Escaping Bucha

One family’s flight from horror, two years on

Escaping Bucha

The window of Viktoria Druzenko’s house after shelling. Photo from her personal archive

When the mayor of Bucha, a small town near Kyiv, announced the town’s liberation following the withdrawal and retreat of the Russian units that occupied it for 33 days, jubilation might normally have been expected.

Instead, however, Ukrainian troops found unimaginable scenes of violence inflicted on Ukrainian civilians, many of whom were found shot in the head with their arms tied behind their backs. Overnight, Bucha became a byword for the brutal terror the invading Russian military brought with it wherever it went.

Some locals risked their lives to escape Bucha while it was still under occupation. One of those who made it out alive was lawyer Viktoria Druzenko, who told researchers for project Exodus-2022, which collects testimonies from Jewish people forced to become refugees by the Russian invasion, what was going on in the town.

Viktoria Druzenko in a basement in Bucha. Photo from her personal archive

Viktoria Druzenko in a basement in Bucha. Photo from her personal archive

Tanks, empty and full

On the morning of 24 February, we awoke to the sound of explosions at the airport in Hostomel, 5 kilometres away. Our friends who lived there even sent us a video of Russian paratroopers landing. We couldn’t believe this was happening and were simply at a loss for words in those first couple of days.

When we came to our senses, we realised that we weren’t sure if we even had enough petrol in the car to reach Kyiv. There were no air raid sirens, so we relied on our dog — she would perk up her ears, freeze, and bristle. By the third day, we were cut off, the shops were empty, and we were eating last year’s matzah.

The children were afraid of the explosions, so they slept in the basement of our apartment building. It was cramped — several families and their children were sleeping there. On the third day of the occupation, the internet and mobile services stopped working properly. The Russians bombed the water tower, and we were left without running water, electricity, and eventually gas. We had to climb up to the very top of our nine-storey building to get a good enough signal to tell our relatives that we were still alive.

The basement where Viktoria and her family slept. Photo: personal archive of Viktoria Druzenko

The basement where Viktoria and her family slept. Photo: personal archive of Viktoria Druzenko

At the end of the first week, Ukrainian forces destroyed a Russian convoy on Vokzalna Street. The fighting was so fierce that even in the basement everything was shaking. Meanwhile, our neighbours kept telling us about how their friends or family members had been killed while trying to leave town. Their bodies couldn’t be retrieved and just lay there in the street.

When an enemy convoy was passing by our building, one of the residents threw a Molotov cocktail from his window and shouted: “Glory to Ukraine!” The Russians responded by machine-gunning the windows. 

Then, one of the Russian tanks stopped right in front of our window and pointed its gun at us. When it drove off, bottles of expensive whiskey and packets of crisps stolen from the shop were left scattered on the lawn. We lived on the first floor, so we could see everything.

During that first week, the children were so scared they wouldn’t leave the basement. When the cold became unbearable however, we moved with several other families into a small vestibule between flats. It was cramped, but warm.

The Russians shot at ambulances and killed volunteers who delivered aid, though it depended on the particular unit. In other parts of town, there were Kadyrovites [ethnic Chechen units under the control of Ramzan Kadyrov deployed to the Kyiv region during the first stage of the invasion] who were said to shoot people at point-blank range. But in the centre, it was mostly [Russian] boys.

A burnt-out building in Bucha. Photo: personal archive of Viktoria Druzenko

A burnt-out building in Bucha. Photo: personal archive of Viktoria Druzenko

The deadly road out

Realising we had to get out of Bucha, we went to the evacuation point at the town hall on 9 March. For five hours, we waited for the buses to arrive, but the Russians didn’t let them through that day. However, a group of cars that was planning to follow the buses had also assembled, but they too were not allowed to leave, even though the safety corridor had been agreed upon by Moscow and Kyiv.

But someone freaked out and drove off first, followed by several others. We didn’t dare to follow them then, but another column of cars formed there the next day. People wore white armbands and wrote the word “children” on the car windows. Everybody tried to take on as many passengers as possible. We took another family from our building, so we had three women and three children in the car, plus my husband who was driving.

The Russians confiscated the phones or destroyed the SIM cards of anyone who left Bucha on 9 March. But we used some old mobile phones we found as decoys that we left in plain sight, while hiding our actual phones under the car mats.

I wanted to take photos as we drove, but was told that I might get killed by the Russians if they found out. The road out of town was lined with the ruins of houses and unexploded ordnance. Near the shopping centre we passed a shot-up car that had dead bodies inside it. I could even see that the woman had red hair.

As we turned towards the village of Vorzel, we saw a burnt-out car with white rags and the word “children” on it.

We wondered how many cars like that we’d encounter on the journey and whether we would end up among them. My friend’s daughter’s classmate was in one car with her parents that got shot at. The parents survived, but she did not.

We followed a strict route from Bucha towards Vorzel that passed through Russian roadblocks. The road was full of Russian tanks and armoured personnel carriers (APCs) — pretty much every backyard had a tank in it.

We had just enough fuel to reach the first petrol station in Kyiv. We had been very afraid that we’d run out of fuel midway. Upon arrival, our relatives advised us to get some rest and take a shower, since we hadn’t had access to water for so many days. But we decided that we would wait until we reached Lviv for that. We spent the night in Lviv, then went to Warsaw, passed a consular check, and flew to Israel.

A car with the word “children” on it, destroyed in shelling. Photo: personal archive of Viktoria Druzenko

A car with the word “children” on it, destroyed in shelling. Photo: personal archive of Viktoria Druzenko

What we lost

What did we leave behind? Behind our building there is now a mass grave, where 76 people were buried in sacks on 11 March. That was the first time the Russians allowed the locals to collect the bodies that had been left lying in the streets. There were more burials after that, and that’s not counting all those who were buried in backyards, vegetable gardens and flowerbeds, or the bodies later found in basements, garages and elsewhere. There is also a large plot of unmarked graves in the cemetery where bodies that couldn’t be identified were buried.

Artur Rudenko, a young man who worked at the summer camp our children used to attend, died during those days. After the town was liberated, his body was found in a mass grave in the nearby village of Myrotske.

Then there was Zhanna Kameneva. I would often buy vegetables, fruit and milk at her store. Her burnt-out car was found in April, the search took so long as her car was known to be blue, but the fire had turned it an ashen grey. On 5 March, Zhanna was attempting to evacuate three other women from Bucha when a Russian APC shot at their car.

My colleague, Margaryta Chekmaryova, tried to leave town in early March with her husband and two children when a Russian APC shot at their car. Margaryta and the children were killed on the spot, while her husband was flung into a ditch and lost a leg, but survived. Later, he would give his own testimony about what happened. Our friends’ neighbours were killed while they stopped at an intersection, and their bodies were just left in the car.

There was almost nothing left of my friend’s uncle when he was found … His remains had to be scraped off the walls. It was as if he had never existed.

The mother of one of my husband’s employees died while hiding in the cellar and had to be buried in the yard. Many others have gone missing including the entire family of one of my daughter’s classmates and the parents of a boy who went to kindergarten with my youngest daughter. And there are many more missing people whom I didn’t know personally, but had seen around town.

We now rent a flat in Jerusalem, and our daughters go to a Naale high school, whose pupils come from all over the former Soviet Union. The topic of war is taboo in class, although the students still discuss it among themselves. Interestingly, many of the Russian kids support Ukraine, have Ukrainian flags at home, and in some cases even attend pro-Ukrainian rallies.

There are also Russian expats at our Hebrew language school who support Ukraine, though they still consider Russia to be their home. We became friends with one young couple from Moscow who had completed the paperwork they needed to migrate to Israel before the war. Having initially planned to emigrate in the summer of 2022, they decided to leave almost immediately after the invasion, as they couldn’t bear to remain in Russia any longer.

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