Letters from Ukraine: 10/04/21 – Volkzal’na Street, Bucha

Hellen Rose shares her eyewitness account of the destruction and devastation in Bucha following Russian retreat, tempered by the celebrations of Ukrainian armed forces and the stoicism of survivors.

Today in Bucha, they have cleared most of the civilian dead from the streets and basement cellars holding winter preserves – slaughtered, tortured, and raped by the Russian soldiers, who here in Ukraine they are laughing sadistic “demon gods,” destroying homes and killing civilians “for fun” . . . I wonder what it takes to go with a huge tank and experience the rush of exploding a suburban home, blowing up people sitting in their homes, dismembering children doing their homework and cuddling their pets, parents cooking, mum riding her bike home from work mowed down by a twenty-one-year-old Russian boy. The belongings of the murdered were, in some cases, still on the ground: the bicycle and jacket of mum shot down riding home still on the ground, along with the blood, another blood patch with a bag of dishevelled and burst grocery bags – people going about their daily business. When I saw the dead people, I thought I would throw up, I thought I’d be haunted, unable to cope, but I just wanted to help them, straighten up their clothes, fix their hair, put their shoes back on, help them recoup their dignity and natural composure.

After the mothers and children, grandfathers and teens are picked up by volunteer groups, holding back tears, bolstering themselves in every moment, putting the loved ones in black body bags and into vans marked “200.” They drive for hours down back roads, avoiding the Russian troops, who have destroyed main roads and now have all gone,  the day after all this; somehow the sun is out, and the atmosphere changes. 

We see a stoic kind of “victory lap” session of small groups and pairs of Ukrainian armed forces parading the whole streetful of destroyed Russian tanks, one after another along Volkzal’na St, Bucha. These soldiers turned up from every different category and rank. There were young, unbelievably fit, superhuman youths with masks over their faces, the elite of what Ukraine has to offer. They sure were a sight to behold; one was accompanied by a short blonde bombshell, dressed in the same army elite uniform, her face covered but her blonde ponytail swinging as she proudly strolled with her super fit physique like she was on a cat walk past the row of tanks, exploded and burned to dust, which she and her colleagues had bitterly, rejoicefully, finally halted and annihilated. The clothing and boots of the Russians were scattered with their ashes, the ashes of their incinerated bodies – that I suddenly realised we were all walking through and breathing in. Their hats and shirts were being collected by one man, his anger showing as he relished in the proof of their demise. Another soldier of higher rank found a Russian military insignia badge and had himself photographed holding it, then he dashed it to the ground and stomped on it grinding it into the dirt and ash. I felt the force of his boot and inwardly flinched at the strength of this gesture. With him was an anti-terrorist agent who was dressed snappily in black, a youngish man who became fixed on me. I didn’t realise it, but he started to question me –  was he flirting with me? I couldn’t tell. It seemed like conversation at first, but developed to a type of eye-piercing interrogation as if he suspected me; he had piercing blue eyes that reached into my head trying to read my thoughts. He asked me what my Instagram was so he could follow, and he typed in my name with only one “l” –  I use two, and I didn’t come up in the search. Thank god by that time George appeared and gave him his card; his attitude changed slowly, even blushing a little when I said, “Yes, please contact me and my husband . . .” His demeanour changed, we all relaxed. The springy young special forces guys cheered to each other, slapping each other on the back, arms around each other in their green, elite active wear, taking selfies and seeming to dance along with their happiness at this extraordinary win. A whole battalion of around thirty tanks had been completely incinerated, stopped literally in their tracks from killing any more civilians. For now, the town of Bucha is saved.

I suddenly saw two incredibly eye-catching men with beards: one with a white beard which had a black streak down the centre, and the other arrogantly sporting a full red beard, both perfectly coiffed as if they were prepared and attired for a military ball or public event. I started to realise their uniforms were different than the Ukrainian soldiers. They had light-coloured high pillbox-type fur hats, or felt, with the ear-warmer flaps pinned up at the sides. The white-bearded soldier was definitely of high rank; his swagger was charismatic and oozing power. They strolled the carnage with victorious pride and calm, perusing the scene with beautiful and masculine cold eyes. I immediately grabbed Kate to interpret and interview them. They were reluctant but acquiesced. After they answered my very considered questions with extensive grace, George arrived and reached to shake their hands. I did also, in thanks, and impulsively they withdrew their hands and explained that they could not touch the hands of women. They turned out to be Chechen Muslim fighters, suddenly the penny dropped and I also withdrew, putting my and to my heart I said “Alaikum Assalam,” (peace be with you). His face was suddenly surprised that I showed this etiquette, as he realised I did this on impulse. For an instant, I could see he even wondered if I was Muslim myself; we nodded and bowed slightly and moved on. Reading people and instinct is what George talks about all the time in the field – it’s a necessary survival skill, so suddenly I was on a street where everyone was reading each other overtime, on steroids, on high alert for spies, saboteurs, traitors, dangerous fools, innocent victims, the violent . . . survival breeds strange psychology.

Among this scene appeared a sorrow, stupefied group of locals, staring in shock at what was once their peaceful and prosperous village, a place they had built up with their own brute will, and their decades of perseverance through the poverty of the times before democracy had arrived. They are people that work with their heavy hands, hearts and sheer backbone, strong people, farmers who’ve had to till their own dry and boulder-strewn fields themselves because the horses or bulls have starved from drought or neglect by an “ever unconcerned Kremlin”  smugly prospering off their backs without sharing a ruble . . . or some other endless misfortune. Putin cruises on his “richest man in the world” super yacht while they now stare on in disbelief at the carcasses of tanks and houses completely exploded like large garbage piles at the tip. If you inspect these houses closely, you’ll see wallets full of money covered in the ashes, dolls, clothes, new bicycles just dishevelled, dismantled and ruined, and half-eaten ration packs, a half-eaten pirozhki. I interviewed the group of civilians and one woman started crying. I couldn’t understand her words, but I didn’t need to; tears filled my eyes also to see these hard-working people so cruelly tortured by a criminal who means to steal the very little that they have.

I started an interview with a shocked-looking local walking his bicycle through the detritus. Andrey turned out to be an architect who was here during the battle to nurse his father who had a heart condition. His house is on this very street. His father had passed away amidst all the blasting and destruction of his home. As he told me all this with his tear-filled eyes, all of a sudden behind me appeared an obtrusively loud Indian journalist who started very rudely bellowing over me, and interviewing someone right at my back! I turned and very sternly asked him to desist, when he suddenly burst forth with a loud verbal sexist attack on me.  I had seen him running around hollering insensitively in English beforehand down the road and ignored him, probably didn’t give him any attention and he didn’t like that. “You can see I’m here interviewing a man who has just lost his father and everything. What are you doing?” I asked, adding, “Please show some sensitivity and some professional journalist etiquette, here.” “Oh, hahaha yes you are more professional than me!” he yelled out, “There is a war on don’t you know!” he yelled hysterically as if I had no right to ask him to move his interview away from mine. I saw a few other female reporters there. One working solo, just using her iPhone, Middle Eastern, smiled at me and gave me a knowing wink.

Later on, I met another older female journalist who came up to photograph George with his diary sitting among this shattered world on a piece of house, drawing. She knew who he was and, clearly excited to capture the moment, she asked me many questions about him which I happily answered and more. “You are very supportive of your husband,” she said, seeming to imply that I was neglecting the worth of my own presence. I said, “Yes I have always respected him as an artist.” She stared at me, saying, “Which is probably rare.” I laughed nervously. “He supports me as well,” I added, feeling that I sounded almost pathetic. She wandered off with her incorrect presumptions into the rubble with her photographer. I guess I am also on the frontline of another battle: sexism towards female journalists.  I have only started to hold a camera on the frontlines with George since Waqar Alam, George’s second camera for over a decade, became too ill to work or travel in Pakistan and with travel restrictions during Covid. Waqar has recovered and will join us again soon.

The victory laps seemed to be over and the selfies taken, the sound of the wind blowing through the debris, the houses groaning as if in pain on their cracked and blasted foundations, front doors screeching on busted hinges, curtains flapping chaotically, wildly, out smashed glass windows, like surrender flags waived by ghosts, who are the only ones left in the houses along the street. The tanks were blown to hell and burned to cinders in fires so intense that they looked rusted and old like shipwrecks, but this had only happened yesterday. I saw that one house randomly, freakishly had been untouched, and a group of young men walked in the gate, grinning at the scene of destroyed Russian tanks that were by fate or the grace of god only centimetres away from destroying them. They were glad to see the strangeness of all these people and press with cameras wandering through their abruptly changed world, where once, only a quiet village road pottered about its daily routines. Amidst it all, Mother Nature will always prevail and the remaining trees, though some with large chunks of molten shrapnel hammered into their trunks, are budding with tiny, still tightly closed  blossoms and leaves. European spring is almost here. 

Volkzal’na Street Bucha will never be the same again.

Volk translates to Wolf in English, Zalna – Hall. This is via google translate; however, our translator tells me it just simply means “way to the train station” in Ukraine.

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