Bucha remembers: ‘I walked into the garden and found him lying there face down, where they had shot him’

One year ago today, Russian troops rolled into Bucha in Ukraine. Liudmyla Kizilova’s husband of 47 years was shot dead and troops took over her house

He has seen violence and destruction scar Ukraine every day for the past year, but President Volodymyr Zelenskiy needed only a moment to choose the place that chilled him most.

“Probably Bucha,” he told reporters on Friday’s first anniversary of Russia’s all-out invasion.

“What I saw when we liberated it was really horrible. We saw that actually the devil is not somewhere out there – he is here on Earth.”

On February 27th last year Russian troops rolled into Bucha, an unassuming suburb 25km northeast of Kyiv, and were met by heavy Ukrainian resistance and artillery fire that destroyed a column of their armoured vehicles on Vokzalna street in the town centre.


Liudmyla Kizilova knows now that the Russians returned on March 3rd, but in their house around the corner from Vokzalna, she and husband Valeriy saw on the news that day how Ukraine’s flag was flying over Bucha, and so hoped the main danger may have passed.

“A neighbour rang and said thousands of Russians were coming into town. But Valeriy didn’t believe it could be true. It was all so confusing,” Liudmyla remembers.

“Then on March 4th there was lots of shelling. It was so intense that we couldn’t even leave our cellar. Then at about 5pm it seemed to quieten down a bit, so Valeriy said he was going up to make a call. I stayed down there, and after about five minutes I heard a shot.”

Liudmyla found out later that small Russian reconnaissance groups were making their way into central Bucha through people’s gardens, to secure the area before the arrival of a bigger force that planned to use the town as a launch pad for the occupation of Kyiv.

“Suddenly a Russian soldier shouted down from the top of the stairs: ‘Who’s in the cellar? Come out now!’ I went up and this soldier was standing there in our house. Most of his face was covered and he had a Kalashnikov,” she says.

He ordered Liudmyla to go back down and stay in the basement, but concern for Valeriy overcame her fear of what the Russians would do if she disobeyed them.

“It was already getting dark when I went up with a torch to look for him ... It was so scary – there was not a sound, no lights anywhere and no one around. I walked into the garden and around the house and found him lying there face down, where they had shot him.”

Liudmyla thinks her husband probably heard the Russians breaking a window to enter the house, and when he went to see what was happening, they shot him in the head.

“He was killed over nothing,” she says.

“I fell to my knees next to him, crying. There was blood everywhere. I didn’t know what to do with him, but I found a towel and covered him with that. When it started to get light in the morning, I found some sand and scattered it there to soak up the blood.”

Liudmyla spent that night alone in the family home where she had lived most of her life, which she and Valeriy had modernised and extended and surrounded with a garden full of flowers, and where they planned to celebrate his 70th birthday just three months later and 50 years of marriage in three years’ time.

The next morning regular Russian troops arrived in numbers, flattening gates and fences and parking armoured vehicles in gardens and backyards. They began setting up camp in Lyudmila’s home and took her across the road to the house of neighbour Vitaliy Zhyvotovsky, where she was put in the basement with him and his daughter.

“It was a different group of soldiers to the day before, and they said ‘We didn’t kill anyone, maybe your husband was killed by shrapnel or by looters. It’s not our fault, we are good,’” Liudmyla (68) remembers.

She was not mistreated in Zhyvotovksy’s house, which she thinks the Russians used as a command post and field hospital, but in the cold basement she had to listen to Kremlin propaganda regurgitated by young soldiers sent to Bucha from the Siberian region of Buryatia some 6,500km away.

“One soldier said we Ukrainians were to blame for what was happening – because we didn’t choose the right president, we knocked down statues of Lenin, we changed the [Soviet-era] names of our streets – and they had come to teach us how to live properly,” she recalls.

“I said: ‘What can you teach me about life? You came here from the middle of nowhere, where you couldn’t survive without joining the army. You can see how well we live here.’ And he said: ‘We live well in Russia.’ So I told him to go back and stay in his Russia and enjoy it and leave Ukraine alone. ‘No,’ he said, ‘this is ours too.’”

On March 8th Liudmyla’s daughter Olya, who lived in another district of now fully occupied Bucha, came to find her.

“There were already lots of dead bodies in the streets,” Liudmyla recalls. “I told her that her dad had been killed and we went to where he was lying and cried together.”

The Russians agreed to bury Valeriy and let the women leave Bucha. Liudmyla gave shovels to the soldiers and Valeriy was wrapped in a blanket and placed in a grave in his own garden. Then the women fled to Kyiv with Olya’s children in an evacuation convoy of dozens of cars.

“They didn’t allow us go along Yablunska street because it was full of bodies and they didn’t want people to tell the world what was happening in Bucha,” Liudmyla says of the road perpendicular to hers, where dozens of civilians would be murdered during nearly a month of occupation.

“They just killed people who went outside to see what was going on,” says Lyudmila, listing people who were shot or burned to death in their homes. “And that’s just people who lived near by, people who I knew for years.”

Pride and grief mingle in her voice as she scrolls through photographs of her old home.

“I loved that house. It was so comfy and cosy, and we put a new roof on it and everything was new. There were flowers all around. Now there’s nothing there. The house was set on fire and so badly damaged that it had to be demolished.”

Liudmyla came back last April and gave Valeriy a proper burial, and now lives with her son Yevhen in his house in another part of Bucha, which is determined to rebuild and seek justice for at least 419 civilians who were killed during occupation.

A journalist with one of Ukraine’s leading news outlets, Yevhen was in western Ukraine with wife Svitlana and son Oleh when Russia began its full invasion of his country.

Svitlana and Oleh left Ukraine along with millions of other women and children last March. Now they live in Ballinrobe, Co Mayo, as two of 75,000 or so Ukrainians who have found refuge in Ireland, about 15,000 of whom are of school age.

Svitlana, who is also a journalist, is working in a local restaurant and Oleh (17) is attending school. Yevhen says they have fallen in love with the area, though Oleh badly misses his grandmother’s cooking.

In the kitchen of Yevhen’s home, Liudmyla pours glasses of rich red “kompot”, sweetened home-made juice, made from what she calls “survivor cherries” – fruit that was picked after Ukraine expelled Russia’s invasion force from Bucha and the rest of Kyiv region last spring.

“I loved him so much. When we were young all the girls were mad about him. I thought he was the best-looking guy in Bucha,” she says, standing photos of Valeriy on the kitchen table.

“My husband loved life so much, he was so energetic and active, and my son and daughter are the same. I’m so sorry that he’s gone, and we won’t be able to do all the things we planned to do,” Liudmyla adds.

“Maybe I’ll go back to our land and make a new garden and a new house there, so the grandchildren can come and stay. I just have to go on, there’s nothing else to do.”