BUCHA, Ukraine — The two women pushed a stroller down the street, each holding one of its handlebars. Around them, everything was green and new — spring in full color.
He was one of hundreds in this normally idyllic suburb who did not survive the brutal, month-long occupation by Russian soldiers in March. His body was found by neighbors in a forest clearing just blocks from their apartment.
The other woman, Nataliia Zaretska, is a specialist in mending broken people.
While authorities in Bucha restore public services, rebury bodies from mass graves and repaint walls pocked with bullet holes and spattered with blood, Zaretska is rebuilding Bucha’s citizens from the inside out.
For someone who has handled dozens of cases of this town’s most psychologically scarred people, Zaretska, 47, is remarkably chipper. She is almost always smiling — and always wearing her camouflage-green bandanna. But almost every day of the week, she is in Bucha, healing hidden wounds.
“This was an especially difficult situation. What people here experienced was very intense, for a long duration, and people’s homes and hometown became a place of brutal captivity,” she said. “I am helping them name what has happened to them, and what they are going through.”
What most are going through, Zaretska says, is a high degree of what she calls compression — not trauma. It’s a condition of immense stress that, she believes, can be eased through radically honest conversations both in on-on-one and group settings. In Bucha, she estimates that 1 in 3 of the 4,000 or so people who lived through the occupation are in need of urgent psychological support.
Zaretska, who has a master’s degree in psychology and is licensed by the Ukrainian military, has already worked intensively with 50 of them.
There are only a handful of psychologists currently working in Bucha and its surrounding towns and villages — so few that they’re all working together to make sure that on each day at least one can be in the three main towns that make up the Bucha district. Each is working with unthinkably high caseloads.
In the early days after the Russians withdrew, that kind of support was unavailable. But officials at Bucha’s public services center quickly realized that while people were coming in ostensibly to get help with practical issues, many were in dire need of psychological support.
“People came here to cry, to scream, or just to have anyone to talk to,” said Oksana Mykhailchuk, the center’s head administrator. “Everyone here has trauma to some degree — including me.”
Mykhailchuk said she has nightly nightmares where she’s running, trying to escape, and bullets seem to be flying in the air all around her.
Even waking life in Bucha has a nightmarish quality these days, despite herculean efforts to clean up the destruction the Russians left. For those who witnessed the horrors of the occupation, which saw Bucha transformed into an arena for gruesome crime after crime, this is a haunted place now, patients tell Zaretska.
The surreal scenes of normalcy feel dreamlike. Is this real? Are people really riding their bikes, walking among the blooming trees, pushing their strollers on a sunny sidewalk? Or am I about to wake up, still hiding in my basement, barely able to feed myself, while Russian soldiers prowl the streets outside? Will that fear ever leave me alone?
For Mykhailchuk and others, Zaretska’s counseling has provided breakthroughs.
“We were skeptical. In Ukraine, we don’t really trust psychologists,” said Mykhailchuk. “But what Nataliia does works. I’ve experienced it myself. She helps people breathe. Helps them release.”
Less than a decade ago, Zaretska was working in financial crisis management and tax consulting. She joined the government after Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, inspired to become a public servant and put her psychology degree to work. Colleagues discerned her brilliance and she swiftly garnered a grand title: head of the Office of the Commissioner of the President of Ukraine for Rehabilitation of Combatants, where she focused on former prisoners of war.
In the months before Russia invaded, she joined Ukraine’s territorial defense, which is a mixture of military and civilian reserves who serve under the armed forces. Once the Russians left Bucha and the scale of the atrocities they committed there came into view, she offered to help set up the city’s response to its mental health crisis.
Zaretska has ended up counseling its citizens and officials alike. What most are looking for, she said, is not comfort or sympathy, but an answer to one tough question: Why did Russia do this to me? What for?
“I believe that truth is the best treatment,” she said, after leaving a meeting with a city official who asked her that question.
Her answer — her version of the truth — is that Russian citizens and soldiers have been dehumanized by President Vladimir Putin’s regime, which has convinced them through incessant propaganda and information control that Ukrainians are insubordinate subjects who must be punished.
She tells patients that “Russia is an empire. Its people are not free. Their government uses fear as an instrument.”
“We have a joke,” she said, smiling despite the bleak topic of conversation that was about to turn toward Nazi Germany’s chief propagandist. “We say Goebbels would turn over in his grave from envy at the power of Russia’s psychological control over its people.”
To decompress, Zaretska said, Bucha’s people have to see how strong they are, how good they are, how free they are — that what they went through wasn’t senseless or inexplicable, and didn’t dehumanize them, but rather the opposite.
She is not proposing truth and reconciliation, but truth and transcendence.
“Bucha was severely beaten, and beating is one of the most effective forms of torture because it gets progressively worse after it’s been done. But those who survive it can come back from it stronger,” she said. “To endure captivity and to heal from your wounds is the greatest triumph.”
Serhiy Morgunov contributed to this report.