War in Ukraine

Sasha From Bucha

Two years after his life suddenly changed, Sasha, a Ukrainian refugee at Madison, tells his story.

Sasha From Bucha

Updated: March 10, 2024

March 10, 2024

This is the story of my former classmate and friend, Sasha. It is about how he used to live and came through the period of military actions in Bucha. This story tells the experience of a fifteen-year-old teenager who had to hide in a cold basement with his family and other locals from the Russian soldiers who came to their territory during the war.

Hi, Sasha. How are you doing?

Hey, I'm doing good.

Tell me in general about yourself, about your family.

I am Sasha, but my passport says Oleksandr. I’m from Ukraine. I was born in and lived in the city of Bucha. Due to the situation in my family, for the last four years of my life in Ukraine, my father was absent, and I lived with only my mother and brother. About six months ago, I came to the United States, where I was reunited with my family.

What did you do before the war? Where did you study? What were your hobbies?

I went to the fourth school. I had a few hobbies, like painting, for example. I went to MMA training and I did athletic running. I have a couple of medals and diplomas.

Did you ever think that war could touch you in any way?

Honestly, no. I've never seriously considered it. And then February 24th happened—the war. No one expected it to turn out this way.

How did you and your family react to Russian troops entering Ukraine’s territory?

It was a shock, but it was impossible not to believe it. We were awakened by a call from my father, who was in the United States. He found out before we did because we were asleep. He called us at five in the morning to warn us that Russian troops had entered Ukraine territory. He said we should pack our bags and get ready to flee if anything happened. Everyone reacted with a big shock. We packed and waited. At about 11 or 12 o'clock, approximately six hours after my father's call, helicopters began flying over to G[H]ostomel in front of my window. After another two hours, we began to hear explosions and see the smoke rise into the air.

When did you fully realize that a full-fledged war was starting?

Initially, we did not think about anything; we just packed up urgently and waited for a further turn of events. At 11 o'clock, when it was already apparent that planes were beginning to fly near Kiev, near Bucha, we began to realize the reality and seriousness of what was actually happening.

What did you feel in the moment after your father alerted you? What was going through your mind?

I honestly couldn't believe what was happening. And neither could anyone else. Because everyone in my surroundings treated Russia as just a neighboring country.

I read that Ukrainian forces left Bucha only on March 3, 2022—so, there was fighting on your territory until that day?

Yes, it was happening regularly. My mate has a video of a line of broken AFU (Armed Forces of Ukraine) tanks with Ukrainian flags in the center of Bucha.

The Unfolding Crisis

When all of this started, did you have the opportunity to flee—to go to a safe place?

Surprisingly, there was an opportunity. But there was one problem. We had no gas in the car. And, everyone was afraid to go outside, so we decided to stay where we were. We hoped that some time would pass and that as it did eight years ago, it would lead to some kind of agreement. We didn't think it would last long. That's why we didn't go anywhere.

Did you stay in your home or did you find a safer place to hide?

There's a workplace in Bucha called UTEM. My mother worked there as a chief accountant. We were called there to hide because it wasn't safe to stay at home. We spent a month and two weeks there. We had no light from time to time because the generator was working on gasoline. And we had to save gasoline because it got scarce. Then we ran into a water shortage. It got to the point when we started getting sewer water in case we ran out of potable water.

Yes, I read about Russian troops purposely destroying infrastructure in the city.

They broke the water tower several times, and the power plant.

Were you using the generator for the first time or were you using it for the entire time you spent in your shelter?

We were using the generator every day, but there was the problem of not having enough gasoline. We had to go outside and drain gasoline from the cars. More than that, the Russian soldiers started tagging their symbols. We had older guys going around during the day erasing these conventional signs so that bombs wouldn't come at us from above. I think these marks served as specific signs for the fighters.

What did these signs look like?

Red big crosses, meter by meter. I've seen them.

How did people realize that the AFU had retreated, and Bucha was left in the hands of Russian troops, without protection?

I don't know why, but there was no military action during the day. People could go out into the streets. We saw the empty tanks of the Ukrainian forces standing there, and we began to guess that we were left without protection. But no one knew that for sure. No one could say with certainty what was going on. The lights and communications in the city were out completely, so we were in the dark. I remember on the fifteenth day of the war, we woke up in the bunker, went up to the first floor and I saw a horrible scene: There was a big glass door with bullet holes in it. Five meters away from this door were two cars with shot people. A family was trying to leave in the morning and they were shot.

Did you encounter or see soldiers outside?

As a child, I was not allowed to go out in the evening. We spent most of our time without lights, so in the mornings we were allowed to go up to the first floor just to see the street lights. In the daytime, the electricity was turned on for two hours, and the rest of the time we were spending was in darkness. We slept on the concrete floor, wrapped in sleeping bags and things we brought from home. We were spending entire days this way. I tried to sleep as much as possible so I wouldn't feel hungry. I napped for 20 hours a day and listened to music for the remaining four hours.

How else did you cope besides listening to music?

I was trying to get my mind off of what was going on around me. During that time, I started smoking.

How did you charge your phone if there was no electricity?

I charged my phone during those two hours when the generator was plugged in. I only used my phone to listen to music because there was no connection and no internet. The phone was nothing.

What was the generator mainly plugged in for?

To recharge the phones, try to contact someone, and cook a meal. Also, we had a locked room where we could monitor the area of our shelter on cameras.

How many people were hiding with you at this workplace?

There were originally three families. They were the families of people who used to work there. Later, toward the end of our stay there, five more people joined us. One man, who at the beginning of the war did not know what was going on in the streets, came to us. He, just as usual, woke up and went to his job. But the building where he was working was broken into by soldiers and he had to hide. He hid in the building and didn't eat or drink for three days. And, when on the third day he realized that soldiers were gone, he came out of his hiding place and found us first.

Describe your shelter in detail to give an idea of what it looked like.

It was a large building that looked like three average schools surrounded by a stone fence with metal gates. The building itself is six floors high and two floors below ground. We took shelter on the top floor below in the basement. There were many large hangars and stores on the property where production used to take place. I remember that on the twentieth day since the beginning of the war, a tank tried to break into our facility. Fortunately, something happened and it stopped breaking in.

What did the facility look like inside?

It was a regular work basement. Simple concrete rooms with some kind of storage.

Was your shelter cold?

When the power went out, yes, it was getting cold.

But the electricity was only on for two hours a day?

Yes, that's right.

And you used sleeping bags to sleep warmer?

Yes, we wrapped ourselves in sleeping bags and warm clothes that we brought from home.

You said that there were several families there, so were there also children?

Yes, there were a lot of children.

What were people around you in the bunker thinking at that time?

Actually, all the people were very scared and discouraged, so we didn't interact much with each other. Everyone was very closed off in themselves and we were all drowning in our thoughts. No one could tell exactly what was happening now and what was going to happen next. We were scared of the uncertainty and of the helplessness.

How was the issue of food?

At first, we were afraid to go outside, so we saved the food supplies that we had. Then, we started sneaking out food from our houses. When we ran out of food at home, we started going to the closed stores. The stores, in turn, gave out food for free.

You said you went outside too; what was it like?

I went outside about seven times—six of which, I went home during. My house was very close to the business facility we were hiding in, about a five-minute walk.

So, in one month and two weeks, you only went outside seven times?


Tell me about the precautions you took when you went outside.

We could only go outside during the daytime and had to warn our guards beforehand. They were two middle-aged men. They were armed and had walkie-talkies, which they used to check how safe the streets were before letting anyone out. Some days, they wouldn't let us out at all, not even from the bottom floor. Outside, we had to walk very carefully and watch our feet carefully to avoid accidentally stepping on a mine. At that time, there was still snow on the ground, so we left footprints from walking, and we tried to walk on the trampled paths.

You mentioned that you slept so you wouldn't feel hungry. How serious was the food issue?

The first five days after we moved into the facility, we were short on food. This was due to the fact that it was scary to go outside to restock. But, overall, there was enough food to survive. And, as I said earlier, there was a period without enough drinking water.

Yes, the water tower was shot. How long did this period of water shortage last?

About ten days. We had supplies, but they were gradually running out. We were afraid that we wouldn't have enough. But in the end, everything was enough.

Were you somehow regulating your food consumption?

Yes, food was given per family. The amount of food given depended on the number of family members. We heated food in the microwave during those two hours when the generator was on. We ate once a day, so we cooked a lot at once.

Surviving the Unthinkable

Tell me how your average day was during that period of your life.

The hardest part was sleeping. We slept on a cold concrete floor. I remember having a dream in which my body was all twisted, fractured and all turned around. My brain was already letting me know how my whole body was hurting from lying on the hard surface all the time. I’d hardly fallen asleep, then I woke up, and, if the generator and the lights were still on, I'd lie back down and try to fall asleep again. If I couldn't fall asleep, I turned on and listened to music on my headphones. If it was possible, I went up to the first floor by the window to look out at the sun for a while. When you are in the dark for a long time, your eyes and head start hurting.

So, most of the day was spent sleeping?

Yes, it was a painful sleep.

What happened to your friends; what did their families do when the war started?

Most of my friends left town at the beginning of all the hostilities. One of them had a father who was a captain at the sea, and through connections, they were able to leave. Another friend had a very wealthy father, so he took their whole family out at once, too. But there were also those who couldn't or wouldn't leave the city, and went through that period.

Sasha, I remember when you first told me your story, you mentioned the fate of your classmate. Tell me about that case.

Vanya Ivanov was a very good man—my classmate and friend. He was a very cheerful, active, and talkative person. He was a professional karate fighter. He and his family decided to try to leave the city. It was literally ten days before my family and I left. There were three of them: Vanya, his mother, and his younger brother. On their way, they encountered Russian soldiers. They were shot. Later I found a photo on the internet when a survey was being conducted to identify the murdered men. The soldiers had shot up the car completely. Vanya's body was half-burned down to the skeleton. I was able to identify my friend's body based on his tattoo.

How and when did you realize that it was time to leave? What was the starting point?

One day, we began to see a lot of cars moving in the same direction, and we made the decision to join the general flow. We just packed up, got in the car, and drove out of the facility. I remember how I was horrified at how they had mutilated my homeland. It was a terrible sight. It was already the second month of the war and the city was plunged into gloom and ruin. Have you ever played shooter games?

I roughly imagined DOOM.

You get my point. A large number of people gathered that day in the city center, where they were put on buses and taken away. We drove through different cities in Ukraine. We only stopped and crossed Ukrainian checkpoints on purpose. Only once did we come across a Russian checkpoint, but they decided not to check us for some reason.

What were you supposed to be checked for?

For weapons, phone records, [etc.]

Did you all have phones with you?

Yes, everyone did. But hidden, of course.

Did you have a specific route or did you just stick to the general flow?

All the cars were moving in the same direction, and we were part of that flow. We passed a lot of checkpoints and drove sixteen hours to Kiev.

It took you sixteen hours to drive twenty-eight kilometers from Bucha to Kiev?

Yes. The problem was that we weren't taking the direct route. Plus, at each checkpoint, they checked a full set of documents and the luggage of each person in the car. It was a very long process that took time. Also, there were huge traffic jams on the roads because of the large amount of cars.

When did you fully realize you were safe?

Only when we left Ukraine and came to Poland. First, we went through all the checkpoints to Kiev. In Kiev, we took a train to Lviv. In Lviv, we took tickets to Poland, where we stayed one day, and then went to the Czech Republic, to Prague. In Prague, we were welcomed by Irka's family. Irka was the husband's name. They had three children in their family: two younger sons and one daughter my age. They are all Czechs who speak only Czech, except for the wife, who knew English, which I used to speak to her. They allocated the sons' room to our family so we could live there for the first time while we recovered. We are very grateful to these people.

Reflections On Our Struggles

Let's begin to summarize. How did the fates of the people in your circle turn out after the war began?

A lot of people ended up abroad. I am constantly in touch with all of my friends, despite the distance. I know a lot of people who went away for just a while. So, some of my mates came out during the hostilities but made the decision to come back to Bucha. Despite the fact that the war is still going on, people are going back to their homes.

Sasha, you are a man who has seen and experienced war firsthand. Have your ideas about war been confirmed or did you imagine it differently before the war?

I read about wars in history books and saw movies about it, but in reality, it turned out to be much scarier and larger than I could have imagined. When you see corpses of people lying in the street, that's the scariest thing. You would never see that in your usual life. It's unnatural and inhumane.

Have you noticed any external changes in yourself that were affected by the war?

Actually, I've changed a lot externally. First of all, I’ve dropped a lot of weight during the war. Second, because I couldn't take a shower for a long time, I got skin problems. Third, when the war started, as you can see, I got little wrinkles on my forehead and under my eyes. I never had that before. I also noticed that now my facial expression in everyday life is a little bit off, with my lips downwards. So, now I definitely don’t look like a joyful American.

How long in total did you not take a shower?

I took my last shower on the second day of the war, and the next one didn't happen until two months and one week later. All that time we didn't change clothes. When in the Czech Republic we started to tidy ourselves up, I remember how I started to take my socks off and my skin and dirt started falling off my feet along with my socks. It wasn’t the most pleasant feeling that I got.

I asked you about how you changed outwardly, but I think it's just as important to ask what changed in you mentally. How has the war affected your mental health?

I think I became more nervous. I've started to worry more about little things. In particular, it became harder for me to control myself during conflicts. I mean, I begin to feel either a very intense panic or abnormal aggression. I don't like that at all and I'm trying to work on myself.

How did you start noticing these changes in yourself?

For the most part, it's all the findings of my introspection and self-discovery. But there have also been times when people around me have made comments about my behavior.

You mentioned earlier that you went down this road together with your mom and younger brother. I'm curious to know, what effect did the war have on them—on your relatives?

My mom was very nervous and worried. It's very hard when you have two children and you're constantly on the edge about them not being safe. The war definitely left its mark on Mom, and it's very sad.

How did your brother get through it all?

My brother was very scared of what was going on. I began to observe that he was now becoming wary of harmless things. There was an unreasonable fear of the simplest things. I think it's all interrelated and this whole situation has affected him in this way.

Tell me, how did you support each other? What did you talk about to not get discouraged?

We tried to talk about distracting subjects. We were talking about times of peace and dreamed about how good it would be when this horror would be over. It was important for me to not show my fear and to be vigilant, because I was the oldest man in the family for a while, and my mother often consulted with me. We kept each other's spirits up and stuck together.

Sasha, do you miss home?

Yes, very much.