When Tetyana Bozhko first saw her husband’s body, she screamed. Russian troops had just pulled out of her hometown on March 19th, and villagers were looking around the house the occupiers had commandeered to use as a makeshift headquarters — and apparently a torture chamber and a place of execution.
“When I heard ‘Tanya, Tanya,’ I knew. Serhii’s body was frozen in this horrible pose: one of his hands in one direction, another in a different one. I rushed to him, he was cold. I lifted his clothes, he was all covered in blood. I asked, ‘How can we bury him?’ He wouldn’t fit in the coffin,” Tetyana recalls. The photos taken by the local doctor show signs of torture: a finger without a nail, peeled skin from the palm of his hand, and a fatal bullet hole in his chest.
Serhii had been seized when the Russians had first occupied the town and, according to multiple accounts from villagers, was tortured and executed during the Russian occupation this past March. Tetanya tells me this only days before what would have been his 60th birthday, when I went to the village of Lotskyne in the Mykolaiv region of southern Ukraine. The couple were both retired teachers: She worked in the village school library; he used to teach IT, physics, and math.
The Bozhko case is far from an isolated one. Across Ukraine there have been reports of torture, disappearances and murder wherever the Russians have occupied. Human Rights Watch just released a report accusing Russian troops of apparent war crimes in multiple locales.
The Russians, including militia from occupied Donbas, were in control of Lotskyne for a week — they came on the 11th. Serhii Bozhko was taken from his house on the 17th by men in uniform. For two days, Tetyana says, she rode around the village on her bike, from one military position to another, trying to find her husband and bring him food and medicine.
“Make the life of your husband easier, tell us where is a machine gun!” she says the Russian soldiers shouted at her. “He has stolen our ammunition. He should have been dead.”
Tetyana still didn’t understand why any of this was happening. Serhii was not a soldier or partisan fighter. “I am ready to give anything to get my husband back, but which machine gun?” she pleaded. Tetyana thinks that the accusation of owning a weapon was just a pretext. On the first of two days of the detention, the soldiers brought Serhii home to search for something. He was already wounded, shot in the elbow, yet they didn’t bother to search the house properly or even find where he kept his hunting rifle.
Later, Tetyana was told that her husband was held because he was a former member of the infamous Azov Battalion, the military unit demonized by the Russians. But she insists Serhii had never served in the army and had no connection to Azov whatsoever. He was just vocal about his pro-Ukrainian position, an active member of the community, and had joined some villagers to man a checkpoint at the start of the war. The villagers, armed with hunting rifles, were not capable of confronting a professional army and dissolved as soon as the invading army neared their village.
In the end, Tetyana says Bozhko was one of thousands of outspoken Ukrainians who paid the ultimate price. According to the doctors and other witnesses, Serhii Bozhko was killed some hours before the occupiers abandoned the village. During the funeral, a neighbor told her that her son had also been detained and spent the first night with Serhii. The man decided not to talk to either Serhii’s widow or to journalists, but his mother told me, “He didn’t dare to speak to Tetyana. ‘What should I tell her? How they were torturing him?’”
What is striking about the story of Serhii Bozhko is how ordinary it has become. According to multiple eyewitness accounts, civilians like the Bozhkos have suffered terrible abuse and crimes at the hands of Russian forces. I have spent the past month reporting on the Russian occupation of southern Ukraine, hearing stories of terror and horror again and again, and encountering a civilian population traumatized after occupation and months of grinding war.
Tetyana’s grief is overwhelming. She’s a miniature lady, who wears a headscarf and looks shy, apologizing repeatedly because her yard is messy — Serhii had a tractor, some equipment, and she is not capable of keeping up their place by herself. Yet she becomes firm when explaining the death of her husband: “[The Russians] were small and weak and not able to fight against people with spirits as strong as his. So they tortured him. My only hope is that, knowing this, some people who maybe had doubts would know what the ‘Russian world’ is, and what sorrow and pain it brings.”
When the Russians invaded, political activists, human rights defenders, religious leaders, and former Ukrainian soldiers immediately understood that they should flee or face reprisals. What nobody was prepared for was that anybody who didn’t openly support the invasion — the majority — could become a target of persecution. From the early days of the war, attempts to negotiate civilian evacuation were not successful. In many cases, people were shot at checkpoints when trying to flee, and by the end of May, Russian authorities de facto stopped letting people out.
Despite this, it’s possible to know what’s happening in villages under Russian control. In Kryvyi Rih, the second-largest town in the Dnipro region, the birthplace of President Volodymyr Zelensky, there are now at least 40,000 people who were displaced from the province of Kherson. That’s where I meet Anna Shostak-Kuchmiak, a community leader in Vysokopillya, which is situated just 40 miles away from Kryvyi Rih. It consists of 22 villages in the northern part of the Kherson region, 14 of which are now under occupation.
Shostak-Kuchmiak meets me in one of the administrative buildings on the outskirts of the city, from where she has worked in exile since April. She is 58, was an MP for the village council for 20 years, and a mother of nine kids, seven adopted and some already adults. Vysokopillya was occupied on March 13th. Soldiers from the Russian-controlled Donbas were the first to come to her area. They were poorly dressed, with sneakers instead of military boots, and without helmets.
“Mother, we came for revenge!” one of them told Shostak-Kuchmiak, as the militia searched for former Ukrainian veterans. “Would you help us?”
Shostak-Kuchmiak has a son who serves in the army. She pretended she didn’t know any of the veterans in her community.
Her fellow villagers were complaining to her about drunk soldiers coming to their houses, abusing them physically, and rampant theft. “They were stealing in all the villages — where they were not able to kick the doors, they used military vehicles,” Shostak-Kuchmiak tells me. “And though their leader once organized demonstrative punishment for one looter, on another occasion he was overseeing computers being taken from the school. Something I saw myself.”
A few days after the occupation, the most senior Russian military leader in the area gathered 70 villagers in Vysokopillya. Two ladies were complaining that their family members were missing: The mother of an adult son, who has mental problems, was worried that something happened to him; and a wife was searching for her husband — he was a civilian and worked as a craftsman with wood. The soldiers did not respond to the villagers pleas for answers.
Overall, Shostak-Kuchmiak documented that at least 10 people in her community were missing. There were rumors that some of them were killed or kept in the house on the outskirts of the village. (In the already-liberated Lotskyne, where Bozhko was killed, I visited a similar house turned into a morgue.) Shostak-Kuchmiak went there to visit a man who lived nearby, but before she could speak, he said, “Please be quiet. I am afraid. They [the Russians] buried a few people in my yard, and nobody is alive in that house.”
For most of the occupation, Shostak-Kuchmiak says she was mainly ensuring that her people had food and medicine. She lived in a smaller village, Kniazivka, and was commuting to Vysokopillia on bicycle. On March 30th, the Ukrainian army liberated Kniazivka, and the front line was suddenly in front of her house. At first she stayed home despite being worried about two of her sons, just 17 and 18, before finally fleeing after her house was shelled.
Then her main task was to help the villagers escape from the fighting. Together with the head of the neighboring Novovorontsovka community, Volodymyr Marchuk, 10 buses and six ambulances were sent to evacuate civilians. But when they arrived at the checkpoint, the Russian militia seized Marchuk. His release was negotiated by the evening of the next day, but not before he says he was terribly abused by the Russians.
Volodymyr Marchuk is a large man, 46 years old. In the 1990s, he moved to the Kherson region from Sevastopol, in Crimea, where he was a policeman. While talking, from time to time he takes out a big bag with pills, and takes one. He says his doctors insist he is at risk of a stroke and should not be taking any chances. For this, Marchuk asks for forgiveness, but he refuses to quit working to help people escape the front lines and deliver supplies.
“The soldiers blindfolded me,” he tells me.” I heard shots in the air, and the column leave. One guy accused me of being a spy, threatened to shoot me, and pointed a gun. In a car, another younger guy said, “Father, what have you done, so you’d be killed today?” Then they bound my hands, restrained me. I couldn’t breathe.” He says they then drove for about 20 minutes; he understood he was in a village.
“Two people came, one told me if I moved, he’d put a knife to my head,” he tells me. “Then the interrogation started. They asked who I was.” Marchuk pauses and has to gather himself. “Otherwise I’ll be shaken,” he says. “It’s too hard for me to recall it again.”
When he continues, he says he was kept in a barn, where a man with a Russian accent continued interrogating him. “I had to ask to go to the toilet, “Marchuk recalls. “It was extremely cold, I wasn’t dressed well. In the morning, I felt strange after the water I drank. I don’t want to invent things, but later, doctors told me there could have been some drugs in it. I was praying all the time. That was the moment when I talked to God.”
Marchuk remembered two more people coming and warning him: “We should shoot and slaughter you. If we take off your blindfold and you move your head a knife will go inside it.” Hearing he was a leader of the community, they asked whether he was ‘organizing those fa—ts?’” He remembered himself hallucinating: “I was crying and couldn’t control myself. I was howling and wailing.”
Finally, after more questioning, Marchuk was reduced to babbling. Another man told him, “Volodya, you’ll be at home tonight. We want you to know that we’re good guys.”
“I was never a nationalist, but at that moment the only thing I wanted was to see the blue Ukrainian sky,” Marchuk says. “As one feels thirsty, I wanted to see that sky, and I asked them to let me see the sky before they would shoot me. They insisted they wouldn’t kill me. I was hysterical. But they said it was a goodwill gesture. The attitude changed. In the car they took away my blindfold, and I fainted.”
He was let go and brought back to the checkpoint, where he joined a family driving from the occupation. The fact that Marchuk was in the list of those allowed to leave helped the family to pass as well.
“At the last checkpoint, the soldiers were arguing after they stopped us. I told the driver: ‘Please, drive. Better they shoot me then take me into captivity again.’ When we were allowed to go to the Ukrainian-controlled area, the Russian told me he apologized on behalf of the Russian army.
When Shostak-Kuchmiak recalls that evacuation, she bursts into tears, but largely because the evacuation failed. “In the end, instead of 1,000, [up to] 500 to 570 left two villages a few days later. I rushed to meet them on our side. They were dirty, they walked by foot, some had such an empty gaze. Some asked, ‘Why have you left us? Why did you abandon us?’ People were using wheelbarrows for those who couldn’t move.” But she regrets that largely the most vulnerable, those who can’t walk, are sick or elderly, remained behind.
According to Ukrainian government reports, around 1,000 towns and villages were liberated, but 2,600 are still under occupation. The Association of Ukrainian towns counted at least 53 mayors who were detained at different times; but there are also hundreds of villagers and hamlet heads and representatives.
For 20 years, Russian television was dehumanizing Ukrainians as nationalists — and later, as Nazis. This partially created an environment in which Russian soldiers suspected anybody speaking Ukrainian of being anti-Russian. From talking to human rights defenders and officials across the country, as well as residents who lived through the occupation and volunteers, it’s clear that basic loyalty to the state could be enough to be considered the enemy.
What is important in the case of people like Serhii Bozhko, a teacher from Lotskyne, or a village leader like Anna Shostak-Kuchmiak is that they hardly understand what they are being accused of. “I am a typical Ukrainian lady, and if somebody comes to my house, I’d oppose it,” Shostak-Kuchmiak says. “If I know something evil is going on, I won’t succumb, and my kids are the same.”
To date, the Kyiv suburb of Bucha has become the greatest symbol of Russian atrocities. The chief of Kyiv’s regional police, Andrii Niebytov, told me that out of around 3,000 civilians who died, at least half of the victims weren’t killed in the shelling; they were shot. Parts of southern Ukraine have been under occupation for more than four months. But despite there being no access to the region, there are thousands of refugees who can tell the stories, including the relatives of people missing and hundreds of people, like Shostak-Kuchmiak, who stay in touch with the communities. They are cautious in mentioning names of people in the occupation, but there is enough data to get a picture of the horror of what’s going on.
In July, Ukraine’s President Zelensky announced plans to liberate the Kherson region as a top priority, and the government urged residents of frontline villages and towns to evacuate to avoid becoming trapped during a counteroffensive in southern Ukraine. Fierce fighting has recently started near Vysokopillya, with reports of Russian troops surrounded.
“I remember the happiness I felt when I gave birth to my sons. But there was never a moment in my life happier than when I saw Ukrainian soldiers fighting near my village,” Shostak-Kuchmiak tells me, tears running down her face. “My son is serving, and was wounded. Maybe I am a bad mother for letting him fight, but it’s his choice. We need to liberate our people from the horrors of occupation.”