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'It feels like sacred ground' A dispatch from Bucha — more than six months after Russian atrocities changed it forever
Story by Irina Olegova. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.
Before February 2022, the town of Bucha was little-known outside of Ukraine. But in the early days of Moscow’s full-scale invasion, Russian forces brutally occupied the town — and when they were forced to retreat in late March, they left behind evidence of myriad atrocities they had committed against Ukrainian civilians. For many, Bucha is now synonymous with Russian war crimes. For thousands of Ukrainians, though, Bucha is still home. At Meduza’s request, Kyiv-based journalist Irina Olegova visited the town to learn what it’s been like for residents to return to that home in the months since its liberation.
Bucha used to be a place Ukrainians moved to when they couldn’t afford rent in Kyiv, or when they wanted some peace and quiet while still having easy access to the capital. That all changed in the spring of 2022; people all over the world remember the photos taken just after Russian troops retreated from the town.
More than a thousand civilians were killed in the Kyiv region’s Bucha district during Russia’s occupation, and 461 bodies were found in Bucha itself. Many of the bodies bore signs of violent death and torture. Testimonies from local residents, human rights organizations, journalists, and investigators have painted a clear picture of what happened — a series of events now known as the Bucha Massacre.
It's now been more than six months since Russian troops left Bucha. Now, the town’s residents are doing their best to cope with the aftermath of the Russian occupation — and to learn to live again.
The road from Kyiv
Bucha is only 14 kilometers (about nine miles) from the last stop on the Kyiv metro’s red line. From the metro, we get on the highway — and at first, everything appears untouched by war. A few miles down the road, though, that changes.
On February 25, Ukrainian forces blew up a bridge over the Irpin River to prevent the advancing Russian army from reaching Kyiv. In the months since, bright yellow flowers and tomato bushes have grown up around the concrete ruins.
In mid-April, after Russia’s retreat, construction workers put up a temporary bridge to the left of the old one. On the other side, they’re currently in the process of building a new permanent one. The workers tell me that they're not going to demolish the destroyed bridge completely; instead, they plan to build a memorial atop the ruins. The monument will focus on the stories of people who crossed their bridge on their way to Kyiv as they escaped Russian troops. As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky put it back in April, the structure will commemorate “Ukraine’s path to victory.”
In fact, though, Ukrainians have already built an unofficial memorial. Among the old bridge’s ruins, an upside down bus sticks out of the water. According to Dmytro Negresha, head of the Irpin city council’s executive committee, on the day the bridge was blown up, Ukrainian soldiers, held up by the fighting, were unable to make it across in time. At some point, the bus fell into the water. The next morning, it was discovered by territorial defense force members, but the driver was gone, evidently having climbed out and continued on foot. Now, the vehicle is going to be a part of the memorial complex.
Next to the bridge, a Ukrainian-flag-colored canvas has been stretched over a wooden structure. A nearby sign reads, “Everyone who knows the name of someone who died as a result of the invasion can write the person’s name on this board for the memorial.” The canvas contains dozens of names.
There’s also a white flag covered in graffiti reminiscent of Picasso’s Guernica. Still another memorial wall contains phrases like “Glory to Ukraine" and “Russian warship, go fuck yourself” along with patriotic poems.
At the entrance to the town of Irpin itself, which lies between Kyiv and Bucha, there’s a different kind of memorial: a graveyard of burnt-out cars. These were the vehicles many Ukrainians tried to use to evacuate to Kyiv before they were stopped by Russian shelling.
Some of the cars’ doors have sunflowers painted over them. As part of a project called Flowers for Hope, Ukrainian artists have used paintings like these to give meaning to the war. The sunflower, the movement’s main motif, is a symbol of Ukrainian resistance and hope.
All that’s left of Giraffe, a shopping and entertainment center that sits right on the boundary between Irpin and Bucha, is the building’s frame. The now-destroyed mall played a pivotal role in helping Ukrainian troops hold off advancing Russian forces, as Dmytro Negresha told Meduza:
Russian troops tried to enter the city from the other side; they made three or four attempts. Their military vehicles made it as far as Giraffe, but they couldn’t get any further, and they turned around.
From March 6 to March 28, Irpin was under partial occupation — but not the part of the city that’s adjacent to this shopping center. There was heavy fighting outside of Giraffe that lasted several weeks. This was effectively position zero, and our guys didn’t let the Russian army get through.
Next to the building’s “skeleton,” an Irpin resident named Valery is selling potatoes out of a truck, though there don’t seem to be any customers around. When asked why he’s all alone, Valery smiles. “This is the old wholesale market. Well, I say market, but it was more of just a crowded spot. When Giraffe was still operating, a lot of people came here to buy and sell vegetables.”
Valery doesn’t know where the other vendors are. When I ask why he’s only selling potatoes, Valery’s friend Dmytro, the truck's owner, answers: “What would be the point of buying vegetables [from suppliers] when the prices are skyrocketing? A regular old onion is 27 hryvnias ($0.74) per kilogram. And that’s wholesale! [...] And second of all, you know yourself where we used to get our vegetables from. From Kherson, from Zaporizhzhia… So we can’t anymore.”
Dmytro bought his potatoes in the Chernihiv region and is selling them for eight hryvnias ($0.22) a kilogram — even cheaper than before the war. He doesn’t want to raise the price because he wants people to have something to eat.
Bucha’s Vokzalna Street is narrow and well-maintained; the asphalt has already been replaced and the burnt-out military vehicles have been removed. An unknowing visitor would never guess that this is the street where several of the now-famous photos of occupied Bucha were taken.
The glass in one of the sliding doors at the entrance to a grocery store on the street has been replaced with plywood. “It was awful. I just didn’t even recognize Bucha,” says Mykhaylo (named changed), a resident waiting for his wife outside the store.
After evacuating during the invasion, Mykhaylo returned to Bucha on April 8 — just after the town’s liberation. Later on, his wife and children joined him. “Emotionally, you can get used to anything,” he says. “But things are difficult financially, because it’s hard to find a job.”
Just then, a passerby chimes in: “I stayed here throughout the occupation. And if it weren’t for this,” he says, motioning towards the can of beer in his hand, “I wouldn’t have made it. I would have lost my mind.”
About a mile east of Vokzalna Street is the Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Outside of the building, in a small apple orchard, a security guard is playing with a stray dog.
Compared to other parts of Bucha, the damage the church suffered was moderate: the gilded dome was hit by some shrapnel, several bullets went through the front door and the facade, and there are several apple-sized holes in the building’s walls.
Nelya (name changed), a local parishioner, was born and raised in Bucha. She used to attend a church in Kyiv — that’s even how she met her husband, Stanislav (name changed). But in 2019, when the couple’s daughter was born, they decided to find a church closer to home.
Nelya and her daughter left Bucha on March 10. There wasn’t room for her husband in the evacuation vehicle, and Nelya says she worried she might never see him again. Luckily, though, Stanislav managed to hitchhike out of the city the following day. The family spent the next two months in a monastery in western Ukraine.
When it became possible to return home, Nelya was scared. She begins to cry as she recounts her first days back:
I remembered what had happened here all too well, and I was afraid the town would be filled with the spirit of death. You know, for example, exactly where a person lay after being shot by a sniper. Or where people were buried, right beneath our building. I didn’t think I’d be able to live here. But I managed, though the first week back was scary; every night, I dreamed of missile strikes.
The family’s apartment is located between Vokzalna Street and the church — and at first glance, it appeared to have been left untouched by the occupation. “It’s an old brick building, and it’s a miracle it survived,” Nelya says. “When they were shelling, three missiles came towards us, about 5–10 minutes apart from one another. The neighbors saw them fly right over our roof. At that moment, we were at home, praying — that’s all we could do.”
When Bucha lost running water in early March, a well at the church became one of the only sources for residents in the area. On March 9, the well was destroyed by shelling. But church parishioners managed to restore it within a month.
Metropolitan Onufriy, the current head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, has consecrated a cross at Peter and Paul in memory of the Bucha occupation’s victims. In fact, the consecration was planned before Russia’s full-scale invasion; when the cross was first made, nobody imagined it would ultimately be dedicated to hundreds of murdered civilians. Now, a memorial service is held in the victims’ memory every Saturday.
Nelya shows me the way to the city cemetery. It begins with a row of fallen soldiers. Ukrainian flags fly over the fresh graves, which are covered in wreaths and flowers.
It’s a weekday morning, and visitors are sparse. One woman is decorating a fresh grave next to the path that leads from the entrance to the end of the cemetery. The grave belongs to her husband. He died during the occupation, she tells Meduza: “His heart couldn’t stand it.” At first, he was buried in the courtyard outside of their house, but after the occupation ended, his body was exhumed and transferred to the cemetery. He was one of more than 400 people who had to be buried twice.
The end of the cemetery contains several rows full of fresh graves — dozens of them. All of the deaths are dated from February and March 2022.
A separate section contains the remains of people who haven’t been identified; instead of names, their crosses have codes. On some of the graves lie yellow roses tied with yellow-and-blue ribbons.
Outside of Bucha’s School No. 3, children are waiting in line to get their textbooks. Two sixth-graders, Katya and Lena (names changed), talk about how happy they are to be back at school — and how they can’t wait for their friends to return from evacuation.
The school's windows are being replaced; the old ones were blown out of their frames when a convoy of Russian tanks was shelled just a few hundred meters away. A custodian named Tamara Mikhailovna says the rest of Bucha’s schools have already switched back to in-person learning; this is the only one still online. In-person classes will resume as soon as the building, which Russian soldiers lived in during the occupation, is repaired.
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Tamara Mikhailovna stayed in Bucha with her husband and her mother for the entirety of the occupation. Immediately after Russia’s retreat, she came to the school where she works. “I told our boys [Ukrainian soldiers], ‘Guys, I’ve worked here for a very long time. I want to see what’s going on in here,’” she told Meduza.
The soldiers let her in, and she spent the ensuing days cleaning up alongside other employees and volunteers.
“Did you read about how on the street where Ira [one of the school’s groundskeepers] lives, on Yablonska Street, the Russians tortured and killed eight men?” says Tamara Mikhailovna. “One of those men was my son-in-law.”
Iryna Kondratenko, a groundskeeper at the school and a mother of six, shows me some notable spots now forever associated with Russia’s occupation. One of the most well-known is the office building at 144 Yablonska Street that Russian soldiers used as a base back in the spring. It was outside this building that the occupiers executed eight members of Ukraine’s territorial defense in early March.
After the men were tortured and killed, their bodies lay outside for several weeks. After the Russian troops retreated, local residents put up a commemorative plaque and several vases, which are kept stocked with fresh flowers.
Further down the road, at 203D Yablonska Street, there’s a five-story apartment building, unremarkable except for the damage from the six shells that hit it during the occupation. Most of the windows still need to be replaced; so far, the city government has only been able to repair the roof.
Iryna’s neighbor Vitaly, head of the building’s housing co-op, did everything he could to help his neighbors, including standing in long lines for food and going up to Russian soldiers to ask them for medicine after the civilians ran out of bandaids, antiseptic, and sedatives.
“I returned [from evacuation], sat on the couch, and thought, ‘What a fucking mess,’” Vitaly says. Still, he’s glad he came home. In the months since the occupation ended, he’s continued to help his neighbors, including by writing requests to the town council for compensation and building materials to help residents repair things faster.
“On March 3, they [Russian troops] came [back into Bucha] and started killing — it was a nightmare!” says Alexander, another neighbor. “On Vodoprovodna Street, right nearby, there was self-propelled artillery. [...] We saw it all from our second-story window. It raised the barrel — and shot upwards! And you could hear from Stekolka [a nearby region] that it had landed there. That was wild to me: how can you fire at people like that? But I saw it myself.”
Alexander also recounts a conversation he once had with Russian soldiers. “They told us, ‘We came to defend you. We don’t touch civilians.’”
We return on September 25, the day after Bucha's City Day celebration. Jam Cafe, a restaurant on Vokzalna Street, is full of people.
The cafe’s owner, Sergo Markaryano, tells us that during the occupation, Russian soldiers would come in to eat and drink. Before the war, he had a large amount of ingredients and alcohol saved in a warehouse:
[There were] about 150 bottles of wine — you should always have good reserves. They [Russian soldiers] all enjoyed drinking. [Ukrainian] soldiers I know would laugh at them: they said the Russians would get drunk, then smoke at night — and our guys would see the flame and take them out.
Markaryano says he returned to his cafe the day after the Russians retreated. There was a lot to clean up, but after everything the town had been through, he says, “nobody took much notice of this little mess.”
During the occupation, he served as a volunteer: he helped evacuate people, delivered food to the territorial defense forces, and brought humanitarian aid wherever he could. Now, he donates part of Jam Cafe’s proceeds to help his fellow countrymen.
Nearby, at the Kosenko Art Gallery, there’s a photo exhibition titled The Bucha Tragedy. It includes dozens of images of the city’s darkest moments: destroyed homes, burnt-out cars, people crying, dead civilians, and bodies being exhumed from mass graves.
The photos are supplemented with objects like ammunition boxes, soldiers’ helmets, and a even small anti-tank obstacle — all things that were found in the Bucha streets, according to gallery owner Alina Kosenko.
A 17-year-old named Sonya is looking at the photos. She’s visiting Bucha with her mother, her grandmother, and her brother; all of them are refugees from Kharkiv and are currently living in Kyiv.
“We heard the explosions in Kharkiv; we heard everything that happened. I saw horrible things. But then you come here and realize things were even worse here. I didn’t think anything could be worse than Kharkiv, but what happened here is just too much for the psyche to take,” Sonya says through tears.
Afterwards, we all walk together through a nearby park. Just like at peacetime, the park is full of people. Sonya’s mother, Marina, gives me her impressions of Bucha: “When you walk around here, it seems as if you’re on sacred ground. Everywhere you go, you want to stop and pray. Literally at every corner.”
“It says a lot about [Bucha residents] that they came back here,” says Andrey, a friend of the family who’s also from Kharkiv. “After all, the locals understand perfectly that they’re going to have to live with all of these [memories] before their very eyes. And still, they’re ready to live, to restore the town.”
Sonya agrees: “Ukrainians are just strong people. We have strong spirits.”
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
Photos by iSimon
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