‘It’s Not the End’: The children who survived Bucha’s horror

BUCHA, Ukraine (AP) – The coffin was made of pieces of a cupboard. In a darkened basement under a building shaken by the bombing of the 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 funeral was hasty and devastating.

Now Russian forces have withdrawn from Bucha after a month-long occupation, and Vlad’s father, Ivan Drahun, fell to his knees at the foot of the tomb.

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 went so fast. You did not even say goodbye.”

The boy also visits the grave and puts a juice box and two cans of baked beans on it. In the midst of the war stress, his mother barely ate. The family still does not know what illness caused her death. They, like their city, barely know how to move on.

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

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

A few steps away from Vlad’s home, some of the Russians used a kindergarten as a base, leaving it intact, while other nearby buildings suffered. Sleeves of used artillery shells were left along a fence in the yard. At a nearby playground, white and bureaucracy marked unexploded ordnance. The barriers from demining operations were so strong that they triggered car alarms.

In the apartment block where Vlad, his older brother Vova and sister Sophia live, someone had spray-painted “CHILDREN” with child-sized letters on an exterior wall. Underneath it housed a wooden box once used for ammunition a teddy bear and other toys.

This is where Bucha’s fragile renewal can be seen.

A small group of neighborhood children gathered and found distraction from the war. Tied together in winter coats, they kicked to a football, wandered around with bags of snacks handed out by visiting volunteers, called out from a glassless window above.

Their parents, who took in the faint heat of spring after weeks in freezing cellars, reflected on how they were trying to protect the children. “We covered his ears,” Polina Shymanska said of her 7-year-old great-granddaughter 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 has so far merged his family with the neighbor’s family to help manage their collection of children, Vlad curled up on a bed with another boy and played cards. The radiator emitted no heat. There was still no gas, no electricity, no running water.

Not everyone in Vlad’s family can bear to return to their own apartment nearby. 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 come to a standstill. Relaxing balloons dangled from the light from above. A beaded row of colorful flags still hung on the wall along with a family photo. It showed that Ivan and Maryna held Vlad on the day he was born. They celebrated his birthday on February 19th.

Five days later, the war began. And the family’s life shrank to a damp concrete half in the basement, lined with blankets and strewn with candy and toys. It was very, very cold, Ivan remembers. He and Maryna did what they could to muffle the sound of shelling for Vlad and keep him calm. But they were also scared.

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

At first, he said, Vlad did not seem to understand what had happened. The boy said his mother had moved. But at the funeral, the boy Ivan looked on his knees and cried, 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 killed. Those who survived are facing a long recovery.

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

The kids are adjusting, he said. They’ve 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 fists of sand.

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

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

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