Something terrible happened in the basement of the children’s summer camp in Bucha. You could see the trash and tins in the steps that led to it from below. Volodymyr Rosslik, camp groundskeeper stood at the bottom and raised his eyebrows at me. He wanted one more reason to consider going in.
It looked almost like an airless tunnel that ran behind this door. The concrete walls separated the rooms into a series of cramped torture chambers. The room in front appeared to have been used for executions, with its walls covered in bullet holes. The next room contained two chairs, a empty jug, and a plank of wood. The Russians brought two bedsprings made of metal and placed them against the wall. According to Ukrainian investigators the table suggested torture to prisoners here. They were interrogated and tied to their bedsprings; waterboarded, and then strapped to the plank.
“The signs of torture were also on the bodies,” says Taras Shapravskyi, the deputy mayor of Bucha. He told me that five dead civilian men were discovered in the chamber. “They had burns, bruises, lacerations.” It was dark when the groundskeeper took me there the following week and shined a flashlight in the room where they had lain. There were two trails of blood that ran along the wall, one near a fleece hat with what appeared to be a bullet hole.
Dead bodies found in the basement of a children’s summer camp
Anastasia Vlasova—Getty Images
In the first days in April, the Russians withdrew from Bucha, a commuter town located 15 miles away from Kiev. Bucha used to be a well-known place in Kyiv. It was a great spot to escape, drop off kids at the summer camp, or to take them to a ropes course known as the Crazy Squirrel. Bucha, now a synonym for war crimes such as Srebrenica (or My Lai), is synonymous with the city. Numerous bodies littered streets following the Russians’ departure. In the churchyard, a large mass grave remains. Many shops and residences are still vacant. Local authorities claim that more than 400 civilians died in the area. Nearly all had fatal gunshot wounds. “These were not the victims of shelling or aerial bombardment,” says Mikhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “These were intentional killings, close up and systematic.”
The Russians established a garrison inside the camp, where they terrorized the area by shooting civilians and taking prisoners into the basement. Witnesses and local officials told me that the Russian occupying force showed a complete lack of military discipline. Empty liquor bottles lay among snipers’ nests dug beside a playground. An administrative building was littered with cigarette sticks and dirty mattresses. It also had a strange collection of loot that the inhabitants took from nearby homes. One room was left by the Russians with a heap of hair, which they had cut using clippers. In another area, two large pieces of human excrement lay on the floor. “This was no army,” says Roslik, the camp groundskeeper. “This was a horde.”
On April 4, mourners gathered at a mass cemetery at the Church of St. Andrew in Bucha.
Scenes of depravityThe course of war in Ukraine has changed because they have left behind a legacy. The Russian army’s crimes, described in both Kyiv and Washington as a campaign resembling genocide, have hardened the will of Western governments to arm Ukraine and narrowed the space for a negotiated peace. Leaders across Europe visited Bucha in order to experience the destruction. Zelensky was the focus of their support, and they made new promises to Zelensky. They also promised military assistance in excess of a billion dollars from the European Union.
“You stand here today and see what happened,” Zelensky told reporters on a visit to Bucha April 4, days after the Russians withdrew. “We know that thousands of people have been killed and tortured,” he added, “with extremities cut off, women raped, children killed.” Less than a week later, at least 50 more Ukrainians—nearly all of them women, children and the -elderly—were slain in a rocket attack against a train station in Kramatorsk, where they had gone to flee the country’s eastern regions, the focus of the war’s next phase.
David Arakhamia was the Ukrainian leader in negotiations with Moscow. According to him, Bucha has made it difficult for Bucha to confront the Russian envoys. “We wanted to stop the process altogether,” he told me. “We wanted revenge, not diplomacy.” But Zelensky urged the team to carry on, “even if there is only a 1% chance of peace after Bucha,” says the negotiator, who has continued holding talks with the Russians almost every day.
Investigators also traveled to Russia in an effort to find evidence of possible war crimes. France’s experts have sent their team to assist Ukraine with gathering documentation for an international tribunal. “The evidence is mounting,” U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters on April 12. “I called it genocide because it’s become clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to wipe out even the idea of being Ukrainian.”
Moscow is aware of how terrible this situation is. The Foreign Ministry in Moscow has accused Ukraine of “staging” the massacre to make the Russian forces look bad. Putin called Bucha a “fake.” His propaganda channels offered theories to undermine the grim reality with doubt. In videos from Bucha, they suggested that “crisis actors” had disguised themselves as corpses. They claimed that “foreign mercenaries” came to town and killed people after the Russians withdrew.
The barbarism was just too obvious and too visible to many. Local government estimate that approximately 3700 civilians remained in town after the occupation. Evidence from below supports the claims made by the victims of looting, torture and murder.
Gala and Veronika, her daughter, hid in their home during the occupation of Bucha. Gala with her blue hair claimed that soldiers came into her house twice daily, threatening to kill them, and terrorizing the surrounding area.
Before the invasionBucha’s life revolved around St. Andrew’s Church, which has golden domes that rise from the hill above city hall. As a result of fighting for control over the town’s airport, Father Andriy Hlavin, the parish priest, officiated at a funeral. His sermon at the cemetery was drowned out by helicopters and explosions.
For several days, the battle continued. Russian troops needed the airport in order to invade the capital. To stop them, Ukrainian forces fought a fierce battle, with shelling of the runways, blowing up bridges, and even destroying the railway tracks. “All of this was happening over our heads—the flames, the booms,” Halavin recalls.
The control of Bucha was changed at least twice before Russians were able to take the city in the first week March. It had been a costly battle, which angered them. There were more than 12 destroyed Russian personnel carriers and tanks parked on the streets. As the Russians dug in, they set up artillery positions in a local school and moved into the dormitories at the children’s summer camp.
Halavin had considered leaving his church as a place of refuge for the locals. He says that he decided to change his mind when the Russian troops started going from house to house and knocking on doors, leading entire families out onto the streets. The walls were left with deep gashes after the fire hit the church. “The soldiers were shooting at anything that moved. Men, women, children,” Halavin told me. “To cross the street was to stare death in the eyes.”
The priest hid his robes in his bag and tried his best not to be seen. The priest sneaked back to the church several times over the course of the one-month occupation to pray and get candles for his own home. After the first week, Bucha’s smell began to be overwhelming. It was unsafe to transport bodies to the cemetery because of how full the morgue was. The road was littered with victims, or the soil was just sufficient to repel the dogs.
The local coroner asked Halavin for help in organizing a burial at the churchyard. The priest agreed. The priest agreed. “There was no way to have a ceremony or any sermons at the grave,” he says. “It was all done quickly, with a few hurried prayers.”
Children’s toys and bicycles lie inside a damaged apartment building in Bucha on April 3
It was a trench. still there, in the church’s shadow, when the congregation gathered for Sunday mass on April 10, their first since the end of the occupation. Many of the dead bodies had been exhumed, and were sent to the morgue where they would be properly buried. To keep the crows away, a long sheet of plastic was placed over the bodies that remained in the pit.
Olha Ivanitska, an elderly parishioner, saw two of her friends as she limped into the church’s vestibule. She hugged them, and she touched their cheeks with both her hands. “You’re still alive,” she said. “We’re still alive.”
They felt lucky. As they emerged from their homes, from their basements and bunkers, the people of Bucha often found their friends missing or dead, their streets full of wrecked military vehicles, their neighbors’ homes shelled into rubble.
Residents set out on assessing the damages and reconstructing. Leonid Chernenko is a school janitor. 3 returned to school on April 10, to find out what the Russians stole. “All the computers are gone,” he told me while fumbling with the keys to the boiler room. But that was just one problem. The school was not inspected by sappers for mines or booby traps. There were more than 100 empty Russian artillery boxes in the schoolyard, along with empty beer bottles and military rations. Many of the windows were broken.
Many of the Bucha victims still rest in temporary graves around the school. One of them is at the edge of the children’s summer camp. Igor Kasenok lives next to me and told me that he excavated the grave in March. Kasenok explained that the Russian man who was inside the grave had approached them on foot. He was shot by the soldiers and then left there.
Kasenok discovered the corpse in the street on the following day when he was going to get firewood for his basement stove. This basement had been a messy warren that Kasenok shared with many neighbors, as well as their animals, during his occupation. Kasenok made a cross from some board and gave the deceased man the dignity that comes with a funeral. “They could have shot me too for that,” he said while showing me the plot.
Bucha’s mass grave, April 9
Sergei Supinsky—AFP/Getty Images
As we spoke, Kasenok’s wife came out, trailed by a pair of cats. Then we started to discuss their grandchildren. The three children live near Luhansk (a region of Ukraine that the Russians invaded in March). Kasenok and his wife haven’t heard from them since.
It was difficult to comfort them, so I stumbled and remembered the nearby summer camp. After Bucha’s rebuilding, I thought the children might be able to visit there and have a play. “Better to raze the place,” Kasenok answered. “It’s a place of killing now.”
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