Bucha Happened: Testimony Of A Siege, Witnesses To A Massacre
Adding evidence of war crimes against civilians emerging in Bucha, an Italian reporter gathers new details and chilling first-hand testimony of the past three weeks of Russian occupation and murder of innocent civilians.
BUCHA — I entered the town with Masha. She is 25 years old, and lived in Bucha for 13 of those years. Monday morning, with her boyfriend Sergei, she filled her car with food, water and cigarettes and joined the military convoy bringing food and other aid into the city. I went along with them.
Masha offers few words as we approach the town: she doesn't comment on the destruction, doesn't express anger. Instead, she points as we pass: That was my school. That was my kindergarten. My father used to work there.
These days, her father has become a soldier. He is the first person she wants to find, she has not seen him for four weeks, and he was on duty northeast of here, around the city of Chernihiv. When they walk towards each other, he takes off his helmet. They hug, and hold on to each other as I keep my distance.
Signs that read: civilians, children
They have not yet mourned their family's victim of this war: Masha's grandfather, killed in cold blood by Russian soldiers. He had come out of the house with a white band on his arm, a white sheet tightened to the waistband of his pants, to look for something to eat. He was shot just like that, just outside his home.
Her grandmother did not want to leave Bucha. They had moved to a new house in December, the walls still smelling of fresh paint when the war began. And she stayed there.
Words that beg, have mercy.
The road leading to their house is still unpaved, a hundred yards ahead is their neighbors' black car. They were trying to escape by car early one morning — father, mother and two children. They too were killed in this way, just outside their home, with no mercy for the word "children" written on their car.
Every house in Bucha has a white sign at the entrance. A rag, or a sheet of paper in children's handwriting. The letters read: civilians, children. Words that beg, have mercy. But pity, here, had vanished during weeks of fighting, until the Russian troops were pushed back by Ukrainian forces.
And as they retreated they left behind them wrecked tanks and armored cars and the corpses of summary executions — war crimes that are emerging one by one, house by house, street by street.
Residents receive food aid amid wreckage of war
Staying to help
Masha's grandmother leads me to the larger window overlooking the garden. Her neighbor tried to get out of the house across the street to see if there were soldiers manning the area, grab his elderly mother and leave. He was shot in the side and lay on the ground in the doorway of his house until the city was liberated. The woman, today, lives with Masha's grandmother. She is sitting on the couch, long white hair beyond her shoulders. She nods, adds no details, neither speaks nor cries.
She drives to the collection point. The military vehicle opening the convoy is distributing water and fuel. Dozens of people wait. Each has a story, which are painfully similar.
This is how it worked with the Russians.
I ask them about the dead bodies along the road, from the images that have circulated worldwide. Nelya, in her seventies, says that the road is nothing. That you have to look for the dead in the houses, in the cellars, in the woods. That this is how it worked, with the Russians, in the weeks that seemed like years to her. They would enter the buildings, ask everyone to hand over their phones, destroy the SIM cards, then separate the women and children from the men. The women and children were forced into cellars and shelters and the men into the houses. If it went well they were used as human shields, if it went badly they were executed. Eight men were shot in her building, Nelya saw their bodies when she finally got out of the shelter.
Russian soldiers said, "we are here to free you"
This is how people died in Bucha. A practice of the occupation, not just the extreme retaliation that precedes the retreat. Shot in the back of the head while trying to leave the house to get a pot left on the grill the day before. Because in Bucha, as in all occupied areas, people lived like this for weeks, gathering pieces of wood and light a fire on their doorstep to heat some water and try to cook a soup — the food of wartime.
This is how people still live today.
It's the second leg of Masha's round of aid. A basement full of water tanks that have been arriving with military convoys for a few days, blankets, winter clothes. At the entrance, two wooden planks resting on the cans are used as benches by Anna and Iryna who are cooking tomato soup. Two tires, one on top of the other, protect the fire.
Anna says that during the first days of occupation, Russian troops were knocking on doors on her street, taking men away "to interrogate them," they said. They had established one of their bases in the kindergarten next to her home. Some of the men, mostly the elderly, returned home. Terrified, but released.
"We are here to free you," the Russian soldiers told them, "and you are lucky that we have not killed you yet." The others, those who were not released, their traces were lost.
But in the last days before the Ukrainian counter-offensive, Anna says, the Russians walked along the streets of the residential areas, shooting everyone they saw.
Her friend Sergey died this way. His body was on the ground for days and is now in one of the black bags containing the civilian victims of Bucha. By Monday, officials estimated at least 300 bodies of innocent residents of the town had been identified. But the numbers are bound to increase.
A Ukrainian soldier walks around an area littered with debris and a destroyed Russian tank in Bucha
Human shields, body in a basement
Masha wants to bring the last package in person. It's for Igor, a close friend of her father's. He can't fight because he can't walk; he's had a limp since birth. She leaves him two cans of water, a new phone, a bag of food, cigarettes. He hugs her, the first thing he tells her is that he has washed himself, finally, after a month. He heated the water on the fire he lit outside the house, brought it a little by little inside into the tub, and wiped off the grime of war.
The building in which he lives forms a horseshoe with the two adjacent ones. A Russian armored vehicle was in between the buildings for ten days. The soldiers were watching over them to prevent anyone from leaving. The women were hidden in the basement, the men in the houses. Not a step outside the door, the Russians shouted. Meanwhile, outside the battle was raging, broken glass everywhere. Igor could not get out, could not call for help. He could only hope that the artillery didn't hit his house. He was a hostage of war. He was a human shield.
On the road out of town, the one that leads from Bucha through the woods to Irpin and from there to Kyiv, a man waves our car down. He is clenched over in a brown jacket, his body well worn-out, and face emaciated. "He is there," he says. We follow him to his neighbor's house. "He's down there, go down," he says.
She's stopped pointing at the places from her childhood.
He doesn't go ahead of me, he doesn't follow me. Neither does Masha. I go into the cellar alone, I use the phone as a flashlight. Lying on the ground is the body of a young man. He is not even 20 years old. He's wearing civilian clothes. A trickle of blood comes out of his mouth. He was killed by a blow to the head.
Masha starts driving again, still not talking. She's also stopped pointing at the places from her childhood. After half a kilometer, around a bend, the charred bodies of three adults and a child. A man comes out of a house not far from there. "My neighbors, they were trying to escape. The Russians killed them and then set the bodies on fire." He offers details of a massacre of innocents, makes the sign of the cross and goes back into his house.
Masha has finished translating, looks away, gets back into the driver's seat and opens the window. Bucha now only smells of death. It is the last thing she says before heading back to Kyiv.
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