Ukrainian children who survived the horror of Bucha now know what death is
BUCHA, Ukraine – The coffin was made from pieces of a closet.
In a dark basement, under a building shaken by wartime bombardment, there were few other options.
Last month, six-year-old Vlad saw his mother being carried out of the shelter and into the yard of a nearby house. His funeral was rushed and devastating.
Now that Russian forces have withdrawn from Bucha after a month-long occupation, Vlad’s father, Ivan Drahun, knelt on the grave and touched the ground near his wife Maryna’s feet.
“Hi how are you?” he said during the visit. “I miss you so much. You left so soon. You didn’t even say goodbye to me.
Their young son also visited the grave. He placed a box of juice and two boxes of baked beans in there because, with the stress of the war, his mother had barely eaten.
His family still does not know what illness caused his death.
And, just like their city, they barely know how to move on.
Bucha witnessed some of the most gruesome scenes of the Russian invasion.
And almost no children have been seen on its silent streets since then. The once popular community’s many bright playgrounds with good schools at the far end of the capital kyiv have remained empty.
The Russians used a children’s camp at Bucha as an execution ground.
Bloodstains and bullet holes mark a basement. On a ledge near the entrance to the camp, Russian soldiers have placed a toy tank. It seemed to be connected to fishing line – a possible trap in this most vulnerable place.
A few steps from Vlad’s house, some Russians used a kindergarten as a base. They left it intact while other nearby buildings suffered. Spent artillery shell casings were left along a fence in the yard.
In a nearby playground, white and red tape marked off unexploded ordnance. And the booms in clearance operations were so loud they set off car alarms.
In the building where Vlad, his older brother Vova and his sister Sophia live, someone had spray painted “CHILDREN” in letters at child height on an exterior wall. Below, a wooden box once used for ammunition contained a teddy bear and other toys.
It is here that we can see the fragile revival of Bucha.
A small group of neighborhood children were gathered here, finding a distraction from the war. Bundled up in winter coats, they kicked a soccer ball, walked around with bags of snacks handed out by visiting volunteers, called from a windowless window above.
Their parents, enjoying the low spring heat after weeks in freezing basements, explained how they had tried to protect the children.
“We covered his ears,” Polina Shymanska said of her 7-year-old great-grandson, Nikita. “We kissed him, we kissed him.”
She played chess with him and the boy let her win.
Upstairs in a neighbor’s apartment where Vlad’s father has merged his family, for now, with a neighbor’s family to help oversee their collection of children, Vlad cowers on a bed with another boy and played cards.
The radiator was not providing any heat. There was still no gas, electricity or running water.
It’s more painful than Vlad’s family can bear to return to their own apartment nearby. Memories of Maryna are everywhere, from her perfume bottles on the table by the front door to what is now the quiet of her kitchen.
In the living room, time seemed to stand still. Soft balloons hung from the ceiling light. A string of colorful flags still hung on one wall. So did a photo showing Ivan and Maryna holding Vlad the day he was born.
On February 19, they celebrated his birthday.
Five days later, war broke out. And the family’s life has shrunk to a dank concrete half-room in the basement, lined with blankets and strewn with sweets and toys.
It was very, very cold, Druha recalls. He said he and his wife had done what they could to drown out the sounds of shelling for Vlad, to try to help him stay calm.
But they too were afraid.
Two weeks ago, Ivan took Vlad to the shelter’s makeshift toilet and visited some neighbours. Then he came to tell Maryna that he was going out.
“I touched her shoulder, he said, and she was cold. I realized she was gone.
At first, he said, Vlad didn’t seem to understand what had happened. The boy said his mother had moved away.
At his funeral, he saw Ivan kneel down and cry.
And now he knows what death is.
Death is inseparable from Bucha. Authorities told The Associated Press that at least 16 children were among the hundreds killed.
Those who survived face a long convalescence.
“They realized that now it’s calm and quiet,” Ivan said. “But, at the same time, older children understand that this is not the end. The war is not over. And it’s hard to explain to the little ones that the war is going on.
Children adapt, he says. They have seen a lot. Some saw dogs killed.
Now war has even crept into the games they play. In a sandpit outside the kindergarten, Vlad and a friend “bombarded” each other with handfuls of sand.
“I am Ukraine,” said one.
“No, I’m from Ukraine,” said the other.