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As Europe burns, Europeans search for firewood
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After weeks of street battles, Kyiv suburb is scene of ruin

Halyna Melnik, 61, outside her home in Irpin, Ukraine. Her son Serhii and her father were both killed within a week during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

IRPIN, Ukraine — Halyna Melnik stepped out of the darkness of her neighbor’s basement on Saturday. She had last seen daylight nearly two weeks ago. But now she was confident that the worst of the Russian assault on her block was over.

Over the previous month, her once-idyllic suburban street had been transformed into a battlefront, separating Russian forces from the Ukrainian capital they hoped to seize. Ukrainian volunteer troops took over abandoned houses and dug trenches in backyards. Homes were pounded nearly nonstop by Russian forces positioned just nearby.

Her 83-year-old father was simply sitting by his kitchen window eating a meal when he was killed by a Russian mortar strike on March 6.

Five days later, her son Serhii, who was married with two children, was killed as he tried to evacuate civilians to safety.

But several days ago, the constant thud of artillery slowed as Russian troops — facing major losses and logistical challenges — began to pull back from their failed invasion of the capital.

The few people who, like Melnik, had stayed behind and survived are now emerging from basements and shelters, rubbing their eyes in the brightness of day, dazed and bewildered as they take in the wasteland of destruction that has replaced the neighborhoods they once called home.

Most houses are destroyed or badly damaged. Piles of rubble litter what were once pleasant gardens. Abandoned dogs wander from house to house. The streets are pocked with craters from shelling. In areas nearby, including the town of Bucha, bodies still lie in the streets. Kyiv’s mayor said the attacks in the city’s suburbs amounted to a “genocide.”

It is horrific scenes like these, in Irpin and Bucha, that are bringing renewed calls for investigation and prosecution of war crimes.

Signs of massacre in Bucha spark calls for war-crimes probes

Outside of town, the roads connecting the small enclaves that bore the brunt of the failed Russian advance on Kyiv are marked with abandoned cars, including one that was badly damaged and had the word “children” taped to its windows. Remnants of weapons litter residents’ yards. Many homes and apartment buildings were hit badly by shelling, breaking windows and walls. Russian armored vehicles are still scattered about — abandoned or destroyed.

For civilians who stayed behind, like 61-year-old Melnik, the cleanup has already begun. Bags of broken glass sat on her stoop on Saturday as her two younger brothers, who had also stayed, swept up their yards.

The last several weeks were traumatizing, but she was unwilling to leave her property or pets behind. “I’m in my land. I’m not going to leave this place,” she said as she pored over family photos in the house where her children grew up. “Here is the grave of my parents and son. Why should I leave?”

Nearby sits the crumpled bridge that once connected this satellite city to the capital. Ukrainian forces destroyed it soon after the Russian invasion, fearing enemy troops would use it to cross into Kyiv. But its destruction also hampered civilians’ ability to flee.

For weeks, terrified residents of Irpin and neighboring towns have braved a treacherous makeshift platform over the Irpin river that promised relative safety on the other side. But some were killed while trying to cross.

Before the war, Melnik, who lives just on the other side, commuted across the bridge each day to her job at the Irpin Vodokanal station, a water and sewage facility that turned into a military position.

Now, that compound is a graveyard of burned-out vehicles destroyed during the intense shelling that went back and forth between the two sides. Residents and soldiers said the facility traded hands between the Russians and Ukrainians over the past several weeks.

Early on Saturday afternoon, a soldier once stationed near the facility walked toward a stone wall at the back of the lot and peeled away a sheet of metal covering a large hole. Then he stepped through to the other side, searching for an elderly couple he’d last seen before Russian shelling intensified last month.

He walked toward an orange house nearby and a woman stepped outside. Her husband, who had been sick, died before they could be evacuated, she told him. It had been two days — but still no one had come to evacuate her or take his body away. She began to weep and said she was too distraught to talk about it.

Her neighbor, Nina Savchenko, then stepped into her yard — where a fence she said was crushed by a Russian tank lay mangled on the ground.

On March 6, Russian troops barreled down their dirt road, where Savchenko and her husband — both teachers — had built a modest house with their savings 30 years ago.

“They were confused and lost and did not know why they were here,” she said of the troops. The 81-year-old widow hid in her basement as the soldiers “broke down the fence, broke the locks [and] took down the doors.”

“When I came outside, they pointed three guns at me, but did not fire, because I told them in Russian to lower them,” she said. Once they did, “I was not afraid.”

Still, the next weeks brought anguish.

Russians parked their tanks and armored personnel carriers in her neighbors’ yards, she said. As artillery flew between their residential neighborhood and Ukrainian positions nearby, her house was struck and badly burned, destroying her roof and attic. She watched as others fled the city but she feared that if she did the same, she would have nowhere to go. Her home region of Sumy was also under attack.

So she spent weeks sleeping alone in her frigid and dark basement, where her cat sat perched on the small mattress they shared on the concrete floor.

She walked through her garden Saturday, occasionally holding her face in her hands as she described the damage to the neighborhood she had lived in for decades.

“It’s hard to remember such bad things,” she said. “I had a normal life. I did not look like this and did not have to wear other people’s clothes.”

There is much work to be done before those who fled can safely return. Officials here are beginning the arduous process of demining and clearing these areas of unexploded ordnance, and imposed a three-day curfew over the weekend that will probably prevent any civilians from rushing back.

Over the course of several hours, a team of Washington Post reporters heard only a single boom — a sharp contrast with the constant shelling that echoed through these streets just days ago.

As Ukrainian control over the area solidifies, volunteers from the Carpathian Sich, the battalion that defended Melnik’s neighborhood, are preparing to move elsewhere. For weeks, dozens of their troops slept on the cold cement floor of a half-built house. In the basement, mattresses are lined up against the walls. Piles of medicine still sit on a small desk.

A map of the surrounding area is taped to a wall adorned with neon smiley-face stickers. But with the Russian retreat, only five of the soldiers are left. They plan to leave a note on the wall for the unknown owners, thanking them for the shelter that helped keep them alive.

For Mikhaylo Dzhanda, who served as mayor of the western city of Khust from 2002 to 2010 and is now volunteering in the battalion, the sudden shift in control is almost hard to grasp.

Just a week ago, mortars struck a house near Melnik’s, where two of Dzhanda’s fellow troops were inside resting. The building crumpled, leaving them trapped inside.

“For the first time in my life, I was digging through rubble to look for someone,” Dzhanda said.

Bit by bit, he found pieces of their bodies scattered in the debris — confirming his fear that they were dead. “But I had to keep digging,” he said.

He went back to his base in Kyiv three days ago, when the position “was still active,” he said. By Saturday, he paced through the streets, already pointing at their former shelters and trenches as if they were a distant memory.

As those troops pull out, Melnik is left picking up the pieces of a life she will never be able to rebuild.

Her father and son were buried without even a priest present because of the constant threat of Russian attack. She wrapped them in blankets and said the funeral rites herself.

“It was the most difficult experience to bury a body without a cross, without a priest or coffin — with only a blanket,” she said. “I just stood over their graves and prayed for them.”

Her grandchildren, who are 14 and 10, fled the area just before their grandfather and father were killed — and still don’t know that they are gone.

When they call her, they “ask why Papa isn’t answering,” she said, tears streaming down her face. “How can I explain that Papa will never answer?”

Serhiy Morgunov in Irpin and Serhii Korolchuk and Anastacia Galouchka in Kyiv contributed to this report.