Essays On War

Oleh Kotsarev. Bucha: Attempting to return to normalcy

Bucha: Attempting to return to normalcy

It was May, and a vibrant shade of green spilled out from the trees when I arrived at Bucha. The city where I’d spent much of the past few years had recently been liberated from Russian occupation. Bucha was liberated on March 31, and the entirety of Kyiv region a few days later, with the invaders‘ rapid retreat. The retreat was accompanied by not only tragic but also curious events: it is said that Russians forced the staff of the Chornobyl NPP, held hostage throughout the occupation, to sign a paper stating that they were treated fairly. Bucha, which my wife, little daughter, and I had managed to flee early on, had experienced a hellish month. The bodies of the dead were collected from the streets. Meanwhile, survivors prepared food and water for washing on improvised stoves in the courtyards of their high-rise buildings. Numerous institutions were looted or destroyed, and the roads were littered with broken military vehicles. The city has gained eerie worldwide fame. The simple phrase, „I’m from Bucha,“ immediately put a somber look on people’s faces.


And now, for the first time since the start of the invasion, I have returned home. My relatives, imagining something terrible, constantly call and ask in strained voices how I am doing. By the way, while we’re on the topic of pulling at (heart) strings, an acquaintance of mine, a musician from Bucha, found explosives inside her piano—a gift from Russian soldiers, if you will. That is why my number one mission was to bring in sappers. I made numerous calls over two weeks and eventually managed to arrange specialists‘ “after-work” visits.


I get off the bus and wonder what will leave the biggest lasting impression on me. As it turns out, it’s Bucha’s ordinariness. True, there are not as many people frequenting the sidewalks or parks these days. Passers-by often wear mourning clothes. Soot marks stain burnt-out apartments, floors, and entrances; the cracks and broken glass resemble wrinkles on a face. There are tangled hairs of broken wires under the lamp posts. My friend, who was building a gray house for himself, was killed (we don’t know that yet, there’s still hope, but the truth will be revealed later in the summer). Despite it all, the city seems unchanged; it stands motionless. The locals remain steadfast and calmly go about their business. Civilian and military transport continue to move despite the absence of traffic lights. Or does it just seem like it?


Occupiers lived in my apartment. I carefully make my way through it; the sappers will come later. There’s a bed made for two people, followed by a second one, also made for two. They didn’t sleep on our bed; they brought in a neighbor’s. One of the Russians slept under a blanket in the colors of the American flag. They left a Ukrainian wreath on the pillow and broke the radio with a hammer. They stole some things and took out the front door (being self-organized, we swiftly re-installed doors throughout the house). They littered everywhere with scraps of food. They left part of their rations, namely Saldez disinfectant wipes. They forgot the knife. They flipped through Ukrainian books (my poems included). I wonder who they were? Were they Buryats, who have gained infamy amongst Ukrainians? Many residents of Bucha are convinced that the biggest atrocities in Yablonka (an area of Bucha where there were many murders and abuses of civilians) were the work of Buryats. Were they Chechen-Kadyrovites? They say their roadblock was not far away. Or were they “simple Russians” from some part of Nizhny Novgorod? Were there citizens of the Russian Federation with Ukrainian surnames, or maybe even with a Ukrainian-sounding accent, from the Kursk region or Kuban?


The sappers are large and cheerful men. They enter the apartment and plunge their big hands into the mess; no appliances are needed. Toys, piano, clothes, dishes, drawers, sofas, behind and under couches, washing machine – they check everything with their bare hands. Their hands are big lively spiders. No explosives are found. The sappers look at the chaos I will have to organize and clean up later, smiling: „It’s okay; it could have been worse.“ After a few days of moderately persistent cleaning, with friends‘ help, my apartment returns to a more or less adequate condition.


The same thing is happening all over the city. Woodwork is heard on the central pedestrian street: the roof of a five-story building is being replaced. A cafe with a cozy summer terrace is opening near the burned-out pharmacy (and the pharmacy itself will come back to life in the fall). The railway station has been repainted in gray and black, more elegant colors than before. New glass windows appear in the bread kiosk, and they decide to sell vegetables in the flower kiosk. The outpatient clinic of family medicine again calls for vaccination against Covid…


…Autumn. There are more and more people returning to Bucha. The weather is damp. The bus windows perspire. Waves of scented leaves spread out across the sidewalks. Crowds walk and take pictures of themselves and the squirrels in a luxurious park. Almost everything that should work in a small town near a metropolis does so. My friend and I are discussing a new variety of pies for sale at the local bakery. We disapprovingly discuss them; our mood is conservative. The return to normalcy seems to be a success. Life more and more distinctly resembles what it did during peacetime. Window advertisements bloom on the lamp posts, and the city’s reconstruction is advertised on billboards. My wife says that this is how the swallows keep their touching nests together despite the weather.


This green city with a yellow-green flag is said to have been one of the most peaceful in the world. Wait a second–what’s there? I come to a stop on my bike and notice there is an arrow and the scratched inscription BODY on a fence. Apparently, this is how dead bodies were marked in the days following the liberation. This person was buried long ago, but the inscription has been there for six months. Cars drive peacefully down the street, and girls with puppies walk along the sidewalk. Bucha showed what absurd cruelty a person of the twenty-first century is capable of. Yet Bucha also shows us how stubbornly people try to maintain their own swallow nests, even on blood-washed streets or the edge of the abyss, where Russian missiles and Iranian drones continue to fly today, and where tomorrow, the devil himself can’t predict what will happen.

Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan