In two photos, see how Bucha is erasing the scars of Russia's invasion
BUCHA, Ukraine — First there was the battle for Bucha. Now there's the battle to rebuild Bucha.
The photo at the top of this page shows the utter devastation on one of the main roads, Vokzal'na Street, in early April, just days after the Russian forces retreated from their bloody incursion into Bucha, a suburb on the northwest edge of Kyiv.
Now look at the photo just below it. It's the same road, Vokzal'na Street, from the same spot, on Monday. You see the same red and blue sign in the upper right side of both photos, an advertisement for the ATB market, which is 550 meters straight ahead.
And it's not just Vokzal'na street that's been fixed up. An NPR team has visited twice in recent days, spending several hours going around the town, and we didn't see a single damaged or destroyed vehicle on the roads.
All the debris on the streets has also been cleaned up, and whatever damage Russian tanks caused to the asphalt in Bucha is no longer visible.
Here's a satellite view of the same stretch of Vokzal'na Street on March 31.
All those military and civilian vehicles have been towed to open fields on the edge of town that have been turned into junkyards, as you can see in the photos below.
Of course, clearing the streets is just one small step in a massive rebuilding effort that will take years. Many homes and huge apartment are burned out shells, or have collapsed completely.
On a rainy day, we met 71-year-old Valentyn Lipatiev, who had returned to his destroyed home on Vokzal'na Street. He was hoping to get his car, parked in a garage behind his collapsed home, running again.
Lipatiev said his family members fled as the Russian forced moved into the town — including a large presence on the narrow street right in front of his house.
"I saw the Russian tanks roll in, and I saw them shooting down this street," he said.
"I saw this war unfold outside my living room window before my very own eyes," he added. "When I realized that I'd be a dead man very soon, I ran into my cellar. When I realized I might not be safe there, I ran across the street."
He stayed in that building, which is larger than his home, for 10 days, with the Russians going up and down the street. Finally he was able to emerge and get a ride out of town. He recently returned.
As Lipatiev sifted through the debris at his house on this wet day, many of his fellow residents were at Bucha's city hall, which was buzzing, in a well-organized kind of way. Notices on the front door provide residents with numbers to call if they're seeking counseling. There's also a phone list of local morgues for people still trying to locate missing family and friends.
Vadym Yevdokymenko is helping with this grim task.
"Most of the stories are pretty sad," he said. "But at the very least, we find the bodies of people so that the family members don't have to wonder what happened to them. They're able to give them a dignified burial and they're able to say their goodbyes."
Many residents coming to city hall are looking for more permanent places to stay and financial help to rebuild.
Zhanna Rohovets, 55, said her family apartment was damaged, but can be repaired.
"The city says that sooner or later, everybody will either receive a place to live or some compensation for their homes. But with the war as it is, they're currently unable to do that. And that promise will only come after the war ends," she said.
She's currently staying at home of relatives who went abroad, and she considers herself lucky.
"I think no matter what the situation is, I will not end up on the street, even if that means we'll be living in tight quarters, uncomfortable quarters," she said. "At the very least, we have family that we're able to depend on, and there are most certainly people here in the city who are in a worse situation."
In the near-term, Bucha is provided pre-fabricated dormitories that have been donated by Poland. Several have already been pieced together in schoolyards and parking lots.
Each unit, which includes communal bathrooms and kitchens, can house up to 90 people. The electricity and plumbing is being hooked up and families are expected to start moving in within days.
Serhiy Leshchenko, an advisor to President Volodymyr Zelenskky's administration, says the government is encouraging citizens to return.
"When people stay abroad, they start to set roots in the new society. Children go into local schools. Parents start looking for new jobs. And some stay abroad," Leshchenko said.
Many who left Ukraine are women and children, and they're likely to stay in other European countries through the summer while schools are closed, he said.
"People are starting to think about schools now, and they need to have a clear picture," he said. "The government has to show the ability to start the school season in three months."
Walking around Bucha is a study in contrasts. Look one direction and there's a gutted apartment building that will have to be torn down and rebuilt. Look in the other direction and teenagers are playing soccer and basketball in the park, young parents pushing their kids in strollers, cafes and markets have a steady stream of customers.
And as it rebuilds, Bucha has a distinctive soundtrack — pounding hammers, screeching buzzsaws and grinding power drills.
Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.
Julian Hayda is an NPR producer.
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