‘They gave their rations to the people in the basement, then threw down a grenade’ Bucha City Council Deputy Kateryna Ukraintseva describes life under Russian occupation.
After the Russian army’s retreat from Ukraine’s Kyiv region, dozens of civilians were found dead in the city of Bucha, some of them with their arms tied behind their backs. As of April 4, 410 civilian bodies have been removed from the recently liberated towns. The Russian Defense Ministry said that the images and videos from Bucha were “staged by the Kyiv regime” — this is Russia's standard reaction to both statements from the Ukrainian authorities and materials from independent journalists reporting on the war. To learn what life was like under Russian occupation, Meduza spoke to Bucha City Council Deputy and Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces volunteer Kateryna Ukraintseva.
I was in Bucha when the city was invaded. I evacuated on March 11. Yesterday [April 2], I returned for the first time and brought humanitarian aid.
Bucha is located near Hostomel. As ordinary citizens, we naively thought the main combat would take place in Kyiv and would miss Bucha. We thought it was a safe place. Even after the war began, we didn’t expect it to start with us.
But on February 24-25, we heard the rumbling and the explosions throughout all of Bucha; we saw the glow [of explosions and fires]. Helicopters came in. Our artillery started “finishing off” any helicopters that approached. We could practically see the helicopters approaching the Hostomel airport from our house. They kept flying even as they were being bombed.
After that, diversion groups [from the Russian army] started trickling into the forests, where people have cottages and private plots. They started occupying the homes of the people who had evacuated at the very beginning. The first DRGs [sabotage and reconnaissance group] appeared.
We sat there on edge, closing all of the doors to the apartments. The Russian troops were getting closer and closer. They started digging trenches around Bucha, but we couldn’t tell that from the center.
On March 4, a column of Russians military equipment passed through the city’s central street on its way to Irpin: Bucha was initially used as a passage there. Our artillery “finished them off” from an Irpin checkpoint, destroying most of their equipment — they literally burned it to the ground. The rest of it started to disappear from Bucha.
It was clear from their actions that they weren’t focused on where they were, they were just haphazardly traveling through the city. The city had a territorial defense force, and they started shooting. They [the Russian troops] responded by shooting straight at apartment buildings. During the shooting, a fire broke out in my building after a BRDM (Armored Reconnaissance and Patrol Vehicle) fired a shell at the third story. I live on the fourth.
There were fires throughout all of Bucha. Ours didn’t get too bad, so my neighbors and I took a ladder and put it out ourselves. They [Russian troops] also hit a store and a car in the courtyard.
When shells started flying towards are courtyard, everyone started hiding in the basements. We brought all of the old people and children down there. For us, living in the basement started in the first days of the war. We dragged everything [necessary], stocked up on water, and tried to make it as suitable for human life as possible.
‘They wanted us to save them and their babies’
In my view, they [the city authorities] were poorly prepared [for the war]. They were telling us up to the last minute that everything was under control, but the city, naturally, turned out not to be prepared for invasion. We ended up coming under fire, and the stores and pharmacies closed abruptly.
The humanitarian catastrophe began back in February. When a Russian tank hit Novus [a mall in Bucha], people ran in and started taking everything that was there. You can call it looting, but they didn’t have a choice. People needed to have at least some kind of food reserves. Demand for medicine had reached a critical point, so they started breaking into the stores and pharmacies. Nobody stopped them [the people doing this]. The police and the enlistment office had left in the first days of the war.
There was nobody in the city — people defended it themselves. It wasn’t even the territorial defense forces, it wasn’t an official formulation. Technically speaking, we didn’t have territorial defense forces; all we had were people who decided to join together. People went [to the enlistment office] and asked for weapons to defend themselves, but they didn’t know where to go. There was nowhere to go.
There turned out to be some veterans who had fought before — just some patriots. They put on everything they had left over from 2014, picked up their weapons, which they still had, and went to protect the city.
The first of us to die was Volodya Kovalsky. In 2015, he lost both legs [in the Donbas], so he got around on two prosthetic legs. He didn’t drink himself to death, like a lot of people in his situation do; he kept on living. He built a house, set up a business, and provided for his family. At the very beginning [of the war], he joined the self defense force. They tried to kick him out, but he stayed anyway. That’s how he — with no legs — took a piece of equipment [from the Russians] and drove it back to our guys. Later, he died in battle. He left behind a wife and children. We don’t even know how they buried him. They family was evacuated.
For a long time, they didn’t organize any evacuations, even when it was still possible. In Irpin, they got in touch with the armed forces, the territorial defense forces, and the local authorities, and evacuated people under gunfire. In Bucha, people had to get out alone.
The occupation happened on the fifth [of March]. From March 4 to 5, they were firing throughout Stekolka [another neighborhood near Kyiv]. Now, the defense fighters’ bodies are lying on Yablonskaya, our main, long street that’s located parallel to Irpin. They [the dead bodies] have been lying there since the start of March.
The Russian troops stationed all of their equipment there, and then bombed Irpin from that street. They pulled heavy equipment up to these buildings, occupied the roofs, and set up their machine guns there. They dug in — all the way to their snipers — on the upper floors of residential buildings. People could hear the scraping of metal from their apartments. If anyone tried to get out, they would drive them back and threaten them with gunfire. Nobody was allowed to go outside until March 8 or 9. We were allowed to boil water on fires in the streets because there was no longer any power or water. It was the same day reports began to appear about civilian bodies in the streets.
They set up their own checkpoint there on Yablonskaya. To evacuate, people had to pass the Russian checkpoint — to get to the Ukrainian one. I don’t know how many people managed to get past the checkpoint; you’d have to count the corpses. We [volunteers] were delivering humanitarian aid yesterday, when one of the brigades saw these bodies. One of them had been riding his bike; one couple had been taking a walk together. They were just lying there, all in different positions. We can’t establish the cause of their deaths from photographs. It won’t be clear until the analysis.
I didn’t see anybody get shot. The ones lying on Yablonskaya died as a result of random shooting. The ones who got away from Yablonskaya said it was hell. There was a panic. People [who lived on Yablonskaya] started writing to me at the beginning of the war. They sat in their basements and asked for someone to come pick them up. They wanted to be picked up with their infant babies. They said they were going to die.
‘They were supposed to continue to Kyiv, but they didn’t want to’
Bucha wasn’t behaving aggressively. We didn’t have any pro-Ukrainian rallies, nobody was going out with flags. There were some conversations [about rallies] at the very beginning — we wanted to unite. But the Russian troops were so brutal that people weren’t brave enough. We were trying to protect people.
There was a situation one evening when a girl went onto a shared balcony to smoke — with her phone in her hand. We practically hit her in the back of the head: there was a chance they could take her for an artillery spotter, and that would have been the end of our building.
At one point, Russian soldiers gave their dry rations to people in a basement, and then threw a grenade into the basement. That happened. I don’t have data about casualties from that story. During one of their “clean-up operations,” they were afraid to go into a dark basement in an apartment complex, so they threw a grenade in, just in case. By pure chance, nobody died.
I got there feeling there were different units dispersed throughout Bucha — they all behaved differently. The city center got lucky — there was some kind of medical unit there. They gathered their ‘200s’ and ‘300s’ [injured] — they even gave their diesel fuel to the hospital. Those guys were very young, almost like college students. When they were giving the diesel, they said they needed to go further to Kyiv, but they didn’t want to — and that it would be better to say [to their bosses] that they’d run out of fuel. Some of them didn’t want to fight.
But the ones who came in at the very beginning, when the occupation began, they were animals. A lot of people are missing. We don’t know what happened to them.
‘They took everything’
The first coordinated evacuation through a “green corridor” was arranged on March 9, even though it had been impossible to move around the city since March 4. If it had been dangerous before that, it became impossible at that moment.
When the evacuation began, people were only allowed to leave in cars. The entire time, they only conducted four or five evacuations. For the entire week before that, there was no evacuation at all; people were on the verge of collapsing.
It’s difficult to imagine how many people died from lack of water and medicine. For a while, I was getting messages like, “So-and-so died at this address. Who will pick up the body?” When you get information like that, there’s nobody to give it to. The only people left in the city were Russian troops. They took away everything, from the ambulances to the hospitals.
When someone dies during enemy shelling, that’s understandable — that’s war. But when civilians die because they have no food, water, or medicine, that’s different. Even war has its rules.
In the apartment buildings, they [the Russian troops] tore down all of the doors; on private land, they conducted searches, looking for Donbas veterans. Someone leaked the information about Donbas veterans and their families [to the Russian army]. I myself am a victim’s relative: my brother died in 2014.
There turned out to be people [Bucha residents] who voluntarily showed them where to look for soldiers and their families, as well as simple patriots. One guy was the son of a deceased Donbas veteran; they found him and shot him. They barely even buried the body. Now we’ve lost contact with his mother, too.
I was friends with one girl from Lesnaya Bucha. At some point, she sent me a photo of a dead body. The person was lying on his stomach, and his hands were tied behind his back with tape. I asked her to identify him and she sent me his documents, but they couldn’t check them. Then sent me a photo of him turned over, though she shouldn’t have done that — he could have been mined. He’d already been lying on the asphalt for so long that his face had started to rot. When I enlarged the photo, I saw that a cable was stretched through his mouth [between his lips and around his head], and his eyes were wrapped with tape.
They buried him themselves and left him next to his identification documents; I think the Russians chose him just because of the documents. His old ID, from 2005, said that he was an “advisor to the president.” Apparently, they noticed that phrase. He’s probably still identifiable, but that will come later.
‘They were looking for someone to cooperate with’
I witnessed the first contact between the Russian army and the city authorities. All of the city council representatives had already left — only guards and volunteers were left. This was sometime on March 8 or 9.
I went up to the city administration building to check in on the guards and volunteers and stood next to a barrier. [Russian] soldiers drove up in an old armored personnel carrier [APC]; three people were sitting inside. They pulled up to the building’s central entrance and started yanking on the door. Some guards came out of the back door. The soldiers asked them, ‘Where are the mayor and all of the deputies?’ The guards told them everyone had left. And they [the Russian soldiers] said they needed to somehow get the city running again. They were looking for someone to cooperate with them.
They occupied the city and destroyed everything — from plumbing to cell service. There was no power left, no water, no Internet. And they needed to survive somehow, too. When they heard that everyone had left, they got in their tanks and left, promising to come back later. I learned later that they took these guys [the guards and volunteers at the city administration building] hostage, taped their eyes shut, beat them with their guns, and interrogated them. Later, they let them go. The guys said that there was a sniper [at the interrogation] who told them he’d been watching them through his scope for three days. He tried to demoralize them, saying the Ukrainian troops had abandoned them.
[I was told that] on a nearby bench, they were interrogating another guy. He ratted everybody out at once. He revealed where each person lived in the buildings nearby and bragged that he had served with [Igor] Girkin. You never know who your neighbors really are.
A lot of people collaborated [with the Russian army], but most people resisted. Everyone who stayed in the occupied city helped the armed forces however they could. Everyone reported everything they saw. Victories like that are impossible without the people. Everyone fights on their own front.
‘I left, and three days later, they were in our home’
On March 11, I gathered all of our neighbors, told them I was evacuating, and invited them to join me. Some of them did. The ones with older parents stayed behind. Older people don’t leave.
I became very active in the public sphere. People really needed information, so I often held live streams [on social media] as soon as I had new information. They [the Russian army] had already occupied Bucha, so I recorded live streams to tell people where they were located. I later learned that even they had been watching my streams.
If I received information about an upcoming “clean-up operation,” I publicized it. A “clean-up operation” meant street fighting, and those were even more dangerous than artillery fire. Bullets don’t care who they hit. We would notify people immediately and people would hide in their basements. We didn’t have sirens, air defense systems, or organized bomb shelters like they had in Kyiv. Our peaceful city wasn’t ready for such a brutal war.
I left because I started getting word that the Russian troops were searching for me. I needed to physically get out of there. I left, and three days later, they were in our home. I wouldn’t be of much use dead.
Compared to Irpin, our city survived: there were attacks on apartment buildings, some private structures were destroyed, but there’s less that needs rebuilding overall. If our armed forces had responded [to the Russian army] in full, the city would have been completely destroyed.
Right now, I’m organizing humanitarian aid shipments to Bucha, and that’s easier to do from Kyiv. It’s still not quite safe to walk [in Bucha] — the demining squads still need to check everything. But it’s possible to go home now. Though there’s still no water, no power, and no connection. In that sense, the city is dead.
I haven’t seen my neighbors for two weeks. I came to Kyiv black from the fires [that we used to cook]. They haven’t been able to wash themselves for two weeks now. I suggested they come to the capital to rinse off and then return, but nobody wanted to.
It was scary to go into my apartment, scary to walk around it. A neighbor offered to help [to accompany me]. I spent some time there and I felt that I was home. But first I need to help people, then I can return.
Here’s my overall conclusion: we always need to remember now that we have a neighbor to the north who might get a wild hair at any moment and suddenly arrive in helicopters with a landing party. Our city borders the Hostomel airport, so now it must always be ready for war with Russia.
Translation by Sam Breazeale