CHERNIHIV, Ukraine (AP) — Danik Rak enjoys riding his bike, playing soccer, and quiet moments with the family’s short-legged dog and two white cats, Pusuna and Lizun.
But at the age of 12, his childhood was cut short. His family home was destroyed and his mother was seriously injured as Russian forces bombed Kyiv’s suburbs and surrounding cities in an unsuccessful attempt to seize the capital.
Six months after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, and with no end to the conflict in sight, the Associated Press revisits Danik, as well as a police officer and an Orthodox priest whose life has been affected by the war. .
“I want to be an air force pilot”
Danik has tears in his eyes as his mother, Luda, remembers being pulled from the rubble, covered in blood, after shrapnel burst through his body and crushed his right leg.
Twenty-two weeks after being injured, she is still waiting for her leg to be amputated and prosthesis placed. She continues to remove pieces of shrapnel surgeons do during one of her many operations.
Danik lives with his mother and grandmother in a house near Chernihiv, a town 140 kilometers (about 90 miles) north of Kyiv, where a piece of tarp covers the broken bedroom windows. He sells the milk of the family’s cow grazing in the nearby fields. A handwritten sign wrapped in clear plastic on the front gate reads: “Please buy milk to help my mother who is injured.”
“My mother needs surgery and so I have to help her. I also have to help my grandmother as she has heart problems,” Danik said.
Danik and his grandmother are joining volunteers several days a week to clear debris from buildings damaged and destroyed in the Russian bombing outside Chernihiv, ahead of the reopening of schools on September 1. On the way, he stops at his old house, much of which was broken by the foundation.
“This was my bedroom,” he says, standing next to springs of scorched mattresses that spew bricks and plaster rubble.
Polite and soft-spoken, Danik says that both his father and stepfather are fighting in the Ukrainian army.
“My father is a soldier, my uncle is a soldier and my grandfather was also a soldier. My stepfather is a soldier and I will be a soldier,” he says with a look of determination. “I want to be an Air Force pilot.”
“This bridge was the way out of hell”
Prior to the Russian withdrawal from Kyiv and surrounding areas on 2 April, the suburbs and towns near the city’s airport were blown up by rockets, artillery fire and aerial bombardment in an attempt to breach Ukrainian defenses.
Entire city blocks of apartments were blackened by shelling in Irpin, just 20 kilometers (12 mi) northwest of the capital, along a route where Police Lieutenant Ruslan Lyubanov patrolled daily.
Some of the most dramatic scenes from the early stages of the war were of the evacuation from Irpin under a destroyed highway bridge, where thousands survived the relentless attacks.
Lyubov was there for 16 days, organizing crossings where elders were taken in wheelbarrows on muddy roads.
Reconstruction work has started on the bridge, where concrete and iron rods hang over the river. The clothes and shoes of those who fled can still be seen entangled in the rubble.
“This bridge was the road out of hell,” says Lyubov, 34, standing next to an overturned white van, still locked in a slab of broken concrete.
“We got people out of (Irpin) because the situation was terrible – with bombing and shelling,” he said. “People were really scared because many people lost their children, their family members, their brothers and sisters.”
Crosses made of construction wood are still mounted on the railing of the bridge to honor the effort of rescuing lost people and civilians.
“The whole world has seen our solidarity and says he will never again take the good things in life lightly,” says Lyubenov, who grew up in Germany.
“In my mind, everything has changed: my values in life,” he said. “Now I understand what we have to lose.”
“Before the War, It Was Another Life”
The floor of the church of Andrew the Apostle has been re-tiled and plastered over bullet holes in the walls and repainted – but the horror of what happened in March is only a few yards away.
The largest mass grave in Bucha – a city outside Kyiv that has become synonymous with the brutality of a Russian attack – is behind the church.
“There were 116 people in this grave, including 30 women and two children,” said Father Andrey, who has conducted several burial services for civilians who were killed or killed by shelling, some still as only a number. I have been identified, while efforts have been made to name all. The hunt for Buka continues.
Father Andrey said several bodies were found before the Russians were driven out of the Kyiv region.
“We cannot bury people in the cemetery as it is on the outskirts of the city. They left people, dead people, lying on the road. Dead people were still found in their cars. They were trying to leave, but the Russians opened fire on them, ”said Father Andrey, wearing a large cross around his neck and a dark purple cassock.
“That situation lasted for two weeks, and the local authorities started coming up with the solution (for help) with relatives and loved ones. It was bad weather and wild animals were searching for the dead bodies. So something had to be done.”
They decided to conduct burial services in the courtyard of the church, from where many bodies were discovered.
He said that this experience has left the people of the city horrified.
“I think that, neither I nor anyone living in Ukraine who has seen the war can understand why it happened,” he said.
“Before the war, it was another life.”
“For now we are alive on adrenaline,” he said. “But I worry it will go on for decades after that. It will be hard to cross and turn the page. It is not difficult to say the word ‘sorry.’ But to say it from your heart – for now, it is not possible.”
Full coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
AP employees Vasilisa Stepanenko and Roman Hritsyana contributed.