24 km from Bucha to Kyiv under fire. “Napalm” podcast, Ep.1. Text version

Yevhen Spirin
24 km from Bucha to Kyiv under fire. “Napalm” podcast, Ep.1. Text version


Napalm is a podcast about photographers, journalists, cooks, pharmacists, militaries, doctors, saleswomen, and programmers. Briefly, this is a podcast about Ukrainians experiencing war. About the everyday life of our country, which heroically resists the Russian empire. We want to hear the voices of our citizens, their stories about daily and not daily life, and we want other people to hear or read what they say. Photographer and cameraman Oleksandr Popenko spent almost two weeks in Bucha town near Kyiv, which was occupied by the Russian soldiers. Starting March 3, he lived in a basement where there was no light, heat, or water. When the invaders began to shoot at houses with tanks, Olexandr and his girlfriend decided to get out of town. They walked 24 kilometers under fire, through Russian checkpoints. Sashko told about his life in occupied Bucha and the way to Kyiv to Eugene Spirin, Babel chief editor. The conversation took place on March 11, before the Bucha was liberated.

Hi there! This is «Napalm» and this is our first episode. Our guest is Sashko Popenko, who walked many kilometers from the town of Bucha. He was there for about two weeks from the beginning of the invasion. Hello, Sasha. Tell us how you ended up in Bucha?

Hello. I used to rent a flat in Kyiv, and last year my girlfriend Oksana moved into her own apartment [in Bucha]. I was preparing to move in with her, brought there a lot of what I use for work. I work with photography and video, so I have many hard drives, a laptop, a camera ― all of this was already in Bucha.

And it remains there?

Not all of it. My collection of photobooks is still in Bucha, which Iʼm very sorry for. We were told that Russian soldiers broke into our home. I would be interested to see how they flip through [famous Ukrainian photographer Oleksandr] Chekmenevʼs photo books or the book about the Leninopad. Itʼs very interesting how these dudes, if they can be called like that, look at these books and what they see there.

Can you remember the night before the war: what happened, when you woke up? For example, I woke up to the sirens in Pechersk district in Kyiv, and I had 25 missed calls from all my friends.

When did you wake up?

Around 7 am.

Well, we woke up around 9:30.

I picked up the phone peacefully, looked at it ― and there was a kind of waterfall of notifications. The last text was from my sister: «Hello, you slept through the war». We got up, and we didnʼt know what to do at all, there was no such effect as many people had ― «everyone rushed, started to go somewhere». There already were traffic jams in the direction out of Kyiv on the Zhytomyr highway. We just started to understand what was happening. And we were just sitting and drinking coffee for a few hours.

One of our mutual friends, Alla Koshlyak from NV radio station, said that the first thing she did was washing her hair. Because she wouldnʼt go anywhere with dirty hair, even to a bomb shelter.

We went to explore the bomb shelters only in the evening of the first day [of the war]. First we prepared our home, taped our windows with duct tape. It was loud already, because Hostomel is nearby. Fighter jets were already flying right over our house. And I was just sitting in the toilet. It was a very interesting feeling.

When did it become clear that the Russian army came? Because here in Kyiv we missed a bit of what was happening in Irpin, Bucha, and Hostomel. On the third or fourth day of the war it was clear that all of them were occupied. But Russians probably came earlier, right?

In the first 3-4 days it wasnʼt that bad. It was buzzing, flying, shooting around and things like that, but the cars could still leave Bucha. I canʼt say about the center of the town where the first clashes took place, and particularly the largest convoys were burned, Novus supermarket was bombed, as well as the new Giraffe shopping center. We lived in a very isolated part of Bucha, which is closer to Vorzel settlement and is generally referred to as “in the middle of nowhere”. I donʼt know how things were there after our evacuation, but before it no one could get there.

The Russian military came to our area on March 3, after they bombed the town center. As far as we understand, they started to scatter in all directions. So the first armored car appeared in our area, then a few more. They started shooting at the buildings. I saw a completely broken balcony on one. I donʼt even know whatʼs with our house now, to be honest. We didnʼt come in after that.

They shot the buildings with the automatic weapon, with some cannons. Some houses were attacked from above. On March 3, we came home for the last time. We planned to eat normally, to drink coffee ― we could not. In fact, our cat saved us. She ran around the apartment, and at some point jumped into the cat crate and stayed there. Somehow read this sign, closed the crate, and carried it away. We went down and walked these few meters to the shelter where we were hiding, already under fire.

How many days were you staying in the shelter? Acording to the pictures you made, you still went outside.

We went home several times to wash ourselves while there still was electricity and water. We were a bit lucky; we still had electricity for the first 6-7 days. But all communications since March 3 were cut. Moving around the block was possible, but a bit scary.

Itʼs probably not cool to walk the streets along with the occupants, especially when they have looted everything which had alcohol and food inside.

At first there was no looting, it generally was rather quiet until they [Russians] came to our area, shot some shops and robbed them. Then the local drunkards started [robbing the shops as well], and after them, it was everyone who could. Looting is an interesting thing, I still canʼt think this whole story over. Marauding is obviously a crime, but when you are surrounded only by the Russian military, people took out everything they could and brought it to the shelter, often giving something to children.

When you understand thereʼs a chance you will not get any food tomorrow, itʼs kind of moral self-defense?

Yes. We were happy when it snowed: we melted the snow to have at least something to drink.

Tell me how life was organized in the shelter? I saw the picture witn Uno [card game] — itʼs from the shelter, right?

Yes, yes. I made some pictures, now sorting them. It wasnʼt organized, every basement is a different ecosystem.

A commune…

Right, a commune. We were very lucky to have a local district deputy among us. Everyone knows him, he is a good organizer, a very good man. Without him it would be a completely different situation in this basement. Thanks God, his family left Bucha safely. And he told me that everyone from our shelter managed to escape.

I wonder how you organized food and covered the basic needs. We all saw photos from Mariupol and other cities where people took snow, carried it in some pots, put them on the fire. How was it for you?

We were lucky in that sense. I donʼt know how it was in the center of Bucha, but I donʼt want to say that we suffered there or something. Unfortunately, we did not have a normal connection then, but now that I see what is happening in Mariupol, in Kharkiv, so… I donʼt want to compare, these are completely different situations. But yes, we collected meltwater. We also had some reserves of technical water, and we’ve been drinking it for a long time. The tap water has too much of metal elements in our area. And pure drinking water ran out in the first few days.

Everyone brought food with them, was trying to bring something from home. Our shelter was in a kindergartenʼs basement. At first there was nothing, just some little chairs you try to sit on and fail. So everyone started bringing some blankets and mattresses from home, there were more and more things. Then the Novus supermarket was bombed, but there still were cars and some petrol in the city, volunteers, territorial defense units. They transferred to the shelters everything they could get from Novus: at some point we even had a stock of tangerines. It is interesting that in the first days of life in the shelter there were no problems with food because everyone brought a lot of food.

People took everything they had at home because otherwise it would be spoilt?

Yes, yes, because it spoils very quickly, so you have to eat everything: vegetables, fruits and so on. Then, if someone could cook something at home, they did it and brought to the shelter. When there was no more electricity, the freezers began to thaw, but there was nothing to cook on. Someone brought a grill, some wood was there, so we cooked thawed dumplings on the grill. And there was a lot of meat, really a lot, as all the freezers were full of such things. You canʼt look at this meat anymore, but you have to eat it anyway. Though even physically you canʼt eat because of stress.

Right, in the first week you just couldnʼt push anything into yourself, and even if you push it in, it is pushed back immediately. I think everyone had that.

Thatʼs right. On the one hand, itʼs very bad, but on the other, it’s even good to some extent, because you will have food for longer.

Did you have children in the shelter?

Yes there were seven. I guess, children in our shelter, among 35-40 adults. None of them were infants.

When did you realize that you need to get out of there? There were no evacuation buses in your area. And although people tried to convince volunteers to get to you, they replied that it was impossible. There was no connection with you for a long time. When did the critical moment came, and how did you understand where to go and what to do?

A very hard, very complex, very incomprehensible question, like life itself. There was never a moment when we understood something or knew something, let alone when we knew something for sure. When the connection was almost gone, there were rumors that they bombed The Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv. Iʼm not kidding, it really was. Roughly speaking, before the March 3 it was one life in our district, and after March , when…

When the electricity and other services were gone?

When these... I canʼt pick up non-explicit words for them [for the Russians], but when hey finally got to our district and started to coexist with us, so to speak, life there changed completely. First, you donʼt know how to behave in such a situation. They were in contact with someone, I was told that they broke into some buildings, into apartments, robbed something. Someone said they went to some basements, just to see if there were any Ukrainian soldiers there, and then left. There were rumors that some drunkards even went out “to chat” with them. All these are things that are difficult to trace and difficult to verify as they are statements of other people to whom a friend or neighbor may have told something.

Even for journalists it was hard to get proven information back then.

In short, after the connection was lost, the only thing we could catch from the outside world was Oksanaʼs offline radio on the phone, and only the NV radio station worked normally on it. And we listened to NV from time to time, because we had to keep a charge on the phone. We waited for some news, turned it on and off. And at some moment we heard the news by the Bucha council, or the Armed Forces, or someone else that the Ukrainian military recaptured Bucha! And in about half an hour a truck with V letter ran through the area, then [Russian] armored vehicles started arriving, other things… So, was it really a recapture, huh?

Well, people were so sad in the first days that even when the Ukrainian army retook some peripheral street, it was considered some kind of a victory. And also everyone who could made their own channels in Telegram messenger and wrote all sorts of crap that came to their mind there. Nothing could be verified, there was no connection with Bucha. It’s the same kind of news that you had about the Saint Sophia Cathedral. Iʼll tell you, by the way, where these rumors came from. There was a message from the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, that it seems that Russia wants to bomb the cathedral. This information might have been transformed and reached you like the cathedral has already been bombed and there is nothing left. In fact, Russians only tried to bomb the Kyiv TV tower, but it withstood. Tell us about the day you walked out of Bucha. How did you do that?

We started receiving news that on March 9 the first “green corridors” were opened. The cellular connection appeared occasionally, not in the basement, but sometimes, when outside, you could catch an SMS. At that moment when we found out the news about corridors, everyone wrote or called us: “That’s it, you have an evacuation in Bucha, Energetykiv Street, 5 km from your place”. But on this distance there were I donʼt know how many Russian checkpoints ― it was unreal to pass them. Well, when we found out about “green corridors”, some people were already starting to walk there on foot, organizing themselves into some groups ― but it was very scary. Women with small children were the first ones to leave. We watched them go, and our hearts were pounding, really. We didnʼt know where they were going, it was «a throw to nowhere», you know… We kept track on the situation for a while, but couldnʼt decide to leave. And the problem is, if you leave, it is much safer to go in large convoys. But there werenʼt enough people on our basement who were ready for this.

They planned to just continue sitting there?

That’s it. At that time most of them didnʼt even consider leaving an option. There are different situations. There were a mother and a son, and he probably has autism or some similar disease. So itʼs difficult to go with him, he needs a special approach. There also was a mother with two children, some elderly women, a girl with a daughter, a husband, and parents. And they all didnʼt know how and where to go. Their first fear was: “Where will we be evacuated to? To Kyiv railway station? And whatʼs next, where to go?”

That was the first question from people looking for their relatives who stayed without connection: «Where are they being taken?» They were asking journalists as well. And we donʼt even know where the authorities take them. We just learned that all of those who are being evacuated should be taken to the railway station. And there were so many people that they were storming the trains. It wasn’t the best idea of where to take people who have been sitting in the basement for two weeks.

Those who lost their house were the ones who left Bucha first. And those who still had something there were sticking to this familiar place. But I hope that everyone [from our basement] really left. Because I think itʼs better to get out of there and even start a new life from scratch than to live in this situation. You know, when you constantly hear the sounds of “Grads” in the basement, then no matter how much of a patriot you are and how much you believe in anything… Now I’ll say not a very pleasant thing… All this exhausts people so much that sometimes it comes down to the phrase: “It doesnʼt matter what the government will be if this will stop the shooting”.

Just to stop the shooting. And we understand why Russians shell houses. Because the people who are being shot at are starting to break down psychologically, this is an objective in itself. As it is happening in Mariupol now. It is clear that people who see this do not care what will happen next, because their only wish is just to stop the hostilities, at any cost. This is what the Russians expect. Okay, how far did you walk on foot?

My phone counted 30,000 steps, at least 22 kilometers.

You said you had to walk about 5 kilometers, why did you get 22?

On the first day of the “green corridor”, March 9, people were taken to the center. And as we live in an isolated part of the town, we first tried to get either to the center, where the buses are, or at least on foot to Irpin city, and through Irpin we were told to go to Romanivka village, controlled by the Ukrainian army. But the Russian military just didn’t let us through. They turned us around and said: go there, towards Vorzel town. I still donʼt understand how we made this decision on March 10, yesterday… Yesterday morning!

You see, and it seems that a month has passed…

It was like one day. All in one day and all at once. In the morning we smoked the last cigarette which I kept in a crumpled pack, then put our backpacks on and left. Thatʼs all.

You just understand youʼre leaving the place, right?

Well, youʼre just going. Whatever happens, you go. If you stay — it will only get worse. I donʼt want to tell specific stories, but psychologically every next day in the basement itʼs getting worse.

What were your impressions [on the road]? Because Kyiv has changed a lot during this time: all these fortifications, checkpoints, all this was not there when you left the city for Bucha.

Honestly, I saw very little. I came to Kyiv in a car, my phone already got a signal and my attention was more to the phone than to the window. I donʼt know, all this day yesterday was a little bit foggy.

You just finished your detox from social networks.

Oh, I wanted to at least call my mother. As for social networks, first it was difficult to write something, but it was necessary. Kyiv has changed a lot. But I’d say that it was not Kyiv that impressed me the most, but the first checkpoint of the Ukrainian military that we saw. These were the first Ukrainian soldiers we saw since the beginning of the war.

Was it a calming or just weird feeling? Because when you see the checkpoints now, you become a little more relaxed, because you understand that the Armed Forces of Ukraine are standing here.

During these two weeks, I had to emotionally go through a lot, at some point I wanted to cry to release some energy, to reboot. But I just couldnʼt do it, physically. But when you first see the Ukrainian checkpoint, the Ukrainian flag, Ukrainian military, you want to shed a tear.

Thatʼs fine, that’s normal. Here, many have already shed a lot of tears during this time. What did you do after arriving to your Kyiv place? Went to the shower, or have got some sleep at last?

I still have problems with sleep.

As much as we talked to people who left Nemishayevo village, or Gostomel town, and they have already arrived in Prague or somewhere — they still canʼt sleep, although they are in complete safety. And it seems to me that it even became a little harder for them than when being there because there you are like all concentrated.

Well, I donʼt know what will happen next, because itʼs a very unique experience, and the outcomes wonʼt go away on their own, obviously. You will have to fix the head a little. I donʼt realize yet in what mental situation we are in now and in what weʼll be later.

Well, itʼs not really about the mental yet, because we donʼt know what will happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.

Yes, itʼs obvious too. Living in Bucha for these two weeks, we got a completely different experience there, which is not very similar to what is happening in Kyiv or somewhere else. Both this reality, which is here, and the one that may be elsewhere, needs to be re-accustomed to. And meanwhile you have to recover, or at least try to, after this whole story.It could have been worse, and thank God we’re alive and healthy. We survived and managed to rescue the cat as well: she is happy, sleeping, playing. Itʼs all right.

Itʼs great that you got out, and I think that everything will be ok then, we all hope for that. Thank you for telling your story. I hope you get some more sleep in a few days. As for the experience — now each city and place has its own experience, which is impossible to be compared to other places and does not need to be compared. Everyone lives in a war as they live.

Sasha Popenko was with us — a photographer, videographer, and author of a very cool project. He photographed the Eiffel Towerʼs copies across the country, and he wanted to photograph food and food monuments, but he hasnʼt had time yet, maybe it will happen in the future.

Now all that has transformed in my head a lot. There have been and, I think, still are many Eiffel Towers. One of them is located in Kyiv on Koshytsya Street, 7th, in Kharkiv on Saltivka district, in Chernihiv… (All of these places or cities are severely damaged after Russians attacked them ― Babel).

I understand what you are talking about and what will happen next.

There is a lot to think about now, and I hope it will end as soon as possible. So that I could finish the project, and everything was fine with us, and we rebuilt everything.

I think we will have no problems with the reconstruction. Thank you very much, go get some sleep.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.