'Tell everyone what they have done to us': A month of terror in Bucha, Ukraine

'Tell everyone what they have done to us': A month of terror in Bucha, Ukraine
Bucha is a town of 35,000 people 23 miles northwest of Kyiv, Ukraine's capital.Erin Trieb for Insider
  • Russian forces occupied the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, Ukraine. At least 400 people were killed.
  • Survivors talked about their terror, as Russian forces occupied homes and fired on homes.

Editor's Note: Readers may find some of the images below disturbing.

BUCHA, UKRAINE—During Russia's month-long occupation of Bucha, Tanya Volynska's cat was the closest the family had to a security system.

"The cat was hiding in the wardrobe," Volynska told me. "If there is 'boom boom,' but the cat is sleeping, then everything is fine." But the cat disappearing into the wardrobe was a sign that the shelling was getting closer.

On the front gate, Volynska posted a sign that read "Children," hoping it would deter Russian troops from entering. Volynska, 46 years old and a social worker, had decided to stay put to look after her house, as Russian forces encircled their town. But she worried what soldiers might do to her might do to her 11-year-old daughter and her daughter-in-law, who's 22.

"Luckily, the Russian did not come into our house," she said. "Who knows what's in their heads… even rape… My daughter put her hoodie over her head to make herself look like a boy, so they wouldn't see that girls are here."


'Tell everyone what they have done to us': A month of terror in Bucha, Ukraine
Tanya Volynska's 11-year-old daughter (left) and daughter-in-law at home in Bucha.Erin Trieb for Insider

The family's modest home is just off of Vokzalna Street, near the center of this town of 35,000 people that sits 15 miles northwest of Kyiv, Ukraine's capital. After Bucha was retaken by Ukrainian forces April 1, Vokzalna Street was littered with armored military vehicles that looked a little like twisted and crushed soda cans. Ukrainian officials investigating war crimes, and journalists documenting the town's destruction, were seemingly everywhere—at the site of the mass graves, where hundreds of bodies have since been recovered, and interviewing locals about the rape, torture, and execution-style killings that had gone on. Many of the dead were found with their hands bound behind their back and with gunshot wounds to the head.

At first, Volynska, the two girls, and Volynska's father hid in their bathroom. Eventually, they started moving more freely around the house. "Every morning at 4 AM they were starting to shoot with really powerful 'boom booms!' Russians were shooting with their tanks and everything was shaking," she said. "We were just falling down on the floor, [praying] 'God, please save us, God please help us.'"

But the family had to eat. With no electricity, Volynska prepared meals in the garden behind the house. "They shoot 'boom' at us, and, while cooking, I'd stop stirring and say 'Those fucking bastards,' and then just keep cooking," she said.

March is the time to plant potatoes in Ukraine, and so Volynska spent the days digging in the garden. "We have to plant potatoes because we are Ukrainians," she said. When the shelling would start again, she said she would squat to the ground for cover.

As she showed me around, Volynska pointed out the flowers she had been tending to: irises, different kinds of tulips, marigolds. When I suggested she had been courageous, Volynska shrugged. "Courage? What kind of courage? No," she said. "The answer is I have to make [the food] for [my family]!"

'Tell everyone what they have done to us': A month of terror in Bucha, Ukraine
Tanya Volynska in her garden in Bucha, Ukraine.Erin Trieb for Insider

She explained that she had taken out loans to build the house, and that she had fought her ex-husband to keep it. "A lot of work and effort was given to this house. And then these Russian bastards are coming here, telling us to get out. How come? I had to defend it. I can say that if we left, everything would have been looted."

Volynska's father cut in to say that, the day before, the body of a 30-year-old man had been discovered at one of the shops in town, his face mutilated.

Survivors said the Russian troops had been aggressive and violent—breaking into people's homes, looting, and destroying property.

At the UN, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called Bucha a "fake attack" carried out after Russia's withdrawal, and said the dead bodies in Bucha's streets had been "staged." But a mounting body of evidence contradicts that claim. An analysis of satellite images by the New York Times found that bodies had appeared around Bucha well before Russian forces withdrew. Last week, the Security Service of Ukraine released a series of intercepted audio recordings allegedly revealing that Russians are given orders to kill civilians. In the recordings, high ranking Russian officers can be heard giving orders to "level the entire village" and "slay them all."

Many of Bucha's residents had managed to leave before the Russians arrived. But others I spoke with, like Volynska, decided to stay. One man didn't want to leave his dogs behind. Another woman said she felt she was too old to leave; she had never lived anywhere else.


Nadia and Tanya

Down the street from Volynska's home, I met an 83-year-old woman, Nadezhda Omelchenko (known as Nadia), and her daughter, Tatyana Burimenko, 64 (known as Tanya).

A projectile had crashed through their roof and landed in the attic. Ukrainian officials instructed the women not to touch it, and it was still there. Nadia showed me the bullet casings that she had collected from the yard. "They left us these souvenirs," she said.

'Tell everyone what they have done to us': A month of terror in Bucha, Ukraine
Nadezhda Omelchenko, 83, displays the bullet casings that she had collected from the yard in Bucha, Ukraine.Erin Trieb for Insider

Tanya said that she and her mother had stayed to fend off looting. "Also I wanted to help my mother. I would never leave my mother alone," she said.

The first time the Russians came to the house, they entered and asked to see Nadia and Tanya's documents. They told them not to worry and even shared some of their food. "They thought they came here to save us. They had a white flag and white rag on their arms," Nadia said. They parked a tank in the yard, crushing a 25-year-old apricot tree, and wrote "From Scova, with love" on the driveway. (Scova is either the last name of the soldier who etched the graffiti or is the name of a town in Russia where the soldier is most likely from.")

When they came a second time they came, toward the end of the occupation, "they were very rude," Nadia said. "They started to look in the houses around, looting, searching for expensive things." They broke Tanya's cellphone, she thinks, to cut off her only way of communicating with relatives in Kyiv.


Nadia pointed to an apartment complex across the way. "In that building over there, there was a sniper."


Some 15 miles from Bucha, Borodyanka looks like a scene from WWII. Like Bucha, Borodyanka is a commuter town without any military targets.

Entire apartment towers had been hollowed out, ripped to shreds and leveled. Debris from people's homes—clothing, children's dolls, toaster ovens, picture albums, bicycles—lay mangled and scattered about the town center. In the surrounding pine forests, trees were snapped in half, like broken toothpicks.

Several hundred people, at least, were killed here. Borodyanka's mayor has said the toll could be far higher. The indiscriminate killing of civilians is being investigated as a possible war crime, as well as the suspected use of cluster bombs, which disperse hundreds of submunitions while firing toward their target, creating catastrophic damage.

Near a destroyed apartment tower on Central Street, Borodyanka's main road, I met a woman named Olena Lykhobaba, 46. Her family moved into the building when she was eight years old, and they ran a computer-repair store on the ground floor. "And now all this has gone," she told me. "Just for nothing. Really, for nothing."


"Tell everybody about this, that they're real animals. The Russians, they are animals," she said. "Tell everyone what they have done to us."

Bag Number Four

A few days after my first visit to Bucha, another mass grave was discovered behind the Church of St. Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints. I returned to photograph the recovery of the bodies.

For several hours, I watched workers carry bodies up from a ditch, place them in black bags, lay them out in rows, and number them. Eventually, around 30 members of the public were allowed in to help identify the dead.

'Tell everyone what they have done to us': A month of terror in Bucha, Ukraine
Volodymyr Stiefiyenko and his wife at the site of the mass grave.Erin Treib for Insider

On a grassy hill, I watched Volodymyr Stiefiyenko collapse into his wife's arms, weeping. He had last seen his brother, Dmitry — they called him Dima — on March 6, when Dima went to visit his 7-year-old daughter. A friend told Stiefiyenko that he had seen Dima being led away by Russian soldiers.

"I began looking for him everywhere," Stiefiyenko told me. "I wasn't even afraid of stepping on grenades or landmines. I was just looking for him all around, but I couldn't find him."


"When they opened the bag, I immediately recognized him," Stiefiyenko said. "Bag number four. I thought maybe I could come here to touch him, to hug him, and to close his eyes. Maybe I can touch his hair."

'Tell everyone what they have done to us': A month of terror in Bucha, Ukraine
A row of bodies at the site of a mass grave in Bucha, Ukraine.Erin Trieb for Insider

"How can we watch this?" he continued. "These people who were not guilty at all, killed and tortured, just for nothing. They didn't do anything bad at all. How much suffering do we have to endure?"

(This post has been corrected. The object that landed in Nadezhda Omelchenko and Tatyana Burimenko's attic was a projectile, not a rocket, as a previous version of the story said.)