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I escaped Russian atrocities in Bucha. My neighbours weren’t so lucky

Mass graves. Murdered civilians. A Ukrainian journalist recounts her final days in the town where Putin’s forces have been accused of war crimes.

By Oksana Semenik

The Kyiv region was liberated from Russian occupiers on 2 April. Within hours, the whole world saw photos of the corpses of civilians, which literally littered the streets of Bucha, a suburb 15 kilometres from Kyiv, once home to 35,000 people, including me. As my social media feeds were flooded with the images from Bucha, many people said they could not believe what they were witnessing. Unfortunately, this was not news to me.

Most of the shots are from Yablunska Street, a street parallel to where I lived with my partner Sashko. I recognise all the houses in these photos. When we were still in Bucha, sheltering in the early weeks of the war, we heard about Russian soldiers killing civilians simply because they were on the streets or trying to evacuate. Our neighbourhood Facebook group has, in recent days, shared many reports of local residents who had been killed.

I liked living in Bucha. The commute to Kyiv was easy, there’s fresh air, it was green. I moved there with Sashko last September, and we were still buying furniture and finishing renovations when Russia invaded Ukraine. Before the war, I would think about the clean air and the comfortable future our children would have. Bucha was a peaceful place with many kindergartens, young families and affordable property.

When the war started on 24 February, that peace was shattered – the military airport in Hostomel, where the Russian troops were trying to land, unsuccessfully, was very close. A fighter plane circled above our house. I was so scared that I dropped on the floor. We moved to a room without windows. I didn’t feel safe: blocks of flats such as ours can collapse easily into a pile of debris during bombing. Sashko kept on reminding me that during the Chechen war they were wiped off the face of the Earth. We moved to the basement of a kindergarten nearby, not only because there was electricity and space, but because there is more chance to crawl alive out of the pile of debris left from a two-storey house rather than in the tall building where we lived.

On our first day in the basement, when the battle for Hostomel was ongoing, we didn’t really get to know anyone: people in the basement looked at us with suspicion. We were new to the neighbourhood, a place where people know each other very well. The area, called Sklozavodska – which translates as “Glassfactory” – is insular in Bucha. There is one small supermarket, pawn shop, post office, two alcohol stores, a pet shop, a clothing store and a bicycle store. 

Our stay in the basement could be divided into two periods: before the arrival of the Russian occupiers, and after. During the first period there was light, heat and a working socket in the basement. Each day seemed similar to the previous one. We would wake up still tired after sleeping badly because of the cold. We would heat water in an electric kettle, using one tea bag per litre of water. We would read the news, feed the cat and wait for the explosions to subside. In the afternoon, we would go home for an hour to shower and eat quickly. We used the internet to look for opportunities to leave Bucha. Then we would come back to the shelter.

Life in the basement, when we still had power. Photo by Sashko Popenko

On the third day of the war Sashko proposed to me and we got engaged.

There were about 40 of us in the shelter, including Sashko and myself, two young culture journalists, and our cat Vatrushka. There was a man who worked in Kyiv and rented an apartment in Bucha. A young girl with a man she was going to divorce, along with their parents and four-year-old daughter. A large family and their dog, rescued from Luhansk, where war started eight years ago. Two single grandmothers and a mum with two daughters. A former veteran of the war in Donbas with a wound and a pug, and the family of a local MP.

When supermarkets were still operating, we felt some life in the area. But cigarettes immediately became expensive and disappeared from the shelves. We bought chocolate bars, cookies, nuts, seeds: things that could give glucose and a pseudo feeling of satiety. We realised we had lots of potatoes and this drove us away from thoughts of hunger.

We last visited our apartment on 3 March. Everything was as usual at home, except for the increasing sounds of explosions and gunfire outside. Sashko wanted to eat at home, for the first time in many days. Suddenly our cat ran into her cage. I took it as a sign, so we ran out of the building. We fled to the shelter under fire – the Russians had entered our area.

The first thing the Russians did was break into the supermarket. Second, they broke into a clothing store. Third, they walked through the basements, looking for local territorial defence members. Russians looted apartments, drank beer on benches and smoked, shot at shops and homes. During this time, we stayed in the basement, whispering to one another. Heat, light and water soon disappeared – they deliberately shot at the water tower.

Sliced ​​potatoes, which were pierced by a bandage, served us as a candle on a plate with oil. Photo by Sashko Popenko

For three days without sunlight or contact with my family, I prayed for evacuation. I tried not to think about how our relatives were feeling or how our friends on social media would post our photos with a note: “Missing”.

Then, a relative of someone in our shelter visited to say that the Russian soldiers had left our street. We ventured outside to try to make contact with our families; my eyes hurt from the sunlight. We called our parents as soon as we got service on our mobile phones, but we weren’t prepared to take in the destruction around us. We saw a high-rise building with burned-out apartments and corpses lying in the middle of the street. It was impossible to count how many civilians had died. Some were burned alive in apartments, others were shot while trying to leave. But the worst thing was that it was impossible to properly bury the dead. Neighbours buried their relatives in their backyards.

But we had to live on: especially to find food to feed children. Those who lived in nearby houses brought everything they had: meat, dumplings, pancakes, frozen food. Some people decided to loot shops that had already been broken into and take home everything they could: from food to jackets, from toys to cat food. And, of course, sought-after alcohol.

Thanks to alcohol, thoughts of destruction and constant shelling diminished in our shelter. In the evening, we increasingly heard one sentence: “at this point who cares who is in power, we want to stop shootings.” Some began to doubt that Ukraine would survive. Gossip also played its role: we heard that the St Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv was bombed, the mayor of Bucha was killed, and a number of large Ukrainian cities were already occupied. It all turned out to be untrue.

We heard on the radio about the green corridor for Bucha and a possible escape route on 9 March. We knew that people were being evacuated from a neighbouring town, Irpin. Our friends and volunteers said that it was possible to pick us up from a bridge in Irpin, but we had to reach it. The problem was not the distance, but the Russian checkpoints we would have to pass along the way, and the risk they might shoot us, as they shot single cars and families trying to escape. 

People from a basement next to ours, where there were mostly women and small children, began to gather. I think the desire to save the children was stronger than the fear. They handed out white flags to the children, tied white armbands and left. They were accompanied by the first daredevils from our district – about 20 people. The next morning I went to look for someone who had heard news from the brave group. I learned that these women and children had been stopped at a Russian base and were not allowed to pass. However, by some miracle, we heard that some of them managed to get to safety in a village 21km away. Our hope grew stronger.

That day we finished our last cigarettes, we packed some food in backpacks and decided to leave. Only two families left our basement. Everyone else waited. We exchanged phone numbers to let them know when we were safe. We joined a large group of others ready to flee but we didn’t know where to go next. There was no mobile phone reception, and we didn’t have information about what was going on anywhere around Irpin. We had to deal with Russian checkpoints on our own. One of the men shouted: “who is leaving for Irpin, let’s go together in a column.” We all made our way down Yablunska Street. 

Passing destroyed houses, mountains of glass and plastic, burned cars and broken wires, I felt nothing. There was no fear when a Russian tank passed by. Arriving at the checkpoint, I saw a Russian occupier for the first time in person. But we were not allowed to pass: we were turned around and told to go to the quarry. I was once very fond of the great quarry that was visible from our window. In summer you can swim there, have picnics, and fish in winter. Now a very strong wind was blowing from it. I noticed that there were fewer people. Although it is very easy to lose track of somebody in a column of 200 people, I noticed that some had returned home. Now it was no longer the road to Irpin, but the road to nowhere.

Hope that we are not going to be killed arrived via the convoy of cars that was constantly driving from another town occupied by the Russians, Vorzel. We followed the cars in the hope that a mobile connection would soon be available, and we would at least roughly understand where we were going. As we walked, we deleted social media accounts, banking apps, cleaned photos and messages, in case the phones were taken away by the Russians.

But we were lucky. The route we followed had not been agreed for evacuation by foot, so the Russian military were surprised: they let us through even without looking at our things. They asked where we were going. We replied that we did not know. After we passed that first checkpoint, passing cars began to pick up women, ​children and the elderly.

The Zhytomyr highway was more reminiscent of footage from a film about the apocalypse than a motorway: shot cars, burned vehicles, piles of scrap metal. We knew we had made it at last when we saw the Ukrainian military. Not long after, we were picked up by a friend, a journalist, but for a long time it was hard to believe that we were secure. For days it seemed that we would still wake up in a cold basement.

Zhytomyr highway in Bucha, near Kyiv, 2 April 2022. Photo by Mykhaylo Palinchak/SOPA Images/LightRocket

On the same day we were rescued, our neighbours in the basement decided to leave on foot, where they managed to make their way to Kyiv. The very next day, we learned that the Russian military had entered the immediate area surrounding the kindergarten. The occupiers scattered around the houses and parked their tanks where we used to stay. Since our rescue, we continued hearing stories of civilians in Bucha being killed by Russian soldiers; some were killed for simply trying to get water for their families.

Bucha may now be liberated, but how will it recover? My mother called to tell me that near the garages, not far from our flat, there is now a mass grave of locals. How to teach children in a school in the basement of which Russians tortured and shot people? Will the ghosts of murdered children torment us? I hope that every Russian who is guilty of this will go to hell. Everyone who supports the war or who is silent will see these photos again and again, from Bucha, from Mariupol, from Chernihiv, from Irpin.

With editing and translation by Nataliya Gumenyuk

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