The road to Borodyanka is littered with signs of a battle that ended abruptly. An empty tent. Discarded, unused ammunition. A dead pig.
A security expert tells us everything that moved was probably shot.
Inside the town, the devastation is colossal. Broken glass and mounds of debris surround a row of apartment buildings, most of which are charred and collapsing. As many as 200 people may have died in these artillery strikes, authorities say.
As it starts to rain, a few young men trudge in and out of one of the few buildings still standing on the block, albeit with its windows shattered. They salvage some items from their apartments: a box of wine glasses, a TV, a kitchen sink.
Victor Hrohul, a soldier and mine expert who has been fighting with the Ukrainian army for eight years, is stationed outside the building, guarding it from looters. Russians stole everything from cars to shampoo, he says, but local people have also been caught looting in this area, where some estimates say up to 80% of the population has fled.
The punishment for looting, Hrohul says, is being tied to a tree or pole without pants “so people can spank them as they pass.”
But looting is one of the lesser crimes Russian troops are accused of. In the few days since the Ukrainian military retook Borodyanka, Bucha and the other towns in the Kyiv region, hundreds of bodies have been found, some with their hands tied behind their backs.
Many bodies were burned after they were shot, and officials say it appears to have been done to cover up war crimes.
Rape has also been reported across the newly recaptured region. Ukrainian officials say they are currently investigating whether the rapes were a systematic weapon of war or a horrific series of individual crimes.
In eight years of fighting with Russians and their proxies, Hrohul says, he has never seen war like this.
“In the war in the Donbas region, it was soldier against soldier,” he explains, referring to the eastern part of the country, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting with Ukraine since 2014. “There wasn’t looting, killing civilians and rapes.”
Troops leave, fear remains
A few blocks away, we meet Marina, a 44-year-old mother of two, on her way to examine her law office. She doesn’t know if the building is still standing.
I ask if she will speak on camera, and she looks nervous.
“What if they come back?” she asks. “Won’t I get in trouble?”
I put away the camera, and she is visibly relieved. She says she wants people to know what happened here, but she fears Russian troops will return and punish people who spoke out against them.
Around the corner, the words “people live here” are scrawled in white on the garage door of an orange-and-white brick house. Marina, who prefers not to use her surname for the same reason she doesn’t want to be filmed, says she believes her children saved her. Their presence made it clear to soldiers that they were civilians, not Nazis or fighters, as so many others were accused of being.
Her nephew was stripped naked in search of Nazi tattoos, and another young man in her neighborhood was arrested and beaten, she says. The valuables were stolen from every abandoned house in her village, she says, and the only families that managed to hang on to their possessions were those that stayed home despite daily shelling, shootings and explosions.
There was a brief time when Russian soldiers asked if she needed humanitarian aid for her family, but she declined, even though they had only potatoes to eat.
“If I took things from them, they would bring reporters to film it,” she says. “And it would go on Russian TV as propaganda to show how good they are.”
And Russian troops — none older than 26 years old — made it clear to her that they could take what they wanted, when they wanted.
“They knocked everything out of my closet and picked up a shirt,” she says, telling us of a day when Russian troops searched her house.
“Is this your white shirt?'” one soldier asked. It was hers. He dropped it on the ground and stepped on it, grinding dirt from his boots into the shirt. “Now it is not your white shirt,” he said.
Is there an end?
A few blocks away, past mounds of rubble and destroyed belongings, Hrohul, the soldier and mine expert, leaves, warning us to be careful. The entire town is littered with deadly mines left by Russian troops, and it may take weeks or months for the military to clear them all, he explains.
“Even a pen can be a dangerous bomb,” Hrohul says, pulling out his black ballpoint pen. “It can look normal, but then when you click it, it explodes.”
Hryhoriy Nezdoliy, a house builder nearby, says he recently learned the lawn across the street from his house was heavily mined. “The soldiers said I was lucky” not to have been injured, he says. “I used to walk there every day.”
Nezdoliy is over 60 years old and lives with his mother. He wanted to escape the recent violence in Borodyanka but couldn’t get out. “I got as far as the edge of the park,” he says, pointing about 200 meters away. “I had heard there was a Ukrainian humanitarian corridor. But the Russian soldiers told me I couldn’t go.”
Like everyone else we meet in Borodyanka and Bucha, he says that he believes the war in their region is not over, and that Russian troops will attack again despite reports that Russia is focusing on fighting in eastern towns and cities.
“I’m not an expert,” he says, considering the matter. “But, yes, they will come back, and I think it will be worse.”