Bucha resident shares story of how her town lived and died under Russian occupation

5 April, 06:21 PM
Ukrainian serviceman looks at the bodies of dead civilians Ukrainian forces found in Bucha after Russians left it (Photo:REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)

Ukrainian serviceman looks at the bodies of dead civilians Ukrainian forces found in Bucha after Russians left it (Photo:REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)

Shelling from tanks, hunger and cold, murders of neighbors and acquaintances – a translator from Bucha lived through this for almost a month of occupation by the Russian army.

Footage from the town of Bucha, which was liberated by the Armed Forces of Ukraine on March 31, has shocked not only Ukraine, but the whole world. The cameras of the military and the media have recorded evidence of the violence committed by Russian soldiers and officers against civilians. There were not just murders, but also outright torture.

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But the photos and videos from the liberated town only show the aftermath of the massacre, as President of the European Council Charles Michel has called the events in occupied Bucha.

It's time to hear from eyewitnesses about what was left behind the scenes – about the events that took place in this town outside Kyiv that was once home to 30,000 people, while the Kremlin’s "liberators" were there.

Local translator Olena L., who stayed in her native Bucha from the beginning of the war and almost until the liberation of the town, has shared her story with NV.

She asked not to mention her last name in the publication, explaining: "I don't seem to be afraid of anything, but now I'm afraid of everything."

- What happened in the first days when the Russians entered Bucha?

- On Feb. 24, I woke up and checked Facebook as usual. It was written that Russia had attacked Ukraine. And then I immediately heard blasts somewhere far away, like in the fields beyond Bucha, but it was difficult to determine. The first thing I did in a state of panic was to run to pour water in six-liter bottles, because I knew: when there is a war, the water disappears first. Then I woke up my mother, told her that the war had begun. She didn't believe it. I couldn't either, my brain refused to believe. We turned on the TV set. There were frightened hosts on the screen: (TV host Yehor) Gordeyev, someone else, they were talking about the explosions, trying to calm down (it seems, first of all themselves), they were sincere and real. Tear-stained (TV host Mariia) Yefrosinina, then tear-stained (comedienne Olena) Kravets appeared on air, all in wild shock, managed to leave somewhere, near Kyiv... We were sitting frightened in front of the TV set the whole day.

From that day on, all memories blur, apparently, the brain thus tried to protect itself from everything. But I remember we still had everything during the first days: gas, electricity, and water. We watched TV, read the Internet, hid in a dark room: we have one without windows, but with a glass sliding door, which I sealed with adhesive tape; and all the windows were sealed with a tape in the form of the letter "x" – they say, it can minimize the risks when the windows fly out from the blast wave. We never went to the bomb shelter. Maybe this saved us, now it is not known.

A hellish battle took place in Hostomel on Feb. 24. We were sitting in our dark room and were trembling from the blasts. I found out what was happening from the Internet, reconstructed the events, because we couldn't see anything, the five-story buildings obscure the view (later they took hits). Actually, the fighting around us had not subsided since then. Day and night. TV, Internet... It was scary to go out into the street, even into the yard. I remember I tried to work to somehow disperse panic and fear, but it did not help.

As for their (Russians) appearance in Bucha... Our Sklozavodska microdistrict is on the outskirts. Actually, there are three Buchas: Lisova, Tsentralna (Central) and Sklozavodska. The distance between Sklozavodska and Tsentralna is rather large, which can be overcome in three ways: by rail, along Yablunska Street or along the Warsaw highway. Yablunska Street is of strategic importance since it is possible to get both to Tsentralna Bucha and Irpin. First, they advanced to the center (Feb. 27), there was fighting on the Warsaw highway, on Vokzalna Street, they were stopped there. And the Ukrainian military thought that they had stopped them and raised our flag again. But it seems that on March 1, they (invaders) already appeared in the Sklozavodska microdistrict... My friend warned that there was a tank near our club, we should hide, because it would start firing. We quickly put a mattress with pillows on the floor near the supporting wall, almost under the computer desk, and laid down. We heard how the tank was driving, growling, poured bullets at the houses (that's how it sounded – "pew pew pew"). Later the neighbors told us that the invaders had started the shelling because someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail at them from one house. They smashed this house and started firing at all the houses. Some terrible explosions began very close to us. I think it was the tanks firing. Or they exploded. Who knows.

All the following days we were laying or sitting in the middle of hell. On the day when everything calmed down, I could not stand it and fell asleep. Later my mother told me that she had heard shell casings falling on the asphalt, i.e they were firing very close to us. I still do not know whether it was a skirmish with a territorial defense unit or shelling. Then they started bombing us: they hit the five-story buildings with grenade launchers, they smashed the water tower, there was no gas, the house quickly got cold. I managed to collect some water.

Our neighbors said that the tanks were standing near the club and the garages. Much later, another neighbor said that 40 tanks had entered the town that day, they robbed our Fora (store), took out alcohol and food, (and Russian soldiers) danced and had fun in the club. Another neighbor was injured – during the shelling of our quarter, she was sitting in the kitchen by the window... solving crossword puzzles. Although the day before I warned her: stay away from windows. I think it’s difficult to frighten our people even with tanks. An infantry fighting vehicle shell flew into the wall of her house, broke through the wall, damaged the pipe, and she was wounded by shrapnel. She used to hide in the cellar, but she could no longer go down there, so she came to us. We locked ourselves in and sat in a dark room, listening to the explosions.

A few days later, this woman found out about the evacuation, ran to us, shouted through the gap between the door and the jamb: "They will take me out, the key is on the pear tree, the cat food is in the kitchen!" and ran away. She left us stunned and shocked even more than from the war. It was March 10. Our mobile phones were out of power, we did not know how to charge them, we had neither the Internet nor the radio.

Since then, every day seemed similar to the previous one, but at the same time, every day became more and more difficult. I was pestered by the cold (there was frost outside, 0°C in the house and you could see your breath), the prospect of hunger, because we did not have many supplies, we believed in civilization too much. Every evening we went to bed at 1800 (to keep warm as it was warmer under the covers), and slept until 0700, but even then we did not want to get up and move. For getting up meant going to kindle a fire to at least heat water for tea or coffee. Or just drink warm water. I told myself that we should not give in to depression, we must fight, but it became worse and more terrible every day because the shelling intensified.

There could be a short silence during the day, but everything exploded around at night. We felt the smell of sulfur. And we understood that we were really in the middle of hell. We were constantly afraid that an airplane would fall on the roof of our one-story building, or a bomb or a rocket would hit. And then we stopped being afraid – there comes a moment when you accept the inevitable. Although when the rocket fell 800 meters from our house, it was literally lifted into the air, and the beams under the roof crackled insidiously, that ghostly calmness went away. It's just animal fear telling you to run somewhere. It can be curbed by the efforts of the rational brain, but it’s very hard. Therefore, you just curl up and internally die of horror.

- Was it hard to leave Bucha?

- Yablunska Street was blocked by checkpoints on both sides. It was possible to leave only on those days when the green corridor had been announced. But we didn't know that either. I don't have a car, we didn't go to the shelter, we didn't have any information – we didn't know that an evacuation was taking place in Tsentralna Bucha. We could walk to Irpin, to Romanivka, but it was problematic with an elderly mother and two cats in a bag. In addition, they (invaders) could easily shoot us. We were very lucky that we could charge the old mobile phone, find out about the evacuation corridor (the last one, as it turned out), leave by car with a family of neighbors, with their baby. We were 95% sure that we would be shot. But they let us out at checkpoints, we slowly drove along the Warsaw highway, under the muzzles of tanks, as far as I understand, we drove to the site of evacuation and then moved in a column behind the buses.

That's why so many people were left in the Sklozavodska microdistrict – no car, no information, no opportunity to go on foot, because the distances are long there. There was a terrible feeling of abandonment, apocalypse, the feeling that we were on an island, and thousands of kilometers to Kyiv. And the howl of dogs on chains abandoned by (not) people added fuel to the fire.

- What food, water did you have? How did people survive?

- We could see the door of one of the shelters from our window. After we were "liberated" from the benefits of civilization, the men began to kindle a fire, the women started cooking. We didn't go there, but handed over groceries: vegetables, meat, etc., and instead, that very neighbor brought us hot water and a bowl of hot food. It turns out that this may be enough to eat once a day. A few days later, the crowd at that shelter began to thin out. I really hope that the mothers with their kids were able to evacuate on foot (because before almost everyone disappeared, I saw through the window that a group of women were talking). I drive away the thought that I learned about shelters in the Agrobudpostach enterprise where people had been forcibly kept and killed.

There was food. Some had more, some had less, but everyone shared. There are cellars in one-story buildings, many people have potatoes and tinned goods there. It was possible to survive, albeit in inhuman conditions. The freezers still kept the cold during the first week, the kitchen was like a fridge, so they started using stocks of meat, fish, lard, etc. Even we had a lot of foodstuffs, although it seemed we had nothing. It's always like this for Ukrainians.

It was possible to get some water in a well near the old cemetery. Our fearless male neighbors helped us, brought water and firewood. I told them: "Don't walk so much and far, it's dangerous," but they just brushed it off. They said: "These meek ones told us to wear white bandages on our sleeves, then they won't touch us." I'm quoting our neighbor, an ethnic Russian, by the way, who helped us a lot. In general, many Russians lived on this part of Yablunska Street. They were settled there in the 50s of the 20th century, when a glass factory was built. I don't know, maybe this explains that we didn't know anything about the murders. At our shelter, everyone thought that compared to Irpin and Bucha, few people were killed here: one man from the terrorist defense unit and two (our) girls for looting. The terrible truth was revealed only the day before yesterday.

- How did the Russians behave? What happened on the streets?

- They shot, destroyed. I saw that at least two apartments in five-story buildings had been burned down. Old windows in wooden frames could not withstand the blast waves and broke. A missile got stuck in a five-story building overlooking the lake, people said. On the first day of their appearance, they (invaders) went to a neighbor on Yablunska Street. They said: "Don't be afraid, we don't touch peaceful people." Unfortunately, there are many collaborators among our people, so she told and showed them everything: where there were people, where there were nonе... Or just old age and fear took their toll, and she thought that they would treat her better if she told. Later, as I understood from the new footage, they put the tank in the courtyard of the house opposite her house... Very fast karma.

One house nearby burned down from shelling. The woman who died there was buried in the courtyard.

In the evenings, tanks drove out into the street and fired. They intimidated, like "everyone should sleep." They also fired in the morning. And in the middle of the night. At first it was scary, later it started to get annoying and caused only dull irritation with obscenities. We asked our neighbors not to light a fire after dark. They did not obey much, warmed themselves by their potbelly stove in the yard, then said that a drone was flying over them, they could see it.

- Did the invaders go from house to house? What did they say, how did they behave?

- We heard some stories that they did that. They went from one apartment to another in a nine-story building. Went to the houses overlooking Yablunska Street. We lived on the "second line," fortunately, no one came to us. They brought tanks. They talked about evacuation: "We can take you to Belarus." But when the first wave of horror had already subsided (as far as I understand, most of the people were killed just when they entered Bucha), they were told to put on clearly visible white armbands. Probably so that the sniper could see them from afar. Then they could move freely. But I noticed on a photo a corpse with a white bandage on the sleeve. That is, the bandages stopped working at some point... One day, the Russians drove up to a crowd of people on a "tankette" (small tank), asked something about how to get somewhere. Now I understand that our male neighbors were just taking care of our mental health. They knew about the murders, but did not tell us.

- There are some photos where people were killed with their hands tied. As far as I understand, did they keep them and then kill?

- I don't know this, I was shocked to see this the day before yesterday. In our neighborhood, men moved more or less freely. But in the last days before their departure, there was a lot of news of murders of men and women. Our local community abounded with obituaries, familiar faces of neighbors... "Shot dead while delivering water," "shot dead while cooking food in the yard," "shot dead being noticed on the street." The Russians committed severe atrocities in the last days. They say some new rotation entered the town on March 25. Entered and left.

- Is there any evidence that they tried to kill all the men?

- Obviously, they captured those people who were hiding in the shelter of Agrobudpostach. On the very first day, a man was killed near the house at 17 Yablunska Street. Even then, I thought that they would kill the men. It seems that our male neighbors miraculously survived. They said there was a car with two corpses not far from the Delicia confectionery factory.

- There are also photos of cars with civilians inside crushed by tanks. There is a terrible feeling that they did it for fun.

- Quite possible. Fortunately, I did not see this, it was done a kilometer from my house.

- How did you get out of Bucha?

- Our rescue from Bucha was a miracle. We had lived in the zone of hostilities and genocide for almost a month. Our housemates on the right side left at the very beginning, and others, a family with a child, moved to their apartment from an emergency (from shelling, of course) house. And the dad in this family is a real hero. He helped us in every way: he brought water, chopped firewood, made a cool brick brazier to keep warm better. He drove into the yard a car that his friend had abandoned in Bucha when he was leaving. We missed the first evacuation on March 19, because I turned off the mobile phone, and when I turned it on late on March 19, I saw an SMS from my friend: "Evacuation will be on March 19." And since all the days were the same there, I got the date wrong and thought that March 19 would be the next day. But it turned out that we had lost our chance. But a day later, there was another chance to leave (this time the last one). And thanks to the heroism of this neighbor, we were able to escape.

That's what struck me – the daily heroism of people. Helping the elderly, sharing the latest news. Help that comes from nowhere, and just when you need it. I was impressed by how clearly the real nature of a person comes out in war. You can't hide it with anything, because all the masks have been removed.

Also, there were women at their checkpoints. They said that these "biathletes" were patrolling our town. Once, one of the neighbors who didn't leave went out on the balcony on the fourth floor to talk on the phone (God knows how she charged her mobile phone), and the neighbor yelled at her: "Hide, you will be shot down, female snipers are walking around here." And when we were leaving, we saw these female snipers in Russian military uniforms. Along with other tense Russians, they came out to meet our car. The driver came out to talk. We were sitting in the back seat. Suddenly, a box of neighbor's things fell on my head, and I inadvertently made a sharp movement with my hand to push the box back. And that female sniper took up her machine gun. If I had moved a little more sharply, she would have shot me.

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