Bucha-Irpin, Ukraine: A Guided Tour by Bucha Deputy Mayor

Mykhailyna Skoryk-Shkarivska. Deputy Mayor of Bucha, Deputy of the Irpin City Council. Photo by Zarina Zabrisky.
Mykhailyna Skoryk-Shkarivska. Deputy Mayor of Bucha, Deputy of the Irpin City Council. Photo by Zarina Zabrisky.
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LONDON (Bywire News) - Russian troops occupied Bucha, a middle-class suburb, once known for its comfortable life and proximity to Kyiv, a week after a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine started on February 24, 2022. Bucha residents, mostly young professionals—IT managers, PR experts, and business owners—enjoyed craft coffee and freshly baked croissants at hipster joints, fresh air at kids’ playgrounds at pine tree parks, and the latest fashions at modern shopping malls. Quite a large number of people came here from Donbas, fleeing the Russians. The war in Ukraine did not start in 2022. It has been going on since 2014.  Industrious and determined, the internally displaced refused to lament their fate and rebuilt their lives in the western suburbs of Kyiv. In March, many lost their new homes once again. Hundreds lost their lives. Reporting on the Russian war crimes in Ukraine would not be possible without writing about Bucha and Irpin.

Coffee Point Bucha. Photo by Zarina Zabrisky.

 A politician, a journalist, an activist, a hero’s widow

During my visit to the Kyiv Oblast, I interview the deputy mayor of Bucha and deputy of the Irpin City Council Mykhailyna Skoryk-Shkarivska. A former journalist and activist, Ms Skoryk-Shkarivska covered the Revolution of Dignity, the annexation of Crimea, and the Euromaidan in 2013-2014 before turning to politics. 

Mykhailyna Skoryk-Shkarivska. Deputy Mayor of Bucha, Deputy of the Irpin City Council. Photo by Zarina Zabrisky.

The war is personal to Ms Skoryk-Shkarivska. She lost her husband in 2014. Serhii Shkarivskyi, the captain of the "Donbas" volunteer battalion, died in Ilovaisk, in the Donetsk Oblast, on August 19, 2014, killed by a sniper's bullet. He died “for Ukraine, for friends, for victory and for the peaceful Donbas," Ms Skoryk-Shkarivska then wrote. I don’t know about this tragedy at the time of our meeting: Ms Skoryk-Shkarivska doesn’t talk about her loss. (When, during the interview, I ask her if she knew personally any of the victims of the Russian war crimes, she briefly admits, “Some. I helped organize funerals.” Ukrainians despise the victim mentality.) 

Ms Skoryk-Shkarivska invites me to her office in the Bucha City Council in the middle of a busy work day. She addresses me in Ukrainian, and, as I take forever to utter a sentence, switches to English. She speaks fast, with short, crips, military-style phrases. She could be a general on the battlefield. As I wait for an interview, I watch her handling telephone calls with foreign visitors and local politicians, sorting through the piles of papers on her desk, and typing furiously on her laptop while giving guidance to her co-workers and staff. I step out and wander around Bucha watching kids playing in the fountain and on the stairs ruined by the Russian tanks. Ruined buildings are everywhere but people enjoy a sunny day, and the street looks like any other street: down-to-earth, mundane, even. 

Downtown Bucha. Photo by Zarina Zabrisky.

Three hours later, Ms Skoryk-Shkarivska is still trying to catch up. The City Council is closed by the time she finishes her to-do list, jumps in the car, and, on the way to pick up her son from child care in Irpin, gives me an hour-long tour of one of the most horrifying places in the world—Bucha. 

Mass Graves

We start right by the Bucha City Council, at the local hospital. During the occupation, the Russians killed left and right. The relatives brought the bodies of the killed to the morgue—but the Russians did not allow burials at the cemetery. The morgue personnel and municipal ritual services staff drove to St. Andrew Cathedral just up the street to get the permission of the priest to temporarily bury the dead on the territory of the churchyard. After liberation, 116 bodies were exhumed from the mass graves by the church: two trenches filled with the bodies of the local residents killed by the Russians. 

St. Andrew Cathedral Bucha. Photo by Zarina Zabrisky.

“And, we collected more bodies from the streets,” says Ms Skoryk-Shkarivska. “The total count: 426 bodies. Russians appeared to have shot people just for fun and to terrorize locals to prevent them from moving around the area in order to control Bucha. We are trying to recover from the memories of the dead bodies in our streets, from the memories of children and parents shot in their basements and burnt alive in the cars while trying to escape.”

The Car Cemetery

“Russians occupied Bucha on March 3. When we returned home on April 12, after the liberation, the city was empty,” says Ms. Skoryk-Shkarivska. “No cars, no people. No shops are open. No electricity. No mobile phone connection. I couldn’t find my boss, the Mayor. All the people who came back, the municipal workers, the volunteers who came to help Bucha, did an incredible job. Breathing life into the empty city is difficult.” 

To the right, I see a residential high-rise building without a roof—one of many.

"Our main job right now is to restore as much as possible before winter. Local people are expecting that the local government will fix everything just as it used to be before the Russian invasion on the 24th of February.”

Bucha Car Cemetery. Photo by Zarina Zabrisky.

We approach a vast empty area that looks like an industrial junkyard: demolished cars, some charred, some just rusty skeletons. 

“The car cemetery. Most of these are civilian cars. We moved the Russian military cars to Hostomel. See those cars on the right? They had dead bodies inside.” 

Bucha: Yablonska Street

“We are now driving to Yablonska street in Bucha, the horror street. So many bodies were lying on both sides of the street and in the yards.”

Yablonska street means “the street of apples.” A billboard advertising a gym and miraculous body transformation is missing a part; the bodies on the poster are headless. 

“Russians were here to capture Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, and they failed. This location is important: Yablonska street is parallel to the Bucha river and the Russians needed to cross it in order to enter the city of Irpin, and then cross it all the way to the Irpin river. Those two rivers became the natural barriers and prevented the Russians from capturing Kyiv. They failed to cross the rivers. That is why they were so angry and took their rage out on civilians.”

The holes from the bullets are everywhere: fences, walls.

“The Russians broke the fences to park their tanks in the yards. The Ukrainian army could not attack the enemy because of that: Ukrainian civilians were hiding in their own basements, and the Russian soldiers were living in their houses and occupied the yards. You can see that by now people have fixed their fences. It looks like a normal street now. The Russians didn’t allow people to leave even when the green corridors opened in accordance with the agreements between the Russian and Ukrainian governments.” 

Irpin destroyed: rebuilding

We are following what would be the Russian troops' Kyiv wannabe itinerary, driving towards Irpin. The Russians controlled one-third of the town and it was a battlefield. Ms Skoryk-Shkarivska points out the water hose on the green grass by a destroyed fence: someone is watering their lawn.

“People want to live like before. They don’t accept the new reality.”

More destruction: Bucha supermarket Novus, a gas station. She waves her hand at a mountain of black metal that looks like a funeral mound.

“This was my son’s favourite place in town, Giraffe, a playroom on the second floor of the shopping mall.”

We are driving through the part where battles raged, next to the dorm of Irpin university. The windows are broken. During the past years, before COVID, over 12,000 students studied there. Universitetska street served as the border between the Russian-occupied territory and the area under Ukrainian control. One of the university buildings was turned into a shelter and humanitarian aid centre. The central building of the university is demolished by the Russian tanks, with little hope to restore it. 

“There was no particular reason. No military objective. They did it just for fun. People escaping this area drove and walked down Universitetska street all the way towards Kyiv to escape the Russian occupation. Walking here was extremely risky: the right side of the street was occupied. My son says, ‘How many dead houses do we have in town?’ He remembers this city being beautiful and he loves newly built houses so for him it is a big shock. His school had a tradition of singing Christmas carols on this street but now the houses are damaged or destroyed and he realizes that it won’t happen anymore. To the left, is the house of our main architect, in shambles. The Russians were looking for him. He has survived, and he is now rebuilding. Restoring the town is a huge challenge.”

We drive by a burned stomatology clinic, right next to an open café, teenagers in shorts and bright outfits are sipping iced drinks at the terrace. We drive along Vodoprovidna street, passing several piles of debris and construction waste outside. People are restoring their houses and the municipality is responsible for the garbage removal. The sight and the issues are so humdrum, and commonplace that I almost forget that the war has never stopped. I glance at my air-raid app: it is red, in fact, the whole country of Ukraine is targeted as we drive by the charred ruins of Irpin.

“The normal life is back,” says Ms Skoryk-Shkarivska. “Look at all the people riding bikes! The most popular transport here but it was really dangerous during the occupation. The Russians shot bicyclists.”

Making sense of it is impossible, I think. 

“Life goes on” 

We stop by a school used by the Russians as their headquarters. They had wrecked the place inside out, smashing windows, roofs, computers, and school equipment. 

“We are trying to get it ready for the school year on the 1st of September to get back to offline schooling. We are restoring everything and building a proper shelter in the basement, for the students and for the residents of the nearby neighbourhoods. With quite a big basement here, the shelter should come out really comfortable. Schools in Ukraine are not allowed to function without bomb shelters. Do you see the teenagers riding bikes, in uniforms? It’s all the rage now! Oh, and a kid and a person with a dog? It’s so inspiring.”

The Deputy Bucha Mayor does not show much emotion. Taking me through hell, just gives me facts, and does her duty, even after hours, being late to pick up her son. Yet, on seeing the old man shuffling down the lane with a limping, slow dog lagging behind, and a plump boy sweeping by on his scooter, her eyes lit up from inside. She is almost smiling. 

“It used to be a dead city. But, life goes on.”

We walk around the schoolyard, by the temporary housing built with the assistance of the Polish government for the Bucha residents who lost their homes and for internally displaced persons from the other areas of Ukraine, from the east and south. Ms. Skoryk-Shkarivska points out the grass again: it is neatly trimmed. Ukrainian and Polish flags flap in the wind. The Starlink is installed and the Internet is working as a lot of teachers and students live here. Kids are playing at a brand new playground. 

The Battle of Bucha 

We turn on Vokzalna street from Yablonska—the place of the battle of Bucha. A part of the Kyiv offensive, the battle of Bucha lasted from 27 February to 31 March 2022. The Russians, failing to encircle and capture Kyiv, withdrew forces.

Vokzalna Street, Bucha, Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine. A Russian military column was destroyed on 27 February 2022. Source: Ukrinform TV/Ukrainian Armed Forces.

“Everyone remembers this street, with destroyed Russian tanks everywhere. We were cleaning these houses, my colleagues, the deputy mayor responsible for this, the Mayor himself, and I, we all helped to clear the rubble.” 

We slow down at what used to be the most dangerous corner in Bucha. More than twenty bodies. Ms Skoryk-Shkarivska speaks in her matter-of-fact voice. Her face and her voice do not change, “One man was lying right there. Another one, over there. And the three bodies with tied up arms shot from the back—they were right there.”

 “Bucha is lucky. We love Bucha even more.”

Two kids jump up and down by the side of the road, holding a paper sign. It looks like a Sunday carwash or lemonade stand notice in the US. They are fundraising for the Ukrainian army. 

“Now we are driving to the apartment complex called Continent. It was robbed clean by the Russians. They went from flat to flat and took everything: computers, new furniture, home appliances, kitchen equipment. They loaded all these items on the big trucks and drove them first to Belarus and then to Russia. They stole other people’s property. We talked to the owners of these buildings and they told us that only 10% of the apartment complex’ residents have returned. This is a very low number. In Bucha, over 40% population came back to their apartments and houses. This complex is completely trashed, no doors, no windows, and it was brand new, built two years ago.”

Continent, Bucha. Photo by Zarina Zabrisky.

A supermarket: robbed. A power station: destroyed—and already restored. Two young women walk past a burned car in the parking lot in front of the already refurbished supermarket. Across the street, the LEGO club has just re-opened.

“It is my son’s favourite, and it will be his third lesson since the reopening. He’s so happy. And, our favourite café has also re-opened! Nobody wants to live in a place of tragedy. People want to live in a comfortable environment with green trees We think that even after this tragedy, Bucha can be an attractive place for people who fled the other regions of Ukraine. People moved here from Sloviansk or Kharkiv, southern and eastern areas, from the areas that are now under heavy fire. Bucha is lucky. We are not in the hostilities zone anymore. We are learning how to fight, how to support fighters, and to live a normal life at the same time.” 

“How do you get back to life and normalize the unspeakable?” I ask. “How do you combine coming back to life and feeling normal and knowing what has just happened?”

“Do you know what has caused this war? Putin and his dream of having Ukraine without Ukrainians. So, if Ukrainians stay abroad and don’t come back, Putin will succeed. We don’t want this. All this horror happened because Putin had never been punished for all the crimes he had committed. Chechen war. Syrian war. The annexation of Crimea. Our main duty is to stop Putin." 

"I think that the main duty of the world is to stop and punish Putin and to punish every killer responsible for these crimes. They killed because they thought they were allowed and would get away with it. The world should figure out how to punish the Russians who have already killed thousands of Ukrainians and keep waging this unfair and incomprehensible war.”

We pick up Ms Skoryk-Shkarivska’s son on the way back. He falls asleep in the back of the car. It's late but the deputy Bucha Mayor offers me a ride to the place I’m staying. 

“You know, we love Bucha even more now. When you have lost something, you understand how important it was. We want to live in a thriving, green city and commemorate those who had paid with their lives for our wellbeing.”

 I promise to do all I can to get the message out to the world and watch the little blue car fly forward along the ruins-framed highway—to Victory. 

(Writing by Zarina Zabrisky, editing by Klaudia Fior)

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