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Bucha’s month of terror

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BUCHA, Ukraine >> A mother killed by a sniper while walking with her family to fetch a thermos of tea. A woman held as a sex slave, naked except for a fur coat and locked in a potato cellar before being executed. Two sisters dead in their home, their bodies left slumped on the floor for weeks.

Bucha is a landscape of horrors.

From the first day of the war, Feb. 24, civilians bore the brunt of the Russian assault on Bucha, a few miles west of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. Russian special forces approaching on foot through the woods shot at cars on the road, and a column of armored vehicles fired on and killed a woman in her garden as they drove into the suburb.

But those early cruelties paled in comparison to what came after.

As the Russian advance on Kyiv stalled in the face of fierce resistance, civilians said, the enemy occupation of Bucha slid into a campaign of terror and revenge. When a defeated and demoralized Russian army finally retreated, it left behind a grim tableau: bodies of dead civilians strewn on streets, in basements or in backyards, many with gunshot wounds to their heads, some with their hands tied behind their backs.

Reporters and photographers for The New York Times spent more than a week with city officials, coroners and scores of witnesses in Bucha, uncovering new details of execution-style atrocities against civilians. The Times documented the bodies of almost three dozen people where they were killed — in their homes, in the woods, set on fire in a vacant parking lot — and learned the story behind many of their deaths. The Times also witnessed more than 100 body bags at a communal grave and the city’s cemetery.

The evidence suggests the Russians killed recklessly and sometimes sadistically, in part out of revenge.

Unsuspecting civilians were killed carrying out the simplest of daily activities. A retired teacher known as Auntie Lyuda, short for Lyudmyla, was shot midmorning on March 5 as she opened her front door on a small side street. Her body lay twisted, half inside the door, more than a month later.

Her younger sister Nina, who was mentally disabled and lived with her, was dead on the kitchen floor. It was not clear how she died.

“They took the territory and were shooting so no one would approach,” a neighbor, Serhiy, said. “Why would you kill a grandma?”

Roman Havryliuk, 43, a welder, and his brother Serhiy Dukhli, 46, sent the rest of their family out of Bucha as the violence intensified, but both insisted on staying behind. They were found dead in their yard. “My uncle stayed for the dog, and my father stayed for the house,” Havryliuk’s son, Nazar, said. An unknown man also lay dead nearby, and the family’s two dogs were riddled with bullets.

“They were not able to defeat our army so they killed ordinary people,” said Nazar, 17.

Constant threat from snipers

Bucha had been one of the most desirable commuter suburbs of Kyiv. Nestled between fir tree forests and a river, it had modern shopping malls and new residential complexes as well as old-fashioned summer cabins set among gardens and trees. Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov had a summer house there.

Days after Russian troops drove into town, the Ukrainian army struck back, setting tanks and armored vehicles ablaze in an attack on a Russian column. As many as 20 vehicles burned in a huge fireball that ignited homes all along one side of the street. Some Russian soldiers fled, carrying their wounded through the woods.

Russian reinforcements arrived several days later in an aggressive mood. They set up base in an apartment complex behind School No. 3, the main high school on Vokzalna, or Station Street, and posted a sniper in a high-rise building still under construction. They made their headquarters farther south in a glass factory on the Bucha River.

Until then, the residents of Bucha had been sheltering from Russian missile and artillery strikes, many of them sleeping in basements and cellars, but some had ventured outside from time to time to get water or sneak a look at the damage. Shelling had been sporadic, and much of the Russian artillery fire was aimed over their heads at Irpin, the next town over.

After the assault on the column, the atmosphere hardened. On March 4, Volodymyr Feoktistov, 50, set out on foot around 5 p.m. to pick up a loaf of bread from neighbors who were baking at home. His mother and brother had told him not to go out, but he insisted, his mother recalled later.

Russian vehicles were driving along a road at the end of their street and the neighbors heard two gunshots. They found him the next day, dead on the street. Days passed before they could load him into a wheelbarrow and push him to the hospital morgue before hurrying home.

On March 5, a Russian sniper began firing on anything moving south of the high school.

Auntie Lyuda was shot in the morning. That afternoon, a father and his son stepped out of their gate to go for a walk along their street, Yablunska, or Apple Tree Street. “They shot my son,” his father, Ivan, said. “I was next to him. It would be better if it had been me.”

He asked that only his first name be published. Many residents in Bucha were frightened after weeks under Russian occupation and asked that their surnames not be published for fear of retribution at a later stage.

“He was suffering the whole night and died at 8:20 a.m.,” Ivan said of his son. The family buried him in the front garden under a huge mound of earth. “It’s very hard to bury your child,” Ivan said. “I would not wish that on my worst enemy.”

His son left behind an 8-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter. “I cannot look my grandson in the eyes,” Ivan said.

Yablunska Street, where they lived, soon became the deadliest stretch of road for passing civilians. A man on his bicycle was struck by fire from an armored vehicle in early March, as video recorded by the Ukrainian military showed. By March 11 there were at least 11 dead bodies lying on the street and sidewalks, satellite footage showed.

A ransacked house, a body in the cellar

It soon became apparent why the bodies had remained in place so long.

Troops started searching homes and ordered residents not to go outside. “They were going yard by yard,” said Valerii Yurchenko, 42, a mechanic living near the river. A Russian commander warned him not to go out on the street. “We have orders to shoot,” the commander said.

The soldiers confiscated cellphones and computers. Some were polite but still ordered families to leave their homes near the bases and go to a nearby kindergarten.

“They handed me my walking stick,” said Tetiana Masanovets, 65, who was among those told to leave. The soldiers turned her house into a pit, using one room as a toilet. “They stole everything,” she added.

As more troops arrived, they drove their armored vehicles straight into people’s gardens, crushing metal gates and fences and parking with their guns trained on the street.

Volodymyr Shepitko, 66, fled with his wife when a Russian armored vehicle barreled through their back fence. They took shelter in a basement of School No. 3. Russian soldiers were also using the school and the residential complex behind it for mortar positions.

On March 9, Shepitko, a retired water engineer, slipped back to fetch some food from the house and found Russian soldiers living there. He described them as “kontraktniki” — contract soldiers, men who are often experienced fighters but notorious for abuses and acting with impunity. They had parked their armored vehicles across the street and were sleeping and heating water in the house, Shepitko said.

The soldiers made a sarcastic comment about Ukrainian fascists, testing his loyalty. “I thought I would be shot,” he said, “and I kept silent.” They demanded his cellphone but his dog barked so furiously at them that they backed off and let him go.

It was only when he returned after the Russians pulled out of Kyiv that Shepitko discovered just how far the Russian soldiers had gone. His house had been ransacked, filled with rubbish and beer bottles. Then, in a cellar under the garden shed, his nephew discovered the body of a woman. Slumped sitting down, bare legs akimbo, she wore a fur coat and nothing else.

She had been shot in the head, and he found two bullet casings on the ground. When the police pulled her out and conducted a search, they found torn condom wrappers and one used condom upstairs in the house.

The abuse of the woman was one case of many, said Ukraine’s official ombudswoman for human rights, Lyudmyla Denisova. She said she had recorded horrific cases of sexual violence by Russian troops in Bucha and other places, including one in which a group of women and girls were kept in a basement of a house for 25 days. Nine of them are now pregnant, she said.

She speculated that the violence came out of revenge for the Ukrainian resistance, but also that the Russian soldiers used sexual violence as a weapon of war against Ukrainian women.

A walk to fetch water turns deadly

The city had been without electricity, running water, gas or internet since early March, and thousands of residents, still in their homes, were living in freezing temperatures, sleeping in their clothes, under layers of blankets.

Six people in a home for seniors perished from hunger, cemetery workers who collected the bodies in early April said. The lobby was icy cold, and four of the dead had congregated in a sunroom across the garden. At the house next door, the same workers had cut down a woman who had hanged herself from a branch.

For 10 days in the middle of March, Tetiana Sichkar, 20, took to walking with her parents to see her grandmother, whose house had a wood fire and an outdoor stove where they could heat water and cook. Every day they took the same route, through the woods and over the railway tracks.

On March 24, it had seemed quiet again, until a shot rang out on the way home.

“It was so loud, I could not hear anything,” Sichkar said. They all fell to the ground at the same time. Her mother lay silent. “I called to her but she did not move,” she said. She lifted her head and saw the blood — on her mother’s face, her hair, and pooling on the road.

Her mother, who is also called Tetiana, a homemaker, 46, died where she fell. The Russian soldiers later detained her husband, cuffing him and putting a bag over his head when he asked to retrieve his wife’s body. They let him go later that night, dumping him still handcuffed and blindfolded in a different part of town.

In a bizarre episode, they allowed her stepfather to retrieve Sichkar’s body and gave him a brand-new red car — which turned out to be stolen — to take her away in. The family buried her in the garden the next morning and parked the car inside the gate.

Lyudmyla, the mother of the dead woman, echoed what many civilians in Bucha noted: As the war progressed, the mood and behavior of the Russian troops grew uglier. “The first lot were peaceful,” she said of the Russian soldiers, asking for her surname not to be published. “The second lot were worse.”

Some of the violence seemed cynical, designed to terrorize, but Russian troops were particularly suspicious of men of fighting age, often accusing them of being members of the Ukrainian defense forces before taking them away for questioning.

Natalya Oleksandrova, a retired optician, said soldiers detained her nephew, saying they would take him for two days of questioning. They held him for three weeks. After the Russian troops left, neighbors found him dead in a basement. “They shot him through the ear,” she said.

Revenge killings add another threat

In the last week of March, Ukrainian forces mounted a counterattack to retake the northwestern suburbs of Kyiv. Fighting intensified sharply in Bucha, and Russian units began preparing to pull out.

One of their last acts was to shoot their detainees or anyone else who got in the way. In a clearing on one street, the police later found five members of a family, including two women and a child, their bodies dumped and burned.

At least 15 people were found dead with their hands bound, in various places around the city, indicating that more than one Russian unit detained and executed people. Five bodies were found in a cellar in a children’s summer camp, which Russian units had used as a base. Others were found on Yablunska Street, and more in the glass factory.

In the nearby village of Motyzhyn, revenge played a large part in the death of the mayor, her husband and her son, who were found buried on the edge of the village. There were signs of torture: broken fingers on their son and contusions on the mayor’s face, inflicted before they were shot by Russian forces angry that the Ukrainians had destroyed a truck and an armored vehicle.

“It was revenge,” said Anatoly Rodchenko, a retired high school physics teacher whose son is married to the daughter of the slain mayor, Olha Sukhenko. Rodchenko had watched the excavation of the grave, which also held three other bodies.

In accounts corroborated by a local military commander, residents described how a Ukrainian ambush that blew up the armored vehicle and supply truck led to a flurry of Russian violence targeting civilians.

The following day, a Russian armored personnel carrier drove down a street, firing randomly into homes with a heavy machine gun, said Serhiy Petrovsky, the head of a local unit of civilian volunteer soldiers. He doesn’t know how many people were wounded or killed, but said that after the Russians departed, he collected 20 bodies in and around the village, from this episode and others.

“They shot everything,” said Rodchenko. “They shot at houses. They shot a woman on the street. They shot at dogs.”

The same day, Russian soldiers detained Sukhenko, 50, her husband, Ihor Sukhenko, 57, and their son, Oleksandr, 25, Rodchenko said. The bodies of all three were found in the grave.

“I just don’t understand,” said Rodchenko. “OK, the mayor helped the Ukrainians. But why Oleksandr? What did he do?”

Of the Russian army’s presence in the village, he said, “it was like a nightmare.”

A joyous phone call, then silence

In the days after Ukrainian troops retook control of Bucha, police and cemetery workers began collecting the corpses scattered everywhere, heaving black body bags into a white van. In the mud on the back doors, workers had written, “200,” the word in Soviet military slang for the war dead.

By April 2, they had collected more than 100 bodies, and by Sunday the number had risen to more than 360 for the Bucha district. Ten of the dead were children, officials said.

On April 3, Marta Kirmichi was searching frantically on the internet for news from Bucha. Originally from Moldova, she had lived in Ukraine, near the city of Chernihiv, with her husband and son for 10 years.

She had last spoken to her husband, Dmitrii Shkirenkov, 38, in mid-March. A construction worker, he had left home a month earlier to go back to his job on one of the new property developments in Bucha.

Cellphone coverage was patchy, but he had managed to call his wife early on March 9. “He said, ‘People are being shot here but I am alive,’” she said. The second time he called, it was around 5.30 a.m. and he woke her up. “He said in such a voice, ‘Honey, I am alive.’ He sounded really happy.” The call, just 30 seconds long, made her happy, too, but she did not hear from him again.

Then she came across the first horrifying photographs of men lying with their hands bound on Yablunska Street, beside pallets and construction materials. She recognized her husband instantly. He was lying face down, his hands hidden underneath him.

Later, she found another photograph — he had been removed, but the two bodies nearby still lay there. She hopes that, just maybe, he had been wounded and taken to a hospital.

Of the 360 bodies found through this weekend in Bucha and its immediate surroundings, more than 250 were killed by bullets or shrapnel and were being included in an investigation of war crimes, Ruslan Kravchenko, chief regional prosecutor in Bucha, said in an interview. Many others died from hunger, the cold and the lack of medicine and doctors, among other reasons.

Sitting in his car, Kravchenko flipped through files and photos of corpses on his cellphone. He said he expected more cases as the police continued to find bodies and information kept pouring in. Overall, in the broader Bucha region, there were at least 1,000 deaths in the war, he said.

The dead are overwhelmingly civilians. Only two members of the Ukrainian military were among those killed in Bucha city, according to Serhiy Kaplychny, an official at the city cemetery.

The Russian brutality has outraged most of the world and stiffened the resolve of the West to oppose President Vladimir Putin’s bloody invasion.

“The level of brutality of the army of terrorists and executioners of the Russian Federation knows no bounds,” the ombudswoman, Denisova, wrote. She appealed to the United Nations Human Rights Commission to “take into account these facts of Russian war crimes in Ukraine.”

Some of the worst crimes — including torture, rape and executions of detainees — were committed by troops based at the glass factory in Bucha, local residents and investigators said. The regional prosecutor, Kravchenko, said investigators found a computer server left behind by the Russians that could help them identify the men behind the violence.

“We have already established lists and data of servicemen,” Kravchenko said. “This data runs to more than a hundred pages.”

Ukrainian investigators also have an immense resource from organizations, citizens and journalists who have posted more than 7,000 videos and photos on a government internet hub,, the state prosecutor, Iryna Venediktova, said.

“What is very important here is that they are made in such a way that they are admissible evidence in court,” she said. “That is 7,000 with video evidence, with photo evidence.” Yet a long and laborious process of identification lies ahead.

Kirmichi still has no information about her husband, the construction worker, and when she called one government office, she was told to wait one month for news.

She sounded forlorn and tearful on the telephone. “There are only two of us, my son and me, and we are not giving up hope,” she said.

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