Worse than Bucha Meduza speaks to Borodyanka residents about how they survived under Russian occupation
Bucha and Borodyanka are two small towns in the vicinity of Kyiv that were recently occupied by Russian troops. The images of murdered civilians in Bucha sent shockwaves around the world after journalists arrived in the village following its liberation. According to Kyiv authorities, upwards of 400 people died in Bucha while it was under Russian control. However, Iryna Venediktova, the Ukrainian Prosecutor General, has said that the situation in liberated Borodyanka may be even worse. Meduza spoke to people from Borodyanka and a few other Kyiv suburbs about how they survived the occupation.
Sergei Likhobaba. Borodyanka
In the first days [of the war], there was no combat in Borodyanka. Most of the fighting was happening in Hostomel, we could hear the artillery here. Russian troops entered Borodyanka around February 27. Columns of [military vehicles] came from the direction of Pripyat, through our town, toward Hostomel and Makariv. They had all kinds of problems all the time, their tanks would break down, they’d run out of fuel.
During the first days, [the troops] behaved themselves, no one shot any one, but in a matter of two days, things went to hell. They started bombing the town, people’s homes. Looting stores. The soldiers would shoot up a store from their tank, take everything, fill up the tank, then move on to the next target. They destroyed two large central shopping centers and a lot of little shops.
With each passing day, the relationship with the civilians became more violent. No one stood on ceremony with the locals here. A person would come out to peek around the corner and see what’s happening and wouldn’t even have time to run down to the basement before someone started shooting at them. They didn’t let people pick up dead bodies. They’d shoot to kill without any warning.
Civilians were forbidden from using the roads. Whenever anyone went out into the street, they’d just get killed instantly. Russian columns bombed everything in sight. They rode through town indiscriminately shooting at buildings. A lot of the nine-story buildings started crumbling from all the explosions.
The soldiers went in to every house looking for men. They took everything they could, they even took my relatives’ axes.
There was no way for anyone to go anywhere. The soldiers were doing a kind of “census,” counting people and warning us that we weren’t allowed to go anywhere or else everyone would be punished. They took away everyone’s phones that had cameras so that no one could leak out any information.
I heard a story about a column of Kadyrovites [Chechen forces] coming through town. One of their soldiers jumped down off an armored vehicle and tried to open the door to a cellar that people were hiding in. He didn’t manage to break it down so he started shooting at it with his machine gun. Luckily the people had managed to get away from the door and no one was hurt. Then he just left.
No one understands what the [troops] were trying to accomplish. There’s no Ukrainian army in Borodyanka, just a small territorial defense unit. Even then, there was no active resistance. Just some locals with guns. There was no point of trying to use them on their tanks. We don’t have any military targets here or army bases or anything.
But the Russian troops drove their tanks into everyone’s yards. They tried stealing their cars. They tried to take this one babushka’s car, but her relatives had already taken out the battery just in case. The Russians showed up with their own, but they still couldn’t manage to get it. A lot of the local cars started getting the “V” symbols on them, the Kadyrovites drove them around blasting music and making TikToks.
They basically killed our town. It’s a total humanitarian disaster. There’s no gas, no power, no communications. We lost all signal back on February 28, the soldiers took down all the cell towers. There’s no medicine. Some of the homes on the outskirts still have gas, people out there tried to get out to their gardens and helped each other make food. Lots of people have lost their homes.
The situation with victims is horrible. A lot of people got trapped in the basements after the aerial attacks and they’re still down there. They wouldn’t let rescuers through, no one could get to them. Only one of the basements had a crack in the wall. A cleaning woman took care of the people trapped inside, searching out food and water for them for an entire month. There was a family of eight down there. Because of her, they survived. They’ve finally been rescued. Otherwise, so many people have died, so many are missing.
There were a lot of bodies out in the streets. No one picked them up because they didn’t have the chance to.
I left Borodyanka around 10 days after the invasion. A missile hit my house. Me and my mother and dog spent the whole night in our relatives’ cellar and then we decided to leave. The humanitarian corridors didn’t really work. Sometimes they’d let people out, but mostly, they shot at the cars. But there was a spot where there were no Russian troops. Whoever managed to get through that window survived.
I came back April 2, as soon as the Russian troops left Borodyanka. Me and a group of other volunteers brought medicine. A lot of people were already on the brink of dying.
The soldiers broke into every single apartment they could. They took everything. In my building, which is 70 percent burned down, all the remaining apartments on every floor have broken locks. They not only stole everything [out of my apartment], they broke everything they didn’t steal. And left two unfinished glasses of wine on my table. They stole women’s clothes. I thought I would be able to get some things from there, but there was nothing left.
There are no more troops in the city. Things are calm, but it’s impossible to live there. There’s nothing left, it’s all been blown into smithereens.
Vladimir Repa, aid worker
When the first of the [Russian military] equipment rolled into Borodyanka — about 20 vehicles — people threw bottles filled with flammable liquids [Molotov cocktails] at them. The Russian soldiers responded by shooting at houses and everything else. Then came an aerial assault and the houses came down in droves.
[The Russian troops] immediately made it a rule that anyone who appeared on the street without warning would be shot. There was shooting all up and down the main street. In order to get people out, we had to take complicated back roads to get into town, and then you could get people away from here. Going through the checkpoint was out of the question.
Borodyanka is being demined until April 7. In both Bucha and Irpin, checkpoints are blocking all traffic out. The searches are extremely strict; there have been cases of looting — there’s no avoiding that. Homes have been left unattended on all occupied territories and the internal looting has already begun, which must be stopped.
One thousand people remain in Borodyanka and 3,000 more in its vicinity. The first priority is providing all of these people with food and supplies. They’ve spent a month cut off from the world. We came with 30 tons of aid.
Lera Davydenko. Borodyanka
Right now, the kids and I are in the Khmelnytskyi region in the west of Ukraine. We started out in the village of Nova Hreblya. Then the power went out, there was no water. We couldn’t go anywhere because there were columns of [Russian] tanks and armored vehicles coming in. We got a phone call and learned that there was a humanitarian corridor open for the next 40 minutes and we could leave. We went to another nearby village, Spartak. We were told it was quiet there. We lived with some locals for a little while and then they started bombing nearby and we were forced to leave the region altogether.
My husband’s already back in Borodyanka. He got up on the roof of a five-story building and called me from there. He said that they’re not letting people into the center of town until they demine everything. They found two mines in our apartment. Russian soldiers had shown up to Oleg’s mother’s house. They said they needed to sleep there and did that for a couple of nights. They took our air gun, tried to take our TV, but couldn’t manage to do it. My husband said that they really “cleaned up.”
Our neighbors have bodies buried in their garden now.
I’ll go back to Borodyanka, but later. The men went first because they need to help people. They’re going to clear rubble and put the house back in order.
A friend [from Borodyanka] called me the other day and told me that people are walking around there like zombies these days, it looks like they’re dragging their feet behind them. It’s as though they’ve all died already.
Ekaterina Kovalchuk. Novyi Korohod. Her mother lives in Borodyanka
From the very beginning [of the war], the tanks started coming through the village of Makariv. The kids and I lived in the village of Novyi Korohod, it’s between Makariv and Borodyanka. Two or three tanks came up our street, one stopped in front of our house.
We have a neighbor across the street, he’s a drunk. He came out and started shouting at the occupiers. “We have men, we have guns, people are going to defend themselves!” My husband, father, and I lay under the fence listening. [The Russians in the tank] asked him, “In this house?” “No, that’s civilians, they’re further down.” So they went to our neighbors’ house and knocked on the door and started screaming, telling everyone to come outside. My friend and her son were inside with her friend, her sister, and mother and father. [The soldiers] were yelling, “Women to one side, men to the other!” They searched their apartment looking for weapons but didn’t find anything. They punctured their tires and left. They didn’t touch anyone.
Right now, we’re staying in the Lviv region, we left for here on March 7. My mother lives in Borodyanka. She and her brother and sister didn’t manage to leave because everything was occupied. We were 15 kilometers [9 miles] away but we couldn’t come get them because everything was occupied, there was shooting, Russian checkpoints.
My mother walked around Borodyanka when there were people trapped in the rubble. She saved [whoever she could]. She told me about the children crying in the rubble of nine-story buildings. People had been hiding out in the bomb shelters in there, in the basements of the nine-story buildings on the main street. Tanks went through town bombing Borodyanka, striking targets with Grad missiles. Buildings collapsed with people inside.
The troops are all gone now, it’s all clear. And there’s humanitarian aid coming in, medicine. Everything’s fine, people are coming back to the village.
My mother is still there. She got in touch three days ago. She was crying on the phone, talking about how terrifying it had been. “I have things to tell you, occupants came to the apartment, I’ll tell you about what they did, but I can’t just yet.”
Olga*. Village between Demydiv and Hostomel
On February 25, at 5:00 a.m., we were woken up by the rumble of vehicles on the road. Through the window we saw a column of military vehicles marked “V” coming at us down the main road from the direction of Demydiv. We counted four columns with 50-60 units in each one.
The three of us tried to go back to sleep on the floor in the hall because there are no windows there. It was the last night that we had any kind of signal, Internet, light or gas. After that, we had to use walkie-talkies that we had gotten for our kids at some point. The artillery made the plaster fall off the walls.
It was minus ten [degrees Celsius, or 14 degrees Fahrenheit] outside, we had the fireplace going to keep the temperature in the house at least a little bit above freezing. Somebody always had to be watching the fire and all of us did that, taking turns, even the kids, to the sounds of artillery.
We almost never left our yard. We got lucky our village is so small and remote because we didn’t have to go through the horrors of Irpin, Bucha, and Hostomel. But it was still terrifying.
We banded together with our friends from the next block, the six of us. Two men, two women, two kids. We gathered the water from the gutters and snow so that we could maintain basic hygiene; we’d run the generator half an hour a day to charge our phones and the radio.
Once a day, we’d go out to the woods to send our friends and relatives the longed-for message with just the date, time, and the words, “We’re alive.” That’s when we’d also relay information about the movement of Russian troops through our area [to Ukrainian forces].
After a couple of days, they started shooting in the woods. We started going out to the field for signal. We couldn’t not do it, it was our chance to feel like we were a part of our country and of the civilized world. Naturally, we’d always delete all the messages as soon as we’d sent them.
One time, after we’d relayed some particularly useful information and the location and amount of [Russian military] equipment to the [Ukrainian] special ops, on the following day, we got a message that said that everything we had written about had been destroyed, with a terse “Thank you.”
The next day, Russian soldiers came to our homes, to all of the homes in the village. They were actively looking for former military personnel, ATO [Donbas war] veterans, and those who relayed the information regarding the location of their equipment.
I was sitting there squeezing my son’s hand barely containing my desire to scratch their filthy faces. They also wished my friend and me a happy March 8 [International’s Women’s Day]. That date doesn’t exist for me anymore. It’s always going to be the seventh and then the ninth because all I will be able to see on March 8th are their hands on their guns and their combat boots on my rug.
Everyone who could was relaying information about their equipment and numbers. Everyone. Those who couldn’t were relaying it to those who could. Every day, we’d go out in the street to talk to our neighbors. And we’d share everything we could with each other. But we didn’t have any kind of territorial defense or any protests. We cut down a couple of pine trees and put them down over the road on either end of the village. This did nothing to stop their tanks. If we’d had weapons, I think things would have been very different.
We tried to leave the village for three days in a row starting on March 9. Everything was complicated by the fact that we had an elderly, barely mobile woman we had to take with us, three dogs, two of which weigh 50 kilograms [110 pounds] each, and two cats, one of whom is 20 years old and seriously ill.
On March 11, we formed a vehicle convoy without a sanctioned humanitarian corridor. We ventured out at our own risk. We were extremely lucky. A day before that, and the day after that, cars exactly like ours were shot up in the same kind of column, on the same route, even though they’d also hung white cloth reading “CHILDREN” on every side of their vehicles.
On our way out, we saw a lot of shot up civilian vehicles with bodies inside and damaged enemy military equipment with dead bodies laying all around them. I don’t know if anyone’s taken them away.
There were a number of casualties in the village itself. I know four people who died. They had all been trying to escape the territory occupied by our “liberators.” Their cars were shot. We found out about them from the survivors. I know of two wounded children, both of them seven. Another man was shot from somewhere out in the woods while he was biking to go get water from the well. His body was lying in the street, the next street over.
The Russian soldiers were totally calm. They assured us that we were safe here, unlike in “the Nazi territory of Ukraine,” where our men would [supposedly] be mobilized and forced onto the front lines with anti-retreat troops behind them.
The village has been liberated, but it’s too soon to go back. There’s still no power, water, or gas. A week ago, people who hadn’t left told us that the walls and roofs of the houses were intact. Every house that stood empty was robbed by the occupiers.
I caught my breath, washed myself off, we sent our son abroad, and found homes for the dogs. I’m going to go to Kyiv, go back to my job there, at a private medical clinic. I lived in the village but worked in the capital.
I have always been pro-Ukraine. Now I’m a nationalist. As we say in Ukraine, “Live by the sword, die by the sword.”
I can’t imagine what people in Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel went through. I can’t imagine what people in Mariupol feel. Unfortunately, many of them will never tell their stories.
I will never forgive them for how terrified I felt for my child.
Dmitry Zaboyev. Demydiv
The month before the war, I’d been living in the village of Demydiv. They started bombing us on the very first day. The missiles came from both sides. Our village is a way point, a lot of equipment passed through toward Hostomel and Bucha, all of that is very close to us. It was extremely scary the first week and then we got used to it.
We lost power on the third day of the war and never got it back. We’d cook over a fire, get water from the well. We had food. We were able to get humanitarian aid from the Red Cross through the Ukrainian side.
People started dying the second day of the war. Locals told me that a guy had tried to leave with three women and two little kids. They got hit by a missile, the guy and two of the women died, one survived, her fingers were blown off, but she managed to jump out of the car and grab the kids. They made it to the neighboring village. They’ve been evacuated and they’re all safe now.
I started volunteering with the Red Cross as soon as the war began. Our boys fixed a bombed out bridge that people would use to get to us. Every day, a thousand people would cross that bridge, and we’d help them. Babushkas, children, women. We also had a large church building where we sheltered refugees, like people from Hostomel where everything had already been destroyed.
There were a couple of army checkpoints in the village. They were just running all their equipment through us but not doing any combat here. The main combat operations took place in Irpin, which is 10 kilometers [6 miles] from here. We heard all the explosions. The sky was on fire every day.
The Russian soldiers went from house to house, paid visits to the Demydiv village council, where the Red Cross was, constantly. For the most part, they were civil, they didn’t threaten us. They asked questions, they wanted to know where the howitzers were, the position of the Ukrainian forces. They came around all the time and every time, they asked the same questions. This went on all month and it felt like they weren’t communicating with each other very well. Some of them promised that they would get help for us but they never did.
By the end, they’re behavior became obscene. When we’d cross paths with them, they’d talk to us like your average street thugs. Some of them beat up our guys, killed some of them. We had a woman named Yulia with us, she was the official Red Cross representative, and one day, they took her, and then we never saw her again. Around the fourth day of the war, [the Russians] shot some of our guys, the younger volunteers. One of them, they shot through his hand, and the other one, through both of his feet.
I didn’t see them execute [any civilians]. But people who came here from villages further out, from the direction of Chernobyl, told me about [the Russians] killing people.
I know we don’t have any Russian soldiers in our village anymore. It’s been quiet in town for a few days now. We chased the enemy army out, everything is slowly coming back to life.
Translation by Bela Shayevich