Life amid the rubble: A family in Bucha on their way to visit relatives.
Foto: Roman Pilipey / epa
Russian soldiers shot and killed hundreds of civilians in the town of Bucha, just north of Kyiv. DER SPIEGEL went there to talk with survivors about their shocking experiences under the occupiers.
Irina Gavrilyuk, 42, has returned home. But what does it mean to return when there can be no going back to the way things were? Irina’s house on Ivan Franko Street is still standing, to be sure. But everything in and around it is dead. The bodies of three men, all shot dead, are lying in her yard. One of them is Sergei, Irina’s husband. Another is Roman, Irina’s brother. She doesn’t know who the third man is. Irina’s dogs are also dead. One of them was shot and is lying in the wheelbarrow, the other is in the destroyed doghouse. “They destroyed all life,” says Irina. “How can I move back here?”
It is the first day that Irina is seeing the wreckage of her old life. Bucha, a quiet, leafy town near Kyiv was liberated at the end of March. The Russian troops who occupied the place for a month have withdrawn. But with the town’s liberation, the full extent of their crimes have been laid bare: for Irina, who had fled to western Ukraine; for her neighbors, who were unable to leave their homes – and for Europe and the world.
Since Vladimir Putin sent his troops across the border into Ukraine on Feb. 24 – for a “special military operation,” as he described it – there have been several indications that war crimes have been committed. Russian troops have demolished the port city of Mariupol and fired indiscriminately at residential districts in Kharkiv. They have abducted civilians, raped women, looted shops and homes – and they have killed.
But in Bucha, their violence against the civilian population unfolded in a particularly horrific manner. Hundreds of people were murdered. Overnight, Bucha became synonymous with the brand of warfare that Putin is pursuing in Ukraine. Just as the world once had to learn the names Srebrenica and Račak to discuss atrocities committed in Bosnia and in Kosovo, it is now learning the name Bucha.
Bucha means that in Ukraine, Putin’s Russia is prepared to follow the blueprint it established in Chechnya and Syria. And in doing so, it is prepared to gamble away its own self-image. “We are a people of victors” and “We are a people of liberators”: These principles, wrote the pro-Kremlin foreign policy expert Sergey Karaganov in 2021, must be part of Russia’s ideology.
Yet in Bucha, Putin’s Russia did not achieve victory, nor was anybody liberated. Instead, it experienced a military and moral fiasco. Both are closely connected.
Ivan Franko Street, where Irina Gavrilyuk’s house is located, could be a wonderful place in the springtime. A lake and a forest are both a short walk away, the fruit trees are in bloom and little can be seen of the new buildings going up in the city. Bucha is a bedroom community, with Kyiv just a 30-minute commute by train to the southeast. Irina’s husband also worked in the capital, as a security guard in the city center.
The last time Irina saw him was on March 5. The war had been underway for just over a week by then. “When the warplanes flew overhead, the whole house shook,” she says. She left the city that day, but Sergei stayed behind. He didn’t want to abandon the animals they had taken in: two dogs and six cats. Irina fled across the Irpin River and onward to western Ukraine. Ten days later, she received a final call from her brother: “Don’t worry,” he told her.
She doesn’t know why Sergei and Roman were killed. Neighbors told her that the third man in her yard had been shot by the Russians because he had ventured out onto the street while searching for better mobile phone reception. The occupiers were wary of men speaking on the phone, fearful that they could be passing along coordinates for an artillery attack. Any man under the age of 60 was in danger of being shot, says Irina. Inside the house, the presence of her husband’s murderers is still felt like a shadow: The Russians lived in her bedroom as the dead bodies decomposed outside.
Residents who didn’t flee the invading Russians are standing on the street outside Irina’s home and listing off all those who were killed or who disappeared without a trace. They come up with over a dozen names just within a 200-meter radius. They have just discovered the brothers Vitya and Yuri, with their bodies lying in the drainage ditch beneath the railroad embankment. A young man was found in the basement of the neighboring house, killed by a bullet to the head. And further to the north, on Rydzanych Street, the body of an older man has been lying since early March. He, too, was shot in the head. At the very beginning of Franko Street, there is a pile of six charred bodies. Dogs have gnawed at the remains and pulled a leg off to the side.
Almost every resident of the town has a story to tell of barbarity or threats from the Russian troops. “Do you want to die quickly or slowly,” a soldier demanded of Tatyana, a saleswoman with dyed-red hair. She was sitting with Grisha in the cellar and the Russians were furious because their armored personnel carrier at the end of the street had been hit by the Ukrainians. They suspected that a resident had betrayed their position. “If you want to die quickly,” the soldier said, “then I will pull this pin out of the hand grenade and throw it into the cellar and in 15 seconds, you will no longer exist. Dying slowly means a shot in the knee.” Tatyana responded: “I want to live. I know nothing.”
Just how the violence came to Bucha and spread there over the course of a month: It cannot be understood, merely described.
The story, like the entire war, began with a bang – a dramatic airborne maneuver that didn’t just take the residents of Bucha by surprise, but also the entire world. It was indicative of what Putin had in store for Ukraine.
The Russian president had hardly announced the beginning of a “special military operation” in the early morning hours of Feb. 24 before dozens of Russian helicopters were already racing at low altitude toward the Hostomel Airport, just a few kilometers north of Bucha. An army spokesman in Moscow would even claim that 200 helicopters took part in the assault.
It was a perfect surprise attack. CNN reporter Matthew Chance, who had got wind of the fighting at the airport, raced to Hostomel and asked the soldiers there: “Where are the Russians?” “We are the Russians,” came the response. It became clear that Putin had hoped to conduct the invasion as a blitzkrieg. He wanted to advance rapidly on Kyiv and topple the government there without having to wait for the ground troops to catch up. He needed the Hostomel airfield as a springboard for that effort.
For the residents of Bucha, that meant that the war was starting on their doorstep. They had figured that their suburb would be safer than the capital of Kyiv. Instead, they were seeing swarms of helicopters outside their windows.
Three days later, on Feb. 27, it became clear that the Russians’ attempt to rapidly seize the Hostomel Airport had failed. Russian airborne troops had gained a foothold, but the Russian forces were unable to use the airfield as Ukrainian special forces put up fierce resistance. In the fighting, the pride of Ukrainian aviation was destroyed: the only Antonov An-225 in existence – the largest airplane in the world. The entire airport quickly became covered with rubble, burned-out armored vehicles and munitions.
With that, the rapid takeover of Kyiv had failed. But in the meantime, Russian ground troops had arrived from Belarus in the north, charged with pushing southward in preparation for the encirclement of the capital. With that, the war came directly from Hostomel to Bucha. A long column of tanks and armored vehicles drove through the city and had almost left it again when it was shot to pieces in Vokzalna Street. Gun turrets and tank tracks flew into the yards lining the street and the vehicles were gutted by flames. It was an astonishing precision strike in an urban area.
Some residents joined in the fighting as well. One of them was Ruslan, whose name has been changed for this story. A 50-year-old former police officer, Ruslan has a poorly stitched scar running up from his left ear across his head. Like other men in his part of town, he was furious about the Russian attack and exhilarated at the Ukrainian army’s victory. “Some men ran over to see what had happened and to kill Russians,” he says. “Those who didn’t belong to the army or to the Territorial Defense Forces wanted to get their hands on a Kalashnikov or hand grenades.”
Ruslan claims that he also killed a Russian whose armored vehicle had been hit. Since he didn’t have a weapon, he strangled him. “It just happened. I guess it had to be that way,” he says. When he jumped down from the armored vehicle, Russian soldiers fired on him and a bullet grazed his head, slicing open his scalp.
On March 3, the Ukrainian army released a video showing soldiers flying the Ukrainian flag from the Bucha townhall. The message was clear: Bucha is back in our hands. In truth, though, the Russians were just beginning their second assault. And they had learned from their defeat on Feb. 27. They now knew that they weren’t just fighting the Ukrainian army, but that the population surrounding Kyiv was also against them. This time, they were better prepared. They pushed forward with a larger number of troops, advancing simultaneously from the north and the west. And they proceeded systematically.
Streets were scoured, homes searched. The “зачистка,” the sweep operation, wasn’t just handled by regular troops, but also by men wearing black uniforms, likely police units. The front line now ran along the southern edge of the city, with the Ukrainians still holding on in Irpin, the neighboring town to the south.
Ruslan’s apartment complex was also searched, with soldiers breaking down the doors of empty apartments. They were looking for men who had served in the Ukrainian military. Once the search was over, one of the Russian soldiers returned and forced his way back into Ruslan’s apartment. “You son of a bitch, where are the weapons?” he demanded. Ruslan was forced to undress and they examined his tattoos. He had to kneel down with his face to the wall, the barrel of a gun held to his temple. Two shots were fired, right by his head. A fake execution. “I thought to myself: I heard the shots, so I must still be alive. It’s a good thing my family didn’t have to see that.”
The occupiers divided the city into five sectors. They drove their tanks and armored vehicles directly into front yards, crushing fences and taking up positions between the residential buildings. The people of Bucha became human shields to protect the Russians from Ukrainian artillery fire coming out of Irpin to the south.
They set up one of their larger quarters in a former children’s summer camp called Promenystya, located on a forested rise in the northern part of town. Its walls are adorned with Soviet mosaics on the walls show dancing children. In the damp cellar, there are pools of blood, along with bullet holes in the walls, a shot-up Reebok hat and shell casings. After the liberation of Bucha, five bodies were found here in the cellar, their hands tied behind them, their bodies showing signs of torture: broken noses, bleeding, bullet holes in their legs. A video of the cellar made the rounds.
Alexander Litvin was also locked up here after a group of five soldiers had stopped him on the road in front of the camp. He was carrying a mobile phone in his pocket. The Russians asked him where the Ukrainian military was, bound his hands behind his back with zip ties and punched him in the face. “I still don’t know what it was that I supposedly did wrong,” Litvin says.
Five other men from the area were already in the cellar when he was brought down. They were able to escape the next morning when a Russian sentry left his post. Nikolai, one of those who had been in the cellar, was seized by the Russians again later and shot to death.
There is also a video of tied up bodies from the industrial park at Yablunska Street 144. Among them are likely the men that the neighbor Marina, 51, saw on March 3 when they were still alive. “There were four or five men kneeling with their hands tied behind their backs and their T-shirts pulled up over their heads,” she recalls. Later, she was able to see their dead bodies from her home.
The bodies are no longer there, but the scene is still grim. A German shepherd, shot dead, lies among empty vodka bottles, ammunition boxes and rations packaging. A parachute flutters in the wind. At the entrance to the factory floor lies a defused booby trap. The occupiers apparently lit the building on fire before leaving, with piles of paper and burned-out cars still smoldering.
Anatoliy Fedoruk, the mayor of Bucha, says that 290 residents of the town were shot during the Russian occupation – not by salvos of artillery or rocket strikes, but by bullets. Fedoruk speaks quietly and clearly. He has been in office for two decades, and some locals feel that he left them in the lurch since he was neither seen nor heard from during the occupation.
He says he went into hiding. The invading Russians arrived in Bucha with a list of names of political activists, veterans of the fighting in the Donbas and their families – and local politicians. “It was a printed list, two pages long, with 40 or 50 names. Luckily, I was listed as ‘Fedorchuk.’ That error may have saved my life,” he says.
He says he only ventured back to his home on one occasion during the occupation. The Russians, he said, were staying there. He claimed to be a simple city employee and then left again. The secretary of the city administration, Taras Shapravskiy, also went underground, donning a white smock and mixing in with the aids at the city hospital. Shapravskiy is from Luhansk in the Donbas and experienced the war and displacement there in 2014. He sent his wife and child out of Bucha before the Russians arrived. He says that out of a population of 42,000, more than half initially remained.
Electricity and the internet were cut as soon as the Russians arrived, and not long later, water stopped flowing as well. The city emptied out. A deal was struck with the Russians to begin the city’s evacuation on March 9 via a so-called “green corridor” to Kyiv. City officials in the capital had made bright yellow school buses available for the operation with especially large windows so that the Russians could plainly see that only civilians were leaving.
On March 9, around 4,000 residents were gathered at the meeting point on Energetykiv Street. But their waiting was in vain: Because of Russian shelling, the first buses were only able to leave Bucha the next day. The evacuation then continued uninterrupted for 11 days, with around 20,000 residents leaving the city. When the Russian troops pulled out of Bucha in late March, only 4,000 to 5,000 people remained in the city, Shapravskiy estimates. Bucha is almost empty.
Of the 290 dead, a third have been provisionally buried next to the Church of St. Andrew in two pits, one of which is still open. Some of the bodies have been placed in black body bags, but others are just lying in the sandy soil. Snow and wind have stripped the top layer such that an arm can be seen here, a leg there.
The first pit, containing 54 bodies, was dug already on March 10, shortly after the Russian occupation began. The second, for 40 bodies, followed just a couple of days later, says Sergey Kaplychny from the community funeral home.
Other bodies were buried in yards and parks or are still lying on roads and in homes. Around 40 additional bodies are piled up in body bags at the cemetery on Vishneva Street. Some were shot simply because they were out and about – like the 22 dead bodies along Yablunska Street, the photos of which were the first to reach the public eye. They were likely killed by snipers, as evidenced by the large exit wounds in their heads.
For others, their telephones became a death sentence. Internet and mobile coverage were cut off at the beginning of the occupation, along with electricity and gas, but there was still enough reception on the top floors of buildings to send text messages. That allowed city officials to collect information about Russian positions and send them on to the Ukrainian military, says Shapravskiy. “Every mobile phone was a potentially deadly weapon for the Russians,” he says. When people were searched, the first thing the Russians looked for were mobile phones.
Men of military age were most frequently among the victims, say several residents. “And those who replied to the occupiers by speaking Ukrainian were immediately seen as nationalists. Most people here speak Russian, or at least they don’t speak perfect Ukrainian,” says a man from Franko Street.
The soldiers who were in Bucha during the occupation were from across Russia. According to Ukrainian statements, there were paratroopers from Kostroma and Ryazan, naval infantry from Vladivostok, special forces from Chechnya and mechanized infantry from Russia’s far east. Some locals say that even Belarusian police were involved.
Because the troops frequently rotated, it is difficult to say which units committed what crimes. It is also unclear which atrocities were committed randomly and which were the product of direct orders. It is clear, however, that some Russian units were not very disciplined. The looting and the quantities of liquor and whiskey bottles left behind by the soldiers are evidence of this.
Russia has rejected all responsibility for the death of Bucha citizens. “The whole situation in Bucha is a well-staged insinuation, nothing else,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed this week.
The Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, however, intercepted Russian military radio traffic
from the region north of Kyiv in which the murder of civilians was apparently discussed. In one of the intercepted exchanges, a man can apparently be heard saying that soldiers should first be interrogated and then shot. The exchanges seem to indicate that the atrocities were no accident. The BND says that the soldiers talked about the murders as though they were part of their day-to-day lives.
Yevgeniya and her daughter Varya – whose names have been changed for this story – are among the few locals who interacted with the Russian soldiers almost throughout the occupation, as their neighbors on Ivana Franka Street were hiding in their cellars. “We were constantly trying to calm them down. Sometimes, they wanted to light the entire neighborhood on fire. Sometimes, they wanted to throw a grenade into a house. Sometimes, they said: Come on, I’m going to kill you,” says Varya. “They were totally crazed, young guys, a lot of them with Asian features. Some kind of Buryatians.”
One tall soldier who went by the alias “Giraffe” took a particular interest in Varya. “It’s better if she does it with me than with the others,” he said. In tears, a horrified Yevgeniya showed the soldier her daughter’s birth certificate. “She’s not even 14! Look at how her room is decorated!” She also pulled out the epaulettes of her late father, who was a Russian and served as an officer in Vladivostok, and showed them to the soldier.
“He said: ‘If not her, then you,'” Yevgeniya says. “My old mother had to watch. I told her: Mom, please don’t scream, don’t cry and don’t cuss them out.” While Yevgeniya was being raped, the others sat around giggling. “Aunt Sveta told me: ‘Be careful, they are completely deranged. Be brave.'”
Evening after evening, Yevgeniy and Varya listened to the brutal jokes told by the drunken soldiers. They didn’t want to say what units they belonged to, nor did they say where they had taken the neighbors. “They said: ‘You’ll find them. We burned some of them,'” Yevgeniya recalls.
On or around March 20, as the fighting was getting closer to Bucha and an armored vehicle was hit, the violence on Ivan Franko Street increased. The soldiers started looking for someone to hold responsible and threatened Yevgeniya’s daughter. “They came into the yard,” Varya says. “‘Tell us everything! We know that you know something!’ They started firing over my head and over my shoulder.”
Then, on the morning of April 1, they were gone.
New bodies are still being found in Bucha every day. The search has now moved from the streets and front yards into the homes themselves. Victims are also being reported in surrounding towns. The settlement of Borodyanka was almost completely destroyed by the fighting. In Motyzhin, the local village head was abducted by the Russians and later found dead in a sandpit nearby, together with the bodies of her husband and son.
Reports of crimes committed against the civilian population are also coming from other parts of Ukraine. From the beginning of this war, the vicious siege of the port city of Mariupol has been symbolic of Russian brutality. Now Bucha has been added to the list. Who knows which place will be the next epitome of cruelty? The Russians may have withdrawn from northern Ukraine, but it is now feared that they are massing for a major assault on the Donbas in the east.
The tone in the Russian media has become even more aggressive lately. Recently, a commentary appeared in the state-owned news agency RIA which can only be read as an incitement for genocide. The author urges that no soldier belonging to the Ukrainian military be pardoned and that nothing be left of the name of the country. The people of Ukraine, he demands, must be re-educated, the goal is “de-Ukrainizing Ukraine.”
It is unclear when the crimes committed in Bucha might go before a court and which court it might be. Ilya Novikov, once a star lawyer in Moscow before moving to Kyiv, is now a fighter in a Ukrainian volunteer battalion. He shows up to our interview in a black pick-up and is dressed in olive green. The battalion is being financed by former President Petro Poroshenko.
Novikov and his comrades have begun collecting video footage from Bucha, the provenance of which is clear and can thus be used as evidence in court. But he doesn’t have high hopes that proceedings will start anytime soon, especially not in an international court.
The International Criminal Court in The Hague has, at least, already sent investigators to Ukraine. And the former court judge Wolfgang Schomburg believes that initial charges could be filed against Russian troops as early as this year. He also thinks that an arrest warrant for Putin himself is possible in the mid-term.
Hopes for some form of justice is one of the few things left for many people in Bucha.
With reporting by Melanie Amann, Dietmar Hipp, Matthias Gebauer, Katja Lutska, Nikita Ilchenko, Maximilian Popp and Fidelius Schmid