KYIV, Ukraine — First we looked up, horrified by the scene of destruction towering above us.
It was Feb. 26, two days after Russia had launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. As Washington Post journalists, we were covering the devastation Russia was inflicting on this beautiful city, and we and everyone else could practically taste the fear over what might come next.
Now we stood shivering in front of another scene of senseless bombing, wondering whose memories had flown out of shattered windows just hours before. Whose smiling faces looked back at us from these photos? Were they still alive?
If we left the photos on the ground, we decided, they had little chance of surviving the weather or the war. If we picked them up, maybe we could return them, someday, to someone who had just lost almost everything else.
Our social media pleas to connect with the photos’ owners were shared widely — but went unanswered.
For the next several months — as nightmares played out in the Kyiv suburbs and Russian forces ultimately retreated and refocused their assault on the country’s east — those photos sat tucked in a reporter’s notebook. The pages filled up with stories of other horrors from the war — other buildings destroyed, other families torn apart.
But our thoughts kept returning to those long-ago images and the people in them. Then, earlier this month, we stumbled upon a clue.
On Facebook, a woman who had lived in the building was launching a campaign to raise money for repairs. We wrote to her, attaching the photos. She shared them in a group chat with other residents. A woman named Oksana Insarova replied. They were hers.
The photos in hand, last week we drove across Kyiv to finally return them to her.
We met outside the old apartment of her late parents, where she has been staying since the blast.
From there, we started to piece together the mystery of the family whose faces we had known for months.
Insarova and her husband, Oleh Tochenyuk, had only recently moved into their modern 20th-floor apartment — the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
The purchase had been slightly beyond their means, but the trade-off was worth it: The view let them see for miles. They could host parties and friends. Their daughters were ecstatic. They spent as much designing, furnishing and decorating the interior as they had on the apartment itself.
When Russian forces invaded on Feb. 24, they stayed put at home.
The 20th floor was a long way from the closest shelter, so even when the air raid sirens sounded, they took their chances upstairs.
The next day, a friend called from a nearby town. Reports suggested that Russian forces could take the capital within hours. Wouldn’t they consider leaving Kyiv for a few days? They thought about it — then packed a few clothes and left with their 12-year-old daughter Daria. (Their other daughter, Anastacia, is a 22-year-old university student in Prague.)
“If it wasn’t for our friends, I wouldn’t be talking to you now,” Insarova said.
The next morning they woke up outside the city to a flurry of messages in their neighborhood group chat. “Sirens,” one message said. Then, 12 minutes later: “Seems like they hit our building.”
Neighbors started posting photos of the damage. “I counted the floors, but it was useless,” Insarova recalled. “It was obviously my apartment.”
She went into shock. Her husband’s blood pressure skyrocketed so fast he felt sick. Daria lay down in bed and covered her face with a blanket. She didn’t speak for days.
“That apartment was so important to our family,” Insarova said. “It was my little happiness, and now it is my little grief.”
They didn’t return to Kyiv for nearly two weeks. There were checkpoints and gas shortages. And there was nothing they could do to recover what was lost.
“Compared to what other people in Ukraine are facing, it’s a small price,” Insarova said. “Still, it’s unbearable to think about starting from scratch.”
When they finally visited their home on March 11, the destruction still felt unbelievable. Their apartment essentially didn’t exist anymore. The missile hit a wall where a box of family photos had sat on the floor, sending them flying down to the street, along with many of their other belongings.
The loss of their home compounded another family tragedy. Insarova’s older brother and only sibling, Ihor, had died suddenly of a stroke in January. Now a lifetime of pictures of him were gone.
So was that the little boy in the photos we found? The one whose face we had studied, hoping for an answer?
Insarova flipped through them. There was Ihor, alive again as a baby in their father’s arms. As a toddler, with their beaming uncle. In a photo studio, smiling mischievously with a hula hoop.
Seeing the images brought her mixed feelings, she said. She was happy to have them back — but even meeting us was a reminder of everything she had lost.
And we weren’t the only ones who had reached out.
Several other people had connected with her in recent weeks, offering to return other photos they had also rescued from the ground. One woman, Kateryna Kashriyna, had found hundreds in the rubble. She was holding them for Insarova on the other side of Kyiv, but severe fuel shortages had prevented them from meeting.
We had fuel, we told her. Maybe we could help.
On Tuesday evening, as we drove to meet with Kashriyna, Insarova pointed at other high-rise buildings we passed. She had considered buying a place there, she said about one, but it had a bad interior layout. And there, she said, pointing at another, but that one had problems, too.
Both are still standing.
“Are you excited to see the photos?” we asked from the front seat.
“I don’t know,” she replied quietly from the back.
We got to Kashriyna’s neighborhood and stood outside, waiting for her to join us. The ground was still wet from an afternoon rainstorm.
She emerged holding a bag of photos in one hand and in the other an image that particularly stood out to her. It was another picture of Ihor as a child.
Kashriyna had been standing in line at a grocery store on the ground floor of the apartment building a few days after the blast, she said, when she noticed a photo on the ground. Then another. And another.
Shopping at a place that had been attacked just two days before scared her, she said, but she figured, “If we die in this line, then we die in this line.”
We asked her why she bothered to pick up all the photos.
“This is a memory for someone,” she said. “I thought it would be nice to meet people and bring back their memories. You can buy another chair or whatever, but you can’t buy this — another memory of your life.”
Insarova beamed as she dug through the pile filled with decades of reminders of much happier times. Her wedding day. Family trips to Crimea, before it was occupied by Russia. Visits to a summer cottage with her parents. Ihor with her and her kids.
“I’m happy,” she said, “because it brought me all the memories back.”
It was getting late, and the nightly curfew was creeping up on us.
We piled back into our car and dropped Insarova at her parents’ apartment. She got out and waved, carrying her bag of memories.