War Crimes Watch: A Devastating Walk Through Bucha’s Horror

There is a body in the basement of the abandoned yellow home at the end of the street near the railroad tracks. The man is young, pale, a dried trickle of blood by his mouth, shot to death and left in the dark, and no one knows why the Russians brought him there, to a home that wasn’t his.

There is a pile of toys near the stairs to the basement. Plastic clothespins sway on an empty line under a cold, gray sky. They are all that’s left of normal on this blackened end of the street in Bucha, where tank treads lay stripped from charred vehicles, civilian cars are crushed, and ammunition boxes are stacked beside empty Russian military rations and liquor bottles.

The man in the basement is almost an afterthought, one more body in a town where death is abundant, but satisfactory explanations for it are not.

A resident, Mykola Babak, points out the man after pondering the scene in a small courtyard nearby. Three men lay there. One is missing an eye. On an old carpet near one body, someone has placed a handful of yellow flowers.

At the beginning

Babak stands, a cigarette in one hand, a plastic bag of cat food in the other.

“I’m very calm today,” he said. “I shaved for the first time.”

At the beginning of their monthlong occupation of Bucha, he said, the Russians kept pretty much to themselves, focused on forward progress. When that stalled, they went house to house looking for young men, sometimes taking documents and phones. Ukrainian resistance seemed to wear on them. The Russians seemed angrier, more impulsive. Sometimes they seemed drunk.

The first time they visited Babak, they were polite. But when they returned on his birthday, March 28, they screamed at him and his brother-in-law. They put a grenade to the brother-in-law’s armpit and threatened to pull the pin. They took an AK-47 and fired near Babak’s feet. “Let’s kill him,” one of them said, but another Russian told them to leave it and go.

Before they left, the Russians asked him: “Why are you still here?”

Like many who stayed in Bucha, Babak is older, 61. It was not as easy to leave. He thought he would be spared. And yet, in the end, the Russians accused him of being a saboteur. He spent a month under occupation without electricity, without running water, cooking over a fire. He was not prepared for this war.

Maybe the Russians weren’t either.

Around 6 p.m. on March 31, and Babak remembers this clearly, the Russians jumped into their vehicles and left, so quickly that they abandoned the bodies of their companions.

“On this street we were fine,” Mykola said. In Bucha, everything is relative. “They weren’t shooting anyone who stepped out of their house. On the next street, they did.”

Witnesses to the occupation

Walking through Bucha, The Associated Press met two dozen witnesses of the Russian occupation. Almost everyone said they saw a body, sometimes several more. Civilians were killed, mostly men, sometimes picked off at random. Many, including the elderly, say they themselves were threatened.

The question that survivors, investigators and the world would like to answer is why. Ukraine has seen the horrors of Mariupol, Kharkiv, Chernihiv and nearby Irpin. But the images from this town an hour’s drive from Kyiv have seared themselves into global consciousness like no other. Mayor Anatoliy Fedoruk said the count of dead civilians was 320 as of Wednesday.

Vladyslav Minchenko is an artist who helps to collect the bodies.

“It certainly appears to be very, very deliberate. But it’s difficult to know what more motivation was behind this,” a senior U.S. defense official said this week, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the military assessment.

The residents of Bucha, as they venture out of cold homes and basements, offer theories. Some believe the Russians weren’t ready for an extended fight or had especially undisciplined fighters. Some believe the house-to-house targeting of younger men was a hunt for those who had fought the Russians in recent years in separatist-held eastern Ukraine and had been given housing in the town.

By the end, discipline broke down.

Threats and worse

Grenades were tossed into basements, bodies thrown into wells. Women in their 70s were told not to stick their heads out of their houses or they’d be killed.

“If you leave home, I’ll obey the order, and you know what the order is. I’ll burn your house,” Tetyana Petrovskaya recalls one soldier telling her.

At first, the Russians behaved, said Nataliya Aleksandrova, 63. “They said they had come for three days.” Then they got hungry. They got cold. They started to loot. They shot TV screens for no reason.

They feared there were spies among the Ukrainians. Aleksandrova says her nephew was detained on March 7 after being spotted filming destroyed tanks with his phone. Four days later, he was found in a basement, shot in the ear.

Days later, thinking the Russians were gone, Aleksandrova and a neighbor slipped out to shutter nearby homes and protect them from looting. The Russians caught them and took them to a basement.

“They asked us, ‘Which type of death do you prefer, slow or fast?'” Grenade or gun? They were given 30 seconds to decide. Suddenly the soldiers were called away, leaving Aleksandrova and her neighbor shaken but alive.

The Russians became desperate when it became clear they wouldn’t be able to move on Kyiv, said Sergei Radetskiy. The soldiers were just thinking about how to loot and get out.

“They needed to kill someone,” he said. “And killing civilians is very easy.” 

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