BORODYANKA, Ukraine — In the devastated town of Borodyanka, north of Kyiv, Natasha Romanenko has pushed paper into the bullet holes peppered across her windows.
It’s to keep the cold out, she tells us.
“You can see, there are holes where they were shooting directly in our window when we were hiding there,” she says, speaking through NPR’s translator
When Russian forces invaded and occupied the town, the damage was devastating. Ukrainian officials say Russia deliberately bombed civilians and that hundreds are still missing more than a week after the invading forces withdrew. Now, crews are sifting through the wreckage to see what – and who – survived.
We start to see signs of the destruction on the drive from Kyiv into Borodyanka. What should be a quick trip now takes hours as destroyed bridges mean more cars crowd onto the few reliable routes, and the military checkpoints create long lines on narrow roads.
We pass through the village of Dmitriovka and see a burnt-out car near homes reduced to rubble. A little further on there is a flattened tank.
Then, another destroyed car that has the word “children” spray painted in Russian along the side door.
We arrive on Borodyanka’s main street– Central Street –with a humanitarian convoy that immediately begins handing out food and water.
It’s here that we meet Natasha. She and her family spent a month hiding in a cramped, dark root cellar.
“What did we eat? Mostly potatoes,” she says. “I had some spare oil, and I have a cow, so I had milk. And I went to my neighbor, I gave her some milk. She gave me some other things, some cheese. So this is how we survived. Our cow saved us.”
Natasha takes us to the cellar, which is mostly filled with crates of potatoes. She explains that at night, they would lay a carpet over the crates and try to sleep on top of that, keeping warm under all the blankets they had.
In the final days of the occupation, Natasha says a Russian soldier confronted her. She had ventured out to milk her cow and he thought she was scouting Russian troop locations. She says he took her out to the middle of the road, and pointed a gun to her head.
“He was threatening me,” she says. “And what did I say to him? I said I just wish one thing: That he would see my face for the rest of his days, so he would never forget what he’s done here.”
The soldier spoke to someone else on his radio. Then, Natasha says, he let her go.
As the aid workers move through the main street, we break from the group and the scale of the destruction starts to sink in. It’s utter devastation everywhere you look.
There’s an apartment building blackened from flames, with the middle collapsed from the bombing. The windows in all the storefronts have shattered and roofs have collapsed. There are burned vehicles in the streets and most of the power lines are down and frayed on the ground.
Across from the destroyed apartment building, there’s a small park with a monument in the middle. On top sits a giant bust of Taras Shevchenko, the famous Ukrainian poet. Bullet holes pierce his forehead.
The tall pillar that the bust rests on is cracked and crumbling from all the shrapnel. Three policemen are holding a ladder while another man stands nearby, ready to climb to the top.
Yaroslav Halubchik is an artist from Kyiv and has come here to help create an ad hoc art project – an instant memorial of sorts.
“We’re calling it ‘The Curing of Shevchenko’ or ‘The Healing of Shevchenko,'” he says.
Yaroslav steps up the ladder, and starts to wrap a big gauze bandage around the bust’s giant head. As he does that, a man in a Ukrainian military uniform comes up and asks him what he’s doing.
Yaroslav explains that it’s performance art, and the soldier seems satisfied. It turns out, he was worried that they were repairing it.
“In this case, it is vital that we keep this monument as it is right now, it shouldn’t be touched,” the soldier says. He adds that it’s especially important because of who Shevchenko was.
“This is really important, because we all know that Shevchenko and other Ukrainian poets were always enemies of Russia,” he explains. “I really hope that people will rebuild everything here as it was, but we should keep this as it is now.”
We ask his name. He’s Yevhen Nyshchuk — the former Ukrainian minister of culture. He’s in the military now and based nearby.
We keep making our way down the main street. Building after building has collapsed from the bombardment of tank and rocket fire.
In the nearby town of Bucha, bodies were found in the street. Here, with so many collapsed structures, the worry is that bodies are still trapped underneath.
Several cranes carefully pick up debris, as recovery teams look for remains. There’s a playground in front of one of the buildings and a woman is sitting there on a bench next to a slide, watching the recovery work.
Her name is Ludmila Boiko.
“My sister and her son lived here. This is what’s left of them,” she says, pointing to a pile of old notebooks. “His mother kept his old notebooks from school.”
Ludmila found them scattered around the debris of the apartment building. That and some pictures, she says, are the only things she’s found.
Ludmila’s sister Olyna Vahnenko was 56. Her nephew, Yuri, was 24. He had just graduated from college.
They’d left their apartment and sought shelter. But on March 1, during a break in the shelling and bombing, Olena and Yuri went back. Ludmila says they talked on the phone, and Olyna said they had been able to shower and eat some food.
An hour later, Russian forces destroyed the building.
“Our friends were trying to help us, but for four days, it was a huge fire here,” Ludmila says. “And so first they were trying to fight the fire. They didn’t have a chance to do excavations right away.”
When the fire stopped, people started trying to look for survivors. Then shelling began again, and they had to flee.
After that, she says Russian forces were posted here, and nobody could get near the building.
Searching couldn’t resume until a month after the attack. So Ludmila sat, and waited.
“I just want to see how they discover all the bodies that they assume should be there, and then probably I would like to do something like with DNA testing because I want to know for sure what happened,” she says.
“I was so close with them that I don’t even know how I should live now. How should I live in this place?”
The crane continues to slowly remove rubble from a collapsed building.
Soon, workers discover a woman’s body. Ludmila climbs up the pile of rubble to look.
The body is removed, covered, and placed next to three others found earlier that day.
Ludmila goes back to the playground and sits down, continuing her vigil.