BUCHA, Ukraine (AP) – A dead body is found in the basement of an abandoned yellow house at the end of a road near the railroad tracks. The man is young, pale, with a dry drop of blood coming out of his mouth, he was shot and left in the dark, and no one knows why the Russians brought him there, in a house that did not belong to him.
There is a pile of toys near the stairs of the basement. Pieces of plastic clothesline flutter on a blank line under a cold, gray sky. All that’s left of the ordinary is on this dark end of the road in Bucha, where pieces of tanks have been snatched from burnt-out vehicles, civilian cars have been crushed, and empty Russian military rations and bottles of wine next to shells— Ammo boxes have been kept.
The man in the basement is almost an idea, another body in a city where death abounds, but there are no satisfactory explanations for it.
A resident named Mykola Babak points to the man after contemplating the scene in a small courtyard nearby. Three men were lying there. One eye is missing. On an old carpet near a body, someone has placed a handful of yellow flowers.
A dog runs from a wheelbarrow around the corner, excited. The wheeler holds the body of another dog. It has also been shot.
This story is part of an ongoing investigation by The Associated Press and Frontline that includes the War Crimes Watch Ukraine interactive experience and an upcoming documentary.
Babak stands, a cigarette in one hand, a plastic bag of kitten food in the other.
“I’m very calm today,” he says. “I shaved for the first time.”
At the beginning of their month-long occupation of Buka, he said, the Russians kept very much to themselves, focused on further progress. When that stopped, they went door-to-door looking for the youths, sometimes carrying documents and phones. Ukrainian resistance was overwhelming them. The Russians seemed more grumpy, more impulsive. Sometimes they seemed intoxicated.
When they first went to Babak, they were polite. But when they returned for his birthday on March 28, they started shouting at him and his brother-in-law. He put a grenade on the brother-in-law’s armpit and threatened to pull the pin. He took an AK-47 and opened fire near Babak’s feet. Let’s kill him, one of them said, but the other Russian told him to leave it and go.
Before he left, the Russians asked him an outstanding question: “Why are you still here?”
Like many people living in Bucha, Babak is 61 at age. It was not that easy to leave. He thought he would be spared. And yet, in the end, the tense Russians accused him of sabotage. He spent a month cooking food over a fire, without electricity, without running water. He was not ready for this war.
The Russians probably weren’t either.
Around 6 p.m. on March 31, and Babak remembers this clearly, the Russians jumped into their vehicles and left so quickly that they left behind the bodies of their comrades.
“We were fine on this road,” Mykola says, taking stock of the occupation. In Buka, everything is relative. “They were not shooting anyone who came out of their house. On the next street, he did. ,
Passing through Buka, the Associated Press encountered two dozen witnesses to the Russian occupation. Almost everyone said they saw one body, sometimes several more. The civilians killed, mostly men, were sometimes picked up at random. Many people, including the elderly, say that they themselves were threatened.
Survivors, investigators and the world would like to answer the question why. Ukraine has witnessed the horrors of Mariupol, Kharkiv, Chernihiv and the surrounding Irpin. But images of this city an hour’s drive from Kyiv have found themselves in the global consciousness like no other. Mayor Anatoly Fedoruk said the number of civilians killed as of Wednesday was 320.
Vladislav Minchenko is an artist who helps collect bodies.
“It certainly seems very, very intentional. But it’s hard to know what else was the motivation,” said a senior US defense official this week speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the military assessment.
The residents of Bucha, when they move out of cold houses and cellars, offer principles. Some believe that the Russians were unprepared for a protracted battle or had particularly undisciplined fighters. Some believe the door-to-door targeting of youths was the victims of men who fought Russians in separatist-held eastern Ukraine in recent years and were given housing in the city.
By the end, any shreds of discipline were broken.
Grenades were thrown into the basement, bodies were thrown into wells. In the 70s women were told not to take their heads out of their homes or they would be killed. “If you leave the house, I will follow the order, and you know what the order is. I will burn your house down,” Tetyana Petrovskaya recalled a soldier telling him.
At first, the Russians behaved, says 63-year-old Natalia Alexandrova. “They said they had come for three days.” Then he got hungry. They got cold. Started looting. He shot on TV screens without any reason.
He feared that there were spies among the Ukrainians. Alexandrova says her nephew was seen filming destroyed tanks with his phone on March 7, after which he was detained. Four days later, he was found in a basement with a bullet wound in his ear.
A few days later, thinking the Russians were gone, Alexandrova and a neighbor set out to lock up nearby houses and save them from being robbed. The Russians captured them and took them to the cellar.
“They asked us, ‘What type of death do you prefer, slow or fast? Grenade or gun? They were given 30 seconds to decide. Suddenly troops were called, leaving Alexandrova and her neighbor shaken but alive.
The Russians, says Sergei Radetsky, became desperate when it became clear that they would not be able to advance on Kyiv. The soldiers were only thinking how to loot and how to get out.
“They needed to kill someone,” he says. “And it’s much easier to kill civilians.”
Associated Press journalists Rodrigo Abd, Oleksandr Stashevsky, Felipe Dana and Vadim Ghirda in Buka and Lolita Baldor in Washington contributed.
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