CHERNIHIV, Ukraine — Danyk Rak likes to ride his bike, play soccer and spend quiet time 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 her mother seriously injured when Russian forces shelled 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 were upended by the war. .
Tears fill Danyk’s eyes as her mother, Luda, recalls being pulled from the rubble, covered in blood, after shrapnel tore through her body and shattered her right foot.
Twenty-two weeks after being injured, she is still waiting to have her foot amputated and fitted with a prosthesis. She keeps the piece of shrapnel that the surgeons removed during one of her many operations.
Danyk lives with her mother and grandmother in a house near Chernihiv, a city 140 kilometers (nearly 90 miles) north of Kyiv, where a piece of tarpaulin 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 door reads: “Buy milk to help my mother who is injured.”
“My mom needs surgery and that’s why I have to help her. I also have to help my grandmother because she has heart problems,” Danyk said.
Before schools reopen on September 1, Danyk and her grandmother joined volunteers several days a week to clear rubble from buildings damaged and destroyed by Russian bombardment on the outskirts of Chernihiv. Along the way, she stops at his old house, most of it destroyed to the ground.
“This was my room,” he says, standing by burned-out mattress springs sticking out of the rubble of brick and plaster.
Polite and soft-spoken, Danyk says that his father and stepfather fight in the Ukrainian army.
“My father is a soldier, my uncles are soldiers and my grandfather was also a soldier. My stepfather is in the military and I will be, ”she says with a determined look. “I want to be a pilot in the air force.”
Prior to the Russian withdrawal from Kyiv and its environs on April 2, suburbs and towns near the city’s airport were attacked with rockets, artillery fire and aerial bombardment in an effort to break through Ukrainian defenses.
Entire city apartment blocks were blackened by shelling in Irpin, just 20 kilometers (12 miles) northwest of the capital, along a route where police lieutenant Ruslan Huseinov patrolled daily.
Some of the most dramatic scenes in the early stages of the war were the evacuation of Irpin under a destroyed road bridge, where thousands fled the relentless attacks.
Huseinov was there for 16 days, organizing crosses in which the elderly were carried in wheelbarrows over muddy roads.
Reconstruction work has begun on the bridge, where shattered iron and concrete bars hang over the river. The clothes and shoes of those who fled can still be seen tangled up in the rubble.
“This bridge was the road from hell,” says Huseinov, 34, standing next to an overturned white van that is still stuck in a shattered concrete slab.
“We got people out of (Irpin) because the conditions were terrible, with shelling and shelling,” he said. “People were really scared because so many lost their children, their family members, their brothers and sisters.”
Crosses made of lumber are still nailed to the bridge railings to honor the 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.”
The floor of the Iglesia de Andrés Apóstol has been tiled and the bullet holes in the walls have been plastered and repainted, but the horror of what happened in March is only a few meters away.
The largest mass grave in Bucha, a town on the outskirts of 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 dead by gunfire or shelling, some only identified as a number, while the effort to naming all Bucha’s victims continues.
Many of the bodies were found before the Russians withdrew from 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. The dead were found still in their cars. They were trying to leave, but the Russians bombed them,” said Father Andriy, who wore a large cross around his neck and a dark purple cassock.
“That situation lasted two weeks and the local authorities began to find solutions (to help) relatives and loved ones. The weather was bad and wild animals were discovering the bodies. So something had to be done.”
He decided to hold the burial services in the churchyard, many next to where the bodies had been discovered.
The experience, he said, has left the villagers very shaken.
“I think that neither I nor 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 worry that the sequels will last for decades. It will be difficult to overcome this and turn the page. Saying the word ‘forgive’ is not difficult. But to say it from the heart, for now, that is not possible”.
AP employees Vasilisa Stepanenko and Roman Hrytsyna contributed.