From February 27 till March 31 the Russian army was fighting around and eventually occupying the Ukrainian town of Bucha, 30 kilometers northwest of Kyiv. After the liberation of Bucha by the Ukrainian army reports about war crimes committed by the Russian forces, including executions of many civilians, shocked the world. Katya Savchenko published her diary in The Ukrainian View. She described how she and her family survived.
Bucha, Vokzalnaya street after Russian invasion. Photo Wikipedia.
by Katya Savchenko
My name is Katya Savchenko. I am 27 years old and I am from Horlivka, a city in the Donbas region of Ukraine that Russia occupied in 2014. My family and I never wanted to leave our home, but Russia’s war against Ukraine forced us to move to Kyiv. My parents started their new life in Bucha, on the outskirts of the city. We lived there for 8 years until Russia took our home again and nearly took our lives after their full-scale invasion of Ukraine. I kept this diary while staying at a bomb shelter in Bucha, a town that recently became notorious due to the massacre of Ukrainians by Russian forces.
Day 1 — Feb 24, Kyiv, Bucha
I get up to the ring of the intercom. I’m not expecting anyone, but the ringing doesn’t stop. I hear my flatmate going to the door, swearing and mumbling. I check my phone, it’s 6:30 a.m., and I have 17 missed calls. After a second I heard my sister shouting from the threshold and I understood everything.
The war has started. 'Katya, get ready quickly; we need to make it to Bucha', — my sister shouts. We decided in advance that we would stick together if anything happened. I jump out of bed, pull on the first thing that comes to hand, grab a backpack prepared a week ago and a ring, my grandmother’s gift. Half an hour later, after we arrived at our parents’ home, we heard explosions — the battles for the Hostomel airport had begun (Hostomel is an international cargo airport that became a strategic target for Russia, as it is only 10km away from Kyiv. After 2 days of heavy battle, the Russians took control of the airport, but it was too damaged to be used as they had planned).
From our windows, we can see helicopters and smoke. We grab the tape to seal the windows, just in case. A fighter jet has just flown over our house with a terrifying sound that is still in my mind. I scream and fall to the floor, covering my head. I tell my family that we have to go to a bomb shelter quickly.
There are nearly 100 people in the shelter, so we find a corner, move a couple of benches together, and lay out mats and sleeping bags. There is light, water, and toilets — excellent conditions! I am very tired, but can’t sleep. 'The war has begun.' These words are now and then in my head.
Day 2 — Feb 25, Bucha
The first night in the basement. I slept intermittently. The bench is stiff, so it left some bruises on my body. The people are friendly, and the atmosphere is quite nice. We hear explosions, but they are somewhere far away. We didn’t leave the shelter all day except for a smoke break. It was scary to go too far. By the end of the day, we had learned to determine the locations of missile strikes by sound. People said it was in Hostomel near the airport.
Day 3 — Feb 26, Bucha
Dad spent the night at home with our cat Alice. She’s very shy, and she would go crazy in the shelter with 100 people and dogs. My mother, sister, and I also made it home to take a shower. We packed some things for our guys from the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the hospital. I wrote them a letter admitting that I was bursting with pride for them.
Shops were open that day, and I had to stand in line for an hour to buy some food. The cashier girl, who was the only one who came to work that day, was just a heroine to me! I felt brave too because the explosions were loud, and I withstood and didn’t run away. People are suspicious of anyone who looks strange. They ask everybody to speak Ukrainian to check if there were any Russian saboteurs there.
Everyone is trying to cover their fear with humor. No one doubts our victory. The news gets all the attention, but we even managed to play cards. Mom is slowly becoming the star of our shelter. If this were a Hollywood movie about teenagers, she would definitely play the most popular girl at school.
My friends wrote that the night would be horrible. I didn’t know where they got that information, but I was shaking. Dad decided to stay at home again. The 'shelter’s chiefs' checked everyone’s documents and made a roll call for security reasons. In case we died, our relatives would know we were there.
Day 4 — Feb 27, Bucha
The worst day. Despite threats, the night was calm. We woke up to the explosions at 5:00 a.m. They are strong, loud, and close. The walls are trembling. Everyone — by that time, our bomb shelter had become home to 200 people — seemed to be praying. I just sit by the wall trembling and crying and looking at little girls drawing in their albums to distract themselves.
I hate myself for my fear. I’m trying to breathe and calm down, but it doesn’t work. I hug my mother and sister. Then, I write to my friends in the chat, 'Forgive me for everything. I love you all very much.'
I close my eyes and see us together, walking around Kyiv at night, drinking sparkling wine in Shevchenko Park. In these minutes, memories flood my head with random pictures where I was genuinely happy. It feels so warm. Performances in the theater, hitchhiking, dancing in the street, sitting on the balcony, radio broadcasting, parties, business trips, the first bicycle ride in my native city Horlivka, the festival in Mariupol, film screenings in Odesa, a jazz festival in Lviv, and just the laughing faces of my dear people.
Suddenly I realized that I didn’t regret anything. What an incredible and wonderful life I’ve lived! Just the way I wanted. I used to shame myself for not achieving something, but at this moment, in this bomb shelter, all that seems so minor. Through all shock and fear, I’m rediscovering my values. I’m rediscovering myself.
As I’m running deeper into my thoughts, I calm down a bit. I really want to live on. I sternly promised myself that, as soon as I could, I would confess my love to anyone I wanted to.The strong smell of burning fills the shelter; it comes from the street and turns me away from my thoughts. I feel hungry and eat a banana.
The light is off. The shelling had stopped by 5:00 in the evening, so I finally could go up to the toilet and brush my teeth. We went out just as the mayor of Bucha arrived. He showed us a photo of the consequences of today’s battles. Our soldiers are so handsome! They have destroyed the entire column of Russian equipment. But Vokzalnaya Street was so badly damaged, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The house next to ours was now a hole instead of an apartment on the 8th floor.
I’m dizzy all evening. At night, we are let out to smoke. The town is completely dark due to a blackout, so the only light is from the stars in the sky. Damn, what a beautiful sky!
City park in Bucha, July 2014. Photo Wikipedia.
Day 5 — Feb 28, Bucha
We have already made friends here! Lena, her daughter Natasha and Vlad, Natasha’s husband. He seems to be the most responsible man here. At each rocket strike, he calms us down with, 'Don’t worry, it was just a large caliber, even if it arrives, the walls must withstand', and, 'Don’t panic, it was just a fragment that hit the building'. He is my personal hero. We haven’t had light since yesterday, but we still have a power bank, and our new friends still have hot water in a thermos and share it with us.
It was relatively quiet outside, so people from the shelter ran to grab some produce from Novus, a nearby supermarket. The Russians bombed it yesterday, and the mayor said we could get what we needed to survive. So, the men carried food from the store to the shelter all day.
Dad called from home and said that the cat had run out of cat litter and he needed to get it urgently. So we went to the shop with my sister to get it. It was the first time I went far out of the shelter since yesterday’s battle and saw my destroyed town of Bucha. Houses and roads are ruined. The windows of the supermarket are broken, the siren is yelling, and people are trying to take away everything they can. We are quickly grabbing the cat litter and running back. In the end, we realized that we had dragged as much as 15 kg on only pure adrenaline!
The best thing from that day was a bottle of beer. On our way back, we met girls who brought out a whole case of beer and gave us two bottles. We shared one with my sister and left the second for a 'rainy day'. By the time we came back, our people had already found a generator and were charging their phones. Incredible!
A little bit about household successes and new skills: I learned to wash my clothes in the sink and managed to do a manicure with the light of a flashlight.
In the evening, I helped wash and change a boy in a wheelchair. His mother was constantly crying. I can’t even imagine how difficult it is to cope alone. My family gave him a fresh father’s jacket. The boy couldn’t speak, but when we finished, he took my hand, and I understood him perfectly. Hopefully, it was dark, so he didn’t see me crying.
Day 6 — March 1, Bucha
First spring day — good news day! We finally have light, cheers! Everyone rejoices and claps. We finally saw dad when he came to visit us. We managed to get home for a while. I finally took a shower and washed my hair. Running back to the shelter was really scary, and we had to climb over the fence.
People installed a TV in the hall on the first floor over the shelter, so everyone could watch the news or turn on cartoons for children. Finally, I met my first mate during the war — Vova. He came to the shelter for the first time because he decided that it was not safe at home anymore.
We ate borscht! The women from our shelter cooperated and made borscht for everybody — nearly 200 people! After lunch, we return to our routines. My sister Natasha helps collect lists of necessary medicines. We all read the news and are very worried about Mariupol, Kharkiv, and other cities.
At 4:40 p.m., our mobile connection was cut off. Just in case, the men give everyone a short briefing on how to behave if occupiers come to take us hostage. We start arguing about what is more dangerous — to stay in the shelter or try to escape from the town. But all exits are already blocked. We try to calm down and read Gogol’s book.
Days 7–8 — March 2–3, Bucha
It feels like a groundhog day. I wake up, eat something, walk around, feel sad, take a nap, and wake up and look at the wall. As soon as I decide to go outside, explosions start rattling closer, and I run back to the shelter. Those two days are now in a blur. My nerves are running out, and I can suddenly burst into tears and don’t want to talk to anyone. Then I take a sedative and feel relieved.
Nobody really knows what is happening in the town because there is no news about it. There are fewer strong shots, but the sounds of automatic bursts become more frequent. We’ve heard rumors that the Russians shot people for no reason. Somebody was shot in their car, somebody just in the street, somebody at their apartment. I write to my dad and ask him not to go close to the windows.
What if we have to stay here for another week? What if for a month? What if the Russians come here? In order to somehow distract ourselves, we play cards: me, my mother, my sister, and our new friends. People from the shelter became a family to me. If I meet them in years, I will definitely recognize them and recall where they slept.
We pray 'Our Father' together. Once, we started praying in Russian, but then they realized that it was a mess, so we continued it in Ukrainian. I looked at everyone and thought, 'No, these people can’t die here'. I hug my mom.
In the evening, we saw the news about the evacuation from Irpin by rail, which was successful. It was the first evacuation to Kyiv. The situation heated up. On the one hand, we want to use a chance to escape, but on the other hand, we aren’t sure it is safe. And we still have to get from Bucha to Irpin somehow. Execution on the spot, shelling along the way, and if the connection is lost? Running into the unknown is even scarier, although it’s better to be shot than to be raped by the occupier.
Our parents refused to take risks and didn’t want to leave our home. But they told us that Natasha and I must save ourselves at the first opportunity. I’m angry with impotence. At night I got a message from a friend. He said I had to grab my things and leave as soon as I had a chance. He told me where to go; he would meet me, and host me at his place.
Ukrainian president Volodymir Zelensky visited Bucha 'to show the world' the atrocities commited by the Russian forces. Photo Wikipedia.
Days 9 — March 4
I wake up with a strong feeling that I have to escape from Bucha. I read in the news that today will be a second attempt to evacuate people from Irpin. I decide to take this chance and talk with my family about it. Natasha is ready to take a risk, but my parents don’t want to.
We had to wait for an hour until the end of the curfew and had another hour to get to Irpin from Bucha on foot. Dad insisted on giving us a ride to Irpin station, though the risk of being shot is even higher in a car. Or maybe not? We didn’t know for sure.
Mom is crying, and so are we. I hug her like never before because I don’t know if I will ever be able to hug her again. 'One day, I will dance at your wedding'; that was her last phrase before we left.
We passed the Ukrainian checkpoint between Bucha and Irpin; it was already calmer. But Irpin was destroyed. Ruined houses and fragments of trees and fences on the roads. Railway station finally! Dad refused to leave until we got on a train. We said goodbye to each other, and it was the third time in my life I saw my daddy’s tears.
The platform is full of women, children, and animals. The military and guys from the Red Cross are walking around. I’ve never thought that the men with guns would calm me down. As soon as we arrived at the station, the shelling began, louder and louder. We don’t know where, but each time, it seems to be getting closer to us. I’m almost going crazy. Usually, I was at the bomb shelter during the shelling, but now there was no cover over my head. With each new explosion, I crouch, cover my head, twitch, and grab my sister. My whole body is cowardly: both from the cold and from wild fear. I call my dad every 10 minutes: why didn’t he leave right away? How will he leave now?
The next three hours passed. At some point, we stopped believing that there would be a train. Our military and doctors are trying to distract us with conversations and instructions on how to keep warm. Then I hear a strong explosion. Dad stopped answering my calls. I ask my sister for water, but it turns out that we forgot to take it. I have only a bottle of beer, the same for a 'rainy day'.
Finally, we hear the long-awaited clatter of wheels. After the train was full, it finally moved towards Kyiv. One of the happiest moments in my life is arriving in Kyiv. I asked my friends to meet me at the station and saw my friend Vitya when we came. I run towards him, sobbing and shaking all over. I pounce on him with hugs and say, 'How quiet it is in Kyiv!' Then I burst into tears.
We spend the next 8 hours at the Kyiv railway station trying to get on any train to the west of Ukraine. Air raid sirens are constantly on. Panic, screams, crowds of people, and children being passed over people’s heads. My sister Natasha was almost pushed under the train. Around 8:00 p.m., we made it to take seats on the train to Uzhgorod, a city near Ukraine’s western border. Sitting on the second shelf on the train, I can’t come to my senses and believe that we managed to escape. We are safe. But dad still doesn’t answer.
For the third month now, I have been in Warsaw, got a job, and received temporary protection in Poland. My Polish friend and his mother helped me and my family leave Ukraine. The train we took turned out to be the last from Irpin. Later the same day, the rails were damaged. On the next day, a rocket hit another train that was to pick up people from Irpin.
My dad was under fire. He was driving a car with our neighbors when the Russians shot at them. Our neighbors were badly wounded, but my dad survived by a miracle. He started negotiating with a Russian soldier, who eventually let him go. Dad took the wounded to the hospital, where they underwent several operations but survived.
My parents and the cat managed to leave Bucha via the green corridor a week after our departure. At that time, the Russian military had already moved to the center of the town. They entered our bomb shelter, and people had to negotiate with them to survive. Food had to be cooked on fires in the streets.
My friend Vova also successfully left Bucha the same day as we did, but by a different route. On March 5, Vlad (our new friend and my shelter hero) left the shelter to help the people in Stekolka (one of Bucha’s districts). And then, he disappeared. A few weeks ago, his body was identified.
Recently, my parents went back to Bucha. Luckily, their house wasn’t bombed. My sister returned to Kyiv, and I am still in Poland. That same bottle of beer is still with me. I’ll keep it for the next time in Bucha and open it on the steps to the bomb shelter to celebrate Ukraine’s victory.
The war continues…
This diary was first published in The Ukrainian View.