BORODYANKA, Kyiv Oblast -- Burned and shattered, high-rise residential buildings in the center of Borodyanka, a town 40 kilometers northwest of Kyiv, hide even more horror underneath.
Around 200 people have been buried alive in the basements when Russian bombs destroyed the buildings, local authorities estimate.
“Hope dies last,” said Anatoliy Rudnichenko, an adviser to the mayor of Borodyanka, speaking of whether any of these civilians could have survived.
He then sighed heavily and whispered: “You and I both understand that none of them are alive.”
In early March, Russian planes dropped 500-kilogram bombs on the town, demolishing around 10 high-rise houses. Their residents had been hiding in the basements at the time of the attack.
“Borodyanka is the first town in our country where Russians bombed civilians,” Rudnichenko said. The Kyiv Independent hasn’t been able to confirm it.
“We have no military bases, nothing,” he said, emphasizing that what Russia did to his town is, he believes, a war crime. Since the start of the invasion, the Russian government has been falsely claiming that the Russian forces are targeting only military infrastructure.
Home to 12,000 people, Borodyanka and the nearby villages returned under Ukraine’s control on April 1, when Russian troops withdrew from Kyiv Oblast after weeks of intense fighting around Kyiv.
Since then, the Ukrainian forces have been demining the area. On April 5 alone, they have picked up enough unexploded shells to fill in three cars.
After the demining was over, on April 6, the rescuers started clearing the rubble and looking for bodies. The day before, trucks were already lining up nearby, ready to take the bodies.
Borodyanka has possibly seen more civilian casualties than any other place in the region, according to Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova.
This comes just days after Ukraine and the world were shocked by the revelations of the mass murder of civilians committed by Russian forces in Bucha, another town near Kyiv.
Borodyanka is different: Here, locals were killed by air bombs, not tortured and shot in the streets, like in Bucha. But the number of victims can be even higher.
Sharing the last
The gym of Borodyanka’s lyceum now serves as a humanitarian aid hub, where volunteers sort food and hygiene products and put them into boxes.
The volunteers are residents of Borodyanka and nearby villages who have first sought help themselves and now help others.
Lyubov Paliura is from the village of Berestyanka, located about 10 kilometers northeast of the town.
A Russian shell hit her house on the day of her marriage anniversary on March 19. She was out, but her husband was at home at the moment of the attack. He was lucky to survive, she said.
Still, Paliura believes her family was lucky to not have suffered during the occupation much.
“People from Borodyanka come and you see that they barely hold up. Such families are often with four, five, six kids,” Paliura said.
“They are so pale that it is clear that they starved,” she went on.
Humanitarian aid started arriving in the area just a few weeks ago. Thousands of people had lived with no electricity, gas, and mobile network for about a month.
Among them is Tetyana Shklyarska, a family doctor from Fenevychi, a village located 30 kilometers to the north from Borodyanka.
“We did not have a stock of food, but we shared the last bits we had with others,” Shklyarska said. “Everyone tried to help one another.”
When her family started running out of food, they decided to find a way to bake bread for themselves. They had no flour but had wheat and an old manual coffee grinder.
At first, they were using it to grind wheat into flour. Later, they reworked a feed chopper into a handmade wheat grinding machine.
“We had no bread and we wanted it so much,” Shklyarska said. “Kids told me, ‘Mom, we had never realized what the taste of bread really is. Now we know’.”
Food has just started arriving in her village. Aid comes both from large organizations and from fellow Ukrainians. It’s the latter that Shklyarska remembers most warmly.
“We open these packages and see things for kids, a handful of grain, even a jar of jam that has been started already,” she said. “This is so touching.”
Shklyarska says her heart warms seeing how people help one another. Back in 2014, when Russia unleashed a war in the Donbas, she was among those sending humanitarian aid to locals in eastern Ukraine. Now she herself receives it from other Ukrainians.
Taking everything away
Russian soldiers have been looting houses of people across the villages in the Borodyanka area taking away everything, valuable and not.
“Paintings, chairs, baby carriages, and even easter baskets – they took everything,” said Zoya Chkheidze, a resident of Leonivka, a village 25 kilometers to the north of Borodyanka.
According to her, the Russians covered their tanks with stolen rugs.
“They even took teapots, shovels, axes,” she went on.
“The Russians walked around the yards, took away the phones. They punctured the wheels in our cars and told us to be quiet and sit at home,” said Valentyna Klymenko, a local.
“They took away everything from our cellars, linens… They took away TVs. It was like they saw TVs for the first time,” she went on.
“They simply looted the entire village. They took everything from us,” Klymenko said, crying.
According to the locals, Russian soldiers only let people flee the village in exchange for money.
“We paid. My two nephews did,” Klymenko said. “The fee was $1,000 per car. They took dollars only. They did not want hryvnias.”
Many people were shot dead by the Russians, and many went missing, according to people living in the villages of Andriivka, Shybene, and Katyzhanka.
On the first day of the war, Russian soldiers shot at a car that was trying to flee Katyzhanka with a white flag.
The car caught fire. Three passengers were killed. The only survivor was Anna Pomanets, 14.
“She somehow managed to jump out of the car,” local resident Tetiana, who was reluctant to share her last name, told the Kyiv Independent. Her neighbors confirmed her account.
“As she was running, the Russians shot at this child,” Tetiana said.
According to the villagers, a local couple and a bishop provided first aid and took the girl to the hospital the next day. She had a bullet in her hand and needed surgery.
“To see the car with her father and other people explode in front of her eyes…” Tetiana said. “It will be a lifelong trauma for this child.”