‘This is not the end’: children who survive Bucha’s panic

BUCHA, Ukraine (AP) – The coffin was made from pieces of a closet. In a dark basement beneath a building shaken by the bombings of war, there were few other options.

Six-year-old Vlad saw his mother being taken from the shelter last month and into the courtyard of a house nearby. The burial was quick and disastrous.

Now the Russian army has withdrawn from Buka after a month-long occupation, and Vlad’s father, Ivan Drahun, fell to his knees at the foot of the grave.

He reached out and touched the dirt near his wife Mariana’s feet. “hi how are you?” He said during the visit last week. “I miss you so much. You left so soon. You didn’t even say goodbye.”

The boy also visits the grave, placing a juice box and two cans of cooked beans on it. Amidst the tension of the war, his mother could barely eat. The family still does not know from which disease he died. They, like their city, barely know how to move.

Buka witnessed some of the most terrifying scenes of the invasion of Russia, and since then almost no children have been seen on its silent streets. Many bright playgrounds in the ever-popular community, with good schools on a far side of the capital Kyiv, are empty.

The Russians used the children’s camp at Bucha as an execution ground, and bloodstains and bullet holes mark a dungeon. On a ledge near the entrance to the camp, Russian soldiers placed a toy tank. It appears to be attached to fishing wire – a potential booby trap in the most vulnerable places.

A few steps away from Vlad’s house, some Russians used a kindergarten as a base, leaving it intact, while other nearby buildings suffered damage. The cover of the artillery shells used was left in the yard with a fence. In a nearby playground, white and red tape marked unexploded ordnance. The boom of de-mining operations was so fast that they set off car alarms.

In the apartment block where Vlad, his older brother Vova and sister Sofia live, someone spray-painted “Children” in hair-high letters on the exterior wall. Beneath it, a wooden box once used for ammunition contained a teddy bear and other toys.

This is where Buka’s delicate renovation can be seen.

A small group of children from the neighborhood gathered to distract from the war. Clad in a winter coat, he kicked a football, wandered through the glass window above with bags of snacks handed out by the called volunteers.

Their parents, taking in the debilitating heat of spring after weeks in a cold basement, contemplated how they tried to protect the children. “We covered his ears,” said Polina Shyamanska, her 7-year-old great-grandson Nikita. “We hugged her, kissed her.” He tried to play chess and the boy let him win.

Upstairs, in a neighbor’s apartment where Vlad’s father has reunited his family with a neighbor to help manage his children’s collection, Vlad cuddles up in bed with another boy and plays cards. The radiator did not give off any heat. Still there was no gas, no electricity, no running water.

Not everyone in Vlad’s family could stand to return to their apartment nearby. From the bottles of perfume on the table to the serene kitchen by the front door, memories of Marina are everywhere.

In the living room, time has stopped. Lame balloons hung from overhead lights. A string of colorful flags still hangs on the wall, along with a family photo. It showed Ivan and Maryna holding Vlad on the day of his birth. They celebrated his birthday on 19 February.

Five days later, the war began. And family life shrank into a concrete half-room in the basement, lined with blankets and strewn with sweets and toys. It was very cold, Ivan recalls. He and Maryna did everything they could to silence the sound of the gunfire for Vlad and keep him calm. But they were also afraid.

Two weeks ago, Ivan took Vlad to the temporary toilet at the shelter and went to visit the neighbors. Then he came to Maryna to tell him that he was going out. “I touched her shoulder, and she was cold,” he said. “I realized she was gone.”

At first, he said, Vlad did not understand what had happened. The boy said that his mother is gone. But at the time of burial, the boy saw Ivan kneeling and crying, and now he knows what death is.

Death is inseparable from Buka. Local officials told The Associated Press that at least 16 children were among the hundreds of people killed. Those who survived faced a long recovery.

“They’ve felt it’s calmer and quieter now,” Ivan said. “But at the same time, older children understand that this is not the end. The war is not over. And it is difficult for the younger ones to explain that the war is still on.”

He said that children are getting used to. He has seen a lot. Some even saw dogs being killed.

Now war has slipped into the games they play.

In a sandbox outside the kindergarten, Vlad and a friend “bombed” each other with handfuls of sand.

“I am Ukraine,” said one. “No, I’m Ukraine,” said another.

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