilians, subjecting them to constant searches and document checks, taking people away for interrogation, torture and rape, and shooting others on the street as they sought food, water and missing relatives.

“The younger Russian soldiers said they didn’t want to be here. But they kept checking us and making us show them what was on our phones,” says Zoya’s grandaughter Ilona Razvayeva (22), who spent the first weeks of occupation here.

“One time they asked Andriy if his hands were dirty because he’d been digging (army) trenches. But he told them it was because he was a builder ... Another time they took my watch and put it on the ground and smashed it with the butt of a Kalashnikov, because it had a GPS function and they thought somehow it could track them,” she recalls.

Zoya explains that her sister Lesya found it “really hard to keep going up and down from the cellar whenever the Russians did their checks. There was so much stress and no heat or light or water. She only had a few of the pills that she needed to take for her epilepsy, and she didn’t really understand what was going on.

“She kept having seizures. Usually we’d call an ambulance, but of course no one could come to help then. It was all too much for her. I think her heart gave out,” Zoya says.

“The Russians told us just to put her body out on the street,” adds Ilona. “We had to persuade them to allow us to bury her in the backyard.”

On March 5th, Russian soldiers ordered the family to leave their cellar and hand over their phones and documents. They put Zoya and Ilona in the basement of another house on a neighbouring street, but separated Andriy and took him away.

“They said they would keep the men in a different place. They were looking for men who had been in the military. They told us not to worry, he’s not far away, and that they would release him the next day and everything would be all right,” recalls Ilona. “The following morning they said they’d already let him go.”

Zoya thought the Russians were holding her son at a large house they had commandeered on Vodoprovidna Street, just around the corner from her home.

“We went there to get our documents back and ask about Andriy. But they didn’t give us the documents and wouldn’t tell us anything about him,” she says.

Terror had taken hold in Bucha. Zoya remembers dead bodies lying on the streets and Ilona describes seeing Russian troops leading groups of blindfolded male prisoners.

“But we saw no one who looked like Andriy or who was wearing clothes like this. So we had no idea what had happened to him,” she says.

On the day Zoya’s family were taken from their home and Andriy disappeared, Russian troops also came to the house of her next-door neighbour, Iryna Abramova, who lived right on the corner of Vokzalna and Yablunska streets.

She shared part of the house with her husband Oleh and their dog and three cats, while her father lived in the other half of the building.

“On the morning of March 5th we were in my father’s part of the house, when we heard a terrible explosion on our side. My husband started shouting that we were civilians so don’t shoot, and the Russians told us to come out with our hands up,” Iryna says.

“They took our phones and told us to empty our pockets and asked if anyone else was in the house. Our part of the building was already on fire and they threw a grenade into the cellar. My husband went into our part of the yard to put out the fire, and they pointed a Kalashnikov at me and asked, ‘Where are the Nazis?’ ”

The Kremlin claims to be conducting a “special military operation” in Ukraine to topple a supposedly neo-Nazi regime which, with its Nato allies, poses a threat to Russia; now some elderly Ukrainians say that German occupying soldiers during the second World War were less brutal than the Russian invaders of today.

Moscow also insists that all the evidence of atrocities committed in Bucha was “staged” as part of a western campaign to make “fake” claims about its forces; Russia’s embassy in Dublin said in April there were “no facts to prove such allegations” and that “there has not been a single incident of violence” by Russian troops against Bucha’s people.

Iryna spotted Oleh’s T-shirt and sweater on the ground by the gate – Russian troops were checking men in Bucha for overtly patriotic tattoos or marks suggesting they had fired a gun – and then found him lying in the street outside.

“I saw his legs at first and thought maybe they had hit him. Then I saw a big pool of blood around his head and that some of his head was gone. Blood was pouring from one of his ears. The Russian soldiers just stood nearby drinking water from a bottle.”

Iryna had not heard the gunshot and believes the Russians were using silencers.

“You didn’t hear them firing in the streets, but just heard the bullets smashing the windows,” she recalls.

“I was crying for a long time. I asked them to kill me too. Then my father came out and they told him they would be rounding up people here, and if you don’t leave in three minutes you will be shot.”

Iryna and her father took refuge in a friend’s cellar until Russian forces withdrew from Bucha and the surrounding area and retreated north into Belarus at the end of March.

“We came back here when we heard the Russians had left, even before our troops reached Bucha,” Iryna says on the empty, sodden ground where her house stood.

“We saw the bodies of lots of civilians in the streets and found my husband where they had shot him ... The house had burned down, only bricks and debris were left.”

Unable to find Andriy, Zoya and Ilona fled to Kyiv on March 19th in a convoy of buses, along dangerous roads where at other times evacuees were shot dead in their cars.

They returned home in April, when Andriy’s body was identified as one of several found near the Russian command post on Vodoprovidna Street. He was given a funeral and laid to rest on May 4th alongside Lesya, whose body was exhumed from their garden for reburial.

Officials say 419 people were killed or died as a direct result of the occupation of Bucha, 116 of whom were buried in a mass grave behind St Andrew’s Church in the town centre when the local morgue reached capacity. Some bodies were found with hands tied and bearing signs of torture and summary execution.

“Some people believed the myth that this war would just involve the military and would not really touch civilians. But the Russians failed in their military operations, so they started killing and torturing civilians,” says Bucha’s deputy mayor Mykhailyna Skoryk-Shkarivska.

“Bucha is not the only place that suffered, but it was first city where Russia’s tactics and strategy were seen clearly. They parked tanks beside private houses when people were still hiding in their basements. Their units were checking and torturing people, and lots of people were held together and so they saw and heard what the Russians did,” she explains.

Skoryk-Shkarivska has just returned from a visit to the US, which included meetings with officials there about the prosecution of Russian war crimes suspects.

“There is lots of CCTV and lots of witnesses in Bucha. We know that every death of the 419 is a criminal case. And though it won’t happen very fast, with international partners we will do everything to punish those who did this, those who gave the order, and those sitting in Kremlin,” she vows.

At the same time, she insists that Bucha cannot allow itself to be forever defined by the horrors of last winter.

“We are a country at war, so we have to fight and rebuild at the same time. You can’t keep it like a war museum,” she says. “We are repairing houses and flats and have lots of programmes to help people who want to come back and rebuild as quickly as possible.”

About 53,000 people lived in Bucha before the occupation, but only around 3,700 were still here when it ended. Now some 70 per cent of the pre-war population has returned, however, and about 8,000 people from frontline areas of eastern and southern Ukraine have moved here.

Bucha’s streets are again busy with people and traffic, many shops and other businesses have reopened and reconstruction is picking up pace, particularly along Vokzalna and nearby streets where nearly every building was damaged.

“You’d hardly recognise Vokzalna now. All the debris has been cleaned away and they’re rebuilding,” says Zoya, who struggles to make ends meet on her pension of 2,300 hryvnia, about €58.

“People are coming back to Bucha, but it’s still very heavy for them,” she adds. “It looks like things are getting better here but it’s still very dark in our hearts.”

Iryna does not know what her future holds, but hopes that one of several funds that are rebuilding houses in Bucha will come to her aid.

“I got no compensation for my house, and for the death of my husband the mayor gave me 25,000 hryvnia (€633),” she says. “Let’s hope for the best – it’s what keeps us going.”

Behind St Andrew’s Church, pools of melting snow surround a temporary memorial marking the place where more than 100 people were buried during the occupation.

“Unfortunately, Bucha is now famous in a deeply negative way, along with places like Buchenwald and Srebrebnica,” says Fr Andriy Halavin, the local Orthodox priest.

“But in time we want Bucha to be remembered for positive reasons – for being like a phoenix that rises from the ashes.”