We Did Not Ask for "Liberation"
A resident of Bucha tells her story.
by Kateryna Kibarova
My name is Kateryna Kibarova. I am 33 years old. I am Ukrainian. I was born in Zaporizhzhia, an industrial city. After completing my studies I got a great job, and by the age of 30 I decided to stay in Kyiv and buy an apartment. When considering different districts of Kyiv, I visited the suburbs—the city of Bucha, the city of Irpen. I saw these amazing little suburbs, where life is incredibly comfortable: pleasant young people (these are young cities), good infrastructure, green parks, new houses. As it is not far from Kyiv—20 minutes by car—I decided to buy a house in the city of Bucha. We lived in a very good city with very good people.
We asked absolutely no one to liberate us from anything. We asked no one to change our way of life.
Until February 24, 2022, we lived an absolutely happy life. That day, as usual, my alarm clock was set to ring at 5:45 a.m. I was going to get ready for work in Kyiv. My mother called a little before it rang, and shouted into the phone: “Katya, the war has begun!” When I got this call from my mother, I was very distressed. I did not know what to do. We had heard about war only from the stories of our grandparents, or from history books. When I saw a clear, bright, dark smoke from the direction of Hostomel Airport [on the outskirts of Kyiv], then I understood: this is it, and we do not have time to leave the city.
The so-called “Warsaw highway” passes through the city of Bucha. The traffic jam was incredible. We understood that we would not be able to leave, and that we needed to go down to the bomb shelter as soon as possible. I took a suitcase and ran in panic to the nearest bomb shelter. We descended its stairs on February 24th. I went outside it only a couple of times in the thirteen days following. Later we did not understand what day it was, what the date was—it was as if in delirium.
We did not leave the basement. We were lucky because we had men in the basement who knew how to handle welding machines. They put up an extra door; they put up additional levers that protected the door. We were already preparing. We understood that something terrible was coming.
On March 2, I decided that I needed to go home and pick up some valuable things, because I knew that we would try to leave, most likely; we were waiting for the evacuation corridors. I witnessed a scene that I will probably never forget. We walked briskly to my house. It was three minutes away. Halfway through, I heard the jingle of chains and, instinctively, ran to a small parking lot near the shopping center. I ducked to see which side it was coming from; I couldn’t understand [what was happening].
I saw them—tanks, driving serenely down the road, and Russian soldiers were sitting on top with machine guns. Behind them was a children's toy train, in which they were carrying, it seemed, their comrades, who were killed. At that instant the red car of my neighbors appeared, driving toward them. And they just point-blank fired at this car from the tank, which had a family with a child in it—without blinking, without thinking, they just stupidly shot at the car. The horror of this is that you understand that there is nothing you can do to help these people—there is nothing you can do but close your mouth and sit and wait for them to pass, or else you will be next, because they left no one alive in their path. I sat there for a while, I don't remember how long, until they left. With my legs half-bent and shaking I went back to the shelter, and I didn't come out of the basement, except to make a call and tell my parents that we were alive.
At that point there was no electricity. We were already sitting without light, without water, without gas. It was 12°C [54°F] in the basement. There were small children among us, and we just prayed and prayed. I personally prayed that death would be very quick, because we had heard that in the neighboring basements they were asking people to choose: to either be burned, or to be shot. We already knew that people were being shot down in the streets.
And then this horror—when you go outside after two or three days—and the air is soaked with death and lead, such acrid lead-filled air. I cannot name or convey what we were experiencing. It is a state of fear: you will be killed today or tomorrow; you will not survive. We understood: it is impossible to save us. The city is under occupation. We realized that all we could do was pray and believe that we would get out of there.
That's how we spent thirteen days—thirteen days of horror. I was very grateful that I have no family, because to hear about the shootings of husbands and of children is unthinkable. It's impossible to understand, to convey these broken destinies, all this horror, the atrocities we heard about.
After thirteen days in the basement, we understood what was next. We didn’t have much water. Sanitary facilities with a water heater were regularly fired on; we couldn’t take water from there. There was not much food. We understood that we would not last long. There was no heat in the basement. People started to get sick. Of course, the psychological state was even worse, because you are constantly aware that you will be killed. Every day, every minute you understand that you will be killed. We learned all the prayers by heart. It was impossible to endure this.
On March 9, we decided to get in the car and drive with several hundred other cars along the route that the evacuation buses were supposed to take. This was the road I took to work, when it would normally take at most 40 minutes to get to Kyiv. It took us seven hours. We drove in a column of cars, and Russian soldiers rode toward us in tanks. Periodically they aimed a machine gun at one of the cars, instilling fear. Along the way, we saw all this: cars that had been repeatedly fired at, blown up cars, and cars that had been both shot to pieces and blown up. Afterward, when the city was cleared of Russian troops, the whole world saw what happened in Bucha. We saw it on March 9. We saw the corpses lying everywhere. We saw an ordinary cyclist killed just like that; he lay there with his bike. We saw hundreds of destroyed cars.
It is necessary to talk about it. We got lucky—I will repeat this a million times. We were lucky not because we were able to do something, not because we had certain skills. We got lucky.
Kateryna Kibarova is a Ukrainian economist and resident of Bucha.
Translated from the Russian by Julia Sushytska and Alisa Slaughter. This transcript has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.
About the Translators: Julia Sushytska was born in L’viv and is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture at Occidental College. Alisa Slaughter is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Redlands. They recently co-edited and translated a selection of essays and lectures by Merab Mamardashvili, A Spy for an Unknown Country (ibidem-Verlag, Stuttgart, 2020).