CHERNIHIV, UKRAINE: Danyk Rak enjoys riding his bike, playing soccer and quiet moments with the family’s short-legged dog and two white cats, Pushuna and Lizun.
But at age 12, his childhood has been abruptly cut short. His family’s home was destroyed and his mother seriously wounded as Russian forces bombarded Kyiv’s suburbs and surrounding towns in a failed effort to seize the capital.
Six months after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, and with no end to the conflict in sight, The Associated Press revisited Danyk as well as a police officer and an Orthodox priest whose lives have been upended by war.
‘I want to be an air force pilot’
Tears come to Danyk’s eyes as his mother, Luda, recalls being pulled from the rubble, covered in blood, after shrapnel tore through her body and smashed her right foot.
Twenty-two weeks after she was wounded, she’s still waiting to have her foot amputated and to be fitted with a prosthetic. She keeps the piece of shrapnel surgeons removed during one of her many operations.
Danyk lives with his mother and grandmother in a house near Chernihiv, a town 140 kilometers (nearly 90 miles) north of Kyiv, where a piece of tarp covers the broken bedroom windows. He sells milk from the family’s cow that grazes 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 that’s why I have to help her. I have to help my grandmother too because she has heart problems,” Danyk said.
Before schools reopen on Sept. 1, Danyk and his grandmother have been joining volunteers several days a week clearing the debris from buildings damaged and destroyed in the Russian bombardment outside Chernihiv. On the way, he stops at his old house, most of it smashed to the foundations.
“This was my bedroom,” he says, standing next to scorched mattress springs that protrude from the rubble of bricks and plaster.
Polite and soft spoken, Danyk says his father and stepfather are both fighting in the Ukrainian army.
“My father is a soldier, my uncles are soldiers and my grandfather was a soldier, too. 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 road from hell’
Before the Russian withdrawal from Kyiv and surrounding areas on April 2, suburbs and towns near the city’s airport were pounded by rockets, artillery fire and aerial bombardment in an effort to break the Ukrainian defenses.
Entire city blocks of apartments were blackened by the shelling in Irpin, just 20 kilometers (12 miles) northwest of the capital, along a route where police Lt. Ruslan Huseinov patrolled daily.
Some of the most dramatic scenes from the early stages of the war were of the evacuation from Irpin underneath a destroyed highway bridge, where thousands escaped the relentless attacks.
Huseinov was there for 16 days, organizing crossings where the elderly were carried along muddy pathways in wheelbarrows.
Reconstruction work has begun on the bridge, where mangled concrete and iron bars hang over the river. Clothing and shoes from those who fled can still be seen tangled in the debris.
“This bridge was the road from hell,” says Huseinov, 34, standing next to an overturned white van still lodged into a slab of smashed concrete.
“We got people out of (Irpin) because conditions were terrible — with bombing and shelling,” he said. “People were really scared because many lost their children, members of their family, their brothers and sisters.”
Crosses made from construction wood are still nailed to the railings of the bridge to honor those lost and the effort to save civilians.
“The whole world witnessed our solidarity,” says Huseinov, who grew up in Germany and says he would never again take the good things in life for granted.
“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 bullet holes in the walls plastered over and repainted — but the horror of what happened in March lies only a few yards away.
The largest mass grave in Bucha — a town outside Kyiv that has become synonymous with the brutality of the Russian attack — is behind the church.
“This grave contained 116 people, including 30 women, and two children,” said Father Andriy, who has conducted multiple burial services for civilians found shot dead or killed by shelling, some still only identified as a number while the effort to name all of Bucha’s victims continues.
Many of the bodies were found before the Russians pulled out of the Kyiv region, Father Andriy said.
“We couldn’t bury people in the cemetery because it’s on the outskirts of the city. They left people, dead people, lying in the street. Dead people were found still in their cars. They were trying to leave but the Russians shelled them,” said Father Andriy, wearing a large cross around his neck and a dark purple cassock.
“That situation lasted two weeks, and the local authorities began coming up with solutions (to help) relatives and loved ones. It was bad weather and wild animals were discovering the bodies. So something had to be done.”
He decided to carry out burial services in the church yard, many next to where the bodies had been discovered.
The experience , he said, has left people in the town badly shaken.
“I think that, neither myself or anyone who lives in Ukraine, who witnessed the war, can understand why this happened,” he said.
“Before the war, it was another life.”
“For now we are surviving on adrenaline,” he said. “But I’m worried that the aftermath will last decades. It will be hard to get past this and turn the page. Saying the word ‘forgive’ isn’t difficult. But to say it from your heart — for now , that’s not possible.”