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Russian troops left death and destruction behind in Borodyanka, Ukraine

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

All week, the world's attention has been focused on the death and destruction that's been discovered in the towns north of Kyiv after Russian forces withdrew. One of those towns - Borodyanka. We ride along with a humanitarian group delivering food and water to the town. It takes several hours to make what before the war would have been a relatively quick trip of about 40 miles. Destroyed bridges mean more vehicles crowd onto the few reliable routes.

So right now we're in the small village of Dmytrivka, and we're starting to see signs of fighting for the first time. We just drove past a completely burned-out car. We're seeing homes that are totally destroyed. We are driving past a flattened tank. The top turret is just totally crushed and burned off, it looks like.

Military checkpoints create long lines on the narrow roads.

We just drove past a destroyed car that had the word children written in Russian, spray-painted along the side door.

Borodyanka is surrounded by forests. When we finally arrive, the small convoy pulls onto Tsentralna Street - Central Street - a main drag running east-west through the town.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

DETROW: The Workers immediately begin yelling to the first group of people we see - food, humanitarian assistance. Natasha Romanenko walks up to the van. She's trailed by a small dog.

NATASHA ROMANENKO: (Through interpreter) It's not our dog. She came from somewhere, and we gave her shelter. She has also lived through many things with us here. She's lived through many, many things here.

DETROW: Now they're keeping her. Natasha is 56. She's wearing a red kerchief on her head. And when we say we're reporters, she launches into her story. We don't even have to ask that many questions. She takes us into her yard where she points to a window in the house.

ROMANENKO: (Through interpreter) You can see there are holes where they were shooting directly in our window while we were hiding there.

DETROW: Natasha has stuffed paper into the bullet holes to keep the cold out. The Russians arrived in Borodyanka in the early days of the war. Ukrainian forces were nearby, too. Natasha and her daughter's family spent a month hiding in a cramped, cold root cellar.

ROMANENKO: (Through interpreter) What did we eat? Mostly potatoes. I had some spare oil. And then I have a cow, so I had milk. And I went to my neighbor. I gave her some milk. She gave me some other things, some cheese. So this is how we survived. Our cow saved us.

DETROW: Natasha searches for the key to the cellar. As she fumbles for the lock, emotions wash over her. She says it's hard to talk about, to find the words. She unlocks the door and takes us downstairs. The cellar is mostly filled with crates of potatoes. At night, Natasha says they lay a carpet over the crates and try to sleep on top of that, keeping warm under all the blankets they have.

The Russians left Borodyanka on March 31. In the final days of the occupation, Natasha says a Russian soldier confronted her. He thought she was scouting Russian troops locations and sharing them with the Ukrainian army.

ROMANENKO: (Through interpreter) I was in my garden milking my cow, and the guy, he shouted to me. He said, hey, old woman, come here. And he started to accuse me that every time you go outside, somebody is shelling, somebody is destroying our columns. He was saying that it was me who did that. But I said, no, I never spent time outside except in that moment when I needed to milk my cow. I'm not spending my time doing anything bad.

DETROW: She says he took her out to the middle of the road and pointed a gun at her head.

ROMANENKO: (Through interpreter) He was threatening me. And what did I say to him? I didn't wish him anything bad. I said I had just one wish - that he would see my face for the rest of his days so he would never forget what he's done here.

DETROW: The soldier spoke to someone else on the radio. Then, Natasha says, he let her go. The aid workers head west down Central Street to the middle of the town. We break away from the convoy to look around.

We're standing in the middle of Borodyanka, and it's utter devastation everywhere you look. There's an apartment building in front of us that is blackened from flames. The middle of it is completely collapsed from bombs. We turn the other direction. The storefronts, all of the windows are shattered. There's not much left in the stores at all. Many of the roofs are collapsed. There are burned vehicles in the streets. Most of the power lines are down and frayed on the ground. And there's just a steady stream of heavy machinery and police and humanitarian aid and press slowly driving around the debris through the town.

Across from the destroyed apartment building, there's a small park with a monument in the middle. On the top, a giant bust of Taras Shevchenko, a famous Ukrainian poet. Bullet holes pierce his forehead. The tall pillar the bust rests on is cracked and crumbling from all the shrapnel.

Three policemen are holding a ladder. Another man stands nearby, ready to climb to the top. Yaroslav Halubchik is an artist from Kyiv. He's come here to help with an ad hoc art project, an instant memorial of sorts.

YAROSLAV HALUBCHIK: (Through interpreter) We're calling this the healing of Shevchenko.

DETROW: Yaroslav steps up the ladder and starts to wrap a big gauze bandage around the giant head. As he does that, a man in a Ukrainian military uniform comes up...

YEVHEN NYSHCHUK: (Non-English language spoken).

DETROW: ...And starts asking him what he's doing.

HALUBCHIK: (Non-English language spoken).

DETROW: It's like performance art, Yaroslav explains. The soldier seems satisfied. Turns out he was worried they were repairing it.

NYSHCHUK: (Through interpreter) In this case, it is vital that we keep this monument as it is right now. It shouldn't be touched.

DETROW: He says it's especially important because of who Shevchenko was.

NYSHCHUK: (Through interpreter) This is very symbolic because we all know that Shevchenko and other Ukrainian artists were always enemies of Russia. I really hope that people will rebuild everything here as it was, but we should keep this as it is now.

DETROW: A reminder, the soldier says. We ask his name.

NYSHCHUK: Yevhen Nyshchuk, former minister of culture.

DETROW: He's Yevhen Nyshchuk, the former Ukrainian minister of culture. He's in the military now, based nearby.

We keep making our way west down Central Street. Building after building has collapsed from the bombardment of tank and rocket fire. In the nearby town of Bucha, bodies were found in the street. Here, with so many collapsed structures, the worry is that the bodies are still trapped underneath. Cranes carefully pick up debris as recovery teams look for remains.

There's a playground in front of one of the buildings. A woman is sitting there on a bench next to a slide watching them work. Her name is Ludmilla Boiko.

LUDMILLA BOIKO: (Through interpreter) My sister and her son lived here. This is what's left of them.

DETROW: A pile of old notebooks.

BOIKO: (Through interpreter) His mother kept his old notebooks from school.

DETROW: Ludmilla found them scattered among the rubble of the apartment building. That and some pictures, she says, are the only thing she's found. Ludmilla's sister, Olena Vahnenko, was 56. Her nephew, Yuri, was 24. Ludmilla says he had just graduated from college.

They'd left their apartment and sought shelter. But on March 1, during a break in the shelling and bombing, Olena and Yuri went back. Ludmilla says they talked on the phone, and Olena told her they'd been able to shower and eat some food. An hour and a half later, Russian forces destroyed the building.

BOIKO: (Through interpreter) Our friends were trying to help us, but for four days it was a huge fire here. And so first, they were trying to fight the fire. They didn't have a chance to do excavations right away.

DETROW: When the fire stopped burning, people tried to look for survivors. Then shelling began again and they had to flee. After that, she says, Russian forces were posted here and nobody could get near the building. Searching couldn't resume until a month after the attack.

So you're just sitting here and waiting and watching?

BOIKO: (Through interpreter) Yeah. I just want to see how they discover all the bodies that they assume should be there. And then probably, I would like to do something like with DNA testing, because I want to know for sure what happened. I was so close with them that I don't even know - how should I live now? How should I live in this place?

DETROW: Then, amid the devastation, a surprising human moment. Ludmilla is telling us about Borodyanka's long-running exchange program with a town in Wisconsin. I tell her one of our producers who's standing nearby, Kat Lonsdorf, is from there.

(CROSSTALK)

DETROW: Turns out Ludmilla knows Kat's neighbors. She's been to her street.

BOIKO: Mother Casey (ph) - three daughter.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Yeah.

BOIKO: Very nice. Yes. (Laughter) Wow.

DETROW: They hug, and Ludmilla beams.

BOIKO: (Through interpreter) It's the first time in all of these days that I can say that I am happy.

DETROW: But before long, our minds turn back to what's in front of us - a children's playground, surrounded by destruction. A crane, slowly removing rubble from a collapsed building. Soon, the recovery team will discover a woman's body. Ludmilla will climb up the pile of rubble to look. The body will be removed and covered and placed next to the three others found earlier that day. That's what we saw in just one day on one street of one town in Ukraine.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

That is our co-host Scott Detrow. He's been reporting from Ukraine all week, along with producers Noah Caldwell and Kat Lonsdorf.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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