BORODYANKA, Ukraine — In the devastated town of Borodyanka, north of kyiv, Natasha Romanenko has stuffed paper into bullet holes strewn across her windows.
It’s to pass the cold, he tells us.
“You can see, there are holes where they were shooting directly at our window when we were hiding there,” he says, speaking through NPR’s translator.
When Russian forces invaded and occupied the city, the damage was devastating. Ukrainian officials say Russia deliberately bombed civilians and that hundreds are still missing more than a week after the withdrawal of the invading forces. Now, teams are sifting through the remains to see what and who survived.
We began to see signs of destruction on the road from Kyiv to Borodyanka. What should be a quick trip now takes hours as destroyed bridges mean more cars pile up on the few reliable routes, and military checkpoints create long lines on narrow roads.
We pass through the village of Dmitriovka and see a burned car near the houses reduced to rubble. A little further on is a flattened tank.
Then another destroyed car that has the word “kids” spray-painted in Russian along the side door.
We arrive at the main street of Borodyanka, Central Street, with a humanitarian convoy that immediately begins to distribute food and water.
It is here that we meet Natasha. She and her family spent a month hiding in a cramped, dark basement.
“What did we eat? Mainly potatoes,” she says. “I had some spare oil, and I have a cow, so I had milk. And I went to my neighbor, gave her some milk. She gave me some other things, some cheese. That’s how we survive. Our cow saved us.
Natasha leads us into the basement, which is mostly filled with boxes of potatoes. She explains that at night they would put a rug over the boxes and try to sleep on top of it, keeping warm under whatever blankets they had.
In the last days of the occupation, Natasha says she was confronted by a Russian soldier. She had ventured out to milk her cow and he thought she was scouting for Russian troop locations. She says he pulled her into the middle of the road and put a gun to her head.
“He was threatening me,” she says. “And what did I tell her? I told her that I only wanted one thing: that she see my face for the rest of her days, so that she never forgets what she has done here.”
The soldier spoke to another person on his radio. So, Natasha says, he let her go.
As the aid workers make their way down the main street, we are separated from the group and the scale of the destruction begins to sink in. It is total devastation wherever you look.
There is an apartment building blackened by flames, its center collapsed from the shelling. The windows of all the storefronts have been shattered and the roofs have collapsed. There are burnt-out vehicles on the streets and most of the power lines are down and frayed on the ground.
In front of the destroyed apartment building, there is a small park with a monument in the middle. Above it is a giant bust of Taras Shevchenko, the famous Ukrainian poet. Bullet holes pierce his forehead.
The tall pillar on which the bust rests is cracked and crumbling from all the shrapnel. Three policemen hold up 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, a kind of instant memorial.
“We call it ‘The Shevchenko Cure’ or ‘The Shevchenko Cure,'” he says.
Yaroslav climbs the ladder and begins to wrap a large gauze bandage around the giant head of the bust. As he does so, a man in a Ukrainian military uniform approaches and asks what he is doing.
Yaroslav explains that it is an artistic performance and the soldier seems satisfied. It turned out that he was worried that they were repairing that.
“In this case, it is vital that we keep this monument as it is now, it must not be touched,” says the soldier. He adds that it is 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 people rebuild everything here the way it was, but we should keep this the way it is now.”
We ask for your name. This is Yevhen Nyshchuk, the former Minister of Culture of Ukraine. He is in the army now and has his base near him.
We keep going down the main street. Building after building has collapsed under the bombardment of tanks and rockets.
In the nearby town of Bucha, bodies were found in the street. Here, with so many collapsed structures, the concern is that bodies are still trapped below.
Multiple cranes carefully pick up debris as recovery teams search for debris. There is a playground in front of one of the buildings and a woman is sitting on a bench next to a slide, watching the reclamation work.
Her name is Ludmila Boiko.
“My sister and her son used to live here. This is what’s left of them,” he says, pointing to a stack of old notebooks. “His mother kept his old notebooks from school.”
Ludmila found them scattered among the rubble of the apartment building. That and some photos, she says, are the only things she has found.
Ludmila’s sister, Olyna Vahnenko, was 56 years old. Her nephew, Yuri, was 24 years old. He had just graduated from college.
They had left their apartment and sought refuge. But on March 1, during a break in shelling and shelling, Olena and Yuri returned. Ludmila says that they spoke on the phone and Olyna said that they had been able to take a shower and eat something.
An hour later, Russian forces destroyed the building.
“Our friends were trying to help us, but for four days there was a big fire here,” says Ludmila. “So first they were trying to fight the fire. They didn’t get a chance to dig right away.”
When the fire stopped, people started looking for survivors. Then the shelling started again and they had to flee.
After that, he says, the Russian forces were stationed here and no one was able to get close to the building.
The search could not be resumed until a month after the attack. So Ludmila sat down and waited.
“I just want to see how they discover all the bodies that they assume should be there, and then I would probably like to do something like a DNA test because I want to know for sure what happened,” he says.
“I was so close to 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 debris from a collapsed building.
Soon, the workers discover the body of a woman. Ludmila climbs up to the rubble heap to look.
The body is removed, covered and placed next to three others found that same day.
Ludmila returns to the playground and sits down, continuing her vigil.