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World

Ukrainians return to Borodyanka after Russian withdrawal and find their town in ruins

Emergency crews work to clear rubble. More than 200 people have been reported missing, officials said. Most are presumed dead.
Becky Sullivan
/
NPR
Emergency crews work to clear rubble. More than 200 people have been reported missing, officials said. Most are presumed dead.

Updated April 7, 2022 at 12:41 PM ET

BORODYANKA, Ukraine — Nearly every building along this town's main street is damaged or destroyed: shops, houses, pharmacies, banks, all with blackened walls and blown-out windows.

At the modest military recruitment center, where a sign announces "Borodyanka is proud of our defenders," the roof has burned away. Inside, there's ash and scrap metal.

Worst are the apartment buildings, five to 10 stories tall. Direct airstrikes targeting the center of each building reduced the middle to a gigantic pile of rubble spilling out into the street. The sides are still standing.

As concerns mount about the deaths of Ukrainian civilians, officials are pointing to this small town about 35 miles northwest of the capital Kyiv. Russian forces arrived soon after the invasion began on Feb. 24 and withdrew last week.

An apartment building in Borodyanka that was damaged by an airstrike.
Becky Sullivan / NPR
/
NPR
An apartment building in Borodyanka that was damaged by an airstrike.

"The cities are simply ruined," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said after touring Bucha, another Kyiv suburb where Russian forces are accused of killing hundreds of civilians. "There is already information that the number of victims of the occupiers may be even higher in Borodyanka and some other liberated cities."

In Bucha, Russian soldiers are accused to shooting civilians indiscriminately on the streets. In Borodyanka, Russian forces deliberately struck and bombed civilian targets, officials say. Now that the forces have withdrawn, emergency crews are digging through the rubble, hoping to find the hundreds reported missing in this town whose prewar population was 13,000.

"They were shelling this town nonstop. Unfortunately, many houses were destroyed, and people were trapped under the wreckage. Most of them died there because they couldn't get out," Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine's interior minister, said on Wednesday.

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The presence of landmines means Borodyanka remains too dangerous to live in

Officials say about 90% of Borodyanka's population evacuated during the shelling. Residents have only just begun to return in the last few days — to check on their homes, reunite with family members or simply survey the damage.

Arsen Bilevsky, a school director who evacuated after Russian troops arrived, wandered the main street on Wednesday, stopping here and there to take photos and shake his head in disbelief.

"It was a quiet and beautiful place," Bilevsky said. Now, it's "where all the horrors happened."

It's too dangerous for many people to live here, he said. "There's no photo or video that can capture the atmosphere here now. There are a lot of mines planted. Mines on doors, mines in houses, mines in basements."

Borodyanka sits at the crossroads of two highways, a location that made it attractive to commuters who worked in Kyiv — and for Russian forces making their way to the capital from Belarus.

When they arrived in late February, "It happened very quickly, and it happened very unexpectedly," said Kostiantyn, a member of the local territorial defense unit who declined to give his last name for security reasons.

"At first, we didn't have any real guns or ammunition," said another member of the local territorial defense unit, Mykhaylo Bondar. He described local volunteers fighting Russians with Molotov cocktails and whatever weapons they had.

It did not take long for Russia to overpower the town with armed soldiers and tanks. On March 1, Russian jets flew overhead and struck apartment buildings just 100 yards from where he stood, Bondar said.

For Borodyanka residents, a mix of grief and relief after the Russian withdrawal

Borodyanka resident Sergiy Davydenko returned to his apartment Tuesday to find it had been trashed by Russian soldiers, he said.
Becky Sullivan / NPR
/
NPR
Borodyanka resident Sergiy Davydenko returned to his apartment Tuesday to find it had been trashed by Russian soldiers, he said.

The Russian occupation ended as suddenly as it began. Forces withdrew about a week ago, residents said.

Sergiy Davydenko, 36, came home Tuesday after weeks away to find his apartment had been trashed by soldiers using it as a base: The fridge emptied, furniture missing, computer broken, his belongings scattered all over.

"They lived here," he said, pointing to his pullout couch. It was closed when he left, he said, but open when he came back. "They also lived in the basement. They brought mattresses down there. I found my TV down there."

Asked how it felt to find that Russian soldiers had helped themselves to his home, he replied, "It's not the worst."

Pavel, who refused to give his last name for security reasons, came to Borodyanka to check on family. As long as the Russians are at war, he says, he won't be able to relax. "The missiles can fly from far away," he said. "Nowhere is safe."
Becky Sullivan / NPR
/
NPR
Pavel, who refused to give his last name for security reasons, came to Borodyanka to check on family. As long as the Russians are at war, he says, he won't be able to relax. "The missiles can fly from far away," he said. "Nowhere is safe."

Others suffered much more. His girlfriend's house was destroyed, he said, and her father was killed by rocket fire.

For Borodyanka residents, the feelings of relief about the Russian withdrawal are mixed with sorrow about their destroyed city and the many people feared dead.

"It's hard to look at all this. It's heavy, realizing that a lot of people lost their lives," said Kostiantyn, the territorial defense member.

His friend Genadiy, also a territorial defense force member who gave only his first name for security reasons, says he knows several people who are still missing. "We're hoping they come back alive," he said.

And the war still isn't over, said a resident who gave his name as Pavel. Borodyanka isn't far from Belarus, he said — less than 70 miles.

"The missiles can fly from far away," he said. "Nowhere is safe."

Additional reporting by Luka Oleksyshyn in Borodyanka.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.