Borodyanka is a quiet urban-type village in the Kyiv region, not far from Bucha. Russian troops occupied the village in the first days of the war, and stayed for more than a month. Now there are ruins instead of houses, and the number of civilians who died during the Russian invasion is already in the dozens. Holod journalist Taisia Bekbulatova visited the village and reports how mass graves are being dug up, people are looking for the missing, and are trying to rebuild their lives after the occupation.
This article is republished here as part of Geneva Solutions collaboration with independent Russian publication Holod for our project, “Ukraine Stories”. The original version in Russian can be read here.
Young tree saplings blossom near the hospital building in Borodyanka. A black dog snoozes peacefully in the grass.
Not far from the admission room five bodies, wrapped in colourful blankets and sheets, lie on the ground in a row. A sixth body has not yet been dug out of the ground. Locals used to bury the dead during the Russian occupation here. Now they are being taken out to be examined and reburied in the cemetery.
Near the mass grave stands a young man in a grey cap called Alexander Salov. “This is my father,” he says briefly, nodding at the body in the middle. His feet, shoed with black sneakers are visible from under the khaki cloth. The corpse has no head. “His head was run over by a tank,” Salov says.
His father Sergey Salov turned 64 on the first day of the war. He came to Ukraine from Russia; his sons were already born here. On 28 February, Salov left home to stop a convoy of Russian military equipment. “He wasn't even in the army, he went with his bare hands,” Alexander says. “We found him in the street.”
The mass grave is situated near the morgue in Borodyanka. A few dozen metres away there are three fresh graves with homemade crosses. On them are names written by hand: Kostik Anatolievich Boyko, Yura Melnichenko and Katya Shishkina. Chocolates and green apples have been placed at the head of the graves.
Russian troops appeared in Borodyanka, an hour's drive from the capital, on the first day of the war, 24 February. Convoys of military equipment marched through it to Kyiv. They failed to capture the city, and in the first days of April the Russians left. The occupation of Borodyanka lasted more than a month. During the first days of the war, residents of Bucha and Gostomel, which were closer to Kyiv, also came to the village, hoping it would be quieter.
So did the parents of 15-year-old Katya Shishkina. The family lived in Hostomel, a nearby village on the outskirts of Irpin,.
Vanya, 16, who was in a parallel class with Katya, says that the Shishkins' car was fired upon by Russian soldiers at the entrance to Borodyanka. His father and mother were wounded but survived, and a piece of shrapnel hit Katya in the lung. A surgeon from a local hospital operated on the girl, but could not save her. Now her small, puny body, wrapped in a blue blanket, lies on the ground next to the large bodies of the men. “She was beautiful, kind,” Vanya says of her friend.
Near the hospital are private houses, dogs barking. Sergey Ivanovich, an elderly local resident, comes out of the yard. He wants to say something, but he can’t - his mouth is gasping for air, trying to suppress the approaching sobs.
“I buried a girl,” he says with difficulty. A doctor came from the hospital and told him he had to bury the girl. “They gave me a shovel, and two other guys dug the hole. Then they brought her in a blanket.”
Sergey Ivanovich and his family spent more than a month under occupation. His son Sergey Onofrejchuk says that he arrived with his children at his parents’ house from Bucha on the first day of the war. Russian soldiers came to the yard twice.
“They searched me, checked my hands, to see whether I had fought or not. I didn't fight, I didn't serve,” Onofreichuk says. “On the first day, there were probably forty people. They stood around the house. There was a lot of military gear. Two tanks pointed the barrels of their guns at a house from the side of the road. I was frightened, of course, not so much for myself, as for children.”
Then they came a second time; but this time there were 200 of them. “[They came into] every yard, every gate. They checked us and told us not to leave the yard. If we do, there will be aggression, they will shoot.”
Onofreichuk's cousin and two daughters also came to Borodyanka. As a result, ten people lived in the house, four of them children. “They [Russian forces] said you can throw the children on the bus and let them leave. The adults stay at home,” Onofreichuk continues. “I didn't send the children anywhere.”
The occupation lasted for 38 days. The family spent most of the time in the basement, where potatoes were usually stored, escaping shelling and explosions. The airstrikes on the village were so strong that the cellar door would bounce.
“We cooked on the stove. The food we bought in the house was enough for a week and a half. Then we used a hammer and a coffee grinder to grind the grain we used to feed the chickens and bake tortillas with it,” he said. Locals, who recognised that there were children in the house, also helped.
They would bring a piece of lard, a piece of meat, some flour. “We did not eat ourselves; we left it for the children".
A bearded, dark-eyed man in black clothes approaches Onofreichuk. It was Yuri, one of the men who used to bring food to the house. "I was a humanitarian aid worker myself," he says, grinning. “Where there were stores, we would break into them… There was no other option."
On 12 March, when the Russian military came to the house for the last time, Onofreichuk tried to talk to them: “I'm a Russian-speaking person, I was born in Crimea, I've been living since 2000 in Bucha,” he told them.
“I said – ‘guys, how long can this go on?’ ‘It doesn't depend on us,’ the soldiers said. Then they turned around and left.”
Onofreichuk’s father has a sister living in Crimea. The man describes his conversation with his aunt: “‘You don't understand anything, we came to rescue you.’ I said, ‘why were you rescuing us? Were we drowning? We are free people’”.
The head of the regional police, Andrei Nebytov, says that the bodies of 1,045 civilians have already been found in the Kyiv region. Most of them – 908 –were found in the Buchanskiy district, which includes Borodyanka. “These are civilians who had nothing to do with territorial defence or military formations,” Nebytov stresses.
“Most of them, 50 to 75 per cent, were shot with automatic weapons or machine guns. There are others who were killed by mines and explosions, by Grad fire.” [Editor’s note: a “Grad” is a multiple launch rocket system.]
Vadim Chernyshuk, deputy chief of one of the Bucha district police departments, works with his colleagues in the building of the local school. He says that in Borodyanka, 80 corpses have already been issued for autopsy, most of the bodies – about 60 – have signs of violent death. Georgi Yerko, acting head of Borodyanka, told Holod “that 41 bodies were found under the rubble, and gunshot wounds were found in another 20 people”.
Nebytov is certain that the mass grave on the hospital grounds in Borodyanka is not the last one. "[Residents] went back, visited their homes, looked in their cellars, in their wells - and there are people there,” he says. “We get messages every day: they found bodies there, there’s a burial there, there’s only [pits] with licence plates or plaques.”
The job of finding and identifying all the people killed can take more than a year, the police officer admits. “There was no need for the army to kill so many civilians,” he adds. “They did not pose any threat, they did not offer any resistance. They were just shot for being Ukrainians.”
In the centre of Borodyanka, Sergey Yarmoshchenko, his wife Natalia and their friend Vladimir are making a fire from the army wooden crates left by the military. They are cooking soup in an enamelled bucket on top of a fire. When asked what it is made of, Sergey answers that it is made of everything he found.
The couple now live in a friends’ apartment. They no longer have a house of their own because it was shot at from a tank. Their three sons are not in Borodyanka now – they were taken to a safe house. “Our neighbor from the first floor was cooking and her leg was torn off,” says Sergey.
They took her to the hospital without her leg. However, he thinks they were lucky: “At first, they wanted to go to the basement, then we decided not to go there. After that, 29 people were taken out of there [dead]. There were a lot of children there, too.”
The group did not complain about life: they have humanitarian aid and can take water from a well. When the electricity went out, Sergey and Natalia started burning candles, using found shell casings as candlesticks. “We could drink vodka because the stress, you know,” Yarmoshchenko justifies himself. “
At least then we can sleep. For about a month I did not sleep at all. Night comes - this is the worst time of day, you do not know where to put yourself. There is nothing but silence”.