They survived Russian occupation. Now they grapple with the trauma – and an uncertain future.
In a village outside Kyiv, Mariia Bilous stood a few feet away from a Russian soldier as he held a gun to her boyfriend’s head. It was mid-March, and Russian forces had occupied Andriivka, where she and her boyfriend fled after the war began, she said.
That night, soldiers had burst into the home where they slept and demanded to know if they were hiding phones or sharing military movements.
“The realization came to me that we could die and that these could be the last minutes of life,” said Bilous, 18, recounting the tense hours before the soldiers finally left in an interview with USA TODAY through WhatsApp. Bilous’ boyfriend, Pavlo Rybchenko, confirmed the account.
After Russian forces pulled back from outside Kyiv this week, grisly scenes of dead civilians sparked global outrage. Investigators and journalists have begun documenting the atrocities and interviewing witnesses. Now, some survivors are speaking out about their harrowing experiences and grappling with uncertain futures.
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Some were trickling back to devastated towns such as Bucha, according to reports. Others were settling in new countries.
Bilous, a pastry cook, plans to return to Kyiv despite the continued uncertainty, she said Friday from the Zhytomyr Oblast region, where she and her boyfriend fled not long after their night of interrogation.
Tatyana Bespalchuk, 54, never left her home of Irpin, to the west of Kyiv. She, her husband and five others survived Russian occupation for 31 days in the cold, dark basement of their 10-story apartment building, which she said was hit by eight artillery shells.
Originally from Donetsk in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine near the border with Russia, Bespalchuk said she fled to the Kyiv region in 2014 when fighting broke out with pro-Russian separatists. Bespalchuk said her daughter survived bombings in Donetsk but suffered severe panic attacks and died of a heart attack two years later. She was 31.
In Irpin, Bespalchuk and her husband rented a home for several years and finally purchased their own apartment in 2018, she said. When war broke out, her husband refused to leave, and she stayed with him.
“We had nowhere to go,” Bespalchuk told USA TODAY in a series of WhatsApp exchanges Friday, sharing photos and videos of her damaged building. “I don’t know how we survived. Every day was hard as hell.”
Bespalchuk said the small group passed their days in the basement by sitting, standing, lying down, eating and praying. With temperatures below freezing outside, they dressed in several layers of clothing and gathered blankets to cover their heads and capture the warmth of their breath, she said.
“When there was a little calm, we went out into the street, but we didn’t go far from the basement in order to have time to run at the next shelling,” she said.
Bespalchuk said her group emerged from the basement March 30. The apartment is still without water, electricity and gas, so they cook on a grill in the yard, she said.
“We will restore everything and continue to live,” Bespalchuk said.
Russian forces killed hundreds of civilians in occupied towns and villages in the Kyiv area, Ukrainian officials said this week. The Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office on Friday said about 67 bodies were buried in a mass grave near a church in Bucha. In nearby Borodyanka, 26 bodies were found Thursday, the office said.
Russia has denied responsibility for civilian deaths in those areas and elsewhere, including at a train station in Kramatorsk, where a missile strike on Friday killed at least 50 people and injured more than 100, Ukrainian officials said.
But as investigators and officials began to take stock this week of the death and destruction in areas surrounding Ukraine’s capital, many residents are trying to figure out what comes next.
Diana Guloz, 34, a language teacher from Kyiv, is dealing with the heavy emotional weight of her experience, she said.
Pregnant and living alone while her husband was working in Germany, Guloz first went to a friend’s house in Hostomel but left because it didn’t have electricity and water.
She then went to stay in Bucha: “Nobody thought they would come here at first,” she told USA TODAY via various messaging services.
She was staying with friends when fighting between Russian tanks and Ukrainian forces began Feb. 27. The roof of the residence fell several times as the area was devastated by deafening fighting that lasted for hours, she said.
“We waited in the basement. Waited and prayed,” she said. “I was afraid they could come in the basement, to shoot us or leave a hand grenade.”
After the battle, she moved to another apartment complex. In the following weeks, she said some neighbors were shot by soldiers as they were trying to leave the city.
Soldiers would sometimes shoot at the windows of the complex. When a man was killed on the seventh floor of an apartment, people wouldn’t bury him because they were too afraid to go outside, she said.
Some in town lacked electricity and gas, Guloz said. She was often scared of being raped because of hearing reports of it elsewhere. Local officials told her evacuation was too dangerous.
“Every day, I only prayed and asked the Lord to help me or kill me,” she said. “It was terrible and psychologically very difficult.”
On March 10, she secured a place on a bus with other parents with children, who finally “had a chance to be evacuated from the hell,” she said.
She’s now in Stralsund, Germany, closer to where her husband works in Hamburg. Her first child – a son who she will name Olexandr – is due in early May. Her parents are joining her too, after fleeing another area that was bombed.
She often cries when she thinks of what she’s gone through and said she’s working with a psychologist to deal with the trauma. She worries about her brother, who is in the military reserves in Ukraine, and friends and family.
“Honestly I didn’t want to leave Ukraine, but I had to do it. To save my baby son,” she said.
Bilous said she wants a return to normal life.
“I hope our victory is getting close,” she said. “I pray for that.”