Photos found near a bombed-out apartment in Kiev tell a family story – The Washington Post

Oksana Insarova's father is holding her brother Ihor in a dateless photo found by Washington Post reporters on the ground in front of her family's bombed-out apartment building in February.  (family photo)
Oksana Insarova’s father is holding her brother Ihor in a dateless photo found by Washington Post reporters on the ground in front of her family’s bombed-out apartment building in February. (family photo)

Kyiv, Ukraine – We first looked up, horrified by the sight of destruction looming above us.

That morning, a Russian projectile hit a skyscraper apartment building in the capital of Ukraine. Where family houses used to be, now there was a hole.

Then we looked down. The street was covered with glass and parts of the room that collapsed, including several scratched and torn black-and-white photographs.

It was February 26, two days after Russia launched a complete invasion of Ukraine. As reporters for the Washington Post, we followed the devastation that Russia inflicted on this beautiful city, and we and everyone else could practically taste the fear of what might follow.

We now stood trembling in front of another scene of senseless bombing, wondering whose memories flew out of the broken windows just hours before. Whose smiling faces looked back at us from these photos? Were they still alive?

If we left photos on the ground, we concluded, they had little chance of surviving time or war. If we picked them up, maybe we could give them back, one day, to someone who had just lost almost everything else.

Our requests on social media to connect with the owners of the photos were widely shared – but remained unanswered.

For the next few months — as nightmares unfolded in the suburbs of Kiev and Russian forces eventually withdrew and redirected their attack to the east of the country — those photos stood tucked into a reporter’s notebook. The pages were filled with stories of other horrors of the war – other buildings destroyed, other families destroyed.

But our thoughts kept coming back to those ancient images and the people in them. Then, earlier this month, we came across a clue.

On Facebook, a woman who lived in the building launched a campaign to raise money for repairs. We wrote to her, enclosing photos. She shared them in a group conversation with other residents. A woman named Oksana Insarova answered. They were hers.

Photos in hand, last week we drove across Kiev to finally give them back to her.

We met in front of her late parents ’old apartment, where she had been staying since the explosion.

From there, we began to unravel the mystery of a family whose faces we had known for months.

Insarova and her husband Oleh Tochenyuk have only recently moved into their modern apartment on the 20th floor – the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

The purchase was a little beyond their means, but the compromise was worth it: the view allowed them to see for miles. They could host parties and friends. Their daughters were delighted. They spent as much on designing, furnishing and decorating the interior as on the apartment itself.

When Russian forces invaded on February 24, they stayed at home.

The 20th floor was far from the nearest shelter, so even when the air raid sirens sounded, they risked upstairs.

The next day, a friend from a nearby town called. Reports suggest that Russian forces could capture the capital within hours. Wouldn’t you think about leaving Kiev for a few days? They thought about it – then they packed a few clothes and left with their 12-year-old daughter Daria. (Their second daughter, Anastacia, is a 22-year-old student in Prague.)

“If it weren’t for our friends, I wouldn’t be talking to you now,” Insarova said.

The next morning, they woke up outside the city with a rush of messages in a group conversation in the neighborhood. “Sirens,” read one message. Then, 12 minutes later, “They seem to have hit our building.”

Neighbors began posting photos of the damage. I counted the floors, but it was useless, Insar recalled. “Obviously it was my apartment.”

She came in shock. Her husband’s blood pressure rose so rapidly that he fell ill. Daria went to bed and covered her face with a blanket. She didn’t speak for days.

“That apartment was so important to our family,” Insarova said. “It was my little happiness, and now it’s my little sadness.”

They did not return to Kyiv for almost two weeks. There were checkpoints and gas shortages. And there was nothing they could do to regain what they had lost.

“Compared to what other people in Ukraine are facing, it’s a small price to pay,” Insarova said. “Still, it’s unbearable to think about starting from scratch.”

When they finally visited their home on March 11, the destruction was still incredible. Their apartment essentially no longer existed. The projectile hit a wall with a box of family photos on the floor and flew them out into the street, along with many of their other belongings.

The loss of their home further exacerbated the family tragedy. Insar’s older brother and only brother, Ihor, died suddenly of a stroke in January. Now his images for a lifetime are gone.

Is that the little boy in the photos we found? The one whose face we studied, hoping for an answer?

Insar flipped through them. There was Ihor, alive again as a baby in his father’s arms. As a child, with his radiant uncle. In the photo studio, mischievously smiling with a hula hoop.

Looking at the pictures evoked mixed feelings, she said. She was happy they were back – but even meeting us was a reminder of all she had lost.

And we weren’t the only ones to turn.

Several other people have contacted her in recent weeks, offering to return to her other photos they also rescued from the ground. One woman, Kateryna Kashriyna, found hundreds in the rubble. She held them for Insar on the other side of Kiev, but severe fuel shortages prevented them from meeting.

We had fuel, we told her. Maybe we could help.

On Tuesday night, as we drove to meet Kashriyn, Insarova pointed to other tall buildings we passed. She was thinking of buying a place there, she said for one, but she has a bad internal schedule. And there, she said, pointing to another, but he also had problems.

“Are you excited to see the photos?” we asked from the front seat.

“I don’t know,” she replied softly from behind.

We reached Kashriyna’s neighborhood and stood outside, waiting for him to join us. The ground was still wet from the afternoon rain.

She emerged holding a photo bag in one hand and a picture in the other it made her stand out in particular. It was another picture of Ihor as a child.

Kashriyna stood in line at the store on the street the ground floor of an apartment building a few days after the explosion, she said, when she noticed a photo on the ground. Then another. And others.

Buying at the site that was attacked just two days ago scared her, she said, but concluded, “If we die in this line, then we will die in this line.”

We asked her why she bothered to pick up all the photos.

“This is a memory for someone,” she said. “I thought it would be nice to meet people and bring back memories. You can buy another chair or anything, but you can’t buy this – another memory of your life. ”

Insar shone as she dug through a pile filled with decades of reminders of much happier times. Her wedding day. Family trips to Crimea, before it was occupied by Russia. Visit a summer house with parents. Ihor with her and her children.

“I’m happy,” she said, “because it brought back all my memories.”

It was getting late, and the night curfew was creeping up on us.

We piled back into ours car and dropped Insar into her parents’ apartment. She came out and waved, carrying her bag of memories.

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