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'There Are Just Charred Walls': A Ukrainian Survivor Mourns The Loss Of Borodyanka

Yekaterina Holoviy, along with her husband and children, managed to escape Borodyanka, but she still hasn't recovered from what happened there.
Yekaterina Holoviy, along with her husband and children, managed to escape Borodyanka, but she still hasn't recovered from what happened there.

Yekaterina Holoviy, 29, is on maternity leave, raising two small children. Before the war, she lived in Borodyanka and worked as a choreographer in one of the schools and in the local Palace of Culture. These and many other buildings in the village no longer exist: Borodyanka suffered as much as any Ukrainian city under Russian occupation.

Northwest of Kyiv, Borodyanka was among the cities hit hardest in the first weeks after Russian forces launched their full-scale invasion on February 24, and one of the places where evidence of war crimes by the occupying forces has mounted since their retreat at the end of March.

Holoviy, along with her husband and children, managed with great difficulty to escape the occupied city, but she still hasn't recovered from what happened there. Now living in the Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine, she told Current Time about the losses she has endured: how Russian soldiers killed her father-in-law; after the city was liberated, they found his decapitated body. And her godmother was killed in a Russian air strike, but her body has still not been identified.

"On March 1, I wrote to my godmother in the morning, 'Are you all right?' She replied, 'Yes.' And the next day, when I wrote, there was no more response from her," Holoviy said. "Then it turned out that their house was bombed.

"Nothing was known about her fate. And when the exhumation of the bodies had already review these bodies and look for them in the hope that you will find your relatives. I found a couple of people in this house who looked like my godmother, but there was no confirmation that it was her," she said.

"After the bombing, after this air strike, it's hard to call a body a body. It's just some kind of burned pile.... There's nothing on the body. Everything is melted. It's just terrible."

Holoviy recalls that after she helped bury the mother of a good friend, DNA results came back that showed that the body was not actually her friend's mother.

"And I really don't know how to support my friend, because I understand her pain and I want to support her. And I knew her mother. We have been friends for a long time. I believe that she is alive. I believe. I hope. I don't see her among the dead. I do have such a hope, really," Holoviy said.

As for Holoviy's father-in-law, he was shot by Russian soldiers. How and why it happened, she says she will probably never know.

"In early April, we received a call that my husband's father had passed away. And that it had happened back in March," Holoviy said. The body of a man had been found near the railway tracks after Borodyanka was liberated.

"The death certificate says that he died as a result of Russian aggression, but the cause of death is not indicated. And he was headless! He had no head. My husband saw it all."

Meanwhile, one day during the time Russian troops occupied the city, a Russian soldier came to the house of Holoviy's father, who had not left the village. As it turned out, the soldier's grandfather had served with Holoviy's father in the Soviet Army.

"And he says, 'Here, my grandfather wants to talk to you.' And [my father] calls him and says, 'Hi, we're at war here.' He told him that [Russian soldiers] had not been not sent on exercises. They really were sent to fight!" Holoviy recalled.

"My father then said to him: 'Let me give [your grandson] civilian clothes. Let him run away. Let him stay with us. We will hide him, because they will kill him.' And the Russian on the phone answered, 'Let him fight!'" Holoviy said. "And his grandson was immediately thrown on the front line, and he did not return. The very next day, two soldiers came and say that he had been killed.

"Dad never cries. But that day, dad came in, and my mother -- mom wrote everything down on pieces of paper; she kept a war diary -- said: 'Dad sits and just sobs. He says: 'I killed this child,'" Holoviy recalled. "And I say, 'Dad! He'd come to kill us! You didn't kill him!'"

Holoviy recently completed a program of psychological rehabilitation. She hopes that, after working with psychologists, she will be able to help not only herself but also her relatives, who experienced severe stress and grief during the occupation.

"I want to help them somehow because they have experienced terrible things. But so far I can't even help myself," she admits. "But thanks to this project, you know, I've begun to understand that we have strength. We have the power. It's inside. You just need to uncover it."

Holoviy does not want to return to Borodyanka just yet. She is too hurt by what has been done to her city. But she is sure that one day it will return to life, like her.

"Everything is destroyed there, destroyed. You walk down the street, and the Palace of Culture, in which I danced from childhood; my godmother's house; my grandmother's house opposite the house -- they're not there," she said, crying. "There are just charred walls."

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    Anna Brovko

    Anna Brovko is a Kharkiv-based correspondent for Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. She was born in Ukraine and graduated from the Kharkiv State Academy of Culture.