‘They made him kneel and shot him in the head’: Bucha’s brutal occupation | Ukraine

nAtasha Alexandrova was at home when three Russian soldiers knocked on her front gate. It was March 4th. Vladimir Putin’s army captured the city of Bucha, 18.5 miles (30 km) northwest of Kyiv, after fierce fighting. One unit parked at the bottom of Alexandrova Street, Ivan Franco, next to a pine forest and a train track.

The soldiers were going from house to house. Alexandrova lived in tenth place with her 26-year-old nephew Volodymyr Cherdnichenko and mother Nadezhda. They wanted to know who was living there. They demanded to see our documents and our cell phones. “They didn’t beat us. But they had guns.”

Alexandrova hid her phone and gave a spare. Her nephew handed over his real mobile phone. It contained photos he had taken of a Russian military column, which had been wiped out by Ukrainian forces the previous week. The ambush occurred on Bucha Railway Street. I have sent the pictures to a friend. The soldiers told him, “You are coming with us.”

They took her nephew, dressed in a shirt and slippers, to country house No. 6, painted yellow. Alexandrova said she fired over the picket fence, half a tree, and eavesdropped on the conversation. “He was crying and crying. They had done something bad to his hand. He was cuddling her. He said to them repeatedly, ‘I don’t know any fascists.'”

Later the soldiers pushed Cherednichenko to an armored personnel carrier, which was parked in an apple orchard on the property. His mother brought him a warm coat and shoes. “They told us they would take him to the city for further interrogation and bring him back in three days,” Alexandrova said. Nadezhda begged them. She pleaded: Bring my son back to me.

For three weeks there was no news. Alexandrova spoke to one of the Russians, who told her that her nephew had been transferred to an “inactive region” in Belarus. “The soldier was eighteen years old. I asked him why he came to Ukraine? He said: money. Another said that he lost his house, did not eat Pelmeni [dumplings] for two weeks, and they were given food rations for three days.”

Cherednichenko’s mother continued to believe that he was alive.

Russian military vehicle wrecks
Ukrainian forces inspect the wreckage of Russian military vehicles in Bucha. Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

On March 29, Russian forces withdrew from the Kyiv region, in a stunning setback to Moscow’s plan to invade Ukraine. Putin seemed to appreciate a quick victory that would remove President Volodymyr Zelensky and his pro-Western government. Instead, his forces faltered and suffered heavy losses.

After an order to retreat, the troops rushed chaotically from Ivan Franko Street and headed north, back towards the Belarusian border. They left behind wrecked cars emblazoned with the letter V, a military symbol, some flattened by tanks after drunken horse riding. And a lot of corpses. One was found in a damp garden basement on the adjacent street, down a brick staircase. He was young: Cherednichenko.

“They made him kneel and shot him in the side of his head through the ear,” Alexandrova said. “He was wearing the same coat his mother had given him.” In the cellar on Sunday, there was a blood-stained bed on which her nephew had laid in his last hours, captive and terrified. It was a cold, merciless killing. There was a lovable pink toy and the smell of death.

Mass grave
Plastic sheets cover part of a mass grave in Bucha where exhumations were halted due to torrential rain. Photography: Celestino Ars/NoorPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

Across Bucha, and the gentle suburbs of Hostomel and Irben, similar crimes were committed during the brutal and dark Russian occupation. Residents say the soldiers confiscated mobile phones, demanded car keys, and took people away. Some were shot in the cellars, their hands tied. Others were killed inside their homes, or while driving their cars or on their bicycles along the road.

About 12 people were killed on Ivan Franco Street. Among them were brothers Victor, 64, and Yuri, 62, who were left lying in a ditch by the railway line. Among the dead were Sergei Gavrilyuk, a security guard, his Roman brother-in-law, and an unknown person. “We couldn’t identify him. Half of his face exploded,” Alexandrova said of the third victim.

She buried her nephew in her back garden. The grave was small. Spring flowers grew nearby. Last week, investigators dug up the body, even Alexandrova’s dogs barked. The family managed to hold a funeral with Russian prayer. Other relatives were less fortunate. A pile of six charred corpses was found at the beginning of Ivan Franco. An old man lay on nearby Redzanesh Street for several weeks.

Alexandrova, sitting in her neighbor’s kitchen at No. 5a, spoke of the horrors she had witnessed. And after the Ukrainians launched an attack, a Russian soldier accused her of transmitting information to the enemy and threatened her with a grenade. She was fetching water from a well with a bucket in one hand and a white flag in the other.

She said that Cherdnichenko’s father fought with the Ukrainian army in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and began the conflict in the Donbass. He died last year. Volodymyr wanted to be like his father to defend his country. We told him it was dangerous and to think of his mother. “He was an electrician, never a soldier,” she said.

shoes in a muddy puddle
A shoe floats in a pool of water at a mass grave in Bucha. Photo: Sergey Sobinsky/AFP/Getty

Over the weekend, Ukrainian rescuers scoured the devastated streets for mines and other human remains. The house where Gavrilyuks once lived is now a fantasy mess. A shell destroyed a Russian armored vehicle and threw a sleeping bag and pants into a tree. There were unexploded mortar shells, an empty whiskey bottle, and a white truck cab, which the Russians used as a seat and checkpoint.

Residents said that the soldiers looted everything: underwear, socks, gold, cash, laptops, and cupboards. The family added that the invaders were surprised by the level of prosperity in Ukraine. Soldiers began robbing as soon as they reached Bucha, a popular weekend destination for Kyiv’s wealthy classes. “The first stolen car I saw with the letter V on it was a Tesla,” Alexandrova said. They stole cars and slept in them.

On Railroad Street, emergency workers were dragging mutilated pedestrians one by one. A blue and white striped shirt, used by the Airborne Forces, was hung on the gun turret, as if waiting for the return of its owner. Russian cars – about 30 of them – directed the maze in different directions. It meant a panicked retreat.

destroy military vehicles
Destroyed military vehicles near the fence with the word “People” written in Bucha. Photography: Anna Voitenko/Ukrinform/NoorPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

This sight of destruction cost Cherednichenko his life. Many locals wandered around on Sunday to take pictures. One of them, Victor, said that he spoke to the Russians during the first day of their occupation of Bucha. “They told me they had orders to take Kyiv and take Zelensky,” he said, adding that two of them told him they came from the Siberian Republic of Buryatia, 4,350 miles away.

Victor put some souvenirs from the battle in a bucket: a box used for machine gun ammunition and a piece of tread. “They are going to the Bucha Museum. This is so that our children will not forget. Did he feel any sympathy for the Russian soldiers, some of whom died?” No. They lived in our homes, they put snipers on our streets, they swept our country. If we only had a catapult, we would fight them.”