MAKARIV, Kyiv Oblast – Life is timidly reappearing in the half-destroyed town of Makariv.
A dozen women in headscarves and rolled-up sleeves clean up the street, armed with brooms, against the apocalyptic backdrop. Not far, one of them is crying on her husband's shoulder.
Ripped-open buildings and craters are everywhere, the scars of violent battles that repelled the Russians from this strategic town located 30 kilometers west of Kyiv.
Over 200 buildings were destroyed and 600 severely damaged by mortars and artillery. Russians retreated on April 1, after occupying the northern part of the city, from where reports of atrocities keep emerging.
On the other side of the street, Makariv Mayor Vadym Tokar, clad in military fatigues, starts his day by meeting with volunteers with the goal to revive the town.
His main task is to help the people coming back and those who never left. Only 1,000 of the town's 15,000 residents remained behind and it's no easy task to welcome them back to the city without electricity, gas or running water.
Even though he's sturdy and tall, the 39-year-old Tokar admitted that rebuilding Makariv was a heavy burden. Both his and his parents' homes were destroyed in the fighting.
“I feel lost, I don't know what to do. I don’t know how to help these people," he told the Kyiv Independent while taking a deep drag on his cigarette.
“All I feel is hate towards Russians,” he said.
It's Tokar's duty to take care of the town but he is mindful that the Russians can come back at any moment. While civilians and volunteers help clean Makariv, the military digs in for another wave of attack.
"We can't rebuild the city at the moment, so we help with basic needs but we also need to think about defending it if they come back," he said.
Born in Makariv, Tokar stayed in the city during the fighting to help civilians evacuate. When his parents' home was destroyed, he took it upon himself to rescue his family, trapped behind the Russian lines in an occupied part of Makariv. This was a dangerous operation, as Russians regularly targeted civilian cars.
When Russians tried to take the town on Feb. 28, an old man, his daughter and her eight-year-old girl tried to evacuate. Russians opened fire at them. Only the girl survived, under the corpses of her family, Tokar said. His family survived.
The Russians mainly occupied the northern part of the town. They placed mines and explosives where they lived or looted, and booby traps have been found even in refrigerators and washing machines.
Oleksandr Holovchenko, 70, invited the Kyiv Independent to see what the Russians had done to this house. Russian shelling ripped his backyard wide open and broke the wall behind it. He had to replace the door when he returned and discovered the damage. On the other side of the road, the skeleton of a rusty, burned-down truck with a V on its side stands as a testimony to the fighting.
“They came and drank everything,” Holovchenko told the Kyiv Independent and sobbed.
His only remaining son, who was in the Territorial Defense forces, was wounded by a shell and didn’t survive the injury. His other son died in 1996, and his wife died last year; the rest of his family is now in Poland, where Holovchenko will not go.
“What am I going to do?” he kept repeating. “They took everything from me, I don’t know what to do with my life.”
“I have nothing left,” he said. “I’m going to die here.”
Blown-up houses are more common on the road up north.
During the battle, residents had to move into their cellars to avoid being killed. Most of them feared another attack from Russian troops.
Maksym, who didn’t want to reveal his full name in case of another Russian attack, said that one of his neighbors was killed after Russians entered his garden with a tank. Some residents saw them loot items from his house.
“We buried him in his garden,” he said. “They took all his tools to fix their tank, the garage was completely destroyed.”
Another man was shot when he tried to rescue his wife after the Russians captured her. He took refuge at a neighbor’s and died two days after. The neighbors buried him in their garden.
Maksym pointed out a house nearby.
“A 32-year-old woman was raped there,” he said. “Russian soldiers slit her throat.”
Local authorities confirmed that a woman named Tetiana Zadorozhnyak was killed in this house by Russian soldiers. After the Russians retreated, gruesome videos emerged of her ransacked house, in which bloody sheets pointed to the horrific things done there.
Ombudsman Lyudmyla Denisova said on April 26 that after providing a hotline to report incidents of sexual violence and to seek psychological assistance, her office received around 400 rape reports, including from children, between April 1-14.
"Russians are not human, they're beasts,” Tokar said.
Evidence of war crimes is mounting along with the civilian body count in Kyiv Oblast —132 civilian bodies have been recovered from Makariv and the surrounding areas, according to local authorities.
Makariv Chief of Police Oleksandr Omelianenko told the Kyiv Independent that his team keeps exhuming bodies from around Makariv every day. They show the same pattern every time: young males, hands tied behind their backs, shot in the head and dumped into shallow mass graves.
“Signs of summary executions of civilians are everywhere, and we keep finding new ones,” Omelianenko said.
The Russian occupation left other kinds of scars even in the houses that were otherwise untouched by the fighting.
Mykola Buryak, 62, told the Kyiv Independent the houses nearby were occupied mainly by ethnic Russians and ethnic Siberians such as Buryats.
When they took over in early March, they ordered the neighborhood to put white flags and white ribbons on their houses. Buryak thought this would be enough to stay safe, but he was wrong.
One evening, a Russian soldier held him at gunpoint and brought him to a field near his house overlooking Makariv.
Finger on the trigger, he clicked it a few times to scare him, in front of Buryak’s wife and neighbors, who began to cry.
“He told me, 'You’re Banderites, your president is a clown, Putin is a good man’.”
The Russian soldier ordered him and his neighbor to do Nazi salutes and laughed watching them. He finally got tired and left them alone.
“He wanted me to insult Ukraine, but I will never say that,” Buryak said. “We’re ready to die here for Ukraine.”