A Ukrainian photographer is documenting harrowing stories from residents of the areas around Kyiv occupied by Russian forces at the opening of the 2022 Russian invasion.
Photographer Alena Grom (above) is from Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. After fleeing the fighting that broke out there in 2014, she moved to Bucha, near Kyiv.
Grom told RFE/RL that on February 24 she and her family became "refugees for a second time" as they fled the Russian invasion.
Following the Russian retreat from around Kyiv, Grom returned to her home in Bucha. Today, with a suitcase packed in case she needs to flee once more, she has been walking the streets, meeting locals who stayed in and around Bucha through the occupation.
These are their stories of survival through unimaginable hardship and danger, as told to Grom:
Rustem's house is on Vokzalnaya Street, where a column of Russian equipment was destroyed. When that battle was under way, Rustem was hiding in the basement with his son, wife, and other relatives. An infantry fighting vehicle exploded near their property. As a result of the intense fire, the garage -- with their car inside -- was destroyed. Smoke poured into the house, and when they went out into the street they saw neighboring houses had caught fire, as well.
After surviving this, the locals of Bucha thought that everything was over and the Russians had retreated. But on March 4, Russian soldiers returned and set up in a neighboring house. The inhabitants managed to flee to Rustem's place.
They hid from the Russians all night. Then, on March 5, soldiers knocked on the door. The residents shouted: "We’re old people and children. We’re unarmed.” The Russians drove everyone out of the house, lined them up, checked documents, and then they smashed their phones.
One phone miraculously remained intact, and Rustem's wife stuffed it into her bag. They were given five minutes to pack. The owner of the house wanted to take a cat named Snowball. Rustem tried to put the cat inside a bag, but she jumped out and ran away.
The soldiers moved everyone to the basement of a multistory building on a nearby street. There was a whole crowd of Russian soldiers there and armored vehicles in every yard. The neighbors on Sadovaya Street had a command vehicle on their property.
After spending several nights in the basement, Rustem asked the Russians to let people go. The soldiers released 10, including a woman with a 3-year-old child, but one family was kept in the basement for another four days.
Rustem and the rest of the group who were released walked to Irpin, where they stayed overnight.
Irpin was bombed all night. The group waited for the morning, then continued. They were picked up by volunteers and taken to the famous broken bridge near Irpin, and from there they were transported to Kyiv.
After spending a month in Poltava, in eastern Ukraine, with his brother, Rustem returned to Bucha following the Russian retreat.
At the entrance to his house, the cat, Snowball, was waiting for him.
Inside, there were empty bottles of wine, abandoned soldiers' boots, and graffiti in his son's room that read: "It was orders” -- followed by a misspelled English-language “Sorri."
After the Russians captured Bucha, Iryna was afraid to go outside. She sat in the house with her sick mother and waited to die. She lived on Yablonska Street, which later become infamous as Bucha’s street of death.
Four days into the occupation, a neighbor came to draw water from the well and told Iryna that the Russians let people go outside “if there's a white bandage on your sleeve.” Iryna started to go into her yard to to cook food over an open fire and to collect water. Russian soldiers settled in two neighboring buildings. They didn’t want to live in Iryna’s modest house, but they put an armored vehicle in her yard and camouflaged it with rags.
Russian soldiers often came to the well to fill square plastic containers with water. Iryna talked with them and told them she was frightened. They said they were terrified, too. The soldiers, especially those who arrived in the first wave of the invasion, were very scared. It was impossible to get used to the gunfire.
On March 18-19, there was a rotation of the soldiers and the first wave was replaced with new troops. Wherever the Russians placed their vehicles, they were hit with very accurate [Ukrainian] strikes, and there were Russian casualties. Iryna didn’t see the bodies of the Russians because the troops didn’t leave their comrades lying in the street, but they suffered severe losses. When she was cooking outside, she could hear what the Russian soldiers were talking about from the houses on either side.
In the early days of the occupation, Iryna accepted that the soldiers were just victims of circumstance, until she saw the atrocities being committed.
The Russians killed three men and buried them near a neighbor’s house. Then they killed her friend Dima who was sitting near a house, smoking. On a nearby corner, the soldiers kicked people out of a house. People came out with their hands raised, then a grenade was thrown inside. The property owner was shot and his body lay in the street for a month. Iryna also watched through a window as Russian soldiers buried the body of a next-door neighbor.
Iryna’s mother wasn’t able to get medical help. She died on March 14. Iryna asked two men living in the basement of an apartment building to help with the burial. She received permission from the Russian soldiers to bury her mother in the yard. An armored vehicle loomed above them as they dug. In April, when this photo was taken, Iryna’s mother’s body was still interred in the yard.
After her mother’s death, Iryna moved to a safer place in the basement of another apartment building. Sometimes Iryna went home to make food or to change her clothes. Once the Russians came into the basement to forbid people from going out onto Yablonska Street, telling people it was coming under fire. Iryna thinks it may have been an attempt to hide the extent of their atrocities from locals.
When Ukrainian troops arrived, Iryna could not believe that Bucha had been freed and that this nightmare was over. She cried when she saw Ukrainian soldiers with a flag.
He's a widower who lives in a beautiful place near the forest on the northwestern edge of Kyiv. Everything in the house is made by hand. On the veranda, there is furniture he made himself. After the Russian advance, not a single house in the neighborhood remained untouched. Everyone was affected to varying degrees. If the walls and the roof of a house remained, then the owners counted themselves lucky.
In early March, a neighbor said, “Come over. My mother-in-law made soup. We’ll eat and then leave. Heavy shelling has begun.”
Yuriy was preparing to evacuate. He had gold, money, and documents on the table, but as he was going to meet his neighbor at the end of the street, a short Russian soldier with a white cloth around his arm came out of the forest and yelled, “Hands up!” Yuriy raised his hands, then was told to “lie down!” He has sciatica, so he was moving very slowly. Then he heard gunshots. The bullets hit Yuriy's arm, heel, and thigh. By some miracle, none hit his vital organs.
Meanwhile, the neighbor, Serhiy, was standing in the yard of his house. Yuri shouted, “Seryozha, they got me!”
The Russian soldier heard that and called to his boys, “There’s a second one. There’s a second one! Get to work!” And again there was a burst of automatic weapons.
Serhiy shouted “[Yuriy] Ivanovich, I can’t leave the yard. Crawl towards me!”
Under fire, Yuriy crawled to the corner of the fence, where someone grabbed him by the hood and dragged him inside the yard. Then he passed out.
He woke up inside a house and saw his neighbor tearing a sheet into ribbons for bandages. The hole in his arm was huge; the wound on his heel hung open. When Serhiy and Serhiy's mother-in-law were patching his wounds, Russian soldiers came into the house, shouting, “Hands up!” Everyone raised their hands, and the Russians asked, “Are there [Ukrainian] soldiers here?” Then they got everyone down on their knees.
The Russians searched the house and forbade anyone from going outside. “We will check,” they said, but they never returned.
For a week, Yuriy lay in bed. He ate almost nothing. They were between Ukrainian and Russian lines. There was no Internet or phone connection. Artillery shells, mortars, Uragan rockets, and cluster bombs were flying overhead.
Serhiy made crutches for Yuriy out of boards so he could move around. Due to the lack of antibiotics, Yuriy’s wounds festered and had to be washed with chamomile and other treatments.
One day, a group of Russian soldiers came into Serhiy’s yard. He counted 32 men. They had good uniforms and weapons, and each of them was armed with a grenade launcher. Three of them came into the house and spotted a bottle of liquor in the corridor.
“What do we have here?” they asked. “Horilka? (a traditional Ukrainian spirit). Can we try some?”
“Even if I say no, you’ll still drink it,” Yuriy replied.
The soldiers drank a couple of glasses. “Oh, it’s good,” they said. On the third glass, they drank to dead comrades. Two of them left and the eldest went up to Yuriy and said, “Old man, I’m sorry. It’s not us who are fighting. It’s our government that has waged this war.” Yuriy replied, “And yet it’s you who are here, not the government.” The Russian soldier replied, “We are following orders!” and then turned around and left.
If they had known the soldiers were going to come, they’d have poisoned the liquor.
In the middle of March, a cold snap came. It got down to -10 Celsius. There was no electricity. They lived in their jackets. At the same time, there was heavy shelling to the point that it made life impossible. There was nowhere to hide. When Serhiy went out to a toilet in the yard, a shell exploded and shrapnel caught him in the arm and groin.
Now there were two wounded people in the house. Serhiy got worse. The wounds became infected and his mother-in-law nursed him. Yuriy said a prayer: "Mother of God, there are no hopeless situations. Get us out of here, for there is always a way out.”
On March 23, the Ukrainian military pushed the Russians out of the area and some Ukrainian soldiers arrived at Serhiy’s house. The soldiers told them they needed to evacuate quickly. When the Ukrainian fighters saw Yuriy on makeshift crutches, they told him, “No, granddad. Don’t.” The soldiers emptied a wheelbarrow they were using to collect anti-tank mines, sat Yuriy inside, and hurried to the evacuation bus. The bus drove slowly through the forest, then full speed along the highway to the hospital.
Serhiy underwent surgery and Yuriy returned to the village. Traces of the Russian military are visible all over. All the valuables and money, even a portrait of Yuriy’s deceased wife, have disappeared.
He is restoring his house. Roses are growing through the rubble. Life goes on. The tendon on one arm still doesn’t work, but he can wield a hatchet and a hammer. The most important thing, he says, is to keep some vodka nearby, to drink to victory!
May is 92 years old. In March, Russian troops bombarded her town of Irpin, near Kyiv. Three shells hit her house and the building burned quickly. May managed to grab a sheet to wrap herself with, then ran out into the street. She stood in the middle of the road until some neighbors took her into their house. That night, three more houses burned down nearby.
With the help of her neighbors, May left for Lviv in western Ukraine. Then in the summer, the woman returned to Irpin and now lives in a settlement for displaced people. Maya says: “My own land was calling me.”
May grew flowers of Ukrainian tobacco, roses, and lilies. Sometimes she comes to her yard and digs up flowers to give to her neighbors. The authorities promised to help with the restoration of houses after the war, but when this will happen and whether the woman will live to see it is the big question.
On March 5, Volodymyr was walking his dog in Bucha when suddenly a Kadyrovite -- a Russian soldier loyal to infamous Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov -- came out from around the corner and pointed a machine gun at him. Volodymyr jumped onto the porch for cover. At the same moment there was the loud whistle and an explosion of an incoming shell. The multistory house shook violently. Volodymyr came out from the porch and saw the upper floors were burning. He went around the house from the other side and photographed the fire. The photo Vladimir took was published by the BBC.
At that time, the Russians shot at local residents indiscriminately. It was deadly to go out on the road. If soldiers spotted you, you were as good as dead.
One day, Volodymyr watched from his balcony as Russian soldiers shot a man on the street below. A moment later, he heard a sound, and Volodymyr noticed a bullet sticking out of the railing in front of him. A sniper had wanted to get rid of the witness. Volodymyr thinks they shot at him with a silenced gun.
The Russians killed other residents of his apartment block and destroyed the cars in the yard. When shelling started, the residents of the apartments didn’t go down into the basement. They just stayed in their apartments and let fate decide. To prevent Russian soldiers from breaking into the building after dark, they firmly locked the door each night.
In the first half of March, Volodymyr went with his neighbors around the district, gathering corpses. Some died of natural causes; others were killed by the Russians.
Once the Russian military took Volodymyr to identify a corpse. He saw that the dead man was a Russian and said: "This is not ours." The soldiers told him: "Well, what are we supposed to do? Take it away.”
Volodymyr responded, “Why should I put him with our dead? Do what you want. You bury him.”
When they opened the last humanitarian corridor, Volodymyr left Bucha through the city of Vorzel. He got there on foot with his dog. When he passed by the Russian checkpoint, a Kadyrovite wanted to shoot him, but other soldiers liked the dog and they let Volodymyr live.