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Ukrainian officials say the town, which had a population of 13,000 before the war, is the most thoroughly destroyed place Ukraine has regained control of since the Russian withdrawal

At house 357 on Centralna street Borodyanka, on April 14, Yulia Prudius and her husband observe the excavation of the bodies of her family, who died after the bombardment of Ukraine.Photography by Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Yulia Prudius watched in silence as an excavator dug at the broken cement that used to be a nine-storey apartment block at 357 Centralna St. in Borodyanka, a town northwest of Kyiv.

Ms. Prudius knew that five of her relatives lay dead somewhere beneath the rubble, entombed in the building’s basement shelter, which had failed to protect them against a direct Russian air strike. “My mother, my brother, his wife and her parents are all in there,” she said softly, tears welling in her eyes as she watched the machine pull at the wreckage for a ninth consecutive day.

Rescuers have recovered 20 bodies from beneath 357 Centralna, but so far none of them have been the missing members of Ms. Prudius’ family. On Friday afternoon, the six most recently recovered victims were laid out in black bags at the foot of the building as a sobbing woman examined each one.

Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Centralna Street was where people came to shop, bank and dine out in this working-class community 90 minutes’ drive from the Ukrainian capital.

Following a month-long Russian occupation, Centralna Street is a 4.7-kilometre-long stretch of misery. It is a landscape of bullet riddled family homes, burned out shops and entire apartment blocks reduced to rubble. It is a place still struggling, two weeks after Russian troops withdrew from the Kyiv region, to count its dead. A burnt smell hangs over the entire town.

Ukrainian officials say Borodyanka, which had a population of 13,000 before the war, is the most thoroughly destroyed place Ukraine has regained control of since the Russian withdrawal. Ukrainian leaders and international visitors consider this shattered town to be a giant crime scene – evidence, alongside the mass graves uncovered in the nearby town of Bucha, of what appear to be war crimes the Russian army committed against Ukrainian civilians.

The invading troops seem to have placed special emphasis on destroying symbols of Ukrainian culture and statehood. The city’s specialized music school has been reduced to a pile of red bricks and twisted metal. A marble monument to Ukrainian soldiers has been smashed into three pieces. A giant bronze bust of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s most beloved poet, has been shot in the temple, execution style.

In an effort to understand the scope of what happened in Borodyanka, The Globe and Mail talked to dozens of residents of Centralna Street this week, gathering stories about what they and their neighbours experienced. According to their testimonies, at least 60 civilians died on this street alone during the month Borodyanka was under Russian military control. That number is almost certainly a significant underestimate.

Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy, said during a visit to Borodyanka that it was impossible to say how many people had died here, since hundreds were still missing.

Many of those are believed to be buried beneath four apartment blocks on Centralna Street: buildings numbered 353, 357, 371 and 429. “There is no explanation why this one and this one and not that one,” Mr. Gerashchenko said, pointing at number 355, which continues to stand between its two demolished neighbours.

At 357 on Centralna street, rescuers check for bodies among excavated debris.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

Rescue workers were still digging down toward the buildings’ basement shelters this week. They could only estimate how many bodies might be inside. There is no hope of finding survivors six weeks after the air strikes that destroyed the apartment blocks.

During Centralna Street’s month of pain, death sometimes came suddenly to entire families at once. In other cases, individuals were found dead only after the Russian soldiers departed. In some cases it was unclear how or when residents died.

What makes the wanton violence inflicted on Borodyanka especially perplexing is that the town has no apparent military value. The nearby Kyiv suburbs of Bucha and Irpin were scenes of heavy fighting as Russian troops tried to capture the capital, before Moscow suddenly changed strategy and redeployed its forces for an offensive in the east of the country. Hostomel, another heavily damaged town, was targeted because of its strategic airport.

Borodyanka, meanwhile, appears to have been shot up at random. Residents say the first Russian military column encountered almost no resistance as it entered the town on Feb. 26. A second column that entered on Feb. 27 was met with Ukrainian fire, but the fighting was over quickly.

The Globe’s Mark MacKinnon reports from Borodyanka, one of the towns near Kyiv most heavily damaged by Russian attacks. Interviews with survivors suggest at least 65 were killed on one street alone with hundreds still missing after Russian forces withdrew.

The Globe and Mail

In the aftermath, the Russian forces in Borodyanka appeared on edge. They had lost comrades. A destroyed Russian armoured personnel carrier is wedged awkwardly inside the ruins of a hardware shop at 307 Centralna. A discarded Russian military uniform lies in a small pile of trash beside the building.

Residents say that, on Feb. 28, a column of Russian-armoured vehicles drove down Centralna, firing randomly into homes, which were largely empty because most residents had remained in their basement shelters since the first appearance of Russian troops.

The air strikes targeting the apartment blocks took place on March 1 and 2, as Russian forces were escalating their shelling of civilian areas of cities around Ukraine.

No one who lived on Centralna Street escaped completely unscathed. Along much of the road, it’s rare to see a home that wasn’t hit by small arms fire, or worse. Even if their homes were spared, residents had to survive on dwindling food, water and electricity, and endure humiliating mistreatment at the hands of the occupying army. Nearly every home appears to have been looted of food, alcohol, electronics and anything else the invading soldiers thought might be of value.

Numbers 1 and 1a Centralna, at the eastern edge of Borodyanka, are the side-by-side homes of Tatiana and Alexander Makienko, a couple with children, and Lydia Maksiuta, a grandmother. They survived the early days of the occupation by hiding, with 800 other local residents, in a psychiatric care home a short walk away.

At 1 Centralna street, Lydia Maksiuta who sits on the couch in her living room.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

At one point, Mr. Makienko was allowed to return home to collect some belongings. But first Russian forces made him strip naked on the street to prove he wasn’t carrying any weapons and didn’t have any military tattoos. He entered the home to discover it had been looted by the Russian soldiers, who were clearly living there.

“They told us ‘We came here to liberate you,’” Mr. Makienko said. “They also said we have very nice living conditions. So they took all our stuff.”

Their situation in the care home deteriorated when the facility was taken over by a unit of fighters from Chechnya, a battle-scarred region in southern Russia ruled by warlord Ramzan Kadyrov. The 80 fighters – headed by Colonel Daniil Martynov, one of Mr. Kadyrov’s most feared commanders – took control of the food and water supplies, leaving only a trickle for the civilians hiding in the building, and said none were allowed to leave. “We were hostages,” said Alla Kryvoshenko, the deputy director of the care home.

She said the Chechens tried to force Marina Hanytska, the director, to record a video thanking Russian President Vladimir Putin for “liberating” Borodyanka, but she refused. “When she came back to us, she fainted. She was really under stress because she thought until the last moment that they would shoot her,” Ms. Kryvoshenko said.

Farther west down Centralna, a field of debris, including a refrigerator with its door blown off and a pair of jeans dangling awkwardly from a nearby fence pole, is all that remains of house number 30 and the six people who lived inside. Four generations of the Simoroz family – from 80-year-old Nina to her one-and-a-half-year-old great-granddaughter Paulina – were killed when either an air strike or an artillery shell hit the home on Feb. 26.

At 30 Centralna street, a house was destroyed by a heavy explosion, which killed six people.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

The family’s only survivor was Paulina’s father, Ivan, a local policeman who was driving toward their home when it was struck. He arrived to a horror scene: dead family members scattered across their property and a neighbour’s. Only tiny Paulina was still alive by the time Ivan arrived, but even though he drove her straight to the hospital she died minutes later. “The doctors said there was no chance,” Ivan said.

The legless body of Ivan’s 18-year-old brother Petya flew over a fence into the yard of house number 32, where Valentina Orlova lives alone. The 68-year-old retired nurse said Russian soldiers later repeatedly broke into her home and stole clothing and food. House number 34, where Ms. Orlova’s sister lives, was badly damaged by a tank shell in a separate attack on Feb. 27. “One of the Russians told me ‘We were ordered to destroy you as a nation,’” she recalled. “I don’t know what to call them. They’re worse than fascists. They’re barbarians.”

A short walk farther down the street, nobody knows how Anatoliy Holoborodko died. Russian troops called his neighbours to number 90 Centralna in mid-March and told them to bury the 60-something architect, who lived alone. “He was covered in blood, but the Russians didn’t tell us what happened,” said Mikhail Romanenko, one of three neighbours who wrapped Mr. Holoborodko in a sheet and buried him behind his house in a plot marked only by a pair of crossed shovels.

Farther along, the fences outside three other homes on Centralna are spray-painted with the number 200 – military code for there being at least one dead body inside.

Nikolai Yuryevich, a 36-year-old computer technician whose home at number 88 is riddled with bullets that pierced every window facing the street, said it was never clear why the Russians were targeting a specific person or house. “They were just driving here and shooting left and right.”

He said he and his wife and their two young children spent a week hiding in their basement cellar before they received a March 3 call from Ukrainian forces telling them the family had a half-hour window to escape Borodyanka.

Mr. Yuryevich, who gave only his patronymic out of fear the Russians could yet return and punish those who spoke out, was shocked by what he saw when he finally returned home this week. “Everything is ruined. It’s impossible to drive through here without tears.”

The Russian army made its base in the city’s three-floor regional administration building, halfway along Centralna, and fortified it with sandbags and trenches. Two weeks after the Ukrainian military returned to the city, the building’s outer wall – like many edifices and vehicles here – is still scarred with several spray-painted Vs, a marker of the Russian invasion (different letters have been used in different parts of Ukraine).

Residents say Russian military intelligence had a list of locals who were registered at the local War Commission Office – another building that was completely destroyed – and went to their homes to interrogate them. Several residents said that those who gave the wrong answers were taken to Belarus, a claim that was impossible to verify.

Some in town said the Russian forces had dropped off dead bodies at the local Orthodox Church, which is loyal to the Moscow-based Patriarch Kirill, who has supported Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Galina Semyonovna, a 66-year-old who works as a volunteer in the kitchen at the church, said she had not seen any bodies delivered. But she said the church’s pastor, Father Victor, had been very busy doing funeral rites during the Russian occupation. She said the priest had been forced to leave Borodyanka after the Ukrainian army returned because he was viewed as a collaborator. “They say we cooperate with Russia, but for us it was more important to help starving people,” Ms. Semyonova said, adding that Father Victor saw himself as a mediator between the Russian troops and the local population.

On Thursday, closer to the west end of Borodyanka, where the diggers are continuing to scrape at the remains of the apartment blocks, Natalya Lytvyn was sweeping up her family’s badly damaged flat in building number 371, which she and her husband and brother had returned to only two days previously.

Ms. Lytvyn and her husband hadn’t been back to the apartment since March 3, the morning after part of number 371 was hit by an air strike. Ms. Lytvyn said a warplane circled overhead before firing three missiles in short succession, one that hit the apartment block across the street, scorching several floors, one that landed somewhere to the south, and then the third bomb, which demolished much of number 371, killing 23 of her neighbours who lived in an adjacent wing of the building.

The force of the explosion blew doors off their hinges and sent furniture flying inside the Lytyvns’ apartment. “We ran out into the streets with only our clothes and our documents, without any bags at all,” Ms. Lytvyn recalled. “We could hear the screams of a young girl, and then the building collapsed.”

Ms. Lytvyn believes the young girl she heard screaming was Yeva, the four-year-old daughter of a doctor who lived on the fourth floor.

Like many Borodyanka residents, Ms. Lytvyn is relieved that her town has been liberated, and that she is able to return home. But her apartment, like most of Borodyanka, is unlivable, and will be for the foreseeable future. She returned to find that Russian soldiers had looted her home of electronics, alcohol and chocolates. The master bedroom had been used as a toilet.

“I cried the first time I entered my home,” she said. “I’m still shaking whenever I see one of my close friends.”

At 429 Centralna street, Ihor Poshyvailo, director of the Museum of the Maidan in Kyiv, holds a ceramic rooster saved from Borodyanka.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

Despite all the suffering, Borodyanka has provided Ukraine with inspiration. At the end of Centralna Street lies another pile of debris, where at least eight people were killed in another air strike.

When the six-floor building at number 429 partially collapsed, a small wooden shelf remained intact, clinging to a surviving outer wall even as the rest of the surrounding fourth-floor apartment vanished. Atop the shelf stood a ceramic rooster, a traditional piece of Ukrainian folk art. It was covered in dust from the explosion, but otherwise hadn’t even been cracked.

A photograph of the ceramic rooster, standing strong amid the ruins around it, became a meme on social media and a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Kyiv last week, President Volodymyr Zelensky presented him with a matching rooster as a gift.

On Thursday, a rescue team gently took the original rooster down from its shelf – where it had stood in the open for six weeks after the blast – and handed it over to museum workers for safe keeping.

“This shelf is a symbol of Ukrainian resilience. Three bombs were dropped here, and the shelf survived,” said Ihor Poshyvailo, director of the Museum of the Maidan in Kyiv, which houses artifacts associated with Ukraine’s long struggle for independence. The ceramic rooster, he said, was of particular importance.

“The cock symbolizes the fight between good and evil. In Ukrainian legends, the night comes and evil wins. But when the cock crows, the evil is driven away.”


The destruction on Centralna Street in Borodyanka after Russian military occupation

0

200

BELARUS

KM

RUSSIA

Borodyanka

Kyiv

UKRAINE

ROMANIA

0

350

No. 2

m

VUL. KILTSEVA

Borodyanka

Regional

administration

building

No. 429

E373

Behind No. 2: Care home where 800 residents hid at the outset of the war. Later used by Chechen fighters as a base.

 

No. 30: Simoroz family of six killed when house destroyed by air strike or artillery shell.

 

No. 90: Russian troops told neighbours there was a dead man in the house. They found him covered in blood and buried him in the grass behind his home.

 

No. 104: One of three homes with “200” written on the fence, military code for a dead body inside.

 

No. 136: Home destroyed when Russian tank parked in front was destroyed by Ukrainian attack.

 

No. 257: Another home marked “200” for dead body inside.

 

No. 307: Damaged store with destroyed Russian armoured personnel carrier inside.

 

No. 315: Local government administration building that was used as Russian military headquarters.

 

No. 353: Destroyed ap

artment building. Rescuers have yet to reach the basement where residents were sheltering. One body has been recovered so far.

 

No. 357: Destroyed apartment building. Rescuers have recovered 20 bodies so far. Neighbours say they believe more than 50 people were still in the building when it was hit.

 

No. 371: Destroyed apartment building. Residents say 23 people died inside, including one woman who jumped from her top-floor window.

 

No. 429: Destroyed apartment building. Rescuers have recovered eight bodies.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS

The destruction on Centralna Street in

Borodyanka after Russian military occupation

0

200

KM

POLAND

RUSSIA

Borodyanka

Kyiv

UKRAINE

ROMANIA

0

350

No. 2

m

VUL. KILTSEVA

Borodyanka

Regional

administration

building

No. 429

E373

Behind No. 2: Care home where 800 residents hid at the outset of the war. Later used by Chechen fighters as a base.

 

No. 30: Simoroz family of six killed when house destroyed by air strike or artillery shell.

 

No. 90: Russian troops told neighbours there was a dead man in the house. They found him covered in blood and buried him in the grass behind his home.

 

No. 104: One of three homes with “200” written on the fence, military code for a dead body inside.

 

No. 136: Home destroyed when Russian tank parked in front was destroyed by Ukrainian attack.

 

No. 257: Another home marked “200” for dead body inside.

 

No. 307: Damaged store with destroyed Russian armoured personnel carrier inside.

 

No. 315: Local government administration building that was used as Russian military headquarters.

 

No. 353: Destroyed ap

artment building. Rescuers have yet to reach the basement where residents were sheltering. One body has been recovered so far.

 

No. 357: Destroyed apartment building. Rescuers have recovered 20 bodies so far. Neighbours say they believe more than 50 people were still in the building when it was hit.

 

No. 371: Destroyed apartment building. Residents say 23 people died inside, including one woman who jumped from her top-floor window.

 

No. 429: Destroyed apartment building. Rescuers have recovered eight bodies.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS

The destruction on Centralna Street in Borodyanka after Russian military occupation

 

No. 2

350

0

m

VUL. KILTSEVA

Borodyanka

0

200

KM

Borodyanka

Kyiv

Regional

administration

building

UKRAINE

E373

No. 429

Behind No. 2: Care home where 800 residents hid at the outset of the war. Later used by Chechen fighters as a base.

No. 30: Simoroz family of six killed when house destroyed by air strike or artillery shell.

No. 90: Russian troops told neighbours there was a dead man in the house. They found him covered in blood and buried him in the grass behind his home.

No. 104: One of three homes with “200” written on the fence, military code for a dead body inside.

No. 136: Home destroyed when Russian tank parked in front was destroyed by Ukrainian attack.

No. 257: Another home marked “200” for dead body inside.

No. 307: Damaged store with destroyed Russian armoured personnel carrier inside.

No. 315: Local government administration building that was used as Russian military headquarters.

No. 353: Destroyed apartment building. Rescuers have yet to reach the basement where residents were sheltering. One body has been recovered so far.

No. 357: Destroyed apartment building. Rescuers have recovered 20 bodies so far. Neighbours say they believe more than 50 people were still in the building when it was hit.

No. 371: Destroyed apartment building. Residents say 23 people died inside, including one woman who jumped from her top-floor window.

No. 429: Destroyed apartment building. Rescuers have recovered eight bodies.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS