A man lay sprawled on the side of the road in the Ukrainian city of Bucha on Sunday, hands tied behind his back and a gunshot wound to the head, one of hundreds of local residents officials say have been found dead after five weeks of Russian occupation.
Bucha’s deputy mayor Taras Shapravskyi said 50 of the dead residents found after Russian forces pulled out of the city late last week were victims of extrajudicial killings by Russian forces, and officials accused Moscow of war crimes.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement released on Sunday that all photos and videos released by Ukrainian authorities alleging alleged “crimes” by Russian troops in Bucha were a “provocation” and no residents of Bucha suffered violence at the hands of Russian troops have.
Reuters could not independently verify who was responsible for the killing of the dead residents.
But three bodies seen by Reuters reporters on Sunday – the body with his hands tied and two others who didn’t have his hands tied – bore bullet wounds to the head, consistent with what Bucha Mayor Anatoliy Fedoruk said and his proxies referred to as executions.
In all three cases there was no evidence of other significant injuries elsewhere on the body. All three people who were shot in the head were men and all three wore civilian clothes.
The body of the person whose hands were tied had powder burn marks on his lips and face. Such markings can mean that a person was shot at point blank range.
The cloth binding the man’s hands appeared to be a white armband. While in Bucha, Russian troops required local residents to wear the armbands to identify themselves, according to one woman, who was still wearing her armband.
Reuters sent questions to the Kremlin and Russia’s Defense Ministry about the bodies its reporters saw, but received no immediate response.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in its statement on Sunday, “During the period that Russian forces controlled this settlement, not a single local resident was a victim of violence.” She added that before the March 30 withdrawal, Russian troops weighed 452 tons provided humanitarian aid to the civilian population in the Kyiv region.
Shapravskyi, the deputy mayor, said around 300 people were found dead after the Russian pullout. Of those, he said, officials have so far logged 50 as executions carried out by Russian forces. Reuters could not independently verify these figures.
The others were either killed in the crossfire or their deaths remain unexplained.
“Every war has some rules for using civilians. The Russians have shown that they are deliberately killing civilians,” Mayor Fedoruk said as he showed one of the bodies to Reuters reporters.
Reuters also spoke to a local resident who described one person being found dead after Russian troops arrested them and another local resident who described two people who were found dead with single gunshot wounds to the head.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the residents’ descriptions.
Sobbing, Tetyana Volodymyrivna pointed to her husband’s shallow grave, a shot of vodka with a cracker resting on freshly dug earth, and recounted an ordeal by Russian troops in this town 37 km (23 miles) northwest of Kyiv.
She and her husband, a former Ukrainian marine, were dragged from their home as Russian troops set up their command center in their building. The soldiers held them captive in the apartment building where they lived.
She said the Russians, when they arrived in the city, asked people who they were and demanded to see documents.
She said a fighter in the Russian armed forces, who she believed was from Russia’s semi-autonomous region of Chechnya, had warned he was “cutting us open”. She didn’t say how she knew he was Chechen.
Reuters sent a request for comment to the office of Chechnya leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a Kremlin loyalist, but received no response.
Tetyana, who identified herself by her first name and patronymic but did not give her last name, was released after four days in detention. Her husband was nowhere to be seen for several days until she was told of some bodies in a stairwell in the basement of the building where she and her husband lived.
“I recognized him by his sneakers and pants. He looked mangled, his body was cold,” she said. “My neighbor still has a picture of his face. He was shot in the head, mutilated, tortured.”
Reuters reviewed the photo, which showed the face and body were severely mutilated. The news agency could not determine whether it was a gunshot wound.
After recovering her husband’s body, she and some neighbors buried it in a garden plot near their building, just deep enough “so dogs wouldn’t eat it,” she said.
Another body still lay in the stairwell where her husband was found, a Reuters reporter saw. Local residents covered the body with a bed sheet as a sign of dignity.
“SHOT IN THE LEFT EYE”
Around the corner, another grave contained the remains of two men, a resident told Reuters. She said the men were taken away by Russian troops. She didn’t see them killed. When the bodies were found, both were shot in the left eye, she said. Six other residents gathered near the tomb said their account was correct.
One of the residents said she recognized one of the dead as a tenant of the apartment complex, who she said was a retired member of the Ukrainian military.
Bucha was taken in the days immediately following the February 24 invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces pushing south, capturing the disused Chernobyl nuclear reactor and moving south towards the capital.
Bucha and the northern outskirts of nearby Irpin were the point where the Russian advance from the northwest was halted after meeting unexpectedly heavy resistance from Ukrainian forces.
The area witnessed some of the bloodiest fighting of the Battle of the Capital until Russian forces withdrew from northern Kyiv. Moscow said in late March it would regroup to focus on fighting in eastern Ukraine.
On Saturday, Ukraine said its forces had retaken all areas around Kyiv and were now in complete control of the capital region for the first time since the invasion.
On Sunday, the streets in Bucha were littered with duds. Rockets erupted from the tarmac near burnt-out tank wrecks. Some residents scrawled “Beware, mines” on their walls in chalk after finding booby traps or missiles on their property.
Resident Volodomir Kopachev said Russian troops had set up a missile system in a vacant lot next to his garden. When a Reuters reporter came to visit, boxes of ammunition and spent shell casings were lying on the floor.
Kopachov, a Ukrainian dog breeder, mourned.
He said his 33-year-old daughter, her boyfriend and a friend were shot dead by Russian troops after they fired a party streamer at them just days before withdrawing. Kopachov’s wife said they fired the streamer as a gesture of defiance, with no intention of harming the soldiers.
“It’s so hard going through all this,” said the 69-year-old, “when 10 Alabai, a breed of prized Central Asian Shepherd Dog, barked in his backyard.
Kopachov said he hadn’t ventured outside the gates of his home in a month. “They killed [people] on site. Nobody asked: “Who are you, why are you outside?”. The men were just shot.”
The Kremlin denies having invaded Ukraine and says it is conducting a “military special operation” to demote Ukrainian forces, targeting military installations rather than launching attacks on civilian areas.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Sunday in Hostomel near Bucha: “This is not a special operation, these are not police actions… These are brutes who simply committed crimes against civilians.”
(The story has been refiled to correct a spelling in paragraph 3.)