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21 Days Hiding in Bucha

Within the first few days of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine two convoys of Russian troops converged on the small town of Bucha near Irpin in their advance towards Kyiv. Quickly the Ukrainian military received intelligence and bombed their position destroying a significant number of military vehicles. They withdrew to the Vorzel area a few miles away, but returned on March 5th. Many residents of Bucha fled in those intervening few days. Cars, vans, any available vehicle was rammed full of panicked residents desperate to leave. For those unable to escape unspeakable terror was shortly to be unleashed.

Serhii had grown up and lived in Chernihiv, about 100 miles away, but had worked in Kyiv in the construction industry as a plumber - the pay was better in the capital. For the past two years he had been living in the town of Bucha, serving as a volunteer at a church called "House of God". His role was helping with cooking and serving food to the poor attending the church canteen.

Serhii did not manage to escape but when the Russians returned he hid in the basement of the church building. From his hiding place he could glimpse soldiers moving around - he saw them digging a large area nearby which turned out to be a mass grave. As gunfire and explosions ripped the town apart Serhii prayed many times, “Oh God, please let me be killed instantly rather than having a leg blown off or something worse!” During his time in hiding he was joined by a terrified German Shepherd dog who became his companion. The streets were not safe for dogs as they were shot idly for target practice by the Russian gunmen. The streets also quickly became littered with the bodies of civilians shot dead for no other reason than to convey brutality and evoke terror. Bodies were found where they fell, some with their hands tied behind their backs shot at close range, others were shot whilst riding their bicycles. Serhii remained in hiding and ate nothing for 21 days.

Later, after the Russians abandoned their attempt on Kyiv and withdrew from the region, it became known that people were also taken captive from nearby Irpin to Bucha where they too were subjected to atrocities, such as rape, imprisonment, torture and summary execution along with residents of Bucha. There are documented accounts of people being shot for wearing a patriotic t-shirt or having a particular tattoo, of girls as young as 12 being raped, and of people imprisoned whilst rapes were carried out in a room next door.

After three weeks of near starvation Serhii decided to escape on foot. He said that his faith in Jesus meant that he was no longer afraid, although the Russians were continually firing on Bucha from the forest area. Under the constant bombardment he ran and made his way more than thirty kilometres in the direction of the Ukrainian military rehabilitation centre, praying and singing worship songs he had learned in church. His legs were badly injured and he lost six toenails but eventually made it to safety.

A week later, his legs were healing a little, so he set out to return to feed the dog he had abandoned in the basement. On his way he encountered seven Russian roadblocks where the soldiers strip-searched him, checked his papers and looked for a mobile phone. They said “You are crazy - who are you?” He said, “I am a volunteer from church.” One very drunk soldier cocked his gun and started to aim at him. “Brothers, I will kill this Ukrainian!” he was yelling at his comrades. They persuaded him otherwise and on arrival at the hiding place Serhii was greeted by not one dog but two. Another dog had joined the first one and they eagerly greeted Serhii as he brought them food and water.

The terrible ordeal of the residents of Bucha during those days under occupation are now a part of the history of this brutal war. As I look at Serhii and his story emerges in broken English and patchy conversations via Google Translate I wonder just how deep the trauma runs in his soul. I wonder how many of those others who survived the occupation of Bucha have a story like Serhii, or maybe worse. I know that he has far more to say than he could convey to me, but his story deserves to be heard. He is now living on a farm as part of a community run by Remar Ukraine.

His mission - to continue to serve those impacted by the misery of a war they didn’t choose. His motivation - the love of God he has found in Jesus Christ.

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