Arina Savelieva held back tears as she looked up at the charred balcony of the only home she’s ever known.
It’s on the third floor of 158 Severynivska Street, a 10-storey apartment building in Irpin, about 30 kilometres from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. The 17-year-old lived there with her parents, uncle and grandmother.
“It’s very hard for me,” Savelieva said. “It’s my whole life and now it’s destroyed.”
Nothing in their unit was salvageable — every cherished piece of family history, every trivial possession reduced to ash.
Hundreds lived in this building, going about their ordinary lives before they were shattered by Russia’s brutal invasion.
Russian troops advanced into Irpin, not far from Bucha, another Kyiv suburb, in late February, in the first days of the war.
Fierce fighting raged around the building on Severynivska Street for weeks as Ukrainian troops held back the attempt to take Kyiv.
The scars of the battle are everywhere: craters from explosions litter the ground, almost every window is broken, and even the playground slide behind the apartment was riddled with shrapnel.
“They were using all kinds of weapons — airstrikes, mortars, tanks,” said Serhii Didys, a Ukrainian territorial defence volunteer in Irpin, which was home to 60,000 before the war.
“This building was hit by artillery fire,” he said. “They were trying to destroy this city to the ground.”
Russia has denied targeting civilians but its strikes have repeatedly hit residential buildings throughout the invasion, with immense collateral damage.
In the first weeks of war, as Russian troops drew close to Kyiv, the surrounding towns and infrastructure saw widespread destruction. About 70 per cent of Irpin was damaged, according to estimates from the mayor, including more than 1,000 buildings.
Across Ukraine, the fighting has marred city blocks, roads, bridges and rail stations, with the country’s infrastructure minister estimating that up to 30 per cent of infrastructure has been damaged in some way. The hard-hit port city of Mariupol, in the country’s southeast, is said to have been more than 90 per cent destroyed.
Much of 158 Severynivska Street was set ablaze in the firefight. Now it’s mostly a burnt-out ruin, a symbol of the destruction this war has wrought across so much of Ukraine.
Weeks after Russian forces pulled back from this area, residents began returning to the building to survey the damage.
The overwhelming loss of their homes and possessions — their sense of place and security violently ripped away — is the same devastation countless Ukrainians now face.
Savelieva took us inside the building to show us the remnants of her family’s home.
The floor was covered by a layer of ash, strewn with broken glass and debris. There was a pile of pots and dishes, some smashed, at the entrance to what used to be the kitchen. All the walls were blackened by smoke.
Savelieva showed us to the bedroom she shared with her beloved grandmother. She pointed out where the beds were, where her desk chair sat and told us the walls had been filled with precious family photos.
Although she is struggling to accept that all the belongings she held dear are gone, they’re nowhere close to her biggest loss.
Savelieva stopped at the doorway to the room across the hall — the living room where her uncle, Vova Kulish, slept. She told us Kulish, 49, was killed there at the end of March in the fire that engulfed much of the building during the Russian assault.
Her grandmother was also in the apartment, she said, but somehow managed to escape the blaze by running outside.
“He was a good person,” Savelieva said of her uncle, her eyes tearing over as she told us that he had two daughters — her cousins. “It’s hard, too hard.”
Savelieva and her parents had already evacuated to Kyiv. She said her uncle and grandma, like so many others, struggled with the thought of leaving their home — an impossible decision foisted on so many by Russia’s aggression.
Her grandmother was eventually brought to safety. The family is now staying with other relatives in the capital.
In the midst of so much loss, Savelieva is trying to focus on what her family has left.
“This apartment is very important, but it’s not the most important. Nowadays, the most important [thing] is our lives.”
WATCH | The National goes inside a destroyed apartment building in Irpin, Ukraine:
A few floors up, Volodymyr and Maria Osadchy are angry.
They lived in their unit for more than 50 years. It’s where they raised their children. And it, too, is now completely destroyed.
The only trace of what it looked like before were the scraps of wallpaper that somehow clung on in what used to be their living room.
“My whole home is black,” said Volodymyr, showing us his ash-stained palms. “I curse them for what they have done.
“Why did they do this to us?”
Maria’s eyes were wet with tears as she pointed out a smashed lamp and charred shelves.
The couple stayed in their apartment during the first days of the fighting. They said they often hid in the basement during heavy rounds of artillery fire before they finally fled.
“We were so trusting. We thought the Russians were not an enemy for Ukraine,” she said.
“I want them to burn in hell the same way our apartments burned. That’s what I wish for them — and I want the same for all their generations.”
It will likely take generations for Ukraine to recover once this horrible war ends.
Earlier this month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky estimated that it would take hundreds of billions of dollars to rebuild the country, perhaps as much as $600 billion US. But the true cost is impossible to know as the conflict grinds on and enters a prolonged phase.
The only thing the Osadchys were able to save from their apartment were a few chair cushions and one damaged cabinet. They’re now moving to a nearby village, forced out of their home.
The corner of the building where Raisa and Mykola Pustovit live was largely spared the worst of the damage. The fire that tore through most of the building somehow didn’t reach their unit.
Still, it’s not safe, given the structure’s overall level of destruction. The couple’s windows are broken and there’s no heat or electricity. But the Pustovits, in their 70s, are staying for now. They have nowhere else to go.
“Could you imagine starting your life over when you are 70?” asked Mykola. “We lived our life but I still wanted our later years to be worthwhile.”
With no running water, the couple lugs four jugs of water up eight flights of stairs several times a day to their unit, so they can wash and drink.
If they want to make coffee or something else hot, they have to boil water outside at a small communal fire pit that’s been set up next to the apartment building’s entrance.
They’re relieved to still have their possessions but their trauma is obvious and painful.
During our visit, Raisa struggled to sit still, fidgeting constantly — a nervous habit she blames on the horrors of the fighting. Mykola stared into the distance as he described how they saw neighbours killed by Russian soldiers.
“We lived through this period of terror,” said Raisa. “My mind is broken. I don’t know how to recover it.”
“Who will ever recover it?” Mykola responded.
But halfway through our interview, it became clear what keeps the couple going. Raisa suddenly got up, fetching photo albums filled with pictures of their grandchildren. The albums are their most precious possession.
Instantly, the mood lifted and we got to see the couple as they were before the war — full of life and joy.
They happily pointed to childhood photos of their grandchildren, smiling as they shared anecdotes from better times.
They also showed us pictures of themselves from decades ago, as a young married couple, when they never could have imagined their older years would be marred by a Russian invasion of their country.
“If someone told me Russia was going to do this, I wouldn’t have believed them,” said Mykola, echoing the same question asked by Volodymyr Osadchy.
“Why did they do this to us?”