It was February 26, two days after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. As Washington Post reporters, we were covering the devastation Russia was inflicting on this beautiful city, and we and everyone else could practically taste the fear of what might follow.
Now we stood shivering at another scene of senseless shelling, wondering what memories had flown from the shattered windows hours before. What smiling faces looked at us from these photos? Were they still alive?
If we left the pictures in the field, we decided, they had little chance of surviving bad weather or war. If we picked them up, we might be able to return them, one day, to someone who had just lost almost everything else.
Our calls on social media to get in touch with the owners of the photos were shared widely, but went unanswered.
Over the next few months – as nightmares unfolded on the outskirts of Kyiv and Russian forces finally withdrew and refocused their assault on the east of the country – these photos remained hidden in a journalist’s notebook. . The pages filled with stories of other horrors of war – other buildings destroyed, other families torn apart.
But our thoughts kept returning to those images from long ago and the people in them. Then, earlier this month, we came across a clue.
On Facebook, a woman who had lived in the building was launching a campaign to raise funds for the repairs. We wrote to him attaching the photos. She shared them in a group chat with other residents. A woman named Oksana Insarova responded. They were hers.
Photos in hand, last week we crossed Kyiv to finally return them to him.
We met in front of her late parents’ old apartment, where she has lived since the explosion.
From there, we began to piece together the mystery of the family whose faces we had known for months.
Insarova and her husband, Oleh Tochenyuk, had just moved into their modern 20th floor apartment – the realization of a lifelong dream.
The purchase had been slightly beyond their means, but the trade-off was worth it: the sight allowed them to see for miles. They could organize parties and friends. Their daughters were delighted. They spent as much on designing, furnishing and decorating the interior as they did on the apartment itself.
When Russian forces invaded on February 24, they stayed at home.
The 20th floor was far from the nearest shelter, so even when the air raid sirens sounded, they tried their luck upstairs.
The next day, a friend called from a nearby town. Reports suggested Russian forces could take the capital within hours. Wouldn’t they consider leaving Kyiv for a few days? They thought about it, then packed some clothes and left with their 12-year-old daughter, Daria. (Their other daughter, Anastacia, is a 22-year-old university student in Prague.)
“If it weren’t for our friends, I wouldn’t be talking to you now,” Insarova said.
The next morning, they woke up out of town to a flurry of messages in their neighborhood group chat. “Mermaids,” said one message. Then, 12 minutes later: “Looks like they hit our building.”
Neighbors began posting photos of the damage. “I counted the floors, but it was useless,” recalls Insarova. “It was obviously my apartment.”
She went into shock. Her husband’s blood pressure skyrocketed so fast that he felt sick. Daria lay down on her bed and covered her face with a blanket. She didn’t speak for days.
“This apartment was so important to our family,” Insarova said. “It was my little happiness, and now it’s my little sorrow.”
They did not return to Kyiv for nearly two weeks. There were checkpoints and gasoline shortages. And there was nothing they could do to recover what had been lost.
“Compared to what other Ukrainians face, it’s a small price,” Insarova said. “Still, it’s unbearable to think of starting from scratch.”
When they finally visited their home on March 11, the destruction still looked unbelievable. Their apartment practically no longer existed. The missile hit a wall where a box of family photos lay on the floor, sending them flying into the street, along with many other belongings.
The loss of their home compounded another family tragedy. Insarova’s older brother and only sibling, Ihor, had died suddenly of a stroke in January. Now a lifetime of photos of him were gone.
So, was that the little boy in the photos we found? The one whose face we had studied hoping for an answer?
Insarova leafed through them. There was Ihor, alive again as a baby in their father’s arms. As a toddler, with their beaming uncle. In a photo studio, smiling mischievously with a hoop.
Seeing the footage brought her mixed feelings, she said. She was happy to have them back, but even meeting us reminded her of how much she had lost.
And we weren’t the only ones to reach out.
Several other people had connected with her in recent weeks, offering to return other photos they had also recovered from the ground. A woman, Kateryna Kashriyna, had found hundreds of them in the rubble. She held them for Insarova on the other side of Kyiv, but severe fuel shortages had prevented them from meeting.
We had fuel, we told him. We might be able to help.
Tuesday evening, as we were driving to meet Kashriyna, Insarova pointed to other high-rise buildings we passed. She had considered buying a place there, she says of one, but there was a poor interior layout. And there, she said pointing to another, but that one had problems too.
“Are you excited to see the photos? we asked from the front seat.
“I don’t know,” she replied quietly from behind.
We arrived in the Kashriyna neighborhood and stood outside, waiting for her to join us. The ground was still wet from an afternoon thunderstorm.
She appeared holding a photo bag in one hand and a picture in the other which particularly marked her. It was another image of Ihor as a child.
Kashriyna was in line at a grocery store in ground floor of the building a few days after the explosion, she said, when she noticed a photo on the ground. Then another. And another.
Shopping in a place that had been attacked two days before had scared her, she said, but she thought, “If we die in this line, then we will die in this line.”
We asked her why she bothered to collect all the photos.
“It’s a keepsake for someone,” she said. “I thought it would be nice to meet people and bring their memories back to life. You can buy another chair or whatever, but you can’t buy this one – another memory of your life.
Insarova beamed as she dug into the pile filled with decades of reminders of much happier times. On her wedding day. Family trips to Crimea, before it was occupied by Russia. Visits to a summer cottage with his parents. Ihor with her and her children.
“I’m happy,” she said, “because it brought back all the memories for me.”
It was getting late and the night curfew weighed on us.
We piled into our car and dropped Insarova off at her parents’ apartment. She got out and waved, carrying her souvenir bag.