A place where I lived and taught — with colleagues and students and a family, people who cared about me and I about them. Then the war came.
By Sonia Scherr
Ten days before Russia launched its full-scale war in Ukraine, I awoke to a Facebook message wishing me a happy Valentine’s Day. It was from Liuda Skorlupina, a friend and former colleague in Bucha, near the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Later that day, we met over Skype; it was night in Ukraine and she was in her home office, a room that had become familiar from our regular online conversations over the previous two years.
Despite the sometimes glitchy connection, I could hear the cheerful lilt in Liuda’s voice, and we talked easily. She asked about the job I’d begun a few months earlier at a small public school in rural Vermont. I updated her on the virtual meetings I’d been having with a group of ninth graders at Bucha School No. 5, where I had taught English as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer. She suggested setting up a Zoom meeting to bring together teenagers at School No. 5, where she still worked as an English teacher, and their American peers at my school.
The meeting couldn’t happen right away, however. School No. 5 had moved to remote instruction for a couple of weeks because of a surge in COVID-19 cases. The school year had been wearing at times, and I thought of the teachers at my Vermont school who also felt depleted as they navigated changing pandemic protocols and waves of student absences.
Liuda didn’t mention the possibility of a Russian invasion. I hesitated to bring it up; the Ukrainian president had criticized U.S. officials for provoking panic with their insistence that Russia planned to attack. Finally, toward the end of the conversation, I asked how she was feeling about the security situation in Ukraine. She said she believed it would be all right. She spoke with conviction, and I was reassured.
Red Line to Marshrutka 381
I first heard of Bucha in the summer of 2019. I had been serving as a Response Volunteer for nearly a year, teaching English in a much larger city in central Ukraine. I was ready for a change, and Peace Corps staff told me the prospective Volunteer who had been assigned to School No. 5 was unable to serve in Ukraine. Would I like to visit Bucha to see if it would be a good fit?
On July 10, I took the Kyiv metro to the end of the red line, then boarded the No. 381 marshrutka (minibus) bound for Bucha. I looked out the window as a commercial strip gave way to pine forest, anxious about whether I’d feel comfortable in this new place. Twenty-five minutes later, I got off in front of the Novus, a supermarket in Bucha’s center. Liuda, who had short blond hair and a warm smile, met me at the stop along with Anya Maymeskul, also an English teacher at School No. 5. Together we crossed the busy intersection to the school, set back from Vokzalna Street on a campus that resembled a park in its profusion of trees and flowering plants: pines and oaks, guelder rose, marigolds and chrysanthemums, rowan whose bright red berries would ripen in September.
I was served tea and sweets and given a tour of the school. I learned it specialized in foreign language instruction and enrolled about 1,000 elementary and high school students. It was one of several schools in Bucha, a growing suburb of almost 40,000 residents.
Later, we walked several blocks north, to the 100-acre city park, the pride of Bucha. It featured wide lit paths for walkers and bicyclists; a long narrow canal speckled with lily pads; sculptures both elegant and whimsical; gardens that formed intricate geometric patterns; and less-traveled trails through the woods. From a promenade in the heart of the park, we looked out over a lake, tinged silver in the afternoon light. The anxiety I’d felt earlier was gone.
In August, a week before the start of school, I moved to Bucha.
First bell: Students at Bucha School No. 5 begin the school year in a happier time. The words above the entrance read “Memories of school days gather friends together.” Photo by Volodymyr Titov. See more of his work at @highstandpoint
I WAS WECLOMED BY MY HOST FAMILY: Natasha, a chemistry teacher at School No. 5; her husband, Vadim; and their two teenage children. They lived in a house Natasha’s husband had built, in a neighborhood of large, contemporary homes. They had a German Shepherd named Dana that was fiercely attached to her caretakers, who came to include me. She protected us from anyone she deemed a potential intruder by barking loudly and sprinting back and forth on the lawn.
Natasha, whose dark hair framed her face, moved with calm, purposeful energy. When she wasn’t teaching, she often worked in the family’s garden, which took up most of their spacious backyard, and in the kitchen she called her studio. I loved her holubtsi (cabbage rolls), cherry vareniki (dumplings), cheese pancakes called syrniki, and potato pancakes stuffed with meat.
From my host family’s house, it was a brisk 20-minute walk to school. Each morning I turned left and passed St. Andrew’s Church, a white edifice whose grounds covered a square city block. The church helped orient me during my first weeks in Bucha; its gold domes were beacons guiding me back to my street.
On my walk home, I was sometimes joined by a seventh grader who lived in the same direction, and she would give me an impromptu Ukrainian lesson inspired by what we passed on our way: buildings, vehicles, plantings, other pedestrians. Briefly these everyday things became new again as I said their names in an unfamiliar language. For instance, the three-syllable Ukrainian word for tree, derevo, evoked for me a tree’s branching complexity, unlike the stolid rootedness brought to mind by the English word.
A few times a week I took a detour after school to the market near the train station, which I preferred to Bucha’s modern grocery stores. I never knew exactly what I would find in the stalls that filled a paved lot as well as an enclosed pavilion and two covered passageways. I sought out raspberries when in season, walnuts, sunflower oil, milk in repurposed plastic bottles, and soft crumbly farmer’s cheese I liked to eat with jam or honey. A woman would cut a slab of this cheese from a much larger white block, weigh and wrap it, then calculate what I owed on a notepad.
Part of Bucha’s appeal was its proximity to Kyiv, to which many of its residents commuted for work, and on weekends I often took the marshrutka into the capital. One warm late summer night, not long after my arrival in Bucha, I was returning from Kyiv later than expected and missed a call from Natasha as I tried to keep my balance in the aisle of a packed marshrutka. Right away I received a text from her. “Hello,” she wrote, and I knew that Natasha, who did not speak English, was checking to make sure I was okay.
I told her I was. “I’m almost home,” I typed.
While Kyiv was vast and exciting, Bucha was home, I realized — a place where there were people who cared about me, and I about them.
“Pray for Ukraine.”
And then, unexpectedly, I had to leave. In March 2020, the pandemic led the Peace Corps to suspend all its Volunteer activities worldwide. I had 48 hours to pack and get to the airport. There was no time to say goodbye in person to most of the people I had become close to during my months of service.
On the plane back to Washington, D.C., I declined to join other Volunteers in ringing a bell that was passed from seat to seat. It was intended to substitute for the bell each Volunteer has traditionally rung at the Peace Corps Ukraine office to mark their close of service. But why ring anything when I’d return as soon as I could? I never thought months would turn into years without the Peace Corps resuming its overseas programs. Yet amid the losses and uncertainty of the pandemic, I maintained a connection with Bucha, one that increasingly provided solace and purpose.
In spring 2020, Liuda and I collaborated across time zones to finish a collection of student creative writing and artwork we had begun shortly before the evacuation of Volunteers. The project took on greater importance for me: During a period when the pandemic had quite literally forced us apart, it felt like stories had the potential to bring us together.We also partnered with an American middle school teacher to set up a weekly exchange between his virtual classroom in Maine and some of the students I had taught in Bucha. Each week, participants responded to a prompt we gave them by making a short video and sharing it with the group. The exchange, which we began in April 2020 and continued through the next school year, allowed me to get to know my students more deeply as I learned about their joys, struggles, concerns, and hopes.
At the beginning of the 2021–22 school year, Liuda and I decided that real-time meetings would be most helpful for the Ukrainian students. During these monthly sessions, the children in their Zoom squares commanded all my attention, and I was aware of being fully engaged in the present, temporarily freed from regrets or worries. By this year’s Martin Luther King Day, when we met to talk about the song “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” and its association with the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, I had worked with several of the students for two and a half years, first in person and then remotely.
From the time I left Ukraine, I also kept in touch with friends there. Because my level of Ukrainian was fairly basic, Natasha and I communicated mainly through photos. As the weeks and months passed, I saw my former neighborhood transformed by a late March snowfall; Natasha and her daughter (with help from Dana, the dog) raking leaves in the spring sunshine; microgreens growing in plastic trays inside her home; a family of swans on the lake in Bucha City Park; watermelons ripening in her greenhouse; her children paddling down the river on a hot summer day; and closeups of flowers blooming in her garden. So many varieties that I did not know all their names. Looking at her photos, I pictured a time when I would return to Bucha.
WHEN THE RUSSIAN ONSLAUGHT BEGAN, I felt disbelief that this could happen to a place I knew. On February 24, the first day of full-scale invasion, I sent messages via Facebook and Skype to everyone I had remained in contact with there.
“Pray for Ukraine,” Liuda wrote back. She reported that the Russian military was trying to seize an airport in the neighboring town of Hostomel. “It is really dangerous here in Bucha. Russians were bombarding Hostomel airport all day. It was a nightmare.”
Anya, her colleague whom I had first met when I visited Bucha, thanked me for my words of support as she took shelter from the intense shelling. “We are in the basement right now!!! God is with us!!!”
I tried to imagine what it was like but could not. Bucha had always felt safe. The only exception was when I went jogging in the park one evening and heard thunder, and looked up to see pulses of lightning. Even then I had made it home before the rain.
Liuda sent me a video showing buildings on fire, car windows shattered, a man slumped in the street while someone tried to wipe blood from his face. “Sonia,” she wrote, “this is Bucha today.”
The next day, Liuda sent me a video showing buildings on fire, car windows shattered, a man slumped in the street while someone tried to wipe blood from his face. “Sonia,” she wrote, “this is Bucha today.”
Feeling helpless, I wrote again on February 28 after reading reports of heavy fighting in Bucha. Liuda sent photos showing the devastation; I squinted at them, trying to recognize the streets filled with rubble and burned-out tanks, the destroyed homes. Liuda had seen a dead body in the street. “That was a real shock,” she wrote.
On the same day, Anya told me she wished she could bring food and clothes for Ukrainian soldiers. “I would like to do much more for my country and my army…. but I have to stay in the flat because my children don’t let me go… (the) younger (one) begins to panic if I leave them…”
Meanwhile, Natasha had left Bucha with her children and was staying with her mother in a village 110 miles from Kyiv. Her husband was fighting in the war. “Yes, Bucha was defeated, but we are a hardworking people, and we will definitely rebuild the city, the country,” she wrote in Ukrainian. Then her message shifted to the present: “There are shells on our street. My students and their parents are all hiding in basements. This is horror!”
The Russians withdrew from Bucha at the end of February after experiencing heavy losses, then returned in early March. News of a death appeared in my Facebook feed: Serhei Krochak, the husband of one of the English teachers at my school, died on March 4, ten days before his 45th birthday. Liuda would tell me he was shot by Russian soldiers when he went out to try to get food. He was found lying on the road.
On March 6, I sent messages to Liuda and Anya, who I knew were still in the city. This time, there was no answer—and the icon next to my messages indicated they hadn’t been received. On Liuda’s Facebook page, several people had posted asking if anyone had heard from her.
“Yes, Bucha was defeated, but we are a hardworking people, and we will definitely rebuild the city, the country,” she wrote in Ukrainian. Then her message shifted to the present: “There are shells on our street. My students and their parents are all hiding in basements. This is horror!”
In the days that followed, I scoured the Internet and social media for news about Bucha. Finally, on March 10, I received a response from Anya, now in Kyiv and planning her onward journey. It was the second time she had been displaced, the first being eight years ago when fighting flared between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east. “I couldn’t answer before — we didn’t have electricity,” she wrote. “We have been evacuated from Bucha… We have left our home… again… as it was in 2014.”
Soon I reconnected with Liuda as well. She was staying with her parents in a town in western Ukraine, along with the four members of her sister’s family. The first time we tried to Skype, air raid sirens started going off and she had to postpone our meeting. When we talked the next day, she described grim conditions during her final days in Bucha, with no electricity and difficulty obtaining food and water. Without gas for the stove, cooking had to be done outside over an open fire.
She and her then 10-year-old son, Zhenia, had fled Bucha in a small SUV with eight people and two cats. They had little time to prepare and were compelled to leave behind their own pets: a dog and two kittens. On their way out of town, they were stopped at three checkpoints manned by heavily armed Russian soldiers; each time, Liuda and the others in the Jeep Patriot raised their hands to indicate they were civilians. It was so packed inside the vehicle that one little boy had to sit in the cargo area at the very rear of the hatchback, and they worried that the soldiers would open the door and think they were trying to hide him. After boarding a train headed west, Liuda felt safe at last. But she was very worried about her 78-year-old mother-in-law and 82-year-old father-in-law, still in the besieged city of Mariupol. It had been eight days since there had been any word from them.
Gilt domes in Bucha: Church of the Holy Apostle Andrew the First-Called and All Saints. Its grounds became site of a mass grave for Ukrainians killed by Russian invaders. Photo by Simone Barbieri / Alamy
Everything turns away
Bucha was liberated by Ukrainian troops on March 31. In the days afterward, the atrocities Russian soldiers had committed there began to emerge. People had been executed on their streets, in their yards, inside their homes. Some had been tortured and raped. The church I had passed daily was the site of a mass grave where people were searching for their loved ones. Looking at the photos made me dizzy with shock and grief.
Yet I did not think about Bucha all the time. There were minutes, even hours, when I was preoccupied by tasks at work, and the horror of what had happened would recede. I felt grateful for these times, yet also guilty. Ten days after the war began, The New York Times published an essay on W.H. Auden’s 1940 poem “Musée des Beaux Arts.” The poem’s second stanza is about a Bruegel painting that shows Icarus falling into the sea as a ploughman continues his plowing:
everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure
I found myself feeling more forgiving of the ploughman, whom I had judged for seeming to ignore the suffering nearby. Perhaps the painting didn’t show everything. Perhaps there were times he had witnessed disaster and had not turned away.
As I tried to keep in touch with friends in Ukraine, I struggled to find new ways to express my concern. I reached for phrases from previous messages and hoped no one would find them less sincere for having been used again: I am keeping you in my heart… I think about you every day… I am heartbroken… To the students I had worked with, I always added another one: I miss you…
One of them wrote back to me shortly before the liberation of Bucha. She was in western Ukraine with her family, volunteering at a church, helping others displaced by the war. She was worried about her grandparents and her dog, who were still in Bucha, though she believed they would be OK.
I didn’t hear from any others.
Don’t look away: Anna and Vladyslav, students at School No. 5, were both killed when Russian forces invaded Bucha. Photos courtesy Bucha School No. 5
On April 20, School No. 5 announced on its Facebook page that two students, eighth grader Anna Mishchenko and seventh grader Vladyslav Magdik, had been killed in early March while trying to flee the city with family members. Beneath the announcement was a school photo of Anna and another of Vladyslav, seated at a desk in a sunlit room, chin resting on his hand, smiling.
For a few months I had worked weekly with Anna’s English class. As I looked at drawings Anna had made, now posted online, it pained me that I had known her only as a somewhat distracted English student, and not as the gifted artist she was. I had worked for many months in the eighth-grade classroom of Vladyslav’s older sister, who was injured in the attack that killed her brother. She also participated in the first round of the virtual exchange between School No. 5 and the middle school in Maine. I recalled how she always sent a cheery response to my emails reminding students to submit their weekly video. In my memory she had the same bright smile as her brother.
Amid the terrible news, I felt comforted each time I was able to communicate with Ukrainian friends. Together with her sons, Anya had traveled to Poland, Germany, France and then Britain, where they were staying. “We have everything that is necessary for a good life really,” she wrote. “The only problem — I don’t know what to do then … and we miss our home. But, in general, everything is good.”
In mid-May, Liuda Skyped with me once more, this time from her home in Bucha, to which she had returned the day after Orthodox Easter. Though the streets had been cleared of rubble, it felt unfamiliar. “Everything was really quiet,” she said. “I was afraid of the silence.” Officials were still identifying the dead, more than 400 so far. Sometimes she would hear loud explosions as sappers defused mines left behind from the fighting; residents had been warned against going into the forest, where unexploded mines remained.
Liuda’s mother-in-law was with her in Bucha, after managing to escape Mariupol. Her father-in-law had died during the occupation of the city, and his wife had to leave his body behind in their flat. The building later burned.
Even as she grieved the deaths of people she had known in Bucha and elsewhere, Liuda cherished being with her colleagues again. “We were crying and hugging each other,” she said. “We became closer in some way.” Of the 100 faculty and staff at School No. 5, about 30 had returned (by late June that had increased to half). Liuda also had begun meeting remotely with a few students from each of her classes, more to provide opportunities for interaction than formal lessons. The first time she met with one group, she was so glad to see them that she forgot a parent’s request to record the session.
The plan is for in-person classes to resume in the fall. A hole in the school’s roof, the result of shelling, was repaired. As they did every spring, educators gathered for a workday in the school’s gardens, raking, digging, and planting. On the school’s Facebook page there were photos not only of the gardens but also of classrooms; one of them showed Liuda standing at her desk, watering a plant.
Yet by late June, driven by uncertainty about the war’s trajectory, Liuda had decided to leave once more with her son. This time she planned to go abroad, for at least a year. Her husband would remain in Ukraine. (The Ukrainian government has prohibited most men ages 18–60 from leaving the country.)
Natasha and her daughter spent the spring in Germany. She was grateful they hadn’t lost any close relatives. “It’s impossible to believe all that Bucha went through,” she wrote in late April. “The mind cannot perceive it.”
I wrote to Natasha that seeing all the spring flowers in Vermont, especially the daffodils and tulips, reminded me of her garden and the beauty of Bucha. “Yes,” she replied, “the daffodils are really blooming right now.” She sent a picture of Dana rolling on their lawn, near a bed of yellow and white daffodils. Their son had returned to their house in Bucha, which hadn’t been damaged in the fighting, and was tending the flowers. “Dana sunbathes and is happy to be back home, because wherever you are, home is best.”
At the end of May, Natasha also returned to Bucha. Her daughter, who wanted to finish her final year of high school with friends and classmates, followed a few weeks later. Natasha told me she was spending a lot of time at home and in her garden. The roses were blooming there in shades of red and pink, and she sent me pictures.
Though streets had been cleared of rubble, it felt unfamiliar. “Everything was really quiet,” Liuda said. “I was afraid of the silence.” Officials were still identifying the dead, more than 400 so far. Sometimes she would hear loud explosions as sappers defused mines left behind from the fighting; residents had been warned against going into the forest, where unexploded mines remained.
AS A RESULT OF THE WAR, my own sense of what it would mean to return to Bucha has changed. I’ve realized the city was always present for me in the lasting friendships that formed there, and especially in my ongoing connection with students from School No. 5. I’ve felt their absence strongly since February, along with worry about their well-being. I think, for me, a return to Bucha would happen through a return to my work with them, wherever it could take place.
I’m not sure when that will be. The war has shifted to the east, but in summer 2022 it continues unabated. For the first time, the school year has finished without any word from my students.
Faced with this silence, I borrow strength and hope from Liuda, Anya, Natasha, and others I have kept in touch with these past several months. I trust there is a place beyond the silence, and that someday we will reach it.
For now, I send my students a message every month, using phrases that are no less true for their repetition:
I miss you…
I am keeping you in my heart…
I think about you every day.
IN JULY, I RECEIVED A RESPONSE from one of my students, a rising high school sophomore named Vlada. “Thank you for worrying about all of us!” she wrote. She reported that she had left Ukraine in March and had been staying in Sweden since then. “My family is safe here and we are getting a lot of support and help!
“I really hope all this will be over soon and we will meet again.
“I miss you too…”
Sonia Scherr served as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in Ukraine 2018–20. She works at a public school in central Vermont.