UKRAINIAN civilians are still living in horrendous conditions in cities now liberated from the Russian invaders.

Residents of Borodyanka and the neighbouring town of Bucha, where some of the worst atrocities occurred, are still coming to terms with what they lived through.

For Natalia Kovalchuk and her five-year-old daughter Uliyana, the war has changed their lives.

Every day, they come to a park near their old apartment block to escape 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.

Destroyed Russian tanks outside BorodyankaNatalia Kovalchuk and her five-year-old daughter Uliyana

“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 says.

Her view of Ukraine’s neighbours in Russia has changed forever, she says.

“It’s changed totally – they are not human beings. I never thought this would be possible in the 21st century,” she adds.

Her story is just one of many here in war-torn Ukraine.

Oleksandr has nowhere to go now. He lives in the ruins of his old apartment building, scavenging for what food he can find.

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.

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

“How do you get by?” I ask.

To which he simply replies: “You don’t want to know”.

For Padraig O’Keeffe, home is Cork, but the former French Foreign Legion soldier who served in Bosnia and Cambodia has been in Borodyanka with his dog Cooper for months now.

He launched a crowdfunder to finance his trip and, since arriving, he and Cooper, a specialist rescue dog, have been searching for bodies among the ruins.

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

Destroyed Russian tanks outside BorodyankaPadraig O’Keeffe ‘Cooper’ the dog and local Ukrainian assistant Viktor

“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 the 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.”

O’Keeffe will be leaving Ukraine soon, but for those left behind, the future remains uncertain.