‘Win war first, then rebuild,’ say Ukrainians in shattered Bucha
On a sunny morning in Bucha, customers buy fresh cherries at a small market, a couple pushes a baby buggy and a teenager with piercings skateboards down the street.
It’s a picture of apparent calm in the Kyiv suburb, where just three months ago on April 2 AFP journalists found 20 bodies in civilian clothes lying along nearby Yablunska Street.
They were among the first to witness atrocities committed by Russian forces during the occupation of Kyiv’s leafy northwestern suburbs of Bucha, Irpin and Borodianka, quiet residential areas previously known for their easy access to nature.
In early July, scars from the war are still highly visible — broken windows, shell craters and gaping holes in walls.
Along Vokzalna Street, the long avenue that links Bucha to Irpin, numerous buildings have been destroyed or massively damaged — houses, apartment blocks, stores and a shopping mall.
These suburbs swiftly became a symbol of the brutality of the Russian invasion and an essential stop on the itinerary for all Western dignitaries visiting Kyiv.
“We will rebuild everything,” Italian Premier Mario Draghi promised on June 16 when he visited Irpin with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
The leaders of a dozen countries and international organisations are meeting on Monday and Tuesday in Lugano, Switzerland, to map out a new “Marshall Plan” intended to speed up the rebuilding of Ukraine. It could cost hundreds of billions of dollars.
For many, though, rebuilding seems a distant prospect.
Resident Katiya Yolshina, 66, points to two large shell blast holes in the walls of her top-floor flat, in a block where she has lived for two decades.
The eight-storey building was shelled in early March and is not even the worst damaged in the area.
“The man in charge (of the block) told us to fill out forms and we would get money. But he hasn’t been back since and we have no information,” says Yolshina, who returned to Bucha in early May after an absence of six weeks.
“What will we get and when will we get it? I don’t know anything,” she says. There is no trace of complaint in her voice but her face trembles from holding back tears.
In fact, for many locals rebuilding is not yet a priority although many came back a few weeks ago after fleeing Russian occupation and are already busily planting flowers or digging vegetable patches.
Despite the calm in the region around Kyiv, many point to the fact that the war is still raging in many other parts of Ukraine, particularly in the south and east. And the dread of another Russian offensive here remains strong.
‘If it starts again’
In recent days rumours have buzzed of an imminent attack from Belarus, whose border is only around 100 kilometres (62 miles) to the north.
These have gained credence due to statements by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a key ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On Saturday, Lukashenko accused Ukraine of firing missiles into Belarusian territory and threatened to retaliate.
“It’s terrifying,” says Nadezhda Stenenkova, 75.
“Obviously everything is fine now. Things are calm. But we still have this fear that they (Russian forces) will come back because they’re not far away and they’re still destroying towns and villages,” she says.
“We can’t feel at peace, because the Russian ‘fascists’ could return at any moment.”
Given these fears, she says some people are reluctant to carry out repairs yet, even if workmen have already taken measurements for replacement windows and doors that could be installed within weeks.
“No-one feels ready to get repairs done. They’re afraid of Lukashenko. They don’t know what he’ll do next,” says Stenenkova.
“We go to bed not knowing if we’ll wake up in the morning,” adds 65-year-old pensioner Vera Semeniuk tearfully.
Nevertheless, she says, “Everyone has come back and started fixing up their homes and a lot of people are putting in new windows. It would be terrible if it starts again and we all have to leave again.”
“Of course we hope that foreign countries will help us (to rebuild),” she adds.
“But our main hope is that our military bring us victory, with the help of support and weapons from abroad.”