Butchery in Bucha. An eye-opening trip there with an aid worker.11 May 2022
Exclusive from Bucha, Ukraine.
Oleksii Tolkachov, 39, is delivering aid to people without food, electricity and heating in Bucha and Irpin, the until-recently Russian-occupied satellite towns north of Kyiv. They are both now ignominious worldwide symbols of the invaders’ ruthless destruction. Before we drive in, we pull up at the first of several destroyed tanks.
It’s a Soviet-made T-72. “Both Ukraine’s army and these Russians use this model,” says Oleksii, “but we know this was a Russian tank because of the V’s painted on it.” The letters V and Z were used on the invading army’s war machines as they rolled in toward Kyiv from the north, but the Russian forces met stiff resistance. Just behind the tank, 48-year-old Oleksandr is sifting through what remains the front of his house, which he says was smashed by a tank battle. “Look on the bright side,” he quips. “I’ve only got half a house so the heating bills next winter will be cheaper.”
Oleksandr declines any aid package, saying others more needy should get it.
Further down the road a few locals are clambering over the hulks and gun-barrels of five destroyed Russian tanks, peering inside at charred remains of men and materiel. The mundane debris remains of those fleeing the burning tanks: boots, military jackets, an electric razor-top. Inside one tank we see, , alongside a charred corpse, a burnt-out mobile smartphone, almost certainly stolen from an inhabitant of the villages or towns the Russian forces captured. (Locals say the Russians, often from poor rural parts, were amazed at and jealous of the ‘luxurious’ lifestyle they encountered in northern Ukraine, and seized anything they could.)
Inside Bucha itself, the bodies of local civilians whose pictures had became infamous just after the Russians pulled out, no longer lie in the street. But there are several ruined tanks still lining Rail Station Road. We watch Ukrainian heavy-lifting trucks pulling them up, ready to cart them away for use as scrap metal. Clearly locals, or Ukrainian soldiers, believed the invaders of Bucha were ethnically Chechens, from a unit that had become ultra-loyal to the Russians despite Chechen rebels’ own largely-failed battles for independence. “ Kadyrov is Evil”, using the name of its notorious commander and Putin loyalist, is painted in white on the side of one destroyed tank.
Oleksii draws up alongside people cooking borsht (beetroot-and cabbage-and potato soup) on an open fire outside their apartment block. A 5-year-old girl rides alongside on a black-and-white bike with trainer wheels. Oleksii offers her a red-wrapped bar of chocolate – which she refuses. “I like chocolate, but not this — another kind!” she declares.
The Russian invasion here left thousands to shelter in basements while temperatures were minus ten centigrade and electricity, water and gas were cut.
At the apartment block’s entrance, windows had been shattered “for fun” by the invaders’ gunfire, and a secure door had been riddled with bullet-holes. In Apartment one Oleksii is revisiting 83-year-old Ludmila Yurina. She is wrapped in thick coats and wears a maroon headscarf, but is still shivering.
When the Russian attack started her son fled to Kyiv and has disappeared. Alone, and only able to move by wheelchair, she could not shelter in the communal basement. During all the shelling and bombing, she was lodged in the corner of her main room.
When the attacks began, her neighbour two doors down, a 33-year-old actress called Nadia Samokhvalova, was in Kyiv but she returned the moment she heard the Russians had pulled out.
“Ludmila is like my grandmother,” says Nadia. “I was really worried about her life. I rushed over here to bring her food and medicines.”
She sees a silver lining in her new circumstances. “As an actress I have no work in a war situation. But I can help people.” From posts on her Facebook account, she’s raised about 5,000 pounds – “that’s huge here, enough to buy a small car. With the money I buy food and medicine and help whoever I can.”
She says a bitter legacy has been left from the Russian actions here and throughout Ukraine.
“It was really terrible. All Ukrainians now will hate them for many years in the future,” Nadia says.
At a nearby house, it’s too late to bring help, Oleksii tell me. Locals tell him that the house owner and his 15-year-old grandson were shot dead because the teenager took photos of Russian soldiers on a smartphone. The grandfather’s shoes lie alongside a shallow grave. Local authorities have already dug up collected bodies to check for war crimes and then to provide more proper burials.
Cars wrecked by Russian tanks, one with the driver inside, litter the roads, and an abandoned vehicle has a V painted on it. That indicates Russian or Chechen soldiers stole it for a joyride – a champagne cork lies on the front seat.
Ironies abound. As we leave Bucha, we see a sign near the undamaged rail station advertising a nearby pizza parlour – now clearly unavailable. An apartment block in nearby Irpin is blackened and shell-pocked, but still bears a red banner declaring: “Apartments for Sale”.
Oleksii vows he’ll be back to support those who still need his aid, physical and emotional.
On the way back to Kyiv is a mud field with a series of rectangular cardboards on stakes. One of them simply states: “ April 09 2022, and, in Russian, ‘Ostanki’. It means: Remains. An unknown victim of this senseless war.
NOTES FOR REST OF PIECE BEING ASSEMBLED NOW:
Since our visit, electricity and heating has been restored though water is intermittent. Oleksii, like all Ukrainians, increasingly struggles to buy petrol to drive his relief vans to where they are needed. All the people he is looking after through say they are doing well. Nadia is still unable to resume her acting career – no theatres are open.