BUCHA, Ukraine — There’s a row of neat houses on Vokzalna Street, where crumbling homes once lined a road littered with burnt-out Russian tanks. There are neat sidewalks and a fresh sidewalk with blue and yellow bunting hanging above. And there are bulldozers and bulldozers plowing through a construction site where new home goods will replace the previous one that was burned to the ground.
They are remaking Bucha, the suburb of Kyiv, the capital, which became synonymous with Russian atrocities in the earliest days of the invasion of Ukraine, where civilians were tortured, raped or executed, their bodies left to rot in the streets.
More than a year after Ukrainian forces retook Bucha from Russian forces, the city has attracted international investment that has physically transformed it, and it has become a stopping point for delegations of foreign leaders who come through almost every week.
And yet behind the cover of revival, the pain that washed over Bucha during his month of horror under Russian occupation still remains.
Even the bodies are yet to be identified.
“I wish it was over,” said Vadym Yevdokymenko, 21, who has spent months trying to formally identify his father, whose body he believes was found burned in a garage. “This case is not closed; it’s complicated.”
The remains of at least 80 people killed in Bucha during the occupation in March 2022 have not been officially identified, local officials said. But a week ago, the city unveiled a monument with the names of 501 people killed during that occupation, with an official acknowledgment that the list was incomplete.
That juxtaposition – humorous in its contrasts – now defines life in Bucha.
Walking through the streets of this leafy suburb, it’s possible to look past the bullet holes piercing shop windows and the shrapnel marks peppering building facades to see a more peaceful place emerging.
There is a lemonade stand selling cool drinks on a summer afternoon, and swarms of children playing in a fountain. Teenagers pass the time scrolling on their phones on the incline of an apartment building.
Schools have been refurbished, and there are new shops on the main streets. Soaring cranes fill the skyline as workers repair high-rise buildings damaged in the fighting.
“It’s very difficult to get that balance right – between remembering, rebuilding and moving forward,” said Mykhailyna Skoryk-Shkarivska, Bucha’s deputy mayor. “We don’t want to be just a place of tragedy.”
Specifically citing Chernobyl, the site of a nuclear disaster in Ukraine in 1986, she said Bucha does not want to become a place for foreign tourists who want to look at a disaster.
Much of Ms. Skoryk-Shkarivska’s work is focused on creating a sustainable development plan. She said she hoped for an environmentally friendly suburb, and had proposals for an innovative technology hub.
Economic development partnerships are needed now, she said, and rather than humanitarian aid, Bucha needs long-term recovery support to be self-sustaining again. The mayor was recently in London participating in the Ukraine Recovery Conference, meeting with international supporters.
“We want to be the Ukrainian success story,” said Ms. Skoryk-Shkarivska. “Yes, a place of tragedy with appropriate memorial programs, but to be a place of success, of recovery.”
In the midst of rebuilding, the search for answers for people like Mr. Yevdokimenko is tense.
Personal documents belonging to his father, Oleksiy Yevdokymenko, were discovered on charred human remains found in a burned garage, along with those of at least five others. But due to the degraded state of the bodies, they were never definitively identified.
“Everything pointed to this fact,” said Vadym Yevdokymenko. “But no one could say anything specific.”
The remains are currently buried in a part of a local cemetery reserved for bodies that are formally unidentified, with the number 320 – a serial number used for record purposes – written on a plastic marker and attached to a wooden cross. Mr. Yevdokimenko hopes that one day they will be able to put his father’s name there.
Mr. Yevdokymenko recently provided a DNA sample to be tested against the remains. He did the same thing last spring, with no results, but he hopes this time is different.
“The situation with these bodies, it’s delayed now, and they’re rebuilding houses,” he said with a sigh.
However, there is no doubt that Bucha’s physical rehabilitation is something to celebrate, and the houses that have been rebuilt on Vokzalna Street are perhaps the most obvious evidence of transformation.
The street was the scene of some of Bucha’s heaviest fighting. Now, new ranch-style houses are being erected behind metal gates.
These homes were built in a public-private partnership, partially financed by the foundation run by Howard Buffett, the son of Warren Buffett, and arranged by Global Empowerment Mission, an American disaster relief charity.
“It gives hope and lets people see that things can change,” Mr. Buffett said in a telephone interview. “They can get better. And you have to do that during war.”
Iryna Abramova’s home on Vokzalna Street stands as a metaphor for the halting, imperfect nature of Bucha’s reconstruction. It was rebuilt after it was reduced to rubble by Russian forces. Her husband, Oleh Abramov, was dragged from their home and executed by Russian soldiers.
“I’m not afraid of anything after what I’ve been through,” Ms Abramova, 49, said.
The home gave her hope for a fresh start, and she received the keys this spring. The exterior is beautiful, with white walls and a brown roof.
But behind the front door, it’s empty, with exposed wires and unfinished drywall, and she still can’t live there. The city council is responsible for furnishing the home, and Ms Abramova said they told her there was simply no money at the moment.
“From the outside, the picture is nice, but,” she said, gesturing around her. “They promised so many nice things.”
Local officials are doing their best to provide for the community, both in rebuilding and in identifying the dead, but Ms. Skoryk-Shkarivska acknowledged that this has been challenging. For all the financial support the city has received, it is only a fraction of what is needed, she said, and the number of city council members to oversee rebuilding is small.
“Now is the most difficult period,” she said. “Almost a year and a half after occupation, with war still raging – people are exhausted.”
While the houses on Vokzalna Street have become a destination for international delegations to see the rebirth of Bucha, the All Saints Church is the place they go to try to understand some of its darkest moments.
At least 119 bodies of civilians were buried in a mass grave on the church grounds as Russian forces occupied Bucha for weeks. A makeshift memorial now stands on the site.
“We don’t ask these people to come here,” said Andriy Halavin, a priest in Bucha since 1996. “But because they come, we share with them our experience and pain.”
He knows, perhaps better than most, the depth of the horrors that the Russian occupation has brought. He helped bury the dead as the bodies were collected from the streets in shopping carts and wheeled to the cemetery. He was there when the exhumations began so that DNA specialists could try to identify corpses.
Now, he has become a keeper of that memory. He walks people through photographs displayed in the church, depicting the first days after the city was retaken.
The photos help newcomers understand, he said. “It’s wrong if you come to Bucha and you don’t tell the whole story,” he said. “These were not accidental deaths.”
He is also still a priest, and there are still weddings and funerals and Sunday services.
On a Saturday morning in late June, he baptized a 3-month-old girl, Uliana, whose parents were from Bucha, holding the child over a fountain while he blessed her head with water.
Mr. Halavin said he and other residents have been asked many times why they continue to live in the city.
Bucha, he said simply, is at home.
“This is a place where their children were born,” he said, “where they planted trees, and now these trees are tall. It is their home, and they have lived many happy years here. That is why they are not ready to simply cross out that part of their life.”
Daria Mitiuk contributed reporting.