BILA TSERKVA, Ukraine – Cats roam around outside the bombed-out apartment block, licking empty containers in search of food and encircling the legs of visitors hoping for some generosity. The lady at the apartment on the end who looked after them is gone.

There are rumors that she comes back to feed them, but no one is sure.

Hanna Petrivna, 79, is more concerned about the abandoned dog that now sleeps in the bomb shelter with the other neighborhood strays.

“Who would leave a dog?” she says, hands in the pocket of her long black coat and a black hat pulled down over her ears. She shakes her head with disapproval.

When she moved in 28 years ago, the building was brand-new, and she and her husband were excited to make their home in the city of Bila Tserkva, 50 miles south of Kyiv. But now windows are blown out and the apartments are filled with debris after a Russian airstrike on a military base next door.

The force of the explosion reverberated through the apartments facing it, picking up glass, window frames, doors and a tornado of family belongings. Most of the residents who had not already left raced to pack.


The war in Ukraine has displaced more than 1.7 million people in just 11 days, the fastest-paced refugee crisis to hit Europe since World War II. But there are those such as Petrivna who refuse to leave. They are left in desolate buildings and neighborhoods once filled with children and life.

“You have to die anyway,” she says. “It’s better to die at home.”

Her daughter, who lives nearby, has tried to make her move, but she wants to stay put. Her husband, a retired military officer, died in 1997. Her son-in-law came to help her board up the windows and clear the smashed glass in her one-bedroom apartment on the ground floor.

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“I can’t leave this apartment behind,” she says.

It was around 6.50 p.m. when the airstrike hit. Many families had just sat down to watch the news. The air raid sirens did not sound. Petrivna was sitting at her kitchen table. She had just eaten a dinner of sweet pancakes with cheese.

“I wanted to put the dishes away,” she says. “And then everything crashed. I didn’t even have time to get off the chair as it all flew. And then I couldn’t care less about the dishes or anything.”


She pulls up her sleeve to show the mark where she was injured by something flying through the air. Her skin has turned a deep purple-black, the discoloration creeping down toward her fingertips. She won’t go to the hospital. “I’m my own doctor,” she says.

When she hears Sasha is outside, she comes out. Sasha, 47, is the holdout on the third floor where he lives with his wife, Natalya, 39. They sent their 13-year-old daughter away to live with Natalya’s sister after the blast. They don’t want their last names published, because they have not told their parents their apartment was damaged in an airstrike.

They don’t want them to worry. They have no place to go. Their parents are both in parts of the east where there is more conflict, so they can’t flee to them.

“Where would we go?” Natalya asks, cooking lentil soup for dinner. The wallpaper in the kitchen is covered with sunflowers. “I’ve always loved them,” she says.

She ran a flower shop with her sister before the war. Sasha was a metalworker. Last week he showed her how to use a gun.

“I feel nauseous from it,” Natalya says. “But when someone is attacking, at least I won’t be lost.”


Many families from Bila Tserkva have fled, moving to the safety of parts of the west or overseas. On Saturday, with Russia trying to choke off Kyiv to the north, a suspected rocket attack struck inside a residential area of Bila Tserkva.

“I can’t say I pity them, but I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes,” Sasha says of the Russian forces. Moscow is “sending out children,” he says. “It’s a shame to even shoot them, because they don’t know what they are up against.”

The war has torn apart his family. His cousin lives in Moscow, where she was raised. He has sent her prisoner-of-war videos released by Ukrainian authorities, in which Russian soldiers say they had no idea they were coming to invade. (Such videos, made under implicit or explicit duress, are considered inherently unreliable.) His cousin tells him the Soviet Union wasn’t that bad and says Ukraine provoked the conflict.

She blocked him on Feb. 28, the day the explosion tore through his home. “They just don’t believe the facts on the ground,” Sasha says. They found soil from the potted plants on the windowsill and in the fridge. “But the borscht was okay,” he jokes. “It had a lid on.”

Natalya says she’s not scared to stay, as long as Sasha’s there.

Sasha pulled a shoulder-mounted antitank missile out of its packaging. “We aren’t worried,” he says. Russian President Vladimir Putin, he says, would “have to be a complete idiot to actually come here.”

Outside, Petrivna reminisces about her early days living in the building, when it was a close-knit community of military families. There was more greenery around then, too, she says. In recent years, they started moving anyone in.

And she is still worried about the dog. “Abandoned,” she says. “Horrible.”

Anastacia Galouchka contributed to this report.