Law students and young lawyers in Ukraine are filing reports for JURIST on the latest developments in that country as it defends itself against Russian invasion. Here, Kyiv-based lawyer Dmytro Tkachuk, a law graduate of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and former Head of Banking Licensing at the National Bank of Ukraine, tells the story of his family’s remarkable effort to get back to Kyiv from the outlying town of Bucha in the first 10 days after the Russian invasion, and provides JURIST with a special update on his circumstances as he stays as a volunteer in Kyiv, having sent his family west to Lviv for greater safety.
We broke through. The day before yesterday, in the morning, we broke through from Bucha to Irpin. And in the afternoon — from Irpin to Kyiv. We all broke through and survived. It feels like being born again.
Let me tell you upfront, I am sharing this story so that those who would find themselves in an enemy-occupied city in the situation where we found ourselves knew that they can get out of it alive. But in this case, they’ll need to take a severe risk. I also hope that those of you who are safe are not falling into this mental trap I fell into thinking that the war would not physically affect my family. I was wrong. This is war. There are no rules or guarantees.
First day of the war
The war caught my family and me in Bucha. On 24 February, I was in a private house with four women in charge — my mother, my sister, and two grandmothers (74 and 83 years old). My father was in Kyiv, and he could not come to us.
In the beginning, in Bucha, we felt relatively safe. It was possible to quickly get to Kyiv or the Warsaw Highway and send the family to the West. But the war ignores your logistical plans. It comes to the places you don’t expect it. So it happened to us. From all the military bases and critical infrastructure of our country, the bastards started the offensive from Hostomel — a cargo airfield located 5 km north of our house in Bucha.
Second day of the war
Our guys from the Armed Forces of Ukraine blew up the bridge to Kyiv (east), and the orcs launched an offensive on Borodyanka and Vorzel from the west. Shortly afterwards, the fighting broke out directly in Bucha. Explosions started to be heard from each of the four sides of our house. The windows blew out of almost every one of them. We were surrounded. At the same time, we still thought that no one will touch us because we were peaceful civilians and don’t have arms at home. We were wrong.
Third day of the war
Our electricity, internet, and mobile communications were cut off. Locals said they saw orcs cutting cables on mobile towers, and we remained completely blind. You can spend hours looking at your phone, at the circle next to your messages in the telegram that gives you hope that the messages will be sent. But no. Nothing flies in and out.
Explosions of shells were heard all the time. Sometimes they were less loud, and sometimes it sounded as if they were torn in your house yard. After particularly loud explosions, the sky from the side of Hostomel and Kyiv turned crimson from time to time. As if it was bleeding. The noise of fighters was added to all of this; for some reason, it was heard only early in the morning. I would even say that this noise was more like a low but loud whistle that gets louder when the plane approaches. And every time your brain whispers to you that the fighter will drop a shell exactly on your house, will blow it up completely and destroy your whole family.
At the same time, sometimes some stick of mobile communication was brought to us by the wind. Using the remnants of charging from the power bank, I immediately called my friends from the Armed Forces and asked for advice on what to do with my family. Can they be taken out somehow? In response, I was told that now our direction is bad, we need to lie low and wait for our guys to finish the clean-up. We did not panic, believed in the Armed Forces, and waited.
We still had to go outside. I did not know how long we would have to stay in Bucha, and we only had food for about a week. Every few days, we went out into the city searching for provisions. The shops were closed. There was no information on the humanitarian aid. The City Council was silent. Sometimes we were lucky — one day, the employees of the Eco Market decided to hand out food leftover from the warehouses to people. It looked awful, to put it mildly, as hundreds of people tried to grab at least a pack of tea or an orange.
Sixth or seventh day of the war
We went outside for water from the pump room, walked to the end of the street, and ran into the enemy’s armored vehicles at the turn. It had the letter V on its side. Two demons with white bandages stood near the car, staring at us. We turned around very slowly and returned home. The fear paralyzed the mind, but the body moved. The next day we still had to go for water because we had no choice. And we went.
We thought we would stay at home. We thought we were safe because why would the enemy would shell a private sector. Meanwhile, there was no corridor. There were sounds of explosions from armored vehicles and machine guns from the street. Fighters continued to fly over the house. We moved to live in a basement where it was +5–7 °C. We thought it would be calmer.
Tenth day of the war
We thought so until 5 March, the day when the enemy tank came to our street in the private sector. In front of me, at first, this iron bastard shot at a private house that was in one house from us. Then he aimed at the dome of the church that was 70 meters away from us. The noise was as if all the bells of the world rang. I don’t know how our windows withstood it. I don’t know how my ears started to distinguish any other sounds after that. Later, my sister and I saw a sprinter that stopped in front of the church, the driver and passengers ran out and lay down on the asphalt behind it. I think they were hiding from the enemy’s armored vehicles. These poor people made a homemade white flag on a stick and from time to time showed it to the enemy. But there was no reaction, so they continued to lie on the pavement, hoping that a tank would not hit them.
From the top floor of our house, we could see how the upper nine-story apartment that was closer to the city center, was burning.
At the same time, from our window, we could see how the enemy columns of orcs with white armbands started walking on the neighboring streets. They went in a group of 5–7 carcasses. There was a meter between each of them. They looked in the windows of houses.
Then we realized that we could no longer stay and wait for a corridor. Even if no one breaks into the house, no one can guarantee that a shell will not fly into the roof of our house and blow up all our relatives. And if not a shell, sooner or later, the food will run out. What should we do in this case? And what if an evacuation is announced and we don’t know about it, because we’re out of connection, what then?
My sister and I sat at the negotiating table with our grandmothers, who did not accept any ideas about evacuation. Our mother’s mother lived in Bucha district for the whole of her life and was not going to leave her home. Believe me, it was among the most difficult negotiations in my life. But by hook or by crook, we convinced her.
In the morning, we collected all the necessary stuff and went outside. Neighbors saw us. They understood everything without words, called us and said that they were coming with us. As a result, there were seven of us, not counting a small dog. We left the house that our late grandfather built with his own hands, as well as everything that was in it. And we went to the direction where the explosions were heard loudest — to Irpin.
Immediately on the next street, a local man met us. “Where are you going? There is an enemy checkpoint 300 meters away. They’ll fucking shoot you.” This was the first, but not the last, time we heard these words that day. But every time, we looked at each other and realized we had to move on. We could not stay.
It is good that Lisova (Forest) Bucha is a place where my mother and grandmother grew up. They know every way and every tree there. We passed the checkpoint over, came to the pond, and went to Irpin through a place where we learned to swim once being children. Through the place where shells were constantly flying between Irpin and Bucha. Where buildings were burned from every side, from which thick black smoke rose.
It seemed to me that my head was turning gray with every explosion. There was a strong smell of pyrotechnics in the air. I used to like it, and now I hate it.
We walked slowly because both grandmothers squeezed maximum of themselves. My mother was very worried that this route march would kill them. I thought that if not that, a random shell would kill all of us. That is why we had to go. And we went. We sneaked through the bushes and off-road until we finally saw the first checkpoint. Our checkpoint. This meant that we managed to get around enemy ones and leave the city. Occupied Bucha was left behind.
At the entrance to Irpin, our guys from the defense forces met us. When you see a blue and yellow handkerchief on a soldier’s hand, your legs go weak with relief for a moment. I always loved our flag, but I have never been so happy about it in my life.
But in Irpin we were disappointed — there also was no communication, no transport or passing cars. Later we understood why. In 50 meters, we saw Irpin’s new buildings that were destroyed. It was as if a tornado had hit it. We looked at these houses and saw broken kitchens, remnants of bedrooms, wallpapers in children’s rooms, and pieces of mirrors in the bathrooms. We looked at it and realized that one of the owners of these apartments was collecting money to build and fill this house for half of his life. Some of them were probably going to live there for all their lives. We watched and understood that this could happen to our house.
It was especially a pity to see the billboard in front of a completely demolished house that said, “Finally, you can afford yourself your own meters.” Unfortunately, many Irpin citizens are now left without meters and the opportunity to afford them.
We had no choice but to go through all of Irpin towards Romanivka, the southern district of Irpin, where people were supposed to be evacuated. This information was completely unconfirmed. People along the way kept telling us that we were fooled, that it was impossible to go there, that there were shelling from mortars, tanks, and GRADs. That it was just announced on the radio that a family with young people had been killed there.
But we had nowhere to go. Occupied by the enemy Bucha was behind. Irpin was rattling from all sides. Houses hit by shells just a few minutes ago were burning around. We saw covered people’s bodies lying on the street. It was awful.
It was impossible to stay in Irpin. We went farther.
Grandmothers were extremely exhausted. I think the only thing that kept them on their feet was adrenaline and the desire to survive.
I did not know where Romanivka was located. But I heard where the most powerful explosions were coming from. Somewhere inside, I realized that we needed to go there.
On our way, we came to a church. We were told that people were evacuated from there yesterday. A pastor met us and said that going to Romanivka was incredibly dangerous now. Those people are dying there. “Stay with us. We will feed you. We have already accommodated up to 200 people”. The church was warm and crowded. There were sleeping places. My body gave me a clear signal that it was ready to fall on the next chair and not get off it until the following day. But the brain had been winning that fight.
Just some minutes later, several men in military uniforms entered the door. “The situation is getting worse,” said one, “the corridor is closing.” Yesterday we drove there quietly. Today you can only walk across the field”. We exchanged glances with our neighbor and realized we had to go. Even run. Right now.
The legs of one grandmother started to give out. She couldn’t walk without assistance. She was scared and hurt.
We approached the last checkpoint of our guys in Irpin. Then, there was only a field, an asphalt road, and a bridge over the Irpin river. It was the road to Kyiv. There were several dozens of houses behind the bridge, it was Romanivka. Behind it, there had to be evacuation buses. Behind it, there had to be our home.
“Fall!” one of the soldiers shouted. All of us had quickly fell to the ground. The whistling of the shells. Three. Two. One. Explosion. Somewhere within a radius of one hundred meters. “They are shelling already for five hours. You should go in that direction. Go lower the road, a bit less than a kilometer through the field. There is a blown bridge behind the field. There, you will understand everything. If you hear the whistling of a shell, you will have from 7 to 2 seconds to fall to the ground. Fall every time! ”. And we left. Running forward, we fell about 20 times.
As soon as we went out on the field, two things happened. The shell hit two houses on both sides of the bridge. Right in front of the bridge. Everything ignited instantly, and the sky was covered with black smog. The second thing was that my grandmother had lost the use of her legs. She couldn’t walk. And that was when we had already left the checkpoint and did not have any shelter.
At such moments, your brain does not work. You’re just surviving. My sister and I took my grandmother by the arms and started to drag her behind us. Grandmother in one hand, in the other — a huge bag, which contained all our valuables from home. Over our heads, there was another whistling of a shell. We fall to the ground. It hits an unfinished house somewhere left from us. I jump on my feet, grab my grandmother, pick up my sister, and we run again. Our mom, another grandmother, and neighbors run ahead towards the bridge. A whistle again — a few seconds and another shell hits the bridge. Grandma shouts that we should leave her there and run to the bridge ourselves. If it’s not hell, then what?
I don’t know how we got to it. I remember the military was standing there waving at us to run under the bridge. When we finally ran, we saw that there were already 40 civilians there apart of us. Everyone is scared. They stood under the abutments because there was less chance that they would be crushed by the wreckage of the bridge from the next hit.
We were not allowed to go across the river. The military made it clear that another shell could arrive from above at any moment. I think they should have waited for the order from the commanders.
We were so close to Kyiv. Some hundreds of meters, and you’re home.
We hear another whistle. This time, a double one. Two shells hit the field that was to our right.
We were so close and so far away at the same time.
I stood under the bridge, watching people tremble and cry nearby, and thought that russians had made me a refugee in my own home. Moreover, they want to bury me at home.
At that moment, something flashed in my head. Some powerful internal protest. I started to repeat to myself that I was not going to die there. Not today. Not near Irpin. And not from russians.
The soldier gave us a sign that we should move quickly to the river. We rushed forward. Me, my sister, our grandmother between us, and a bag with our stuff. Soldiers put a 40 centimeters wide desk across the river. In front of us, people were carrying a woman in a wheelchair. On the other side, two soldiers ran over, took the woman in their arms, and slowly carried her to the other bank. You know, although it was a critical moment, I wanted to stop and just applaud these guys. It was a powerful act of some basic humanity and humanism in a time of deep crisis.
My mom and my grandma went first. My dear grandmother in her 83 years, showed the wonders of endurance, courage, and grace and quickly moved to the other bank of the river. Marysa and I were carrying another grandmother on ourselves.
“Please, not a shell, just not a shell,” I repeated to myself because there was nowhere to hide. Step by step, step by step, and we are finally on the other bank.
I constantly replay the next episode in my head like in slow motion — I look up, the military wave at us from above and shout “RUN! RUUUUN!!!”. There are two houses on fire, we are very close to our checkpoint, and I understand that a shell can hit us at any moment. But I can’t run, because another grandmother is lying on top of me. She absolutely can’t stand on her feet and is shouting that she no longer can do it. But we went. We went as we could. Semi-squat. But we still could not keep up with others and were left behind.
We probably wouldn’t have gotten off that bridge if a bus hadn’t approached us from the side at that moment. The door opened, and we saw a woman in a wheelchair in front of us and several other people sitting there. There was almost no space in the car, so I pushed my grandmother there, closed the door, and ran towards the checkpoint.
I ran, my sister and several strangers were running nearby. Our checkpoint was in front of us, behind it. Two girls in military uniforms waved at us. 50 meters. 45 meters. 40 meters. 30. 20. 10. It seemed that this distance, this most extended cross in my life, would never end. But here we ranpast the girls, ranto the route that was located in the woods and rananother 50 meters by inertia.
We are in Kyiv. We are at home.
An ordinary Kyiv passenger bus goes towards us. Yellow and blue. Saving one. My mother, grandmother, and our neighbors are already sitting inside.
It stops near us. Behind it, the bus unloads my other grandmother, and we, along with 40 other people, run inside the bus. A minute and we are already going in the direction of Kyiv.
While we were driving through the woods, I could not understand what had happened to us. I watched how my mother pulled our little dog out from under her jacket, which she carried on her chest from Bucha herself. I looked at both grandmothers, whose faces had not been so red for a long time. I looked out the window. And when we drove to Kyiv, I cried. Akademmistechko [area in Kyiv] has never been so dear and beautiful to me.
17 km on foot. With two grandmothers and a dog. Under constant mortar fire. Walking around the corpses of civilians. We broke through hell. And survived.
Now, when I think about why it happened, it seems that it was a reward for staying alive. To survive in a war, you need to look into its eyes. You can look into the eyes in different ways:
⁃ either to prepare for it and meet it prepared, standing firmly on both feet on your land;
⁃ or try to hide from it, and then, risking your life, to escape under fire from the occupied territories;
⁃ or to not try to leave the occupied territories at all and hope that your home will not explode from a mortar strike.
I understand that at the beginning of the war I, without realizing it, chose the second option. But never again.
I am not calling anyone to evacuate on their own. This is incredibly dangerous. I believe it is a miracle that my family and I were able to walk through this path and remain unharmed. I just want to show that war destroys everything on its path by my example. You can’t run away from it. And we must be ready for this.
If you feel that you or your loved ones are in danger — think about (1) how to move your family to a safe place and (2) what actions you can take to contribute to the victory over the enemy. Otherwise, one day you may wake up and realize that you need to escape, and you need to do it under crossfire. Believe me, this is not the situation you want to be in.
We are glad that we are alive. We are incredibly grateful to all the people who helped us get out of Bucha.
And we wholeheartedly believe in our guys and our victory.
Glory to Ukraine.
Special update for JURIST, March 16, 2022I am sending this email to you from one of bomb shelters in Kyiv. After our escape from the city of Bucha, which is currently occupied by the Russian army, I organised transportation of my family from Kyiv to Lviv (the biggest city in Western Ukraine). I decided to stay in the capital and help our military as a volunteer.
Currently the enemy is trying to encircle the city. They failed numerous times. The capital is well-shielded by our army on the land. At the same time we are vulnerable to the attack from the air. Every two-three hours we need to hide in bomb shelters, since Russians continiously sending their missiles (which are sucessfuly being hit by our air defence system made in the Soviet times) to the capital.During the past week there were five or six green corridors from Bucha to Kyiv. Lot’s of women and children managed to leave the city. At the same time, thousands of men and elderly people stayed in the occupied city. My cousin called me a few days ago and informed me that my mother’s cousin and a few of our neighbours died because the rocket hit the street where they have been hiding. Their bodies were lying on the street for some time since the enemy was patrolling the streets and no one was allowed to go outside and properly bury them. At the same time, closer to the city center local people buried up to 70 people in the one grave. Many of these people were impossible to identify due to the horrific injuries on their bodies. By following the link you may see respective photos of the grave – https://tsn.ua/ato/u-buchi-v-bratskiy-mogili-pohovali-67-mirnih-zhiteliv-2007607.html
It is incredibly dangerous in the North-Western part of Kyiv region right now. The enemy is hiding its military vehicles in the yards of private houses in Bucha. There is a video confirming it – https://censor.net/ua/video_news/3325388/u_buchi_rosiyiski_okupanty_hovayut_tehniku_u_dvorah_jytlovyh_budynkiv_video
Sending the warmest regards from strong and independent Ukraine,