The coffin was made from pieces of a wardrobe. In a dark basement under a building shaking from the bombing of the Russian-Ukrainian war, there were few options.
Six-year-old Vlad watched as his mother was taken from the shelter last month and taken to the yard of a nearby house. The burial was hasty and devastating.
Now Russian forces have withdrawn from Bucha after a month of occupation, and Vlad’s father, Ivan Drahun, has knelt at the grave.
He reached out and touched the ground near his wife Maryna’s feet. “Hello, how are you?” he said during last week’s visit. “I miss you so much. You left so soon. You didn’t even say goodbye.”
The boy also visits the grave and places a carton of juice and two cans of cooked beans on it. Amidst the stress of the war, his mother hardly ate. The family still does not know what disease caused her death. They, like their people, they hardly know how to move on.
Bucha witnessed some of the most gruesome scenes of the Russian invasion, and hardly any children have been seen on its silent streets since. The many bright playgrounds of the once popular community with good schools, located on the outskirts of the capital, kyiv, are empty.
The Russians used a children’s camp in Bucha as an execution ground and bloodstains and bullet holes mark a basement.
On a ledge near the entrance to the camp, Russian soldiers placed a toy tank. It seemed to be connected to a fishing line: a possible trap in the most vulnerable place.
A few steps from Vlad’s house, some Russians used a kindergarten as a base, leaving it untouched while other nearby buildings came under attack. Spent artillery shell casings were left along a fence in the yard.
In a nearby playground, red and white tape marked unexploded ordnance. The blasts from the demining operations were loud enough to set off car alarms.
In the monoblock where Vlad, his older brother Vova, and his sister Sophia live, someone had spray-painted “CHILDREN” in large letters on an outside wall. Underneath, a wooden box that was previously used for ammunition contained a teddy bear and other toys.
It is here that Bucha’s fragile renewal is appreciated.
A small group of neighborhood kids got together to distract themselves from the war. Clad in winter coats, they kicked around a soccer ball, strolled around with bags of snacks handed out by visiting volunteers, called from a glassless window high above.
Their parents, peering into the faint warmth of spring after weeks in freezing cellars, reflect on how they tried to protect the children. “We covered his ears,” Polina Shymanska said of her great-grandson Nikita, 7. “We hug him, we kiss him.” She tried to play chess and the boy let her win.
Upstairs, in a neighbor’s apartment, where Vlad’s father for now merged his family with the neighbor’s to help care for the group of children, Vlad curled up on one of the beds with another boy and played cards. The radiator was not hot. Still there was no gas, no electricity, no running water.
Not all of Vlad’s family members can bear to return to their own nearby apartment. Memories of Maryna are everywhere, from the perfume bottles on the table by the front door, to the quiet kitchen.
In the living room, time stopped. Mismatched balloons hang from the ceiling light. A string of colored flags still hung on the wall, along with a family photo. In it you can see Ivan and Maryna holding Vlad the day he was born. They celebrated his birthday on February 19.
Five days later, the war began. And the family’s life was reduced to half a dank concrete room in the basement, lined with blankets and sprinkled with candy and toys.
It was very, very cold, remembers Iván. He and Maryna did their best to muffle the sounds of the shelling for Vlad and keep him calm. But they were also afraid.
Two weeks ago, Ivan took Vlad to the shelter’s makeshift bathroom and visited the neighbors. He then approached Maryna to tell her that she was going to get out of it. “I touched her shoulder and she was cold,” he said. “I noticed that she was gone.”
At first, he said, Vlad didn’t seem to understand what had happened. The boy said that his mother had moved away. But at the funeral, the boy saw Ivan kneel down and cry, and now he knows what death is.
Death is inseparable from Bucha. Local authorities told The Associated Press what at least 16 children were among the hundreds of people killed. Those who survived face a long recovery.
“They have realized that now there is calm and tranquility,” Ivan said. “But at the same time, the older children understand that it is not the end. The war is not over. And it is difficult to explain to the younger ones that the war is still on,” he lamented.
They are adapting, he noted. They have seen many things. Some have even seen dogs killed.
Now the war sneaks into the games they play.
In a sandbox outside the nursery, Vlad and a friend “bomb” each other with handfuls of sand.
“I am Ukraine,” said one. “No, I am Ukraine,” said the other.