“The Russian military walks past the house and says: ʼPeace to your homeʼ. And then smiles.” How the liberated Bucha lives now — a report

Stas Kozliuk
Yuliana Skibitska

On April 1, Kyiv Oblast was completely liberated from the Russian troops. Cities and villages have been under their occupation for more than a month. During this time, the Russians turned the once prosperous Kyiv suburb into scorched earth. Photographer and journalist Stas Kozliuk has been traveling through the liberated settlements for several days now, documenting everything he sees. On the Zhytomyr highway near the village of Dmytrivka, Stas saw people shot and burned by the Russians. In Bucha, he witnessed mass graves of civilians, many of whom were tortured to death. At the request of Babel, Stas tells how Bucha survived the occupation and how people there now find the strength to live on.

We are standing near a high-rise building ruined by shelling. Thereʼs still a smell from the apartments which caught fire: the common smell of burnt plastic and wood. A book left by someone on a broken window sill rustles softly through the pages. A few meters from the house entrance, there is a fresh nameless grave: a blue cross with a white towel, flowers, and a small glass with a yellowish liquid.

– Her name was Inna. She lived here. One day she went to get water for an old neighbor and the shell fell. She was killed by debris. She was my friendʼs wife , – says Andriy, a local who came to us.

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

He tells that during the occupation people were buried either in mass graves in the backyard of the church or in the courtyards. The Russians did not let anyone bury people in the cemetery. So there are more graves nearby: a local teacher Halyna is buried a few blocks away.

– We can go there if you want. Itʼs not far from here, past the school, — Andriy suggests.

After the month of occupation, the city has changed. You constantly come across scorched apartments. Sometimes broken glass creaks underfoot. Locals, who during March mostly hid in apartments and basements, are coming outside. They rediscover their city: walk the streets, explore the remains of Russian checkpoints, look into the broken windows. In almost every yard there is an improvised kitchen: fires are burning, pots with hot food are boiling. There is still no heating, electricity, water, or gas supply in Bucha. So the locals are warming themselves by the fire, sharing rumors.

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

The school stadium is full of life. A group of men plays football there.

— Funny people, says Andriy. – They did not stop playing football even when there were Russians in the city. There was a shooting a block away – and they were kicking the ball. On the other hand, how else to behave? You could go crazy here, so you just had to do some regular things.

We can smell the odor of Andriyʼs unwashed body. Locals complain that they have not been to the shower for several weeks. And as itʼs cold in the apartments, they have to basically live in warm clothes in order to not freeze. It was possible to warm up near the courtyard kitchens, but in the last few days, it rained in the city, so the firewood was damp and it was difficult to light a fire: lots of smoke and little fire from the wet logs.

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

Having this conversation, we go into one of the yards: on one side there are three-story houses, barns are on the other. In the middle of the yard, next to the remains of the playground, there is a grave. Above the freshly poured earth is a simple brown cross with a nameplate: "Demchenko Halyna Vasylivna".

– She died at home, but they couldnʼt bury her for several days. The Russians did not allow it. And it was a far too long way to the church, and too scary to go there. Russians were shooting in the streets, so the people made the grave in the yard. But they put the cross recently, after the city was liberated, – a couple of bypassers explained.

They donʼt tell their names. We ask how they had been living for all these weeks. The woman raises her voice a little when she tells about everyday life during the occupation.

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

– You know, we survived through several rotations [of Russian military]. The first Russians were just so-so, normal ones. They tried to be polite. Yes, they went from house to house but asked if they could come in. Then the Ossetians came. These were cruel. They looted, broke into houses, took things out, poured gasoline from cars, cut the wheels. They threatened people. They broke into a womanʼs house, and she said to the Ossetian: “Your mother is probably waiting for you, isnʼt she?” And he pointed a machine gun at her and said: “Donʼt mention my mother, or Iʼll shoot your knee”.

– And then there were some from the law enforcement [service], – the man adds. I donʼt know whether it was some SOBR, or OMON or else, canʼt remember how itʼs called. They didnʼt even know who controlled which part of the city. [They didnʼt know] where their people stand. They did not know that their army was there. I donʼt think they had normal communication. And then they left.

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

– There was a moment at the very beginning: an officer from those paratroopers approached us. He wanted to talk to us. He asked: "Well, do you have any work here?" We tell him: "Until you came, we had had everything" And he stands there, looking at the ground. And then on a soldier, still young, childlike, maybe not even 20 years old, says the woman.

– Yes, I remember. And this officer told us that they did not know where they were going, what they were told about the "eight-day" operation. When they were already in Bucha, I think they understood where they came. He complained that they would probably be sent to storm Kyiv like cannon fodder. "An assault? There is a multi-layered defense, we will be killed", the man recalls.

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

There was some dark irony, the woman adds.

– I remember a patrol passing our house and one of the Russians saying, “Peace to your home”. And then smiling, – she said.

We go to the local church – the place, photos of which have been circulating in the Western media in the last few days. It is where the mass grave is located, where the bodies of locals were taken from the streets to be buried. However, no one knows the exact number of people killed by the Russians. The only thing locals say is that there were a lot of corpses. On some streets, they lay in the open for more than a week. Cats and dogs began to eat them.

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

If to look from the street, the church looks like hundreds of Ukrainian churches: white walls, domes. When you come closer, you can see the traces of shellings: somewhere a paint peeled off, somewhere a broken glass. However, as soon as you go around it, you get to another world: in a big pit, there are mountains of black bags covered with earth. These are murdered locals. There are always several groups of journalists nearby: they look closely, film, and make live broadcasts. A local priest, Father Andriy, if there. We ask how many people are buried in the pit.

– I honestly do not know. The morgue in Bucha was overcrowded: there were our locals and the Russian military. The bodies lay just in the streets. So around March 10, we had decided to bury them somehow. We drove a tractor, it dug a trench. For the first time, there were 67 people. In total, we have three trenches here. The third is not completely filled up, it is open. But here, where you are standing now, people are buried. In total, about 300 locals were killed. But these figures arenʼt accurate as there are many graves in the city, just in the yards, – the priest explains.

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

In a few hundred meters there is a point with humanitarian aid. There is food: bread, cereals, pasta. And there is a noisy line. The older woman Maria is coming to us with a piece of bread in her hand. She stops near the smashed and looted store. We ask her about the events of recent days.

– Iʼm alive, my dear. There is something to eat. Here, they gave me some bread. And we havenʼt seen it for several weeks, – the older woman is choking with tears, she wipes them with a hand firmly holding a loaf of bread.

She offers to look at her yard. Locals cut and saw firewood for the kitchen there, the kettle boils on the fire, and people gather around. As soon as it turns out that we are journalists, we are overwhelmed with questions: whether the Russians came to Kyiv, what is happening in other areas, whether (and when) we should expect help from the West, when the authorities will reconnect electricity, water, and gas. Whether Chernihiv is liberated and can they send the parcel with food and warm clothes to the relatives there.

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

Two brothers approach us: Roman and Oleh Moskalenko. They are sons of Georgiy Moskalenko who hung the Ukrainian flag on the building of the Kyiv National University of Economics back in 1966 and ended up in camps. It is said that the Russians surprisingly did not touch the memorial plaque of their father and did not tear the Ukrainian flag from their house.

They show a collection of banknotes that their father collected: the money of Tzar Russia, Austro-Hungary, the occupation banknotes of Germany, and the first money of the Bolsheviks. And, probably, the most valuable: banknotes of the Ukrainian Peopleʼs Republic, from which their father redrew the trident. Diana, their neighbor, stands next to them. She shows us the basement locals used to hide from the shelling.

– It is not adapted much for sheltering, – she says. – There is only one way out. But it was warmer there. And the roar of shells wasnʼt so loud.

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

Itʼs cold inside, but at least there is no wind. In the spacious premises, there are homemade beds and a small table with a candle in the center. A stroller in one corner, a box with food in another, and a roll of toilet paper is attached to the pipe at the entrance.

– We had a common toilet, for both men and women, – Diana laughs. – Outside, not far from the entrance, there was a toilet seat and a bucket, so everyone went to the toilet there. One bed was used by several people at once. In the first two weeks, a woman with a small baby hid there with us, the child was not even a year old. Then she left. And there is still someoneʼs food left here, but we donʼt take it.

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

About 30 people remained in the house, everyone else left. In the city, where 40 thousand people lived before the war, there are between 2 and 5 thousand now. People learn the news from visiting journalists and volunteers: the Russians took many of their phones, and the batteries of the ones left were drained long ago. And even if they worked, it was impossible to use them: the occupiers took away all SIM cards.

The elder Maria, for example, has not been able to inform her family that she is fine for more than a week (at the time of publishing this article, thanks to social media and the help of people, she has been able to find her son, and he plans to get to Mariia after the end of the intensified curfew). Another local man was threatened by Russians with being shot if he did not give his phone. So he is now without it.

– For me, the war began on February 24. At 7 oʼclock in the morning, my friends called. I didnʼt believe it at first. Then I heard a roar and saw smoke from Gostomel. At that moment, it became very scary. My grandmother survived the [Second World] war, she told me a lot about it. But itʼs one thing to listen to the stories and quite another to see a neighboring town burns. And also there was a stench… Like burning diesel fuel, Diana recalls.

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

While we were talking, a minibus with the Ukrainian military drove into the yard. They brought food kits: cereals, bread, pasta, flour, toothbrushes, napkins. They asked for the houses with children as there is a specific help for them.

– It is good that we have a private sector here. And the people, when fleeing from Bucha, did not lock the wells so I could at least get some water. We were lucky: there were Russian paratroopers in our neighborhood, they were more or less humane. And in the private sector, there were these "Kadyrovites". Or Ossetians… How to describe them… Have you ever seen a man after binge drinking? They are like those. And their eyes were evil. They machine pointed guns at us. Some of the locals went to get water and did not return because they were shot. Snipers worked in the city. And people behind the station saw the young man being taken somewhere to the orcsʼ headquarters. After the city was liberated, his body was found. It is said that the boy was tortured. They cut off his nose. and they blindfolded him. They tied his hands. And then they shot him (Babel published a photo of this body earlier). In the first days, the bodies lay on the streets, especially many of them after moving, – says Diana.

We are going back to the grave of Inna, the woman who went for water was killed by the shell. On the street, we meet two women walking dogs. We ask how they lived through this month. Like Diana, women talk about luck and good fortune.

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

While we are talking, dogs are spinning around their legs. The volunteers and humanitarian convoys, sometimes the military pass by.

– I asked [Russian] for food for my pets. I took the food from the relatives to feed and save them. Then the Russian gave me another 10 kilograms [of pet food] at the checkpoint. He said that they would be removed from the post in two days and it would be possible to come and take more, that there would be no one left. But not before that as there may be problems. And the next day, some people came to us on bicycles and said that the checkpoint was abandoned. My friends and I went there. Ossetians were there. They started shouting at us: "Come here, youʼll get it now". They automatic pointed guns at us, [ready to shoot]. At that moment, some armored vehicles came, and Russian paratroopers covered us. They started shouting at us to run away. I donʼt even know how I got home with my sick legs, – the woman says.

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

At this moment, a siren is sounding on my phone – an air alarm over Kyiv. Women shudder, then calm down. They say that their sirens hardly worked because the electricity went out in the city. Therefore, there was no one to report about the air raids. The same was with phones: without connection and mobile internet, the warning apps just didnʼt work.

– And then, closer to March 30, an officer came to us and said that they were leaving the city. He told us not to go out of the yards, not to enter the storesʼ, and buildings not to approach their checkpoints because it is very dangerous there. And then he left. I saw how these columns of equipment went. Everything rumbled a lot. I counted about 90 cars and tanks. Was afraid Russians would start shelling houses. And then…then there was silence. It was very unusual, she says.

Twilight descends on Bucha. On the basketball court near the school, one can hear the ball pounding. People with empty bottles walk the streets to get water. In the city center, children ride scooters. Civilian cars appear on the roads. White smoke is billowing from almost every yard: locals came out to cook dinner. In silence. Without shelling and machine gunfire.

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

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