Nikolai Hummer / NPR
Borodianka, Ukraine – In the devastated city of Borodianka in northwestern Kiev, Natasha Romanenko throws paper in bullet holes across her windows.
This is to prevent the cold, she tells us.
“You can see they have direct shooting holes in our window when we are in hiding,” he says through NPR’s translator.
When Russian forces invaded and occupied the city, the damage was catastrophic. Ukrainian officials say Russia has deliberately bombed civilian areas and that hundreds more are still missing, more than a week after the invading forces withdrew. Now, crews are sifting through the rubble to see what – who – survived.
On the way from Kiev to Porodianka we begin to see signs of destruction. What should be a quick trip is because the destroyed bridges take several hours as more cars congregate on some reliable lanes, and military checkpoints form long queues on narrow roads.
We pass through the village of Dimitrovka and see a burning car near the houses. There is a flat tank if you go a little farther.
Later, another wrecked car with the word “children” sprayed on the side door in Russian.
We arrive in Borodianka’s main street – Central Street – with a humanitarian vehicle that immediately begins to deliver food and water.
This is where we meet Natasha. She and her family were hiding in a cramped, dark rooted cellar.
“What did we eat? Mostly potatoes,” she says. “I had some oil, I have a cow, so I got milk. I went to my next door house. I gave her some milk. She gave me some other stuff, some cheese. So we survived. Our cow. It saved us.”
Natasha takes us to the cellar, which is often filled with boxes of potatoes. At night, she explains, they would spread a rug over the boxes and try to sleep on top of it, keeping it warm under all the blankets they had.
Natasha says she was confronted by a Russian soldier in the final days of the occupation. She went to milk her cow, and he thought she was looking for the locations of the Russian troops. He led her into the middle of the road and pointed a gun at her head.
“He threatened me,” he says. “And what did I tell him? I said I like one thing: he’s going to see my face the rest of his days, so he’s never forgotten what he did here.”
The soldier spoke to someone else on his radio. Later, Natasha says, he released her.
As the paramedics pass through Main Street, we break away from the group and the scale of the devastation begins to sink. Wherever you look it is utter destruction.
An apartment building there caught fire and collapsed in the middle of the bombing. The windows on all the shop facades are broken and the roofs are crumbling. There are burnt vehicles in the streets and most of the power lines have fallen down and are lying on the ground.
Across the ruined apartment building, there is a small park with a monument in the middle. Above is a giant bust of the Ukrainian poet Tarash Shevchenko. Bullet holes pierce his forehead.
The tall pillar where the bust is is cracked and crumbling from all the pennies. Three policemen are holding a ladder and another person is getting ready to climb to the top.
Yaroslav Halubsik, an artist from Kiev, came here to help create a temporary art project – a kind of instant monument.
“We call this ‘The Curing of Shevchenko’ or ‘The Healing of Shevchenko’,” he says.
Yaroslav climbs the ladder and begins to tie a large cloth around the bust’s large head. As he does so, a man in a Ukrainian military uniform arrives and asks what he is doing.
Yaroslav explains that this is a performance art, and that the soldier seems satisfied. As it turns out, he was worried that they were repair It.
“In this case, it’s important to keep this monument as it is now, not to touch it,” says the soldier. He says this is very important because of who Shevchenko is.
“This is very important, because we all know that Shevchenko and other Ukrainian poets have always been enemies of Russia,” he explains. “I hope people will rebuild everything here, but this should be kept as it is now.”
We hear his name. He is Yevgeny Nishk – Former Minister of Culture of Ukraine. He is in the army now and is nearby.
We continue down the main street. One of the buildings collapsed due to a tank and rocket blast.
Bodies were found on the street in the nearby town of Pucha. Here, with so many collapsed structures, it is worrying that the bodies are still trapped beneath.
Many cranes carefully pick up debris as rescue teams search for debris. There is a playground in front of one of the buildings and a woman is sitting on a bench next to a slide watching the rescue efforts.
Her name is Ludmila Poico.
“This is where my sister and her son lived. This is what remains of them,” she says, pointing to the pile of old notebooks. “His mother kept his old notebooks at school.
Ludmila saw them scattered in the rubble of the apartment building. He says that and some of the pictures are just available.
Ludmila’s sister Olina Vahnenko is 56. Her son – in – law Yuri is 24. She graduated from college.
They left their apartment and searched for shelter. But on March 1, during a break in the shelling and bombing, Olina and Yuri returned. Ludmila says they talked on the phone, and Olina said they were able to take a shower and eat some food.
An hour later, Russian forces destroyed the building.
“Our friends tried to help us, but there was a big fire here for four days, “says Ludmila.” So first they tried to put out the fire. They have no chance of excavating immediately. “
When the fire was extinguished, they were engaged in a search for survivors. Then the shell attack resumed and they had to flee.
After that, he says, Russian forces were stationed here and no one was able to get near the building.
The search could not continue until a month after the attack. So Ludmila sat and waited.
“I want to see how they find all the bodies they think they should be, and then do something like DNA testing because I want to know for sure what happened,” he says.
“I was so close with them that I didn’t even know how to live now. How should I live in this place?”
The crane is constantly removing debris from the collapsed building.
Soon, workers found the body of a woman. Ludmila climbs over the pile of ruins.
The body was removed, sealed and placed next to three other people found that day.
Ludmila goes back to the playground and sits down, continuing to stay awake.