Makariv, Ukraine – The Russian plane was right above Yuri Dovgan.
A moment after the gaunt 56-year-old squatted on icy, slippery asphalt and closed his eyes in horror, the Su-25 with its wings painted green and white dropped a bomb that exploded a few meters away from him.
The deafening blast crumpled and gutted a two-storey wooden house, whose owner had fled hours earlier. It left a meters-deep crater that still gapes in a lush meadow covered with knee-high grass and flowers.
The shockwave folded the wall of another house just meters away from Dovgan, knocked him to the ground and dragged him for 2 meters.
The fighter of “territorial defense”, or volunteer militias that mushroomed throughout Ukraine, is still suffering from the contusion that damaged his hearing on March 9.
“It felt like a thousand crickets in my ears,” Dovgan told Al Jazeera.
The plane turned around to drop more bombs, but was shot down above the frozen forest.
Invaders kicked out
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, sending a part of its troops to encircle Kyiv.
Some rolled through Dovgan’s town, Makariv, which lies 58km (36 miles) west of the Ukrainian capital. They came in with dozens of tanks and armored vehicles, with an earth-shattering, ear-popping roar, hoping to seize Kyiv.
But their propaganda-inspired hopes that Ukrainian forces would flee or fold, that civilians would greet the “liberators” with open arms, and that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government would be toppled, never came true.
The invaders suffered from poor food and fuel supply, the unusually cold weather and surprisingly strong resistance of the regular army and the “territorial defense” units.
Residents and local officials say the Russian forces took their anger out on the civilians in 18 suburban towns and villages northwest, north and northeast of Kyiv that they occupied fully or partially before withdrawing in late March.
One of them, Bucha has become a synonym for harrowing mass killings of civilians.
Makariv, a town of 10,000 that is part of the Bucha district, was a bit of luckier.
Russians seized two of its districts in late February and were kicked out on March 2.
“Makariv has never been fully occupied, they only seized 10-15 percent of its territory,” Mayor Vadym Tokar said in televised remarks in late May.
Still, Russian forces pummeled the town with mortars and cruise missiles, bombers, multiple rocket launchers, tanks and armored vehicles.
For weeks, locals had to hide in the bases of their houses or nearby schools, shops or government buildings – in subzero temperatures, with no heating, running water, electricity and mobile phone connection.
“Missiles were flying around like flies,” Tetiana, a local woman who withheld her last name, told Al Jazeera.
A naked, frigid forest detaches Dovgan’s street from the strategic Highway 40 that links Kyiv with the central city of Zhytomyr.
Once named after communist revolutionary Yakov Sverdlov and renamed Khutirska (Farm), it is a line of mostly one-storey houses surrounded by kitchen gardens and orchids.
Yuri and his neighbors spent four days in late February in ice-cold rain or snow, digging trenches and foxholes with a borrowed excavator, building roofs and installing makeshift stoves and hearths.
Dovgan could barely eat, although his wife and neighboring women took turns to cook cauldrons of food for the volunteers and three dozen Ukrainian servicemen stationed with them.
“For two weeks, I was only drinking tea. I lost 10 kilograms [22 pounds]”He said and added with a laugh:“ Gained them all back, though. ”
They also planted dozens of landmines and fell trees on two dirt roads bisecting the forest.
Dovgan’s neighbor had a heat visor that helped “see a mouse”, and each night watch used it while inspecting the perimeter of their defense line in nearly absolute darkness.
They had assault rifles, Molotov cocktails, grenades, machineguns and mortar launchers. Dovgan knew how to use them because he had spent two years of Soviet-era compulsory military service at airbases in what is now western Russia.
“The only problem is that we didn’t have Javelins,” he said, referring to portable US-made anti-tank missiles that were so lethally effective that graffiti with Mother Mary holding “St Javelins” sprang throughout Ukraine.
One day in early March, Russian tanks and armored personnel vehicles tried to enter Khutirska Street.
But they saw the felled trees, and the servicemen fired the gun of their armored personnel vehicle at them.
The Russians retreated without engaging and spent a night in the forest, leaving rubbish and an old car seat spreadeagled on the ground.
At the time, Dovgan and his brothers-in-arms barely knew what they were saving their street, homes and families from.
Now they do.
“Otherwise it would have been another Borodyanka,” he said.
In the neighboring commuter town of 13,000, hundreds of civilians were feared killed or starved to death, Interior Minister Denis Monastyrsky said in early April after Russian soldiers allegedly blocked food supply and rescue efforts, looted apartments, abducted, tortured or killed at a whim.
The extent of damage
But Makariv’s death toll was also harrowing.
At least 170 people were killed, most shot dead in their cars or buses while trying to flee the town. Others died by shelling.
“We found bodies with their hands tied behind their backs, kneeling and buried in this position,” Tokar, the mayor, said.
One woman was raped and killed.
A bomb fell on an animal shelter, and more than 100 cats and dozens of dogs burned alive in their cages.
Hundreds of houses, a large bakery, shops and hospitals, the city hall, roads and a bridge across the slow Vzdvyzh River were destroyed.
Many more buildings lost their doors and windows, but the full extent of the damage will be known next winter.
Makariv’s two Orthodox churches stand untouched.
As Dovgan was showing Al Jazeera the trenches and foxholes, two neighbors approached him – Alla Kasperska, 45, and her 16-year-old son, Yaroslav.
Their family fled their house at the farthest end of Khutirska Street on February 25. They came back in early March – only to see the wooden fences broken and the house broken into, looted and damaged.
Kasperska knew Ukrainian servicemen had stayed there and even code-named it “Troy” after the ancient city.
She asked Dovgan whether he saw the servicemen taking anything from the house.
“They came with backpacks and left with backpacks,” Dovgan said, describing the truck with an open tent they came and left in.
He told Kasperska that before his contusion, he would walk up to her house every day because it was one of the few spots with a good mobile phone network.
Back then, he said, the house was intact.
Kasperska showed him the recently-built, two-storey building adorned with two flags flapping in the wind – the Ukrainian blue-and-yellow banner and the red-and-black flag of the Ukrainian Liberation Army that fought Soviet troops during World War II .
She was told a Ukrainian armored personnel vehicle – the one that shot at the Russians – damaged the house’s wooden terrace and a long shed in the back yard.
“It wasn’t Russians who were here. We’ll get no compensation, ”she said.
“We just want to know the truth, who did it,” Yaroslav said.
The thieves meticulously rummaged through every room, taking away a giant plasma TV set, a notepad, earphones and mobile phones, children’s toys, tools and clothes, they said.
Pillows, plastic bags, empty boxes, shoes and clothes were scattered across the floor, a heater and heating pipes were damaged, and a cord that had held a stolen chandelier was hanging from the ceiling.
The thieves left empty alcohol bottles, a used hookah and rubbish.
“It was either marauders, or Rashists,” Dovgan said, using a term coined during the war that combines “Russians,” “fascists,” and “racists.”
“But some guys, they showed up [in Makariv], and they hadn’t been here for years. And these guys have sticky fingers, ”he said.
Kasperska said several houses around hers had also been looted in a similar way.
“I was shocked. I was throwing up, ”she said, describing her return home.
On March 18, seven marauders were detained in Makariv after robbing a gas station, police said.
Hundreds of cases of looting have been reported throughout Ukraine since the war began, and sometimes, the marauders were tied to lampposts and publicly beaten.
Home, sweet home
The March 9 bombing ended Dovgan’s two weeks-long defense duty.
He left for medical treatment in the western Transcarpathia region, where his 19-year-old son, Yaroslav, who studies international relations, had been evacuated.
His wife Natalya spent several weeks alone in their house with no heating – because smoke from stoves attracted Russian bombers – caring for several elderly neighbors, their cats and dogs.
“It was hard,” 45-year-old Natalya Dovgan said. “Even after their masters returned, the dogs would come to my house.”
In mid-June, the house bore no traces of war.
The kitchen was filled with the smell of borsh, purple-red Ukrainian soup with beets.
Dozens of jars with pickled vegetables and yeast, a sweet-and-sour fermented beverage, stood on the shelves of the dark and cool cellar, where the family had been hiding from shelling.
Strawberries began to ripe, onions sprouted long green stalks, carefully pruned apple and pear trees and grapevines were peppered with tiny green fruit.
The orchid was drowning in the buzzing of bees.
“I can talk about bees endlessly,” Dovgan said, showing several wooden hives he reassembled and repopulated after returning home.