‘It’s not the end’: The children who survived Bucha’s horror

Russia_Ukraine_War_Buchas_Children_75358 FILE - In the courtyard of their house, Vlad, 6, stands near the grave of his mother, who died, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, April 4, 2022. Vlad's mother died last month when the family was forced to shelter in a basement during the occupation by the Russian army. The family still doesn't know what illness caused her death.
Russia_Ukraine_War_Buchas_Children_91678 FILE - Vlad, 6, has fun with his friends in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, April 8, 2022. Vlad's mother died last month when the family was forced to shelter in a basement during the occupation by the Russian army. The family still doesn't know what illness caused her death.
Russia_Ukraine_War_Buchas_Children_79264 FILE - Vlad, 6, walks with his father Ivan inside a basement where they stayed in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, April 8, 2022. Vlad's mother died last month when the family was forced to shelter in the basement during the occupation by the Russian army. The family still doesn't know what illness caused her death.
Russia_Ukraine_War_Buchas_Children_21036 FILE - Children play with a dog in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, April 8, 2022. Local authorities told The Associated Press that at least 16 children were among the hundreds of people killed in Bucha.
Russia_Ukraine_War_Buchas_Children_21743 FILE - Neighbors wait for a free food delivery in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, April 8, 2022. The graffiti written by the neighbors on the wall in background reads "Children".
Russia_Ukraine_War_Buchas_Children_67691 FILE - Children's toys are stored inside a box for military ammunition in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, April 8, 2022. Local authorities told The Associated Press that at least 16 children were among the hundreds of people killed in Bucha.
Russia_Ukraine_War_Buchas_Children_21721 FILE - Vlad, 6, has fun with his friends in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, April 8, 2022. Vlad's mother died last month when the family was forced to shelter in a basement during the occupation by the Russian army. The family still doesn't know what illness caused her death.
Russia_Ukraine_War_Buchas_Children_67987 FILE - Vlad, 6, drinks milk next to his father Ivan, 40, at a donated food distribution stand in Bucha, in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, April 9, 2022. Vlad's mother died last month when the family was forced to shelter in a basement during the occupation by the Russian army. The family still doesn't know what illness caused her death.
Russia_Ukraine_War_Buchas_Children_97501 FILE - Children walk in Bucha on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, April 8, 2022. Local authorities told The Associated Press that at least 16 children were among the hundreds of people killed in Bucha.
Russia_Ukraine_War_Buchas_Children_62830 FILE - Toy tanks sit at the entrance of a summer camp where five people were killed in a basement in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, April 9, 2022. Local authorities told The Associated Press that at least 16 children were among the hundreds of people killed in Bucha.
Russia_Ukraine_War_Buchas_Children_29729 FILE - Vlad, 6, plays cards with a friend inside his house in Bucha, in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, April 9, 2022. Vlad's mother died last month when the family was forced to shelter in a basement during the occupation by the Russian army. The family still doesn't know what illness caused her death.
Russia_Ukraine_War_Buchas_Children_92274 FILE - A Ukrainian soldier walks with children passing destroyed cars due to the war against Russia, in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, April 4, 2022. Local authorities told The Associated Press that at least 16 children were among the hundreds of people killed in Bucha.
(1/12)

BUCHA, Ukraine (AP) — The coffin was made from pieces of a closet. In a darkened basement under a building shaking from the bombardment of war, there were few other options.

Six-year-old Vlad watched as his mother was carried out of the shelter last month and to the yard of a nearby home. The burial was hurried and devastating.

Now Russian forces have withdrawn from Bucha after a monthlong occupation, and Vlad’s father, Ivan Drahun, dropped to his knees at the foot of the grave.

He reached out and touched the dirt near his wife Maryna’s feet. “Hi, how are you?” he said during the visit last week. “I miss you so much. You left so soon. You didn’t even say goodbye.”

The boy also visits the grave, placing on it a juice box and two cans of baked beans. Amid the stress of war, his mother barely ate. The family still doesn’t know what illness caused her death. They, much like their town, barely know how to move on.

Bucha witnessed some of the ghastliest scenes of Russia’s invasion, and almost no children have been seen in its silent streets since then. The many bright playgrounds in the once popular community with good schools on a far edge of the capital, Kyiv, are empty.

The Russians used a children’s camp in Bucha as an execution ground, and bloodstains and bullet holes mark a basement. On a ledge near the camp entrance, Russian soldiers placed a toy tank. It appeared to be connected to fishing wire — a possible booby trap in the most vulnerable of places.

Steps away from Vlad’s home, some of the Russians used a kindergarten as a base, leaving it intact while other nearby buildings suffered. Casings of used artillery shells were left along a fence in the yard. In a nearby playground, white and red tape marked off unexploded ordnance. The booms of de-mining operations were so strong they set off car alarms.

At the apartment block where Vlad, his older brother Vova and sister Sophia live, someone had spray-painted “CHILDREN” in child-high letters on an outside wall. Under it, a wooden box once used for ammunition held a teddy bear and other toys.

It is here that Bucha’s fragile renewal can be seen.

A small group of neighborhood children gathered, finding distraction from the war. Bundled up in winter coats, they kicked a football, wandered around with bags of snacks handed out by visiting volunteers, called out from a glass-less window above.

Their parents, taking in the feeble warmth of spring after weeks in freezing basements, reflected on how they tried to protect the children. “We covered his ears,” said Polina Shymanska of her 7-year-old great-grandson Nikita. “We hugged him, kissed him.” She tried to play chess and the boy let her win.

Upstairs, in a neighbor’s apartment where Vlad’s father for now has merged his family with that of the neighbor to help manage their collection of children, Vlad curled up on a bed with another boy and played cards. The radiator gave off no heat. There was still no gas, no electricity, no running water.

Not everyone in Vlad’s family can stand to return to their own apartment nearby. The memories of Maryna are everywhere, from the perfume bottles on the table by the front door to the quiet kitchen.

In the living room, time has stopped. Limp balloons dangled from the overhead light. A string of colorful flags still hung on the wall, along with a family photo. It showed Ivan and Maryna holding Vlad on the day he was born. They celebrated his birthday on Feb. 19.

Five days later, the war began. And the family’s life shrank to a dank concrete half-room in the basement, lined with blankets and scattered with sweets and toys. It was very, very cold, Ivan remembers. He and Maryna did what they could to muffle the sounds of shelling for Vlad and keep him calm. But they were afraid, too.

Two weeks ago, Ivan took Vlad to the makeshift toilet in the shelter and visited neighbors. Then he came to Maryna to tell her that he was going outside. “I touched her shoulder, and she was cold,” he said. “I realized she was gone.”

At first, he said, Vlad appeared not to understand what had happened. The boy said his mother had moved away. But at the burial, the boy watched Ivan kneel and cry, and now he knows what death is.

Death is inseparable from Bucha. Local authorities told The Associated Press that at least 16 children were among the hundreds of people killed. Those who survived face a long recovery.

“They’ve realized that now it’s calm and quiet,” Ivan said. “But at the same time, older children understand that it’s not the end. The war is not finished. And it’s hard to explain for the smaller ones that war is still going on.”

The children are adapting, he said. They have seen a lot. Some even saw dogs killed.

Now the war has slipped into the games they play.

In a sandbox outside the kindergarten, Vlad and a friend “bombed” each other with fistfuls of sand.

“I’m Ukraine,” one said. “No, I’m Ukraine,” said the other.

___

Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

Related Categories:

Russia/Ukraine War News | World News

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up