Baker Yaroslav Burkivsky keeps his bread in one of the green ammunition boxes that Russian troops left strewn around Bucha in late March when they abandoned their advance on the Ukrainian capital Kiev.
Made of wood and about a metre long, it snugly houses a few dozen loaves, an unwelcome but practical reminder of a horrific occupation.
“Of course, we’d have happily made do without it,” says the 28-year-old, whose home bakery on the edge of Bucha helped sustain the starving local population after an ordeal that shocked the world.
Along with other Kiev suburbs, the town was captured by Moscow’s forces in the first days of the war in late February and held for around a month. When the Russians withdrew due to lack of military success and redeployed to eastern Ukraine, hundreds of civilians were found dead in the area – some in the middle of the road.
While many other atrocities have come to light since then, few other places in Ukraine became such a powerful symbol of war crimes as Bucha.
As well as heinous acts of violence, locals were subjected to constant humiliation, fear and the prospect of sudden and arbitrary death.
Burkivsky’s baker colleague Viktor Kovalchuk recounts how Russian soldiers came to his friend’s home, pointed a gun at him and said “Now we’re going to shoot you.”
One then fired, but only at the cap on his friend’s head. The Russians called it “a joke” and left.
“That’s the kind of thing that used to happen here,” says Kovalchuk, while the aroma of fresh oatmeal cookies wafts around him and more customers enter the tiny, stove-warmed premises.
In the first weeks after the occupation, the bakery with the blue shutters became a place where the survivors could come together. Neighbours brought flour from their pantries and it was used to bake bread for everyone. Those that had money paid, those who didn’t, ate for free.
“During this terrible time people understood that they are not alone in this world, and that changed some of them,” says Burkivsky.
The war also drastically altered the life of Dmytro Hapchenko, the head of the town’s administration.
When more than 90% of the 50,000 residents of Bucha and surrounding area fled in March, the 45-year-old stayed out of a sense of duty to those who remained.
Around 30,000 people have since returned, but not Hapchenko’s wife and children, who reached Israel and will wait out the war there.
“It’s hard,” he says, looking both tired and combative at the same time.
Wearing a dark green outdoor jacket and hiking boots, he has just returned from a nearby wooded area where the body of a missing resident was recently found.
He and other volunteers are now searching there for traces that indicate the identities of the Russian soldiers involved – and for other graves.
Hapchenko shows the photo of a hole in the ground, on his mobile phone. It is documentary work that is also intended to speed up the current international investigation and the official recognition of the atrocities as war crimes.
In March, he too was kidnapped by the occupying forces and held for a day. He puts his release down to sheer luck.
“That could have been me,” he says of the dead who were left in the forest, then pauses and adds: “If it had happened like that, I would wish that they would also find me now.”
A few metres away from the bakery, the golden domes of a large white church stand out against the rainy sky.
During the occupation, residents who were killed were temporarily buried in a mass grave on the church grounds because the path to the cemetery was blocked.
They have since been reburied. Hapchenko knew some personally, as well as the parents, children and friends of others who ended up here.
“She was shot in the middle of the street,” he says, pulling up a photo of the corpse of an elderly woman on the phone display.
“She was wearing a white bandage on her upper arm, see?” Hapchenko zooms in closer on the body. “She wanted to make it clear that she was a civilian.”
Another photo shows a female resident killed by Russian soldiers at a checkpoint while trying to leave Bucha by car. She was shot at the wheel through the open window, the official explains as he swipes at a seemingly endless series of similar images.
By mid-November, authorities in Bucha had registered more than 460 dead residents and expect the number to rise.
But despite the horror, life in the town goes on. Workers repaint freshly repaired house facades, cafes are open, people walk their dogs, and children run around in the park.
Internally, however, many locals are still in a “psychological state of stress”, says Hapchenko.
His cell phone – a private and work phone and municipal emergency hotline all in one – keeps ringing, often with calls from people who are still missing relatives. Some eventually turn up alive in Russian captivity, others dead in Bucha’s forests. According to Hapchenko, there is still no trace of more than 70 residents. – dpa/Hannah Wagner