Bucha children struggle to recover after Russian occupation of Ukrainian town

The coffin was made from pieces of a cabinet.

In a dark basement under a building shaken by wartime bombardment, there were few other options.

Last month, six-year-old Vlad saw his mother being carried out of the shelter and into the yard of a nearby house.

The funeral was rushed and devastating.

Now Russian forces have withdrawn from Bucha after a month-long occupation.

Vlad’s father, Ivan Drahun, fell to his knees at the foot of the grave.

He reached out and touched the ground near the feet of his wife Maryna.

“Hi how are you?” he said during the visit last week.

The boy also visits the grave, placing a box of juice and two boxes of baked beans there.

Amid the stress of war, her mother barely ate.

The family still does not know what illness caused his death. They, like their city, barely know how to move on.

After the war started, the family was forced to move to a damp concrete area in the basement.(PA: Rodrigo Abd)

Bucha witnessed some of the most gruesome scenes of the Russian invasion, and almost no children have been seen on its silent streets since then.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has honored his 64th Motorized Rifle Brigade, which is accused of involvement in civilian massacres in Bucha and Irpin, with the title of “guards”.

In a statement, Putin said the brigade had shown courage and tenacity in defending the Russian homeland.

Children’s camps as execution grounds

The once popular community’s many bright playgrounds with good schools at the far end of the capital, Kyiv, stand empty.

The Russians used a children’s camp in Bucha as an execution ground, and bloodstains and bullet holes mark a basement.

On a ledge near the entrance to the camp, Russian soldiers have placed a toy tank. It seemed to be connected to fishing line – a possible trap in the most vulnerable places.

A boy slides in a playground, with another child in the background.
The Russians used a children’s camp at Bucha as an execution ground.(PA: Rodrigo Abd)

A short walk from Vlad’s house, some Russians used a kindergarten as a base, leaving it untouched while other nearby buildings suffered.

Spent artillery shell casings were left along a fence in the yard.

In a nearby playground, white and red tape marked off unexploded ordnance. Booms from clearance operations were so loud they set off car alarms.

A fragile revival

In the building where Vlad, his older brother Vova and his sister Sophia live, someone had spray painted “CHILDREN” in letters at child height on an exterior wall. Below, a wooden box once used for ammunition contained a teddy bear and other toys.

It is here that we can see the fragile revival of Bucha.

A small group of neighborhood children have gathered, finding a distraction from the war.

Bundled up in winter coats, they kicked a soccer ball, walked around with bags of snacks handed out by visiting volunteers, called from a windowless window above.

A wooden box with toys.
The children and their toys reveal Bucha’s fragile attempt at renewal.(PA: Rodrigo Abd)

Their parents, enjoying the low spring heat after weeks in freezing basements, pondered how they were trying to protect the children.

“We kissed him, we kissed him.” She tried to play chess and the boy let her win.

Upstairs in a neighbor’s apartment where Vlad’s father has so far merged his family with the neighbor’s to help manage their collection of children, Vlad curled up on a bed with a another boy and played cards.

The radiator gave off no heat. There was still no gas, electricity or running water.

Everyone in Vlad’s family can’t stand returning to their own apartment nearby.

Memories of Maryna are everywhere, from the perfume bottles on the table by the front door to the quiet kitchen.

In the living room, time has stopped. Soft balloons hung from the ceiling light.

A string of colorful flags still hung on the wall, along with a family photo. It showed Mr. Drahun and Maryna holding Vlad on the day he was born.

They celebrated his birthday on February 19. Five days later, the war began.

Toy tanks stand at the entrance to a summer camp in Bucha.
Russian troops appear to have used toys as traps. (PA: Rodrigo Abd)

And the family’s life has shrunk to a dank concrete half-room in the basement, lined with blankets and strewn with sweets and toys.

It was very, very cold, recalls Mr. Drahun.

He and Maryna did what they could to drown out the sounds of the shelling for Vlad and keep him calm. But they too were afraid.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Drahun took Vlad to the shelter’s makeshift toilet and visited some neighbours. Then he came to see Maryna to tell her he was going out.

At first, he said, Vlad seemed not to understand what had happened.

The boy said his mother had moved away. But at the funeral the boy saw Ivan kneel down and cry, and now he knows what death is.

A long road to recovery

Death is inseparable from Bucha. Local authorities told The Associated Press that at least 16 children were among the hundreds killed.

A soldier walking with children past destroyed cars.
Bucha’s children have witnessed and witnessed many horrors.(PA: Rodrigo Abd)

Those who survived face a long convalescence.

“They realized now it’s calm and quiet,” Mr Drahun said.

“But at the same time, the older ones understand that it’s not the end. The war is not over. And it’s difficult to explain to the younger ones that the war continues.”

Children adapt, he says. They have seen a lot.

Now war has crept into the games they play.

In a sandbox outside the kindergarten, Vlad and a friend ‘bombarded’ each other with handfuls of sand.

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