vOkzalnaya, a street leading from the train station to the city center, is a shocking example of how Bucha has become a somber symbol of the violence and brutality of the Ukraine war.
Three quarters of the street is filled with the charred skeletons of Russian tanks ripped apart by Ukrainian missiles. Every house on both sides has been damaged, some by flying pieces of armor lying in gardens or embedded in walls.
On the narrow stretch past the last tank stop are fragments of bones and blood from civilians who were killed by the Russians and then left their bodies behind for weeks.
“They were left to rot after they died as if they were garbage bags,” said Dimitrou Zamohylny, a Bucha resident. “Back then, swarms of crows sat on the corpses, pecked out and ate eyes. I never thought I would see something like this happening, in fact it is happening near my own home. How can anyone imagine something so bad in an ordinary place like this.”
But Bucha is no longer just “an ordinary place”. The city, northwest of Kyiv, with a population of 36,971 at the last census, is now in the international spotlight for dire reasons: the massacre of hundreds of its residents – women, children and men, young and old – which is demanding that Vladimir Putin stand trial for war crimes is provided.
The Russians have withdrawn from Bucha, as they had done from a number of cities from where they were supposed to launch a pulverizing attack in order to achieve Mr Putin’s ostensible basic goal – to seize Kiev and install a regime more accessible to Moscow.
The Ukrainian president, who has survived attempts to depose him, including assassination attempts, arrived in Bucha on Monday accompanied by tour buses full of media. He wanted to show what he called “genocide,” mass killings repeated in other villages and towns under Russian occupation.
“We know of thousands of people who were killed and tortured, with severed limbs, raped women and murdered children… Dead bodies were found in barrels, basements, strangled, tortured,” said Voldymyr Zelensky, who wore an anti-aircraft jacket.
But Mr. Zelensky is still willing to negotiate with those who inflicted such suffering. “It’s very difficult to talk when you see what they’ve done here,” he admitted, calling for talks to be speeded up. “The longer the Russian Federation drags out the meeting process, the worse it is for them, for this situation and for this war.”
The President, his entourage and the media present left. The people of Bucha again tried to pick up the pieces, queued for food deliveries, tried to make damaged houses habitable again, visited the wounded in hospitals, searched for missing family members and friends and got on with life as best they could.
The dead, some with their hands tied behind their backs, some hooded, some shot in the back of the head, are being removed from the hollowed-out and blackened streets by Ukrainian troops and volunteers.
The Russians appear to have placed many of those killed in mass graves. The largest is behind the All Saints Church of St. Andrew and Pyervozvannoho, where the estimated number of burials ranges from 60 to about 320 or even more.
Mounds of brown earth tower over a 45-foot pit into which bodies in black plastic bags have been hurled. Some of the pockets have burst, legs and arms are sticking out. Beneath the buried limbs have loosened, rising from the earth; One palm is cupped as if pleading.
There was another grave in the woods 18 miles west of town. Among the bodies found there were those of Olga Sucheko, the mayor of the nearby town of Motyzhyn, her husband and son. According to the mayor of the neighboring town of Kopyliv, her fingers and arms were broken.
There are still bodies in houses. One is that of 89-year-old Alla Minorava, who was found lying on her bed with bloodstains on her arms. She had died on March 25th. Russian soldiers who occupied her house told neighbors they shot her.
“They didn’t say why they shot her. It’s hard to find a reason, she was an old woman, she was hardly a threat to her,” said Sergei Malyk. “A lot of the murders here don’t make any sense, they killed other old people like her and young boys and girls.”
Ms. Minorava’s grandchildren were among family members who hid in a basement while the Russians searched the place. Goods from the house, including a washing machine, were stolen and others, including a television set, were destroyed.
“Those hiding in the basement, especially the children, were scared. They could hear the Russians getting drunk and destroying the shop above them,” said Mr. Malyk. “But at least they didn’t die like poor Alla.”
Sergei Simolenskiy, 50, is convinced he only survived because of his tattoo. “They arrested me a couple of times. Once they made me stand with my hands against the wall for over three hours,” he said.
“In the end they had a gun in the back of my mind, I could hear the safety click and I knew they were going to shoot. Then they saw my tattoo and realized I used to be a Marine and they let me go.”
Mr. Simolenskiy served in the Soviet Armed Forces in the early 1990s and was deployed in the war in Georgia. Now he says he feels nothing but anger at Russian troops in Ukraine.
“We all know that Putin is behind this disaster. The Russian soldiers told me they follow orders, but they are soldiers, they know what a war crime is.
“You’ve done some terrible things. I’ve seen them arrest people, tie them up and shoot them in the head. How many did they kill? I’d say around 600 or 700. They left the bodies on the street, I saw a dog eat a man’s head one day. There are many dogs on the street because their owners have left or disappeared. Some of these dogs have become vicious, running in packs, attacking children.”
Natalya Yakovenka was a lonely figure standing on the sidewalk looking at a house. It belonged to her missing brother Artem. “He had sent his family away and was living alone,” she said. “We heard that the Russians took him because he used to be in the Ukrainian army. But he’s handicapped, he couldn’t fight anymore. I heard they might have found a body, but where? Is it in a morgue, in a grave?”
Serhiy Kaplinsky, a Bucha coroner, said he and his colleagues have collected around 100 bodies so far. He had buried about 60 bodies in the cemetery before fleeing the city on March 8 after hearing that Russians were rounding up local officials. Fifteen died of natural causes, he reported, and the rest suffered shrapnel wounds or were killed by gunfire, including at point-blank range.
Andriy Klionchonduk was shot in the leg during the fighting on Vokzalnaya.
“There was so much shelling, so many rockets, I didn’t even hear the shot,” he said. “But I suddenly felt pain and then I felt wetness. it was my blood That was on February 27th when all those tanks were destroyed. Many Russians were killed that day. I think they killed a lot of people in revenge for that. They also arrested many.”
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry has released photos of a torture room in a barracks used by the Russian armed forces. The bodies found there were kneeling when they were gunned down, and at least one had been shot through the knees before being executed, Kyiv’s military claimed.
The Russian troops had taken over the backs of looted shops for their quarters near the train station. What was left were mattresses on the floor, bedding from nearby houses – one blanket had the motif “I love New York”. Graffiti on the outside wall proclaimed “Russian Strength”. A small field beyond was littered with empty and broken alcohol bottles.
On the outskirts of Bucha lay another pile of Russian tanks that had been hit. Ukrainian soldiers salvage what they can from the wrecks. They also pulled out bodies belonging to young men, broken and burned beyond recognition, part of the deadly toll in the gruesome Battle of Bucha.