A convoy of destroyed Russian vehicles stretched for hundreds of metres along a narrow street with broken houses and mangled trees – this is how, after heavy fighting on 27 February 2022, the world saw Vokzalna Street in Bucha.
That Russian equipment was on its way to kill people in Kyiv. But the defenders of Bucha, with some not even having military experience or heavy weapons, joined the battle and foiled the Kremlin's plans to "capture Kyiv in three days".
Finding out how the battle in Bucha unfolded was not an easy task. The city council and territorial defence of Bucha, as well as former officers of the defence headquarters of Kyiv helped LIGA.net find those who defended it in the early days of the full-scale war and reconstruct the events.
"This is how, quite likely, the events unfolded," several senior officers of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine told LIGA.net.
Below is a first-hand account of the battle of Vokzalna Street in Bucha, which turned the tide of hostilities around Kyiv.
Russia began to assemble forces for the assault on Kyiv around Bucha and Hostomel in the first hours of the full-scale invasion. Retired Colonel Petro Mazin, who was in charge of Bucha's defence headquarters from the direction of Hostomel, says he began receiving reports of the first Russian troops that had landed almost immediately after midnight.
At the time, they "didn't really believe it," but around six they went to Hostomel to check it out. "There was a landing there. It was a prelude," he says.
An hour later, battles for the Hostomel airport were already taking place, and around ten, Russia’s massive landing operation began.
For two days, Hostomel was defended by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, the National Guard and border guards. "I saw locals coming to the airport to help the defenders with hunting rifles, axes, and batons. They were using whatever they could to knock out the [Russian] troops," adds Mr Mazin.
Meanwhile, Bucha residents were preparing to defend their town, designated a grey-zone. The Kyiv defence line was being built along the Irpin River.
Bucha’s state authorities, including the military enlistment office, had moved to the settlement of Bilohorodka, in the Bucha district.
The residents of Bucha, therefore, had to organise the defence of the town on their own. Volunteers united their defence efforts around local professional military officers in retirement and veterans of the Donbas war with combat experience.
For the first three days, the defenders of Bucha were mainly focused on patrolling the town, fortifying it, and searching for weapons, head of the Bucha Guard Bohdan Yavorskyi tells LIGA.net in an interview.
There were critically few weapons.
Retired colonel Andriy Dziuba recalls that the military enlistment office gave a few assault rifles to a guard company before it evacuated, and that was it.
The Bucha town council could give only five small arms, Mr Mazin says, so other weapons were obtained wherever it was possible.
On 25 February, when Ukrainian troops were retreating from the Hostomel airport, an enemy bomber shot at a convoy of one of the Ukrainian airborne brigades as it entered Bucha. "We helped to take away the wounded and dead," he adds. "There we took some small arms and a grenade launcher. In addition, there were grenades, several machine guns, and assault rifles."
The defenders learnt about the movements of Russian forces from scattered observation posts and local residents. "We had scouts everywhere," Mr Mazin says. "They reported the situation, and we passed it onto the General Staff and the 72nd [mechanised] brigade," one of the few maneuver formations defending Kyiv early in Russia’s full-scale invasion.
On 26 February, Russia took control of the Hostomel airport as a large number of heavy vehicles came through the city of Chornobyl and stopped near the village of Blystavytsia, near Bucha. Ukrainian defenders believed that Russian forces would move towards the town on the evening of 26 February, the convoy already fully formed.
However, the Russians decided to postpone the assault.
On 25 and 26 February, the Bucha defenders twice tried to blow up the bridge over the Rokach River, between Hostomel and Bucha. It was the only bridge that Russian forces could have used to get into the town, the others already blown up.
They failed. They did not put enough explosives in the right places.
"The bridge is a solid one, built to bring cargo to the airport. We planted about 150 kilos of explosives. Later I consulted with experts, and they say it takes about half a tonne to blow up such a bridge," Mr Mazin recalls.
The defenders tried to call in the artillery fire to smash the bridge. "But we were told that it was forbidden to shoot there: there were residential buildings nearby, people could get hurt," says the head of Bucha's defence staff.
"The orcs don't care where or what they shoot, we were trying to save people," he adds, using a demeaning term for Russian forces popular with Ukrainians.
In the end, it was through this bridge that the Russians entered Bucha the next day.
At 6:40 in the morning, Mr Mazin received information from observers that the Russian convoy had started moving. According to them, there were up to 150 vehicles.
"[There were] armoured personnel carriers, tanks, trucks, petrol tankers, and bridging vehicles. As the convoy entered Bucha, it split. Some 100 vehicles went to the left along Instytutska Street. Apparently, they had planned to enter Kyiv through Hostomel and Pushcha Voditsa [a neighbourhood in the northwestern part of Kyiv].
"But they didn't get through there, and then turned back. About 50 vehicles went straight down Vokzalna Street. We met them at the intersection of Vokzalnaya and Nove Shosse Streets," Mr Mazin recalls.
At that moment, the head of the Bucha guard, Bohdan Yavorsky, was preparing to go out of town with a group of volunteers to prevent another landing operation of Russian forces. In order to shoot down Russian K-52 helicopters, they had spent the previous day learning how to work with Soviet ‘Igla’ surface-to-air missile systems.
There were about twenty people in the group. They did not all know each other. Not all of them were even from Bucha. For instance, Vasyl Shcherbakov, a veteran of the anti-terrorist operation (ATO) in the Donbas, had come the day before to support his comrades with whom he had fought in the 25th battalion back in the Donbas.
He knew it would be difficult in Bucha.
The vast majority of those defenders had no combat experience, except for two professional soldiers, five ATO veterans, and one police officer. The others were civilians who did not even have weapons. But as soon as they learnt that the Russian convoy was moving, they all volunteered to fight.
The defenders dispersed in small groups around the intersection near the Novus supermarket. They did not set themselves any ‘super’ tasks, as the enemy forces dwarfed them. The plan was to delay the movement of the Russian convoy, inflicting it as much damage as possible, and retreat.
At around 7:10, the Russian convoy entered the town, hitting a water tower on the way. The defenders of Bucha, who were waiting for the Russians near Novus, say that they were driving like a parade, the paratroopers sitting on top of the vehicles and – what struck Ukrainians the most – singing songs.
Mr Yavorskyi recalls that the first vehicle flew past the intersection at high speed. A grenadier hit the third or fourth vehicle from a spontaneously chosen but fitting ambush: He was shooting from under the local ‘monument to international soldiers’. That is why Russians were later filmed firing at the BRDM-2 armoured scout car that was part of the monument.
"The Russians fired at the monument not because they are idiots, but because they saw someone shooting from there. There was a normal place to shoot from and safely move away," explains Mr Yavorsky.
"After the grenadier had already left, their vehicles were firing at the monument as they passed."
The Russian convoy stopped, and was fired at.
"Our guys threw Molotov cocktails at the vehicles inside the convoy from behind the fence, and one of the infantry fighting vehicles caught fire. It was a group of four people. They had no other weapons except for these bottles.
"They [Russians] opened fire at them. One man was wounded in the leg. We, on the other side of the street, diverted the fire to ourselves by small arms shooting. Thanks to this, our guys managed to leave," Mr Mazin says.
The ensuing battle lasted for fifteen gruelling minutes. Mr Yavorskyi says the Ukrainian defenders suffered no casualties thanks to "incredible luck".
After being attacked, the Russians lined up in combat formation and fired at the town's defenders with everything they had – assault rifles, 12.7 mm machine guns, and 30 mm infantry fighting vehicle cannons, recalls Mr Yavorsky
Later, the defenders of Bucha said that they literally saw bullets flying past in all directions.
"Near me, there were sort of steps with railing posts, a few centimetres wide. Infantry fighting vehicles hit there twice. The railing on the steps, we later checked, was all in cuts. I don't know how we survived there.
"We moved away. We were in a car, and two APCs [armoured personnel carriers] chased us up to the parking lot," Mr Shcherbakov told LIGA.net in an interview.
Taking advantage of the defenders' retreat, the Russians took the damaged infantry fighting vehicle off the road with a tank and set off towards the town of Irpin.
"They had no special task of getting involved in protracted fighting. If they wanted, they could have killed us all. There were a lot of them. They were better armed. As I later analysed, their task was to break through to Kyiv, and they were fulfilling their task," Mr Mazin says.
After Novus, the Russians drove more slowly and cautiously towards Irpin. At a railway crossing, they were ambushed again, Mr Dziuba says, adding that due to a malfunction in the maps, the Russians did not see another route to Kyiv.
"Their maps didn't show any other routes, only through this crossing at Vokzalna [Street], through Irpin. So, at that crossing, we quickly fired them with what we could and retreated," he says.
The Russian occupiers moved the rest of the way to Irpin in combat order.
"They got to the crossing, and along this straight line, which goes to Giraffe [shopping centre], they were moving towards Irpin in a combat manner, with reconnaissance and mopping-up. Anyone moving or travelling was immediately shot," Mr Yavorskyi says.
A webcam in one of the houses on Vokzalna Street between the railway crossing and the Giraffe shopping centre recorded the movement of the Russian convoy at 7:54 am. The vehicles moved past the camera view only at 8:33.
During that time, Mr Yavorskyi's group moved in two cars to the Giraffe shopping centre on the border of Irpin and Bucha, where the Ukrainian defenders had set up their positions. Mr Dziuba, who was also there, says that not only local volunteers were working there, but also soldiers from the National Guard, the Armed Forces, the paratroopers, and the 8th Special Forces regiment.
The battle on the shopping centre began around nine in the morning. The first Russian vehicles came under fire from a grenade launcher.
The Russians tried to bypass the damaged vehicles and look for fords to get to the shopping centre, but ended up under fire from howitzers.
"They started to turn around," recalls Mr Dziuba. "They didn't know where to go... I saw them changing into tracksuits and running away very fast."
The same webcam on Vokzalna Street recorded that at 9:05 am, the Russians were already retreating towards the crossing.
On Vokzalna Street, the defenders of Bucha attacked the convoy in another short battle. After that, it was destroyed in a complex attack.
Those who took part in the operation but did not wish to disclose themselves recall that first, Bayraktar drones hit the vehicles at the beginning and end of the convoy, and then it was hit with artillery fire.
Captain Vasyl Boyechko of the 128th assault brigade of the Zakarpattia region, in western Ukraine, earlier told LIGA.net that it was his artillery unit that had dealt one of the devastating blows to the convoy.
While artillery fire was constant, it is hard to say whether it was hitting along Vokzalna Street, Mr Mazin says. According to him, it was very loud in Bucha that day. There were constant explosions and shots, which made it difficult to see where things were.
"But even after the 27th [of February], while we were still holding the defence for a few more days, the artillery was constantly ‘working’ on our instructions. They are really good."
Participants in the battle near Novus say that they saw Ukrainian aviation hitting the Russian convoy as well – the defenders had been asking for support from various sources.
"We called [to say]: we did what we could, we stopped them from going straight forward. I don't know which of those requests worked. I did see the aviation strike the convoy," Mr Yavorsky said.
"There were two of our planes. They came from the direction of Starokonstantyniv [a town in the Khmelnytskyi region, in western Ukraine] and destroyed most of the convoy. Not all of it, a few vehicles went to Hostomel. On the way back, one plane was shot down, two pilots were killed," Mr Mazin adds.
Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yurii Ihnat says that it is difficult to confirm the participation of specific servicepeople in those first battles in Bucha.
Those were the days when "everyone was flying everywhere", so it is almost impossible to establish exactly who destroyed what, Mr Ihnat tells LIGA.net in a comment.
Mr Yavorsky’s group did not stay until the battle on the Giraffe shopping centre ended – they simply ran out of ammunition.
"We had to retreat and look for a place to reload in all the confusion. We found it in Kyiv," he says.
It was there that Yavorsky was told that part of the Russian convoy had been destroyed; five of the defenders were wounded; and his friend, Volodymyr Kovalskyi, was killed in the battle at Novus.
Mr Kovalskyi was an ATO veteran and a businessman. He lost both his legs in 2016, during the fighting near the village of Yasne, in the Donetsk region. Later, he took part in the Invictus Games.
On 24 February, Mr Kovalskyi came to the Bucha guard and said that he would defend the town. He was sent home several times, being told that he had fought enough – to which he replied that he was not going anywhere.
"I met him on 26 February. I was told that he was an ATO veteran. At first, I was happy: [There is] a man with experience, I would have support," Mr Shcherbakov recalls.
Then someone said that Volodymyr had no legs.
"I approached him. Volodymyr silently lifted his trouser legs and showed me his prostheses," Mr Shcherbakov adds. "I asked him how he was going to fight when it was obvious he would have to leave in battle.
"He said he would cope. And he did."
During the battle, Mr Kovalskyi was a senior in his group of three. Their position was closer to Nove Shosse Street, with an underground passage to hide and retreat unnoticed through residential areas.
But for some reason, he went the other way, down Shevchenko Street, where there was virtually no opportunity to hide – and where the Russians shot him with large-calibre weapons.
Why Mr Kovalskyi deviated from the escape route is still being investigated. The other two men in his group were never seen again.
The destroyed Russian convoy was shown in the news the next day after the battle: When it was relatively calm in Bucha, Ukrainian photographers came to record it in detail. Those photos not only supported the morale of the Ukrainians; they showed how effectively the occupying forces could be destroyed.
Mr Yavorskyi estimates that at least 95 Russian servicepeople were killed in the battle of Vokzalna Street.
"This figure doesn’t include the killed Chechen troops. I don't know how many of them we killed there, there is no data. But there was also someone close to Kadyrov [leader of the Chechen Republic in Russia, who is close to Russia’s president Vladimir Putin]. Because afterwards they were very angry with us and were looking for us all over the town," he says.
Later, Mr Yavorskyi and his comrades analysed Putin's plan to ‘take Kyiv in three days’ and concluded that it was not as ridiculous as it seems.
"From 24 to 27 February, they were amassing forces. On 27 February, they planned to pass through Bucha and Irpin. They were going to merge with a convoy of vehicles coming from Makariv [a settlement in the Bucha district, in the Kyiv region]. And then, they were about to enter Kyiv via Peremohy Avenue," Mr Yavorsky says.
Mr Mazin suggests that were it not for the willingness of ordinary Bucha residents to join the resistance, the battle of Vokzalna Street would not have yielded such a result.
"If we hadn't detained them, I think they would have managed to enter the capital. The delay allowed us to finish preparing defences in Irpin and Kyiv."