'Sick of being like monkeys in a zoo': life in Bucha after liberation

Bucha, a town 30 kilometres away from Kyiv, is breathing life again. (Credit: Olha Holovina)

Officials and foreign diplomats come to Bucha nearly every day. Life is coming back as reconstruction works slowly begin. This small town 30 kilometres away from Kyiv became synonymous with Russia’s violent crimes in Ukraine. Three months after its liberation, the town is healing its wounds with the help of volunteers.

“I have guests here every day. Former students bring me books because they know that my library at home burned down,” said Valentyna Karasiova, a 68-year-old Ukrainian language and literature teacher. “The other day I got a special treat: a bucket full of cherries.”

68-year-old teacher Valentyna Karasiova whose apartment was destroyed in Hostomel. (Credit: Olha Holovina)

“I opened my front door and just saw nothingness”

Valentyna previously lived in Hostomel – a town four kilometres from Bucha, home to the famed Antonov airport, which Russia tried to seize in the early days of the all-out war. Today, she doesn’t have a home, as her flat in a four-floored building was destroyed by a Russian missile. Luckily, by then she had fled to Volyn (north-west of Ukraine), where she was staying at strangers’ with her son and daughter-in-law.

“I came to see my apartment block twice. The first time I wanted to see what was still intact. The staircase in the building was still there. So I went up to the second floor, opened my front door, and just saw a hole – nothingness. The second time I came was in May when we were registering the damage”, Valentyna said.

Today, she lives in an emergency housing complex made of shipping containers in Bucha. The 68-year-old woman is grateful to have a mirror, a small cupboard, and 15 square metres to herself. Others have to share with two or three people. Shower and toilet cubicles are shared between dozens, and so is an equipped kitchen and a playroom for children. In front of the containers is a playground and ping-pong tables and a school is within walking distance.

The shipping container housing complex in Bucha, Ukraine. (Credit: Olha Holovina)

While the building of the primary school wasn’t affected by shelling, Russian soldiers set up in the high school during occupation. After the fighting and liberation of the city, the occupied building’s roof and windows were completely destroyed. All the equipment inside was stolen. Cleaning up took at good couple of weeks according to teachers.

Valentyna is both looking forward to September and dreading the return to class. She hopes that the school renovation works will be over by then and the children will be able to study in physical classrooms, not on Zoom. Her fears are that there won’t be enough money to build the roof and prepare the classrooms in time for the students’ arrival. Or worse, that the war will be back in Bucha.

Valentyna’s apartment block in Hostomel was partially destroyed by a missile. (Credit: Olha Holovina)

Like a symbol of life

When she returned to the town in late April, Valentyna looked after a small garden in front of her old apartment block with a neighbour. Everything was ”charred remains of bricks and concrete slabs, but between them, a lilac flower that broke through and blossomed.” 

“I almost cried, she said, it was like a symbol of life that goes on in spite of everything." 

According to preliminary studies, every third person killed in the Kyiv region was in a small town. In Bucha, 419 people were killed since the start of the war, while about 2,000 apartment blocks and private houses were damaged.

Bucha set up the two shipping container complexes, with support from the government of Poland, to house those who became homeless. According to Valentyna, a roof and a room is “all you need”.

Outpour of volunteers

Volunteers come to Bucha regularly. They bring clothes, food, medication, and provide psychological support. While primary concerns are food and a housing, some also offer beauty sessions. That’s the case of Olha Belytksa, a make-up artist who volunteers with hairdressers, skin professionals, and masseurs. 

Belytksa brought together “beauty volunteers”, which some jokingly call “beauty battalion”, through social media. They drive to various towns and villages in the Kyiv region to offer haircuts, colouring, manicures, and massages free of charge.

Olha Belytska is a make-up artist who decided to launch “Beauty Volunteers”. (Credit: Olha Holovina)

“When we had our first visit to Blyskavytsa – a small village that was under occupation for nearly two months – I heard many scary stories from the locals. You literally forget how to breathe [when you listen]. But all these people are full of love. It's always noisy, fun, and heartwarming around them. The gratitude that you feel coming from them is priceless,” the beautician said.

In Bucha, the volunteers set up a makeshift beauty salon inside the cultural centre. Appointments were snapped up quickly and long queues formed outside the venue. Still, with no money to spend on themselves, residents waited patiently for a treatment.

“Our role is to make them happy. It’s a sort of therapy for them and us. We cannot afford to cry in front of them. We smile, give them words of encouragement, and hope,” Olha noted.

Inside the shipping container housing in Bucha, Ukraine. (Credit: Olha Holovina)

Bucha in dire need of financing

Despite an out pour from volunteers, Bucha isn’t “actively receiving financial help”, according to the town’s deputy mayor, Serhiy Shepetko. He estimates that restorations could cost 1 billion euros. 

“We have delegation visits from all over the world. But in terms of financing, we have received 1 million euros so far: 500,000 from the government of Taiwan and 500,000 from our twin city Bergamo. We also received municipal equipment from the Red Cross,” he said.

For Oksana Lukianenko, a Bucha resident, concrete decisions need to be taken for the restoration of the town.

“Our community needs financing and investors. We are a little sick of being like monkeys in a zoo in which everybody comes to watch,” she said.