Hardly any other place in Ukraine has become such a symbol of the brutality of the Russian war of aggression as the Kiev suburb of Bucha. More than half a year after the occupiers left, the residents are getting back to their everyday lives. But for many, the horror is far from over.
The Ukrainian baker Jaroslaw Burkivskyj has recently been offering his breads in a Russian weapon box. Enemy soldiers left behind heaps of containers when they rushed away from the outskirts of the capital Kyiv more than six months ago. Now one of the boxes is in Burkivskyj’s little house on the outskirts of the town of Bucha. It is made of wood, painted military green and about a meter long. It’s tall enough to fit dozens of loaves of bread and deep enough for them to stick out a little at the top, attracting customers. A perfect storage container, says Burkivskyj. “Of course, we would have been only too happy to do without it.”
Bucha and other Kiev suburbs were captured by Russian troops in the first days of the war at the end of February and occupied for around a month. When the Russians finally withdrew in the direction of eastern Ukraine in the face of a lack of military success, hundreds of civilians were found dead in the area – some in the middle of the road. Photos of corpses with signs of torture and their hands tied behind their backs went around the world at the end of March. And even if many other atrocities have come to light since then: Hardly any other Ukrainian place has become such a symbol of the most serious war crimes in the Russian war of aggression that has been going on for more than eight months as Bucha.
Russian soldiers came to an acquaintance’s home and pointed a gun at him, says Burkivskyj’s baker colleague Viktor Kovalchuk. “‘Now we’ll shoot you,’ they said.” One of them actually shot – but only at the cap on the acquaintance’s head, says Kovalchuk. The Russians said it was a “joke” and left. “Things like that happened here,” says Kovalchuk. There are fresh oatmeal cookies. It’s cool and rainy outside, but comfortably warm inside the hut thanks to the stove. Customers keep coming.
In the first few weeks after the occupation, the small bakery with the blue shutters became a place where the survivors came together. Neighbors brought flour from their private pantries, Burkivskyj recalls. It was used to bake bread for everyone. Who could, paid. Those who couldn’t got it for free. “During this terrible time, people have understood that they are not alone in this world. That has changed some,” says the 28-year-old.
The war also changed the life of Dmytro Hapchenko, the head of the city administration. When more than 90 percent of the once around 50,000 inhabitants of Butscha and the surrounding area fled in March, the 45-year-old stayed on out of a sense of duty towards those who were still there. Around 30,000 people are said to be back now – but not Hapchenko’s wife and their children, who made it to Israel and want to wait for the end of the war, which is currently unforeseeable. “It’s hard,” he says.
Hapchenko has slightly gray hair, he looks tired and combative at the same time. Wearing a dark green outdoor jacket and sturdy hiking boots, he has just returned from a wooded area where the body of a missing resident was recently found. Now he and other helpers are looking there for traces that indicate the identities of the Russian soldiers – and for other graves. Hapchenko shows the photo of a hole in the ground on his mobile phone. It is documentary work that is also intended to speed up the current international investigation and the official recognition of the atrocities as war crimes.
He does this work on a voluntary basis. In March, he too was kidnapped by the occupying forces and held for around a day. The fact that he was finally released was probably pure luck, he says. Haptschenko says of the dead in the forest: “It could have been me too.” He pauses briefly, then says: “If it had happened like that, I would wish that they would find me now.”
A few meters away stands a large white church with golden domes that stand out against the gray sky on this autumn day. During the occupation, residents who were killed were temporarily buried in a mass grave on the church grounds because the path to the cemetery was blocked. They have since been reburied. He knew some of them personally, says Hapchenko, others the parents, the children, the friends.
There’s an air raid alarm outside – for a few days now, Russian troops have been attacking Kyiv and the surrounding area again on a massive scale with rockets and combat drones. The interview goes on anyway. It seems that anyone who has experienced what Haptschenko experienced will no longer be upset by a little howling siren.
He shows more photos on his cell phone. “She was shot in the middle of the street” – the corpse of an elderly woman appears on the phone display. “She was wearing a white bandage on her upper arm, see?” Hapchenko zooms in closer to the dead body. “She wanted to make it clear that she was a civilian.”
Another resident was shot dead by Russian soldiers at a checkpoint while trying to leave the city – through the open window at the wheel of her car. Another photo, another corpse. Hapchenko keeps swiping on his cell phone, it doesn’t seem to end.
In total, the authorities in Butscha have so far registered more than 460 dead residents, but fear many more victims. Despite the horror: life in the small town goes on today. Craftsmen repaint freshly repaired house facades. Cafes are open, people walk their dogs, children run around in the city park. Internally, however, many people are still in a “psychological state of stress,” says Haptschenko.
His cell phone keeps ringing. It is a private phone, service device and municipal emergency hotline all in one. People still contact him who are missing relatives. Some eventually turn up alive in Russian captivity, others dead in Butscha’s forests. According to Haptschenko, there is still no trace of more than 70 fellow citizens.
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