“We never knew that our city would become famous all around the world,” Alyona Puzanova, a 35-year-old resident of Bucha, said when we spoke on a recent morning in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.
Her mother, Anna, still finds it hard to reconcile the image of Bucha with what it has become associated with since the invasion. “I loved everything there, and even if something is wrong, it is still ours,” she told me. She showed me pictures of Bucha, flowers growing along the side of the road, a squirrel that would climb a tree outside their home, and her dog lounging on the sofa of their apartment.
Even though they did not directly witness killings by Russian soliders, Anna and Alyona painted a vivid portrait of life under occupation. When Russian troops captured Bucha in the beginning of March, they forced the civilian population to gather what food they had and to go down to the bomb shelters of their buildings. “You have to sit here for three days,” the Russian soldiers told them. “Otherwise, you’re going to go in the column with other ones and you will not survive.” Other reports from Bucha suggest that people detained by the occupying Russian force were later executed.
Russian soldiers, Alyona said, would regularly shoot into civilian apartments. “The Russians would start to shoot in the buildings and windows. They were worried the civilians would give up their locations,” Alyona added. Anna pulled out her cell phone and started to scroll through pictures from her living-room window: At first, they documented the squirrel’s comings and goings, but the last was taken from a more distant vantage point, showing cracks spidering out through the glass around a bullet hole.
During the occupation, Anna told me, the Russian troops would stop Ukrainian residents of Bucha as they went about their daily business. “If they met you on the street, they would stop you and check out your phone,” she said. “And they would say, ‘If we think you’ve been reporting to the enemy, you’re dead.’”
The Russian soldiers, Anna told me, accessed Bucha by running tanks and armored vehicles down the train tracks, and they eventually began parking their vehicles in the playground outside their apartment block. Quickly, the troops began to break into the cars parked outside, smashing the glass to see if they could find anything valuable inside. They ransacked the post office and went through people’s parcels. “They started to steal gold. They started to steal food. They started to steal clothes,” Anna said.
Anna is 62 and works as a concierge at an apartment building in the nearby town of Irpin. She is known as a “lady of iron” in the Bucha community, but as the occupation wore on, she became more and more terrified. The days and nights were filled with the noise of explosions. Her blood pressure rose, and her husband, Mikhail, a handyman, worried for her. Even the family dog, a Jack Russell, stopped eating and could hardly move, Anna assumed, from terror. There was no water, electricity or gas.
One night, the water tower of their building was destroyed by shelling, and the roof caught fire. “Everyone started with their own hands and tried to stop the fire,” Anna said. The residents had to carry up buckets of water from filled bathtubs to extinguish the flames. Another night they saw the top floor of a nine-story building across the way from their house ripped clean off.
Over time, the behavior of the Russian occupiers worsened. Anna heard from friends who had been beaten and abused by the soldiers. Then, troops began to go door to door in Anna’s apartment block. Residents waited quietly and apprehensively for them to leave. Messages would flow between residents as troops paced the corridors of the buildings, “Lock your doors, they are coming!”
When one of Anna’s neighbors forgot to lock his apartment, soldiers forced themselves inside. They forced the father of the household to crawl around on the floor in front of his children as they filmed him, shrieking, “Say that you are Bandera! Say that you are Bandera!” Stepan Bandera was a mid-century Ukrainian fascist and anti-Semite whose veneration in parts of Ukraine has been seized upon by Moscow as an example of how Nazis allegedly run the country.
Alyona decided on March 10 to join friends who used to come to Bucha on their summer vacation. Anna didn’t want to leave, but the next day, as she was preparing some food to bring to an outdoor kitchen, her husband entered their living room with a packed bag. He didn’t explain himself. “You’re just leaving,” he said. “You’re leaving right now.” He would stay, he said, and cook for the families that had holed themselves up in the bomb shelter of their building, too frightened to come up for air. “Real men don’t leave their houses,” he said.
Anna wrapped her arm in a white armband, a sign of friendly identification for Russian forces. Much has been made of the fact some of the civilians who were killed in Bucha were wearing white armbands, insisting that they were pro-Russians who had been executed by Ukrainians, but Anna told me that civilians wore them simply not to get shot. A column of Russian tanks streamed past her as she trudged toward the edge of town, joining a trickle of people headed toward the “green corridor” to safety. At a checkpoint, one of them asked Russian soldiers whether there were land mines ahead. “Just walk ahead yourself,” one of the soldiers laughed. “Everyone else can follow your footsteps.”
At the final checkpoint before reaching the Ukrainian line, Anna glanced up at one of the Russian soldiers, who appeared to be in his late teens. “He looked at me right in the eyes,” she told me. “I didn’t feel that he felt ashamed, but I felt that he saw his own mother in me.” As Anna recounted this, she began to cry, the only tears she shed during recounting the facts of the occupation to me. “I just feel pity still for the kids who are there, who are being forced to fight.”
When they reached the Ukrainian lines, Anna could scarcely believe her ears: The first thing she noticed was a soldier shouting for her to run to a gathering point. He was speaking Ukrainian. “I felt I was with our people,” she said. “I felt safe.” Over two days, she made her way towards Lviv on buses and a crowded regional train where people stood and sat in shifts because it was so crowded. Since leaving, Anna has been in constant touch with her husband, and he is safe.
By the time Alyona and Anna left their hometown, the killing had begun. An analysis of satellite images by The New York Times showed that “dark objects of similar size to a human body” started appearing on a street near the Bucha train station on March 9. The death toll is contested—but what fact has not been in this war, which is as much a war of information as one of bullets and bombs? An American acquaintance of mine who works in humanitarian aid in Kyiv visited the mass graves of Bucha earlier this week. When I asked him how many casualties he thought there were, I could hear him sigh down the line. “Hundreds,” he said.
This week, Alyona reached Mikhail in Bucha by telephone. I asked if she could record the conversation and ask a few questions I had sent. Mikhail insisted that now the Russian troops had retreated from Bucha, things were getting better and humanitarian aid was beginning to trickle in. The weather was getting warmer, and they had managed to collect some rainwater after recent showers, so things were looking up. Then he began to talk about the occupation.
“Some people got shot, some people in their houses and some people in the countryside and we had to bury the people,” he said. I had asked whether there was any method behind the killing, whether the Russian soldiers were killing suspected collaborators. “They were killing anyone, just for their pleasure,” he replied. “They were barbarians that were killing people and kids. They didn’t have pity.” The Russian occupiers, he continued, “are real animals, and they have to be shot like they shot us.”
Mikhail began to talk more quickly. He said the Kadyrovtsy, Chechen paramilitaries, had also killed and stolen when they were in Bucha. “If they didn’t like someone, they would shoot them,” he said. A friend of his was shot looking out from his living-room window. One day, his physiotherapist came to his apartment. “She fixed my disks and spine and told me not to pick up anything heavy for a few hours,” Mikhail said. She promised to come back for another session later in the day. Mikhail gave her some wood, and she said she was going to cook cherry compote on a wood fire outside. When she left the building, three Russian soldiers—“her murderers” as Mikhail put it—surrounded her. They left her outside with a bullet in her head. Mikhail had to bury her body. “Here is how my physiotherapy ended.”
“But now all is good,” he added. Since the occupation lifted, people had started coming back to the building, he told his daughter—Tanya on the fifth floor, for instance—though their block was still without water and heat, and people are still afraid to move around lest land mines have been laid. He had always been a lucky man, and had to look at life optimistically. “We’re still living, we’re still continuing,” he said. “They can’t do anything to stop us.”
Anna Ivanova contributed reporting and translation.