BUCHA, Ukraine – For the first time since the war began, the Stanislavchuk family is together again.
Yehor is taking his parents, Natasha and Sasha, his sister, Tasya, and his grandmother, Lyudmila, on a tour BuchaKyiv’s quaint suburbs have become synonymous with Russian brutality.
This is the school where Yehor hid for two weeks when Russian troops bombed and killed him on his way through town. There, at the entrance to the school’s basement, was where a Russian soldier shot a woman in the head just because he could. And over there, on the golden crane’s head, was where the sniper sat, picking up civilians as they searched for food and water.
Yehor, 28, spoke calmly and no one seemed surprised. These stories are well known in Ukraine.
It was cool and cloudy, and if you squinted, you could overlook the burned cars and piles of bricks and ashes that used to be houses and imagine that it was a normal summer Saturday in July. White hydrangeas were in full bloom, and cherries, apples, and plums were laden with unripe fruit. At a cafe called Mr. Coffee, the young bartender is in fast business, selling fresh coffee and croissants to families and connoisseurs with neck tattoos. Children were pushed into strollers and scooters and hung from jungle gym bars. They seem happy.
Four months have passed.
The last time I saw Stanislavchuks was on March 11. Yehor was stuck in Bucha, listening to the footsteps of Russian soldiers on the floor above the basement where he was hiding. He is plotting to escape, but no one knows if he will be able to leave safely.
A couple Yehor knew had tried to leave Bucha a few days earlier. Only the wife turned around, shot through the leg. Her husband was killed.
I was with the rest of the Stanislavchuks family in Mykolaiv, the southern Ukrainian port city where the family lived. We spent that March day waiting for news of Yehor’s progress. Natasha had prepared a meal of mashed potatoes and beef stew that we washed down with glasses of vodka. She has an Orthodox icon of the Virgin Mary with her, along with a holy book that is opened for a prayer about children. Occasionally we would dive into the basement to hide from the oncoming artillery.
For hours, no one heard anything.
“I never thought my son would see war,” Sasha said that day.
The family’s story is not unusual by the measure of the past four months. The Stanislavchuks were like many Ukrainians today, decent people struggling to endure the unknown without a map to guide them. We were introduced by friends that Yehor and I have in common. I have been interested in the war since it broke out, and when I went to Mykolaiv in early March to write about the Ukrainian counter-offensive there, my family adopted me, giving me my first warm meal. after many weeks.
Better understanding of the Russo-Ukrainian War
When the war started, they went to Bucha, less than an hour from Kyiv, to perfect a new showroom for their interior design business. Their main store in Mykolaiv has been doing well and the family hopes to expand. Yehor moved to Bucha shortly after college and the family loves the town’s pine forests and colorful modern buildings that make it look like an Oslo suburb.
The first rockets hit Hostomel Airport near Bucha around 5 a.m. on February 24, waking the whole family. Sasha and Natasha’s first thought was to return home to Mykolaiv, where 11-year-old Tasya was staying with her grandmother. Only when stuck in traffic with others trying to flee Kyiv and surrounding areas do they wonder if they should take Yehor with them.
“Honestly, for a long time I couldn’t accept the fact that on the 24th we were here and we didn’t bring him with us,” Natasha told me. “I was thinking of consulting a psychologist. How can I do that? I have a feeling that we just dumped him.”
With their business closed and their son stranded by Russian forces nearly 400 miles away, Sasha and Natasha threw themselves into volunteer work in Mykolaiv, driving around the city in their white SUV them to deliver food and medicine to neighbors who are too sick or afraid to leave their homes. Although Bucha and the towns around Kyiv were bearing the brunt of the Russian onslaught at the time, Life in Mykolaiv is not easy. The air raid sirens sounded incessantly, and each day brought new missile attacks on homes and businesses as Russian forces were encircled.
“There are moments when the spirit falters and when your mood turns bad,” Natasha told me the day we met. “But when you see someone who needs your help and support, you have to get up and move.”
I was driving with them to deliver food when Yehor called. He has lost all his documents, including the deed about his apartment. Worse still, during the chaotic escape, he misplaced the carrier containing his beloved pet rabbit, Diva. But he made it past Bucha unscathed and is now with a friend in the relative safety of Kyiv.
“The most important thing is that you got out there,” Natasha told him over the phone. “The rest we’ll find, don’t worry.”
Minutes after she hung up, the air raid sirens sounded again, and we plunged into a basement.
Not much has changed in the war since then, but some things have happened. Ukrainian forces pushed back the Russians from Mykolaiv, out of range of their artillery. Now they attack the city with cruise and ballistic missiles all day, and it is practically impossible. Clean water was not available for weeks. Most of the residents have fled.
In contrast, Bucha, the site of a massacre unseen in Europe in a generation, is now almost peaceful.
And so the Stanislavchuks have converged there, right now.
Yehor returned on May 15, after Bucha was liberated from Russian forces. The rest of the family arrived the day before my visit – Natasha, Lyudmila and Tasya returned from Germany, where they had spent three and a half months, and Sasha drove from Mykolaiv with the family cat, Timur.
When we met, they were wearing the yellow and blue patriotic t-shirts that Natasha had bought on the drive back.
They were crammed together in Yehor’s small two-room apartment, now piled up with the family’s belongings. In a large cage in the kitchen was Diva, brown and fat, sipping vegetables. Yehor was able to track her down three days after he escaped.
With Mykolaiv still under siege, the family hopes to open a new gallery, not far from Yehor’s site in Irpin, next to Bucha. They argue that for those currently returning to their dilapidated homes, their services may be needed. Join the whole family.
Yehor spoke easily and substantively about his ordeal.
“This is where a man on a bicycle was killed,” he explained as we drove down Yablonska Street, where dozens of people were shot dead by Russian troops. “Uncle Misha is also here.”
“There,” he added, “a Russian soldier was lying with his finger pointing in that direction, toward Russia as if that was where he wanted to go back.”
Bodies were still fresh when Yehor strolled down Yablonska Street on March 11, pushing an elderly woman he called Aunt Tanya into a wheelchair. Both, who were not acquainted before the war, made up a back story if they were stopped by Russian soldiers. Yehor, who is of combat age and is more at risk outdoors, will say the woman is his grandmother and he is taking her to safety in Kyiv.
Somehow, the Russian checkpoint on the edge of the city was abandoned that day, and Yehor and Aunt Tanya were able to walk without difficulty to Ukrainian positions just outside town.
Upon hearing his story, our mutual friend, Nastya, suggested that Yehor see a therapist. He did for a while, but stopped. He slept very well, he said, and was largely at peace with what had happened. But he admits that something has changed in him.
“Life won’t be the same as before,” he said as we drove. “I feel very heavy, lazy and need some kind of serious inspiration.”
We drove past the local mall, which appeared to have melted into the ground, and passed the remains of the drama theater, which had been blown up. Nearby, a family was having a picnic among the pine trees, and a young girl, maybe 4 or 5 years old, was dancing with a pink umbrella in her hand.
On Yehor’s car stereo, Sinead O’Connor lamented, “Who wants a drink before the war?”