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A Russian tank stopped right next to our window and levelled its barrel right at us
Victoria Druzenko, Lawyer for the Jewish Agency for Israel
Hiding in the basement
Photo courtesy of Victoria Druzenko
The morning of the 24th we were awakened by explosions at the Hostomel airfield, which is 5 km away. Friends who live there even sent us a video of the Russian troops deplaning. We just couldn’t believe it, and remained disoriented the first two days.

Stores were empty - we ate last year’s matzah

Some neighbors got their act together quickly and started filling up cars and leaving. When we came to our senses, we saw that there is only a bit of gas in the tank, and it was not clear whether there would even be enough to get to Kyiv. There were no air raid alerts, so we had to use the dog as our barometer: she could feel anxious situations in advance, her ears would perk up, she would stiffen up and her hairs would bristle. On the third day we were already cut off; there was no bread; the stores were empty, so we ate last year’s matzah. It’s a good thing that I remembered the bread maker and started baking bread in the basement for us and the neighbors.

The children were frightened by explosions, so we set up sleeping accommodations in the basement. There were a few families living there like sardines in a can, all with kids. We rolled a stroller with a baby in the hallway - I still have the video.

During the first days I agreed to volunteer at a hotline for Israeli citizens and potential repatriation candidates. Running between the basement and the apartment, I answered the calls. “Mom, how can you go about saving others, and what about us? – complained my 14-year old daughter. But I didn’t think that things would turn out like that and that our Bucha would be under blockade and occupation.

On the third day we started having problems with reception and the Internet. They destroyed the water tower. The power was cut off, and a bit later the gas too. For a connection to tell relatives that we were still alive, we had to get to the attic of a 9-floor building. After the first failed evacuation I climbed there: explosions, gunshots somewhere close, and suddenly someone runs in and points a weapon at me. I saw that it was a neighbor and managed to shout: “I’m one of ours!”

Windows of Victoria Druzenko's house after shelling
Photo courtesy of Victoria Druzenko
Friends of neighbors were killed when trying to get out of the town

At the end of the first week the Ukrainian army destroyed a Russian column at Vokzalnaya: the fighting made everything shake even in our basement. And against this backdrop, the neighbors kept telling about friends or relatives being killed while trying to get out of the town and how their corpses could not be recovered. So they just lay there, in the cars, on the streets…

When an enemy column passed our building, one of the residents threw a Molotov cocktail out the window and shouted “Glory to Ukraine!” They fired at the windows with a machine gun. Many publications featured a photo of the shot-out windows overlooking a church: those are the windows of our building at B. Khmelnitsky, 2.

Then one of the Russian tanks stopped directly in front of the windows of our apartment and pointed its barrel in our direction. When it moved away, there were bottles of expensive whiskey and chips left on the grass, all stolen from the store. We lived on the second floor and could see everything perfectly.

While we still had gas, I sometimes ran from the basement into the apartment to cook something for the kids, but then we could only cook outside in barrels or on firepits under cannon fire. During periods when it was quieter, the men broke down fences, brought wood from construction sites, set up fires under the building archways. The main entrance was blown up; water was leaking from the ceiling; there was no power.

During the first week, the children did not come up from the basement: they were very frightened. And when it became quite cold we (a few families) moved to a little hallway between the apartments. It was tight, but warm.

The basement where Victoria and her family were hiding
Photo courtesy of Victoria Druzenko
We waited out in the cold for five hours, children, the elderly, the disabled, but the buses did not come that day; the Russians would not let them through
Our spots in the basement were taken by refugees from Vorzel and Hostomel, who had lost their homes Keys were passed from one person to another and before we evacuated evacuation we set up a supply of water in the basement before it disappeared, and left some dry and some canned food.

Of course people shared, but there was something else too. When the stores were broken into, some tried to take out everything, and it wasn’t just about the food, unfortunately. They took clothes, appliances, and jewelry.

Those who were braver wrapped themselves in white rags and came out with raised arms to look for any leftover food in the stores. In fact, there were no supplies left since the first days, and medications from the pharmacies were given to the hospital on the second day to protect against looters.

The Russians shot out the ambulances

All forces were devoted to the defense of Kyiv, so there were few soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, volunteers or members of the local defense forces in Bucha.

The Russians shot out the ambulances and volunteers who were trying to bring in humanitarian aid were killed. But it all depended on the specific detachment. In other neighborhoods (Steklozavodskaya, Yablonskaya) it was mostly Kadyrov forces, and we were told that they might well shoot you at close range. But downtown it was mostly very young soldiers.

Our apartment building was next to the city council, and it played a role when the green corridors were opened. But there were some neighborhoods that were cut off from the beginning and where volunteers could not get to deliver medications or evacuate people. Anyway, we came to the city council on March 9th, to the evacuation point.

It was cold and snowing; we could hear explosions nearby and then a bomb hit a house on the Kyiv-Mirotskaya street; and we stood and waited… Then a Russist APC came by with eight people on top, machine guns at the ready, with grenade launchers on their shoulders. One had a sniper rifle and was watching the roofs. They were all young, about 18-20 years old. We waited out in the cold for five hours, children, the elderly, the disabled, but the buses did not come that day; the Russians would not let them through.

Windows of Victoria Druzenko's house after shelling
Photo courtesy of Victoria Druzenko
Moments of silence
Photo courtesy of Victoria Druzenko
On the streets of her hometown
Photo courtesy of Victoria Druzenko
We turned towards Vorzel and saw a burned out car with white cloth and a “Children” sign
There was a separate group of private cars that were getting ready to follow the buses. They also didn’t get permission to leave even though the corridor was approved on the state level. But someone freaked out and went first, and others followed. We didn’t dare join then, but were waited impatiently for the news: the pioneers made it safely. Next day there was a similar procession of cars, with white cloths, “Children” signs on the windows. Everyone tried to take as many passengers as possible, for example we went with the family with whom we shared the hallway: three women, three children, and my husband at the wheel. On the same day, March 10, they let through the first 50 buses with children, women, and folks with disabilities.
The Russians took the phones or broke the sim cards of the people who left on the 9th, but we found old cell phones and left them in plain sight, while we hid the new ones under the car mats.

Behind our building, there is a mass grave

I wanted to take a photo, but everyone yelled at me: “If they find it, they could kill us.”There were destroyed houses on both sides of the road, along with unexploded shells. By the Epicenter supermarket there was a shot out car with dead bodies inside. I could even see the color of the woman’s hair inside – it was red. We turned towards Vorzel and saw a burned out car with white cloth and a “Children” sign. I thought: how many cars like this will we see on the way and could we end up like this? My friend had a daughter and her classmate with her family... in a car like that. The parents survived, but the girl did not.

The route was strictly prescribed and sign-posted: from Bucha towards Vorzel through Russian checkpoints. There were Russian columns going on the roads, a sea of tanks and APCs, and in each private yard stood their equipment.

We had exactly enough gas to get to the first Kyiv gas station. We were so afraid that we would be stranded in the middle of the road or hit a piece of metal and tear up the tires. The relatives suggested catching our breath, washing up, since we were without water for so many days between the basement and the hallway, but I said that we would wash ourselves in Lviv.

We spent the night in Lviv, then took the bus supplied by the Israeli Department of Foreign Affairs to Peremyshl. From there we contacted Sokhnut, went through a consulate check in Warsaw and flew to Israel.
What is left behind? Behind our building is a mass grave, where 76 people were buried in bags on March 11, 2022. That was the first time the Russians gave permission to collect the bodies that were lying on the streets. They buried more after and that’s not counting the ones buried in yards, in gardens, in flowerbeds. And how many people were left in basements and garages in other neighborhoods: on Yablonskaya, by the glass-manufacturing plant etc… Plus a whole section of nameless graves at the cemetery, where people who could not be identified are buried…

The city of Bucha after liberation from the Russians
Photo courtesy of Ukrinform TV
You could more terrible much testimonies in our town
A young counselor who took our kids to camps, Artur Rudenko, died. After liberation his body was found in a mass grave in Mirotsky. Another person I knew who died is Zhanna Kameneva. I used to come to her store often to pick up vegetables, fruit, milk. Her burned out car was found, though they searched for it for a long time because it was blue, but became gray from the fire. On March 5th Zhanna tried to bring out a woman with a school age daughter and another young woman, and at one of the intersections their car was shot out by a Russian armored personnel carrier. They were only found in April.

There was nothing left of my friend’s uncle: they had to scrape the remains off the walls

When I left the city council to work at Sokhnut, Margarita Chekmareva took over my job in the department of residential and communal services. With her husband and two children she tried to leave by car in early March and they were shot by a Russian armored personnel carrier. Margarita and the children died on the spot, and her husband was thrown into a ditch. His leg was torn off, but he survived and gave evidence. Our friends’ neighbors were shot at on the intersection of Kyivo-Mirotskaya and Vokzalnaya: their bodies were left in the car.

There was nothing left of my friend’s uncle. I don’t know what they used to shoot at the upper floors, but his remnants had to be scraped off the walls, as if there had not been a person.

The mother of my husband’s coworker died while in the basement and was buried right in the yard.

Some people went missing: the family of my older daughter’s classmate, for example. They also can’t find the parents of the boy that went to kindergarten with my younger daughter. And many other people are missing: people whom I used to see in the stores and at the clinic…

We managed to bring out one elderly man through Jewish channels. He didn’t have Internet, so I monitored the green corridors from Poland and texted him instructions on how to walk from Lesnaya Bucha to the evacuation spot. We weren’t able to evacuate Gennady Khanes, the surgeon from the National Specialized Children's Hospital «Ohmatdyt», and he spent the entire occupation in Bucha.

You could more terrible much testimonies in our town. I know a person that stayed and buried old people who died in the gardens.

In Russia they see all this completely differently. I had a friend in St. Petersburg, who stayed with me in Bucha three years ago. Her husband is from here; he entered the local defense group, drove humanitarian aid and went missing in the spring. His body was only recovered in July near Mirotsky. They had lived separately the last few years. I wrote to Sveta that Lesha had died. She thanked me, but added: ”Don’t be insulted, Vika, but unfortunately, soon Ukraine will not be a state on the world map.”

The city of Bucha after liberation from the Russians
Photo courtesy:
In our ulpan, there are people from Russia who support Ukraine even though they consider Russia their homeland
We are renting an apartment in Jerusalem and studying at the ulpan; the girls are attending the Naale school, where kids from all the former Soviet states study in Russian with intensive Hebrew lessons. The topic of the war is taboo in the Havat-a-Noar school, although the kids still discuss it among themselves. It’s interesting that many children from Russia support Ukraine, keep a Ukrainian flag at home; some attend pro-Ukrainian rallies.

I recently went to the theater and struck up a conversation with an elderly woman during the intermission. She came from Russia a long time ago. She asked: ”Is it true that everything in Bucha was staged?” I didn’t try to convince her of anything. I just said that my phone is full of “stagings” like that: videos of shot out windows and us boiling the kettle during a shelling. She was so impressed that told me after the performance that she hadn’t given tzedakah (charity) that month, and wanted to give it to me. It was very embarrassing, but it was also uncomfortable to refuse; it was just so unexpected.

In our ulpan, there are people from Russia who support Ukraine even though they consider Russia their homeland. That’s how we befriended a young couple from Moscow. They already had a permanent residence visa; they had planned to leave during the summer, but when the war started on the 24th, they immediately left. They just couldn’t stay in Russia anymore.

The testimony was chronicled on March 31, 2022

Translation: Dr. Mariya Gyendina