ALMOST every day Natalia Kovalchuk and her five-year-old daughter Uliyana come to the park that sits adjacent to the central square in Borodyanka.

For both it’s an escape of sorts, a ­temporary respite and release from the claustrophobia of the small flat the 36-year-old mother is now forced to rent and where they live along with Natalia’s 12-year-old son.

The family’s real home, just like the scorched and bomb blasted remains of the apartment blocks that sit across the road from the park, stopped being ­habitable the day shells, rockets and airstrikes ripped swathes of this predominately working-class city apart shortly after the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Barely yards from the monument in Borodyanka’s central square to the great 19th century Ukrainian poet and patriot Taras Shevchenko, whose sculpted head now lies dangling from its plinth pock marked with holes from bullets fired by Russian soldiers, I asked Natalia about those terrifying days when war first came to the city.

Natalia Kovalchuk’s five-year-old daughter Uliyana plays in park opposite destroyed block. Pic: David PrattNatalia Kovalchuk (right) and her daughter

“I was here with my family and when the tanks entered, we hid in the basement and they destroyed our house, it hurts even now to talk about it,” Natalia recalls, the first wave of tears during our ­conversation welling in her eyes.

Both in Ukraine and across the world much of the attention has now shifted to the new frontlines of this conflict in the east and south. But even now almost six months into the war both in Borodyanka and in the neighbouring town of Bucha, which were subjected to what are now recognised as war crimes, people are still coming to terms with what they lived through and what they lost.

Local authorities in Borodyanka ­estimate that more than 90% of the city’s central area was destroyed. Just why a city such as this with no Ukrainian ­military camps or facilities of strategic importance in its immediate locale should incur such wrath and savagery from its Russian ­invaders remains a point of speculation and debate.

Some maintain that the bludgeoning Borodyanka was subjected to can be ­attributed to the fact that its inhabitants and local territorial defence force put up such spirited resistance. Citizens had prepared Molotov petrol bombs and guns had only been distributed days before the war, but still the people of Borodyanka manged to put up a dogged fight against the 200 Russian tanks, troops and aircraft that bore down on them mainly from neighbouring Belarus, Russia’s ally 200 miles to the north.

But even such determined resistance still doesn’t explain the scale and ferocity of the military attack on Borodyanka say some Ukrainian officials, including the city’s current Emergency Manager, ­Petro Kisilyov, whose staff are tasked with clearing the rubble and ruins, reinstalling street lighting and cataloguing the level of destruction.

“Russian troops simply acted cruelly against the civilian population,” Kisilyov is on the record as saying.

It’s a view shared by many of ­Borodyanka’s citizens including ­Natalia Kovalchuk, who admits her view of Ukraine’s Russian neighbours will never be the same again.

“It’s changed totally, they are not ­human beings, I never thought this would be possible in the 21st century,” she told me as we talked in the park and her ­daughter Uliyana played on a nearby swing innocently oblivious to the ­conversation we were having.

I asked her about the banners ­hanging from one of the burnt-out apartment blocks sitting opposite, the slogan on one of which read, “We have lived here 40 years”.

It expressed the concerns of many ­former residents she explained who are campaigning to have their homes ­rebuilt on the exact same location rather than elsewhere in the city as the local ­authorities have indicated. Many of those families displaced from such blocks are now living in what has been dubbed “Iron City” near the centre of town, where ­railway carriages have been turned into dormitories.

At least eight of the 29 multi-storey buildings in Borodyanka are to be ­demolished after being damaged to varying degrees by the Russian assault. At least three more are to be partially destroyed.

Has such a policy by the local ­authorities divided this community which showed such solidarity in resisting the Russian who invaded their city, I asked Natalia?

“I don’t care about where they build, I just want them to rebuild these flats, but yes it’s true about 80% of people want to stay in the same place,” she confirmed.

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Earlier that same day I had visited the neighbourhood where Natalia’s own home now lay in ruins. In this ­shattered landscape, multi-storey blocks sit as if ­dissected by a giant knife. Looking ­upwards it’s possible to see into what were once living rooms, bathrooms, ­kitchens. From one room a door hangs from its hinges into the open air a four ­story drop beneath it, while books still sit on shelves never to be read again. ­Hundreds of ­people died during the month-long ­Russian attack and ­occupation of the city and surrounding region. Many are still unaccounted for.

Wandering among the ruins the same day that I met Natalia, I came across the gaunt figure of Oleksandr who emerged like some ghostly apparition from one of the entrance doorways to an apartment block before stopping to ask if I had any cigarettes I could give him.

Though still largely intact the building he had come from had no windows and the walls were badly smoke blackened because of the fires that had billowed out from the rooms ignited by the Russian bombardment. The stench from heaps of garbage was overpowering.

Reputedly Oleksandr was the only ­remaining resident in the neighbourhood having nowhere else to go and unable to afford to rent elsewhere.

“My mother was killed in this building and I was wounded here in my hand,” ­explained 47-year-old Oleksandr rolling up the jacket sleeve on his left arm to show the still tell-tale scars where ­shrapnel had punctured his wrist.

He told of how on one occasion during the occupation he thought he was going to die after being stopped in the street by Russian soldiers who asked if he had any tattoos.

Natalia Kovalchuk’s five-year-old daughter Uliyana plays in park opposite destroyed block. Pic: David PrattBorodyanka's buildings have been reduced to ruins

Shortly after the Russian invasion some Ukrainians got patriotic tattoos to show support for their country, but in the ­intervening months such symbols have become a liability for many citizens some of whom have been tortured or killed ­after being discovered to have them.

“They didn’t check here, only my wrists and arms,” Oleksandr explained, pointing to high on his shoulder where, evidently, he had such a tattoo.

In all he cut a sad figure, his hair ­matted, clothes filthy and skin pitted with dirt. His only belongings he carried in a small backpack.

How do you get by I asked to which he simply replied, “You don’t want to know,” a reference perhaps to petty crime which one local woman angrily accused him of as she passed by, declaring he had ­scavenged or pilfered from destroyed homes.

Whether such an accusation had any truth or not was impossible to tell but what was undeniable was the desperate situation this man most likely already impoverished before the war now found himself in.

In the ruins of Borodyanka the fate of the living is sometimes as uncertain as those of the missing of whom there are many. Not far from where I spoke with Oleksandr I came across one of many posters plastered on poles and smashed walls seeking information on loved ones unaccounted for.

Natalia Kovalchuk’s five-year-old daughter Uliyana plays in park opposite destroyed block. Pic: David PrattA destroyed statue in Borodyanka

One such person was Ovadenko ­Olexandra an 84-year-old local woman whose head-scarved and gentle-faced ­picture peered out from a a tattered ­poster outside what remained of her home.

She had been sheltering in the ­basement of the apartment block during a Russian bombardment on March 3 and after a lull in the explosions had ventured up outside never to be seen again, according to the message on the poster.

A relative had left a telephone ­number on the poster seeking information on what might have happened to her or where she might be if, as is unlikely, Ovadenko is still alive.

While finding those missing is one thing, identifying those found dead is something else again. Some victims ­discovered in Borodyanka’s bombed ruins have often only been identified months later with the help of DNA testing so attempts to find the remains of those still unaccounted for goes on.

It’s a long way from the ­picturesque Irish city of Cork to the ruins of ­Borodyanka, going on 2000 miles if one cares to check. But this was the distance covered by road during the journey made by ­Irishman ­Padraig O’Keeffe and his search and ­rescue dog Cooper, who crowdfunded their volunteer operation to help search for those missing in the ­urban ­devastation brought about by the war in both Borodyanka and ­neighbouring ­Bucha where also some of the worst ­atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in the war have occurred.

O’Keeffe’s road trip alone, even before arriving in Ukraine, turned into something of an ordeal when he almost died after driving for hours with a ruptured appendix to a hospital in Hungary where he collapsed but was treated in the nick of time according to doctors.

After convalescing for a few weeks in Budapest he and Cooper were back on the road and their mission to Borodyanka.

O’Keeffe is undoubtedly a tough cookie and no stranger to hardship. After joining the French Foreign Legion at the age of 20 he served in Bosnia and Cambodia before leaving the service to become a private security contractor. The sole survivor of a bloody ambush in Iraq he also worked in an anti-kidnapping role and with ­local police as part of a presidential security ­detail in a rapid response unit in the ­volatile Haitian capital Port au Prince.

All these dangerous roles O’Keeffe has documented in an autobiographical book entitled Hidden Soldier before becoming involved with search and rescue back in Ireland.

I asked him how his role here in Ukraine compared with other search and rescue missions he had undertaken?

“Well, we’ve been here going on three months now, and I guess we’re more ­integrated into the community, O’Keeffe explains.

“With a job like this, we’re dependent on the community for the tip offs and the call out. And with that connection, we have taken on a lot of the emotional side of things, everyone’s got a story and it ­always comes out. So, I can feel that a lot that immersion in the community.”

He also says the big difference is that unlike in situations arising from natural disasters he and the dog must contend with the dangers of unexploded ordnance.

Three months in he admits to being pretty “wiped out” as is he says Cooper the three-year-old golden Labrador that has been his constant companion on the road and while going through the ruins of Borodyanka and Bucha.

“He’s my working partner so you’re emotionally connected to him. He feeds off your energies and if he senses me ­walking the search site my hands in my pockets with no interest, he’s going to be the same.”

As we talk, he points out a nearby apartment block where the bodies of eight people are still believed to be under the rubble, five of them family members of a local city administrator. He speaks too of the disappointment of negative searches such as when they spent some time going through mounds of rubble after locals told of an awful smell only to find an industrial freezer packed with rotting meat.

Natalia Kovalchuk’s five-year-old daughter Uliyana plays in park opposite destroyed block. Pic: David Pratt

All these negative searches he says have an impact on Cooper whose ­motivational training is very much based around ­positive outcomes even if it’s only ­discovering a corpse as opposed to a ­survivor. After many months even finding any ­human remains now in Borodyanka is proving near impossible and O’Keeffe and Cooper are due soon to return to ­Ireland.

“It’s been very high tempo doing this here, and we put a lot of weight on his shoulder,s poor fella,” he says loading Cooper into the dog’s crate in the back of the vehicle.

Once back in Ireland he hopes to ­continue fundraising for Ukraine and, though Cooper will be retired as a young dog, he hopes to take him round schools to tell the story of Ukraine.

“He’s moving from operations to PR,” jokes O’Keeffe as he prepares to leave the site and we say our goodbyes.

For now, Borodyanka and what ­remains of its pre-war inhabitants the biggest concern is that the scars of war will continue to haunt them unless a swift process is followed to clear the town of rubble and services returned by the government.

Before leaving the city, I asked Natalia Kovalchuk what she thinks the ­immediate future holds for her given that she ­recently lost her husband who was killed fighting on the frontline.

“There are no plans except to work and keep on living,” she tells me. “Things are coming back, it was very hard at the ­beginning, but life goes on.”