Coming Home to Bucha
One Ukrainian's account of starting to rebuild.
In May, Kateryna Kibarova wrote “We Did Not Ask for ‘Liberation,’” a searing account of surviving the Russian occupation of her town, Bucha. Here, she offers an update on life after the Russians were expelled from the outskirts of Kyiv by Ukrainian forces, and how residents are beginning to rebuild even as the war remains omnipresent. — The Editors
by Kateryna Kibarova
I didn't plan to go home. Nobody knew I was going. But I woke up one morning and realized I couldn't take it anymore. I wanted to go home that much.
I had friends from a town near mine; they had already gone back once. Seeing my state, they offered to take me home. We drove in from western Ukraine, passing many military checkpoints. They checked our documents thoroughly. As we approached Bucha, our town, I had to turn off the music in the car—it was that painful. But along with this pain was the hope of seeing home, of coming home after months of wandering. Entering town was such a sinister feeling. I still remember seeing the ruined houses as we drove in. The roads had been hit by rocket strikes, so we drove around craters. You look at your city, which used to be so green, so active, so beautiful, and it is burnt-out houses, broken storefronts, ruined shopping centers.
The first thing I did was run to my apartment. When I had left [in March], a shopping center nearby was burning and I had been afraid that it would spread to my building. When I returned, my entire apartment was covered in soot. But I sat down and realized that I was home, and I didn't want to go anywhere. I cleaned for two days straight. Throughout that time I was in a strange state, realizing that some people can't go back home, and other people have no home to go back to. There’s no way to explain it, and that hurt so much.
I live in the second section of our apartment complex. The first section was very damaged. Russian soldiers placed explosives that just tore out the doors, base and all. They went in and took out everything they wanted. They were even quartered in our apartment complex. I got lucky and they didn't hit my apartment. I don't know why. Maybe God helped me.
Russian soldiers did loot a lot of apartments. There are videos and photos. They pulled up in huge KAMAZ trucks and took everything—everything except the robot vacuum cleaners. They left the robotic vacuum cleaners, and when they took the electric kettles, they took only the kettle itself and left the charging base. That is, they apparently did not know that such a thing existed. Then, the apartments were simply destroyed. In some, the furniture was taken out, the kitchen was taken out—they even took toilets.
A rocket hit the entrance to my section of the apartment complex. It exploded and damaged a bearing wall. It is a serious problem because that part of the building might collapse at any point. The roof took two hits. One of the corner apartments took a direct hit. The owners had bought it on the 23rd of February [the day before the Russian invasion.] Now it’s completely destroyed. They bought the apartment with a loan and now they have no money for repairs. It's horrible—well, such misery is impossible to describe in words.
Eventually, the aggressor country should be found guilty of all these crimes, and there will be discussions about reparations. But that's for later. Now our problem is this: one of the entryways of our house has a hole and you can see the stars though it. If we don't repair the roof ourselves, now, when it starts raining in the fall it’s going to flood the building. So there's no way we can wait and do the repairs later. And the same is true for where the rocket hit our supporting wall: if we do not repair the crack that’s growing daily, the complex will collapse, and then we'll be left with nothing.
For the time being we’re all on our own. Neighbors lifted and lowered the debris on their own. Between us we raised funds and purchased building materials. Everyone helps each other, because there are many without jobs and many without any kind of social benefits, everyone does what they can. With unfavorable exchange rates and prices rising, it’s a colossal amount of money needed to repair the complex. It has to be done very promptly, and everyone helps each other a lot.
Right now, everyone is trying to be frugal, because the winter will be enormously difficult. It will be cold, because there will be no normal supply of gas. We're very worried about that. But everyone is trying to live with the conditions that they have, because we know other people have it even worse.
Where I work, we had a team of about 50 people working in our office in Kyiv. Fifteen people are working now. The rest left Kyiv. Our management decided that part of the money from sales should go directly to the official charity fund supporting the army. I believe that since I can't shoot, I'm not a medic, I'm not a cook—I am not strong in these professions—I can use my skills to work and give part of the profits to support the military forces of Ukraine.
Many of my friends who are entrepreneurs sent their wives and children away while they themselves stayed or went to the front. Some have coffee shops or some kind of business and are running their businesses again. They are operating at a loss, but they give hope to people, they give people jobs—because the people who have lost their homes and lost their jobs have no faith in life.
Every day that I wake up, the first thing I do is realize that I am alive, thank God. I open the news at once. My parents are in Zaporizhia, where the fighting is going on now. I worry about them all the time. You are constantly under stress. This is the life of the Ukrainian people.
In the first days of the war, we were all running on adrenaline. We didn't understand what was going on. Everything in our bodies was focused on staying alive, trying somehow to survive the situation.
When we were able to escape Bucha and go out to western Ukraine, however, things started to go off like a time bomb. I had to go to a psychologist. I started to have a lot of heart pain and other symptoms. I didn't know which doctor to go to. This is a very common story with people who have survived the occupation—many have this kind of reaction. I’m still working with a therapist, because it seems like everything is okay, but panic attacks happen suddenly and they hit so hard, especially when the sirens go off.
Sirens sound every weekday, and lately on weekends too. At three or four in the morning the sirens sound. I take sedatives because the sirens really hit my nervous system hard. If it's daytime and sirens go off, all the shopping centers are shut down, after the situation in Kremenchuk and Vinnitsa [in which shopping centers were bombed by Russian forces, causing massive civilian casualties]. Everyone goes outside and retreats into the bomb shelter.
At work, there’s no such thing as small talk anymore—now everyone is talking about the war. Everywhere you go in a bus, on public transport, in a store, everyone talks about the war.
For a long time, we were looking for a guy in Bucha. I didn't know him personally, but he had worked as a youth leader and was known for being so kind. He was last seen in March, around the 10th or 12th. Everyone said that he was probably a prisoner of war, and so everyone believed it. But recently he was found in a mass grave. Every day you live with the hope that these people didn't die these horrible deaths—that maybe they're a prisoner somewhere, maybe he's hiding somewhere, maybe something else happened. But the reality is they were just killed, and we need to tell the whole world about it.
I had heard stories from my grandmother about war. But I never thought it was such a bloodthirsty creature.
A lot of people in our apartment complex have left, mostly women with children. They decided to wait out the summer and see what happens next. As soon as school starts in the fall, a lot will come back, because children need an education. But many will not return; surviving the occupation was so traumatic that they cannot come back. They put their apartments on the market, though housing is selling very poorly and their apartments are worth pennies. But even so, they sell.
Nonetheless, we are recovering quickly. The malls that were damaged near me are already starting to open up again. Ukrainian entrepreneurs understand perfectly well that if they do not run their businesses, the economy will collapse. And then what will we live for? We will have to tough it out.
Those who stayed in Ukraine either go to war or rebuild the economy. That's how I think about my decision, too. Of course, we will all defend our country, because we have no other option. We do not agree to what the aggressor side offers us. After what happened in Vinnytsia—the murdered children—after Kremenchuk, after Bucha, after Chernihiv, Sumy? No, we will stand and defend our country, because we have no other option.
What gives us faith and strength is our guys, who went so bravely to defend our country. I look at my friends, who are successful restaurateurs, entrepreneurs, people who are used to living well, and who took up arms and went to defend their country without a single doubt. It is worthy of the highest praise. And I think of the girls who are great snipers now—I don't even know how to talk about these heroes of Ukraine.
The many countries that are helping us give hope that you believe in us, and we know for sure that we will win. We are a strong people and deeply grateful to all of you who support us and believe in our victory. We are waiting for you all to visit. Then we will give you tours and show you what a beautiful country we have.
When I came back, everyone was suggesting that I move to Kyiv, because there were no roads. The roads were so broken, even the bridge was blown up, so that when I came back we had to ride over a temporary bridge. But I refused to live elsewhere; I just wanted to be home. And now I want to be home every chance I get. I don't want to go anywhere or stay overnight with anyone. I just want to be home.
I'm Ukrainian. I have no children. I am not putting anyone in any danger. I can be useful to my country. I have a very close friend who lives in Great Britain. I had options to go to Poland. But if we all leave, who will defend the country? Who will support the economy? Who will sustain the belief that we will win? And who will make sense of the fact that we have had to endure it all?
This is my home. I'm staying here.
Kateryna Kibarova is a Ukrainian economist and resident of Bucha.
Translated from the Russian. Guidance on the Russian translation was kindly provided by Professor Julia Sushytska (Occidental College) and Professor Alisa Slaughter (University of Redlands). This translation has been edited for concision and clarity.
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