In a Kyiv suburb, ‘they shot everyone they saw’

BUCHA, Ukraine — When a column of Russian tanks drove into the Kiev suburb of Bucha in the first days of the war, Tetiana Pomazanko thought they were detaining Ukrainian soldiers and went to their front gate to check.

But the troops opened fire on Ms. Pomazanko, 56. Bullets smashed through the wooden gate and fence around her home, killing her instantly. Her body was still lying in the garden on Sunday, where her 76-year-old mother had covered her with plastic sheeting and wooden boards as best she could.

“They drove up the street,” said her mother, Antonina Pomazanko. “She thought they were ours.”

Ms Pomazanko’s killing is just one of many uncovered days after Russian troops pulled out of the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv after weeks of bitter fighting. On Sunday, Ukrainians were still finding the dead in courtyards and streets amid mounting evidence that civilians had been deliberately and indiscriminately killed.

Serhiy Kaplishny is a coroner in Bucha who worked there from February 24, the day of the invasion, until his escape on March 10. He returned to Bucha on Saturday. He said his team has collected more than 100 bodies so far during and after the fighting and Russian occupation.

Mr Kaplishny said that before leaving Bucha – as back-and-forth fighting raged and then the Russian army took control – he had buried 57 bodies in a cemetery. Fifteen of those people had died of natural causes, the remainder from gunshot wounds, including gunshot at point-blank range, or from shrapnel. Three of the bodies were those of Ukrainian soldiers, he said.

Before leaving the city in March, he said he hired a local backhoe operator to dig a mass grave in the courtyard of an Orthodox church. Without electricity to cool it, the morgue had become unbearable and another solution had to be found. “It was horrific,” he said.

After his departure, the mass grave filled with about 40 bodies, he said, of people who died during the Russian occupation. Local coroners from his office who remained in town collected some of those bodies, he said.

During a Sunday visit to the mass grave – about a dozen meters long and two meters wide – there was a pile of excavated earth piling up on bodies nearby. In one corner two pairs of shoes and an arm stuck out of a thin layer of dirt, and in another a hand stuck out. Half a dozen black body bags had been dumped into the pit at the top of the pile.

At the end of the day, back in town, he said he picked up about 30 other bodies in a white van. Thirteen of them were men who were handcuffed and shot in the head at point-blank range. He said he does not know the circumstances of their deaths but believes they were prisoners killed before the Russian army left, given their apparent recent deaths.

“They were civilians,” Mr Kaplishny said, showing cellphone pictures of dead men in civilian clothes with their hands tied behind their backs and in one case facing the front.

In the pictures, eight bodies lay with their hands tied in a courtyard of a house and five in a basement, he said. “Look, he was shot in the eye,” Mr Kaplishny said.

The careless shooting of Mrs. Pomazanko on February 27 at 10:00 am was one of the first actions of Russian troops in Bucha.

After her mother covered her daughter’s body, she said, “I buried her a bit during the night.”

“There was so much shelling I didn’t know what to do,” she added.

In the courtyard on Sunday, the dead woman’s feet in woolen socks and galoshes stuck out from under the boards next to the path on which she had been standing.

Svitlana Munich, a former classmate of the dead woman, stood next to her in tears. “They shot everyone they saw,” she said of the Russians. “They also shot the gas line, and her mother was in the house.”

The Russian troops also suffered terrible casualties on the first day as they pushed further into the city.

A major thoroughfare in Bucha — Vokzalnaya, or Bahnhofsstrasse — was impassable on Sunday, littered with wrecked Russian tanks and armored vehicles, fallen cables and burned debris. Scores of Russian soldiers were killed, local residents said, when the column of Russian tanks came under a drone attack.

Several of the houses on one side of the street caught fire, but some of the Russian soldiers who survived the blast escaped into people’s yards, local residents said. Two bodies in the garden of a house up the road are likely those of Russian soldiers, said Kostiantyn Momotov, who lived nearby.

The men had removed their army uniforms and boots, he said, pointing to a camouflage jacket on the ground, and put on civilian clothes, possibly to avoid capture, he said. Both men had been shot in the head.

After the drone attack on the column, it took a week for Russian reinforcements to arrive and take control of Bucha on March 4, several local residents said. After that, the Russians parked their tanks at main intersections and in people’s yards and conducted house-to-house searches, they said.

Russian troops seized the house of Iryna and Roman Davidovych, a large three-story mansion at one of the main intersections, and parked armored vehicles at every corner of the yard. The Russian soldiers confiscated their phones and computers, they said, and took over the house, pulling mattresses out of the beds and laying them on the main living room floor. Displaced, the Davidovychs stayed in the basement.

“We sat in the basement,” said Mr. Davidovych. “Grenades flew and bombs.”

“I have many Russian friends, but these men were not good,” said Ms. Davidovych. Some of the men were in their 40s and appeared to be experienced soldiers, she said. They sat in the upstairs rooms and shot out the windows at the streets below, she said, opening the window to show.

A body in light blue fleece lay in the intersection next to the house, hunched over the steering wheel of a crushed car. It was not clear how the person died, but the car appeared to have been smashed by an armored vehicle.

“They shot, shot,” said Mrs. Davidovych. “And they made a terrible mess and stole things.” Most of the time, the soldiers took socks and T-shirts, she said. But her husband showed where they had pulled two safes into the yard with their tanks and broken open.

There were also young soldiers, said Ms. Davidovych. One named Vanya was only 19 years old and told them he dreamed of being wounded and sent home.

“He understood that they were occupiers,” she said.

Galina Levitskaya, 60, a retired teacher, said she has had no negative experiences with the enlisted Russian soldiers patrolling the city. She got the impression, she said, that they had orders to be polite and share their food rations, which they did. “They helped us carry bags,” she said.

A unit of ethnic Chechen fighters, who were bearded and wore black uniforms, searched next door, she said. When an inmate answered the door, they said, the militants generally just looked for weapons and left. If no one answered the door, she said, they would kick it in to search it.

Others fared far worse. Vitaly Sinadin, a 45-year-old sculptor who hobbled down a street on Sunday afternoon, said he was tied to a metal pole for two days in a concrete block house used as a base by Russian forces.

“They hit me and asked, ‘Where are the Ukrainian soldiers?’ and ‘Who in town is in the Territorial Defense Force?’” – a reference to the volunteer units that sprung up in the early days of the Russian invasion. A spreading red-and-black bruise covering his thighs and back matched his account of the extensive beatings.

On Sunday afternoon, a man lay dead on his back on a road leading west out of Bucha, his green bicycle overturned beside him. Shot through the face, he had a large hole in the back of his head.

Further along this road – in a clearing in a pine forest on the outskirts of the village of Dmytrivka – earlier in the day police had pulled the body of a Russian soldier with a burned face and uniform from the turret of an explosive tank. According to his documents, he was 22 years old and came from Buratyia in Eastern Siberia.

In the late afternoon, the destroyed tanks were dusted by a snowstorm that swept over Kyiv. In that still, eerie scene, the soldier’s body still lay undiscovered.

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