How Children Are Coping in the Aftermath of Russia's Brutal Occupation of One Ukrainian City

Despite bloodstains and bullet holes that remain, kids are playing outside again in the suburb of Kyiv, Ukraine, where Russian troops allegedly killed hundreds of civilians, including 16 children

Children of Bucha
Photo: Rodrigo Abd/AP Photo

Stories of torture, rape and execution account for some of the evidence that's emerged from Bucha, a suburb of Ukraine's capital Kyiv, since Russian forces retreated in early April, ending their month-long occupation and one of the most horrific chapters in Ukraine's ongoing war.

Hundreds of civilians were killed in Bucha, where some of the bodies were left for weeks on the city streets. Among the dead are 16 children, according to the Associated Press.

Those that survived are emerging, too, from dark basements and other frigid shelters, bundled in coats and looking for food amid the booms of detonating explosives left behind by the invaders.

In a report on Bucha's children, the AP recounts stories of survival while capturing the unimaginable loss that young Ukrainians experienced during weeks spent in hiding and grief — as well as the harsh reality of a hard road ahead.

"They've realized that now it's calm and quiet," Bucha resident Ivan Drahun said of the town's youngest survivors. "But at the same time, older children understand that it's not the end. The war is not finished. And it's hard to explain for the smaller ones that war is still going on."

Drahun's son, 6-year-old Vlad, watched his mother's body get carried off in a coffin made from pieces of a closet, according to the AP. She was buried in the yard of a home near the basement where the family sheltered from falling bombs and gunfire.

Children of Bucha
Neighbors wait for a free food delivery in Bucha on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 8. Rodrigo Abd/AP Photo

Now that the Russian soldiers are gone and Bucha is back in Ukrainian control, the father and son can visit her grave, where the boy left a juice box and two cans of baked beans for his mother, who barely ate and died from an unknown illness during the occupation, according to the report.

Vlad, his older brother Vova, sister Sophia and neighborhood children can also go out to play, kick a soccer ball, slip down a slide or roll on the ground with a friendly dog. Without power, heat or running water yet, it remains cold inside or out, so they might as well be out after sheltering inside from the violence for so long.

But they must still be careful. Near the entrance of a children's camp — where Russians reportedly staged executions and left evidence in the form of bloodstains and bullet holes — a toy tank placed on a ledge might be a booby trap, a bit of connected fishing wire suggests.

The kindergarten next to the Drahuns' home is one of the only nearby buildings left intact, according to the AP, but only because the soldiers used it as a base, leaving behind casings of used artillery shells. Red tape outside warns of an un-exploded device.

Children of Bucha
Rodrigo Abd/AP Photo

Russia has denied targeting civilians in its war with Ukraine and insisted the atrocities alleged in Bucha were faked.

To protect from the bombs that did go off, Polina Shymanska told the AP she covered the ears of her 7-year-old great-grandson, Nikita. "We hugged him, kissed him," she said, adding that they passed long hours playing chess and Nikita let her win.

The adults did what they could, but the war won't ever fade for some of Bucha's kids, like Vlad who saw his mother buried in a hurry as his father cried on his knees.

Even now as volunteers hand out snacks and neighbors join forces to keep an eye on kids eager to roam, the presence of the Russian soldiers lingers in the discarded ammunition shells, the cars flipped over like toys on the street, the memory of seeing dogs killed and in the new ways the children play.

"I'm Ukraine," one said. "No, I'm Ukraine," replied another as Vlad and a friend "bombed" each other with handfuls of sand they scooped from a sandbox outside the kindergarten in Bucha that became a base for a month.

Children of Bucha
Rodrigo Abd/AP Photo

Russia's attack on Ukraine continues after their forces launched a large-scale invasion on Feb. 24 — the first major land conflict in Europe in decades.

Details of the fighting change by the day, but hundreds of civilians have already been reported dead or wounded, including children, though the actual number of deaths is difficult to determine.

More than 4 million have fled the country as refugees — and half are children, according to the United Nations. Millions more have been displaced inside Ukraine.

The invasion, ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, has drawn condemnation around the world and increasingly severe economic sanctions against Russia.

With NATO forces amassed in the region, various countries are offering aid or military support to the resistance. Zelenskyy has called for peace talks — so far unsuccessful — while urging his country to fight back.

Putin insists Ukraine has historic ties to Russia and he is acting in the best security interests of his country. Zelenskyy vowed not to bend.

"Nobody is going to break us, we're strong, we're Ukrainians," he told the European Union in a speech in the early days of the fighting, adding, "Life will win over death. And light will win over darkness."

The Russian attack on Ukraine is an evolving story, with information changing quickly. Follow PEOPLE's complete coverage of the war here, including stories from citizens on the ground and ways to help.

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