BUCHA, Ukraine – The corpses, charred and partially dismembered, lay strewn amidst a pile of rubbish on land along the edges of a forest. Scraps of ragged clothing clung to shreds of skin. Who was a man, who was a woman, who was an adult, who was a child – it was not possible to determine at a glance. A severed, badly burned leg was located some distance away.
This board was about 100 yards from a playground with swings and slides, tucked away in shaded woods.
A Ukrainian forensic team, each member wearing blue plastic gloves, worked with practical speed. They passed a group of reporters, hid under crime scene tape, and quickly gathered the pieces and placed them in black bags. Some mixtures of parts seemed inevitable, as the corpses were so intertwined. The workers closed the bags tightly and hoisted them in the air to take them to the morgue.
This town northwest of kyiv, the capital, was a pleasant place to live, locals say. An idyll of woods, ponds and parks. Bucha retains a semi-rural vibe despite the inevitable advance of urban sprawl: malls, condo towers, health clubs.
Today, Bucha has become notorious as ground zero for what Ukrainian authorities call a Russian war crime, a killing targeting civilians, some found with their hands tied behind their backs, apparently victims of summary executions. Video footage of victims lying along a street stunned the world and gave fresh impetus to Ukrainians’ demand for more military aid to fight off the assault and new sanctions against Moscow.
People “were killed in apartments, houses, blown up by grenades,” President Volodymyr Zelensky told the United Nations on Tuesday, adding that some “were run over by tanks in civilian cars in the middle of the road.” . To have fun.”
At least 417 bodies of civilians have been discovered in towns in the Kyiv region recently recaptured from retreating Russian forces, according to Ukrainian officials. Who were they all, how exactly did they perish, are questions that remain under investigation as authorities scramble to identify the dead in a war that has dragged into its second month.
Russia has denounced the scenes in Bucha and other nearby towns as fake – a “staged anti-Russian provocation”, in the words of Sergei Lavrov, Moscow’s foreign minister.
Here in Bucha and other suburbs, however, one sees how powerless the world, in its collective outrage fueled by Twitter videos of murders and satellite photographs of troop movements, seems to be to stop the atrocities. Authorities continue to collect bodies from shallow graves, streets, courtyards and other sites, including the vacant lot from which the six victims were removed on Tuesday. The remains of the six, like those of some other victims, were burned in a clumsy effort to cover up the crime, authorities said.
As they round up the dead, officials and the military are also engaged in another task: clearing the many mines, piles of unexploded ordnance and other combat debris left behind in Bucha and other formerly occupied towns. Warning signs, “Danger: Mines”, dot the area. Some buildings could be trapped, warns the army.
But the misplaced munitions and equipment littering the streets were not deliberately abandoned. Their presence is a consequence of Russia’s ignominious strikes on the northern fringes of kyiv and the subsequent withdrawal of its forces. Bucha is not only a cemetery for Ukrainian dead: it is also a cemetery for Russian war material, and possibly the place where Moscow’s apparent intention to quickly storm kyiv and take the capital ran aground.
A street in Bucha starkly bears witness to the hammering inflicted on Russian equipment and the failed ambitions of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The burned remains of a dozen Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers, and at least one tank truck, mark a three-block stretch of town. The scale of the destruction seems paradoxical in this tree-lined street, where chickens peck in the adjacent courtyards. A twisting mess of ammunition, shards of metal, spools of wire, scraps of tires, bandoliers, tank tracks are strewn about – a blackened tank turret sits in the front yard of a house.
It’s a scene of obliteration, as if a fire-breathing giant had vented its fury, tearing machines apart with claws of steel. The wreckage is the result of a Ukrainian ambush, complete with drone strikes, apparently just days after the February 24 Russian invasion. It is not known how many Russian soldiers were killed in the attack and how many escaped. Among the ruins is a military boot with splintered bones visible inside.
Experts combed through the scene, removing potentially dangerous munitions. But journalists were invited to tread the rubble – in a sort of surreal parade – and broadcast images of a routed Russian column around the world.
The houses along this street and others are mostly vacant. For Bucha these days it’s a ghost town. Most residents fled the Russian blitz, joining millions of other displaced people. Curtains flutter through the blown windows of high-rise buildings where no one lives anymore.
Only about a tenth of Bucha’s pre-war population of around 30,000 remains, Mayor Anatoly Fedoruk said. He warned residents to stay away until mines and other hazards were cleared and power was restored.
Residents seeking food and other aid gathered outside a shopping mall on Tuesday that had been hit by artillery and looted. Bullet shells, shrapnel and broken glass litter the field. A scorched power plant stood across the street, its dire state not too promising for workers seeking to restore power.
Stray dogs fought over leftover food in the mall’s vacant parking lot.
Many of the residents crammed outside were older. They were unable or unwilling to flee the Russian onslaught. They appeared on the street like ghosts crouching in the biting cold. Many have lived for weeks without electricity, running water and heating.
“I would just like to be warm again – take a warm bath and be clean,” said Lisa Andreshenko, 46, who was queuing for help. “It seems like forever since we were warm, had a nice hot meal.”
Snow showers blew over the commercial strip.
Despite the circumstances, Leonid Mutnichenko, a 58-year-old pensioner, showed good humor. His family had a secret weapon: an old wood-burning stove that he and his mother had almost thrown away, but which now – without heat or electricity – has come in very handy. He was laughing at the trickery of it all.
He was quick to introduce his mother, Valentina Kusovkova, 80, draped in layers of shawls and condoms. She did not complain of the cold.
She had bigger thoughts: “We have to save our country,” she said.