Bucha: When his son called him in the early morning hours of the invasion last year to tell him the news, Leonid refused to believe it.
Even though he was here: in this gateway town to the Ukrainian capital whose name has since become synonymous for many of a massacre for which some say Russia may face prosecution in an international tribunal.
In the days following Russia’s 24 February invasion last year, Leonid would be involved in evacuations, helping those in need, scouting out Russian positions and informing on them.
However, the 56-year-old former lieutenant colonel told Al Majalla in an interview in late February in this town northwest of Kyiv, he still wonders what could have been done differently and how he could have helped stop the quick takeover of his hometown.
Survivors’ guilt, but also that of those whose experience should perhaps have served them better, he implied.
“For myself and those of my generation, it is extremely painful,” the former officer who had spent decades serving in the Russia forces said.
Leonid had left bucolic Bucha in his youth only to retire here for a life of calm a decade ago.
And though the local authorities in Bucha had asked for weapons from Kyiv in the months leading up to the invasion, he said, the speed at which a theoretical chess game turned into a horrific reality caught them all off-guard.
One woman Al Majalla spoke to in another area of Ukraine, who is in close daily contact with a soldier one the frontlines, described the situation there as of 1 March as “the birds [rockets, drones, etc.] are flying” in the embattled region of Donetsk where he is.
However, for the moment at least, “we have something to feed them with”: i.e., ammunition and weapons.
“There was the will to resist here but we couldn’t. We simply didn’t have the means,” to do so, Leonid told Al Majalla in the interview.
In answering questions at a 24 February press conference in Kyiv on the one-year anniversary of the massive Russian invasion, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that the most frightening thing he had seen during the war was what happened in Bucha.
"It was terrifying because we saw this. We really saw that the devil is not somewhere else, he is here,” he said.
Many media outlets that had been in Kyiv gained almost immediate access to Bucha, only about half an hour away by car, after Russian forces were completely pushed out of the city by 1 April last year.
This accessibility has led to extensive documentation of what many claim are war crimes by the Russian forces.
The Ukrainian president added in the press conference that, “Who disappointed me? All those who left on the 24th [February 2022}. All those who left Kyiv. Those who left the cities, and villages, [those who] were supposed to govern the state or protect it, and fight for it. All these people disappointed me.”
Leonid’s inability to foresee things as they would be, and to forestall them, still “pains him deeply”, he said.
But Leonid didn’t leave. Not this time.
Despite his military background, the former officer told Al Majalla that he had envisioned many times how Russia might invade his home nation.
“I had analysed the situation from the point of view of my previous life and previous knowledge,” gained in the Russian military, he stressed in struggling to explain things he has yet to fully explain to himself.
Realities and circumstances can change quickly, and he retired over a decade ago, he noted.
Many in Kyiv once aspired to buy a home among the forests and relatively clean air here. Signs offer flats for sale and rent. Scars remain but fewer than could be reasonably expected, given the hundreds killed here.
Vigorous work has been underway in this town to rebuild and reface since shortly after the Russians were pushed out at the end of March last year. Bridge reconstruction is well underway.
Exotic fruits are well stocked in the supermarkets. Multiple varieties of mangoes and pineapple flank a special on kiwis and dozens of varieties of bottled mineral water. Inhabitants walk their dogs in the spacious parks amid the freezing cold.
Visible and invisible scars remain but so do many of the population, even those with the means to go elsewhere.