In Bucha, a symbol of death and atrocity, life returns
By Jane Arraf
A breeze rustles through the cherry blossoms in bloom on almost every block in the small city of Bucha, Ukraine, the white petals fluttering onto streets where new pavement covers damage left by Russian tanks just weeks ago.
Spring has arrived in Bucha in the six weeks since Russian soldiers withdrew from this bedroom community outside Kyiv, leaving behind mass graves of slaughtered citizens, many of them mutilated, as well as broken streets and destroyed buildings.
A semblance of normal life has returned to the city. Residents have been coming back to Bucha over the past few weeks, and the city has raced to repair the physical damage wrought by the invading Russian troops and their weapons. Now, on the leafy springtime streets of the city, it is hard to imagine the horrors that unfolded here.
On a newly paved street with freshly painted white lines, the rotating brushes of a street cleaning machine whisked away what was left of shattered glass and bits of iron shrapnel. In one of the neighborhoods where many of the roughly 400 bodies of Ukrainian citizens were discovered in April, technicians were laying cable to restore internet service. At one house, a resident was removing pieces of destroyed Russian tanks still littering his garden.
Sweeping away as many traces as possible of the destruction caused by the Russian occupation was an important step in healing the wounds suffered by Bucha’s residents, said Taras Shapravsky, a City Council official.
Mr. Shapravsky said 4,000 residents had stayed in the city while it was occupied, terrified and many hiding in basements without enough food. Even after the Russian soldiers withdrew, many residents remained traumatized.
“They were in very bad psychological condition,” he said. “Specialists explained to us that the faster we clear away all possible reminders of the war, the faster we will be able to take people out of this condition.”
Mr. Shapravsky said phone reception was restored a few days after the Russians left, and then water and electricity. He said about 10,000 residents had returned so far — roughly a quarter of the prewar population of this small city 20 miles from Kyiv, the capital.
In a sign of life returning to normal, he said the marriage registration office reopened last week and almost every day, couples are applying for marriage licenses.
Bucha was a city where many people moved to for quieter lifestyles, a place where they could raise families away from the bustle of the capital, to which many commuted to work. It was a place where people from Kyiv might drive to on a nice weekend to have lunch.
Six years ago, Sergo Markaryan and his wife opened the Jam Cafe, where they served Italian food, played old jazz and sold jars of jam. He described the cafe as almost like their child, and he has decorated it with an eclectic mix of hundreds of pictures and strings of photos of customers.
When Russia invaded, Mr. Markaryan, 38, drove his wife and 3-year-old son to the border with Georgia, where he is from. As a Georgian citizen he could have stayed outside the country, but he came back to Ukraine to volunteer, sending food to the front lines.
Two weeks ago, when the electricity was restored, Mr. Markaryan came back on his own to Bucha to see what was left of the cafe and repair the damage caused by the Russian soldiers.
“They stole the knives and forks,” he said, ticking off missing items. He said the soldiers dragged the dining chairs out to use at checkpoints and stole the sound system. And, he said, despite the working toilets, they had defecated on the floor before leaving.
Two days before it was due to reopen last week, the cafe and its outdoor terrace looked spotless and Mr. Markaryan was taste-testing the espresso to see if it was up to par.
“Many people have already returned but some are still afraid,” Mr. Markaryan said. “But we have all definitely become much stronger than we were. We faced things that we never thought could happen.”
On the other side of town, in a row of closed shops with peaked roofs and boarded-up windows, Mr. B — a former cocktail bar run by Borys Tkachenko has been patched up and turned into a coffee bar.
Mr. Tkachenko, 27, came back to Bucha a month ago, repaired the roof, which like most of the buildings on the street appeared to have been damaged by shrapnel, and found that the espresso machine was still there. He reopened to sell coffee — or in the case of customers who were soldiers or medical workers, give it away.
Mr. Tkachenko, who had worked in clubs in Florida and Canada and studied the hotel business in Switzerland, opened the bar with his savings last December. Russia invaded two months later.
He said he knew they had to leave when his 14-month-old daughter started running around their apartment, covering her ears and saying “boom, boom, boom” at the sound of explosions.
Mr. Tkachenko drove his family to the border with Slovakia, where they eventually made their way to Switzerland. He returned to Ukraine to volunteer, helping to send supplies to the front and to displaced civilians.
“We had big plans for this place,” Mr. Tkachenko, who despite everything had a wide smile that matched a tattoo on his arm reading, “Born to be happy,” said of his bar.
He said that when the war ended he would probably join his wife and daughter in Switzerland.
“I don’t see a future here right now,” he said.
While the frenetic activity of city workers and residents has helped clear the city of much of the debris of the Russian occupation, the scars of what happened here run deep.
On one quiet street corner, a bunch of dandelions and lilies of the valley had been laid out on a flowered scarf in a modest sidewalk memorial.
Volodymyr Abramov, 39, said the memorial honored his brother-in-law, Oleh Abramov, who was taken out of his house at gunpoint by Russian soldiers, ordered to kneel and shot. (Oleh Abramov and his wife, Iryna, were the subject of a Times article published this month.)
“He was not even interrogated,” he said.
Mr. Abramov’s home was destroyed by Russian soldiers who tossed grenades into his house. But he said that was nothing compared with the suffering of his 48-year-old sister, Iryna Abramova, who lost her husband as well as her house.
“I try to help her and take care of her so she doesn’t kill herself,” he said. “I tell her that her husband is watching her from heaven.”
Mr. Abramov, a glazier, said he was now wondering if he should rebuild his house. “I want to run away from here,” he said.
Outside the city’s morgue, where French and Ukrainian investigators are still working to identify bodies from the massacres by Russian troops, a small group of residents gathered, hoping to find out what happened to family members.
Yulia Monastyrska, 29, said she had come to try to get a death certificate for her husband, whose body was among those discovered in April. His hands were bound, he had been shot in the back and the legs, and one of his eyes was burned out, she said.
Ms. Monastyrska said her husband, Ivan, was a crane operator who disappeared while she and her 7-year-old daughter, Oleksandra, hid in the basement of their apartment building.
Oleksandra, wearing glasses and sneakers with princesses on them, leaned against her mother as she listened to details that were clearly now familiar to her.
“As far as I know, everyone wants to come back here, but they are still afraid,” Ms. Monastyrska said. “We were born here, we lived here, a lot of good things happened here.”
Yulia Kozak, 48, accompanied by her daughter Daryna, 23, and Daryna’s 3-year-old son, Yehor, had come to take a DNA test to see if there was a match among the unidentified remains of her missing son, Oleksandr, 29, who had fought in the war against Russia in 2017.
Prosecutors found his military ID, dirty and moldy, in a basement where the Russians held prisoners.
Sobbing, she said the last time she spoke by phone with her son, in March, he had told her he was being shot at. In his apartment, there is a bullet hole in the window, on which the sign of the cross had been etched.
Ms. Kozak, a cook, said she planned to stay in Bucha until she found her son.
“I am sure he is alive, 100 percent sure,” she said. “I feel that he is somewhere, I just don’t know where.”