‘They Were Killed For Us’: Ukrainians Bury Their Dead — and Accuse Russian Army of Mass Murder
BUCHA, Ukraine — Three hundred people follow the three coffins down the streets of the small Ukrainian village. Olga, Ihor, and Sashko Sukhenko’s funeral procession winds through the village of Motyzhyn, 27 miles from Kyiv. Olga Sukhenko had been elected the head woman of the village for the past 14 years.
“They were killed for us,” says Halyna Mukha, “They could have left, but remained to help us, to provide for us.” This is a sentiment other residents repeat to me.
According to multiple villagers’ accounts, Russian soldiers, who occupied the area in the early stages of the Russian invasion, kidnapped Olga and her husband, Ihor, on March 23. Six hours later, they returned to take the couple’s adult son, Sashko. On April 3, their mutilated bodies were found in a nearby forest.
“My kids, my birds, I love all three of you so much, to whom should I come and say goodbye?” Olga’s mother says when the procession halts in front of the family’s house. Each coffin is covered with the Ukrainian flag. “I asked you to leave, you said you need to stay?” She leans toward her daughter’s body. Sashko’s friends keep a photo of him wearing his football uniform, but also a picture of a smiling happy family.
During the month of the Russian occupation, Olga remained behind to help her people. The family delivered bread and much-needed medicine to the villagers. One thousand people lived in the town. The youngest fled the advancing army, but the majority stayed. Olga’s family used their car to evacuate people who couldn’t escape on their own. The town’s power was knocked out early in the war, so Sashko would drive to where he could charge the phones of elderly ladies so they could talk to their loved ones. “He called them ‘my girls'” says Tetyana, one of Olga’s colleagues in the regional government.
The collective grief over the killings here is overwhelming. “We will never have anybody like her; for all these years there was no question she wasn’t able to resolve,” Mukha tells me, anguished and in tears.
After the liberation of Motyzhyn, the body of a man with visible signs of torture was found in a well with a rope around his neck; a woman who disappeared during the occupation has yet to be found. The investigation is ongoing.
“Couldn’t they just torture them, but keep them alive?” one older village woman says and weeps.
There is no question among the residents as to why Olga’s family was executed. They were punished for being who they are, the townspeople say: Ukrainians who care about their community. This happened all across Ukraine. In the early stages of the war, hundreds of smaller villages closer to the Russian border were overtaken. In most of them, village authorities remained loyal to the Ukrainian state, even if only passively, and didn’t support the occupation. So the Russians lashed out.
In many occupied villages and towns in other Ukrainian regions — Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Kherson — there is the same pattern. The families of local authorities, if not executed, have been targeted, threatened, and abducted. The villagers all say the Russians also looted, pillaged, and robbed.
Now that Russia has withdrawn from the area around Kyiv, the damage and suffering becomes ever more clear. I spent the last week with a photographer interviewing and surveying the damage around Kyiv. Throughout the area, the residents presented damning evidence that the Russian army is guilty of war crimes as they were pushed back from the region. Now, as the Russians are reportedly readying for a new offensive in eastern Ukraine, the people here prepare to once again face an army willing to brutalize the civilian population.
Bucha, a Kyiv suburb of 35,000, became infamous after the discovery of mass graves, making it clear that Russia committed atrocities there. It is estimated that up to 400 people were murdered under the Russian occupation.
Ukrainian authorities are cautious about giving an exact number of deaths.
Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova stands in front of a damaged supermarket in Bucha, at a stop where humanitarian aid is delivered, and talks to the press. She explains how authorities count the deaths and how the investigations are ongoing: “At first we were opening criminal procedures after each case, but it became impossible,” she says. “We have up to 2,000 people killed all over the country; this doesn’t include Mariupol, where allegedly 5,000 were murdered. But there are way more cases. It’s even more difficult with the cases of rape. A person can report about the rape herself, but it’s impossible in occupied areas — people are shy. So now we have 13 cases of rape by the Russian troops under investigation, but this figure tells us nothing. I know there are more. We are opening cases of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and also genocide. … Russia is aiming at Ukrainians as people”.
Venediktova meticulously selects her words and corrects journalists demanding clear answers, explaining that things are “still being investigated, and it’s up to the court to provide judgment, not prosecutors.”
Venediktova is a former law professor from Kharkiv University. Now she dresses in a khaki jacket and a baseball cap. I recall how exactly three years ago I interviewed her in my studio, when she wore high heels and a bright-green suit — Zelensky’s campaign color. Before the elections, I had asked her whether she, an academic, would be able to enter the dirty world of Ukraine’s politics. Three years later, she has to lead an investigation into crimes against humanity.
A few hundred meters away in a courtyard, I notice eight fresh graves.
Three women, five men. “Unknown” is written on one of the crosses.
“An elderly man from our house was walking his dog and was shot by a sniper,” Iryna, a local who sheltered nearby in her son’s apartment, tells me. “Another man was also walking his dog and shot. There were two elderly people who died and were buried.” Iryna is from Chernihiv, a regional capital close to the Belarusian border, which was under siege until recently. That’s why she didn’t consider it an option to leave Bucha.
When we ask who dug the graves, she looks uncomfortable, feeling a kind of survivor’s guilt that it wasn’t her. “You know, not everybody is capable of doing such things,” she says. “There are people strong enough to do so. We were not.”
Serhii Matyuk has been volunteering to help bury the dead in Bucha. A tall, bald man in a bright-blue jacket, he stands near a car marked “Cargo 200” — the code word referring to casualties for transportation in the Soviet army. I see him removing six burned bodies found in the outskirts of the town.
Matyuk started to collect bodies while still under the occupation. “We came to one street to pick up the bodies and managed to do so, but in the next street we were caught up under shelling,” he tells me. He says that most of the bodies he collected were men, however, there are also women, the elderly, and children.
Just within the past two days before we talked on April 4, he counted at least 19 executed men who had been handcuffed. “I have seen with my own eyes that their bodies had signs of torture,” he says. “Their legs had been shot in some cases, but in the end, they were shot in the back of the head.”
He shows photos on his phone to confirm his words. It’s impossible to count the number in the gruesome picture.
Dozens of journalists try to photograph a mass grave near the central Andrii Pervozvanny church. Andii Holovin, dressed in plain clothes, turns out to be a local priest. He explains to the reporters that it was not the Russians who dug a mass grave but the Ukranians. The Russians had left the dead on the street. Since Feb. 26, the third day of the full-scale Russian invasion, it had become impossible to move around the town because of the constant shelling, but it was also risky to confront the occupiers. Holovin remembers the date well because it was the last church service he could serve.
Without access to the local cemetery, the townspeople had started to bury their dead — both those who were killed and those who died due to illness or old age — in residential areas. So local authorities, together with the church leaders, decided to make a temporary grave near the main church. Now, the bodies are being exhumed and taken for examination and reburial. Kyiv regional police have confirmed that many of those found in that grave died from bullet wounds.
While driving and walking around Bucha a few days after the liberation, I count at least four male bodies — three who died because of shelling, and one elderly man who was shot while riding a bicycle from a grocery store. I could clearly see bottles of yogurt and other food that had fallen from a plastic bag lying near him.
The Russians had taken over school Number 3 as one of the positions from which they launched attacks. There are a lot of empty bottles of beer, wine, and champagne left, right behind packs of the Russian army dry rations and hundreds of empty boxes of ammunition. In a few, I find papers with signatures of the military personnel who packed those combat kits in 2015, all from unit Number 74268. It takes a minute to find out that this is a paratrooper division based near Pskov, which is situated in northwestern Russia, close to the border with Estonia.
Near the school there are a few private houses where the Russians billeted, all ransacked. PlayStations, 10 pairs of running shoes, a TV set, a lawnmower — these are just some of the items locals told me were stolen. But first, the soldiers had searched for money, turning things upside down so the houses looked like robbery scenes.
The Russians call their army “the second best army in the world.” “The second best” has become a meme in Ukraine, for the army whose soldiers are stealing anything they can carry from Ukrainian homes.
CCTV cameras at the post office in the town of Mozyr, in Belarus, close to the Ukrainian border, showed the Russian military sending parcels of the stolen goods to their homes. Among the things they have shipped is a motor for a yacht.
The residents of Borodyanka, another occupied town near Kyiv, where 12,000 people live, say they were looted three times, because there were three waves of the Russian army that passed through. The first took the most-precious things and were the least violent. The second wave was angrier. But the worst was the third — little remained for them to steal.
Mykola Ivanenko worked for a municipality in Kyiv, but his house is in Borodyanka. When he saw the Russians advance, he moved to the outskirts with his extended family, where he stayed and tried not to go out.
Now, he walks near the debris of a tall house, where an acquaintance lived. Here, a bomb exploded with such strength that the whole block was demolished. “The people who were in the basement were buried alive,” Ivanenko tells me. “It was at the end of February. There was still a mobile connection there, so other residents were able to call the Emergency Service. But the rescue workers were not able to reach the town under occupation.”
Covering the Russian war in the Donbas, I was used to a different level of destruction. Compared with mortar fire, the Grad rocket launchers were the worst. Now, compared with the bombs being dropped, the Grad looks like a minor weapon. Nothing could be compared to an airstrike. Only the skeletons remain of some tall buildings. What feels unusual is the destruction of modern, newly built buildings, so similar to the ones in European and American neighborhoods. Bucha, Irpen, Hostomel, and Borodyanka are middle-class suburbs of Ukraine’s capital, where many of my colleagues could afford to buy bigger and better flats than in Kyiv after they married and had kids. The only solace is that compared with other parts of the country, more people here had cars and could afford to escape to safer Ukrainian regions, or even abroad.
Some reports have said that outrage has grown now that the world “learned about Russian soldiers killing civilians in Bucha.” Yet in early March, when journalists were filming evacuations and talking to the people who were able to escape Bucha and Irpin, we were told about dead bodies on the streets, mass graves, and executions. Though there were numerous accounts of horror, we couldn’t verify them until the towns were liberated. We had hoped the people had been exaggerating, but the violence turned out to be worse. Today, we are receiving similar accounts of alleged crimes under the Russian occupation in Kharkiv, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. The press is not able to go there yet, but talking to those fleeing from those areas today, we cannot say that we do not know.
“Change your housing for the better,” “Sunny residency,” “Elegant town, “Flats in Bucha center” — these are just a few of the billboards that still stand in Bucha. Some of them are untouched, while the streets around them are burned, or full of wreckage. Standing in the street, for a moment I am numb: Seeing and hearing the evidence of war crimes takes a toll. I calm myself with the idea that in the end, this is the place where my friends, my colleagues once lived and I need to be. I know I will be back here many times. In Bucha there are still more stories than anybody is capable of recording. And this is just the beginning: We owe it to the dead and missing to tell their stories and to try to find some measure of justice, no matter how long it takes.