Taras Schevchenko says it was like watching a movie. At 6:00 a.m. on February 24, from the kitchen of his fifth-floor apartment, he saw some 20 Russian helicopters hovering in his field of vision as they spread paratroopers over the Hostómel airport runway. “I felt like I was in the movies, you know? I saw all the helicopters, I even made out the faces of those paratroopers.”
Europe and the US ask to investigate Russia’s “war crimes” in Bucha and propose more sanctions
That’s when the war began for Bucha, the town 27 kilometers northwest of kyiv that is fast becoming synonymous with the worst atrocities of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
According to Schevchenko, who is 43 years old, what happened in the following days was inconceivable. Bodies rolled over by tanks became “human rugs” as soldiers shot dead those who stood in their way, including the elderly. Russian snipers were shooting at men trying to escape across fields. There are reports of rapes and murders of girls – information that has not yet been independently verified – that put fear in the body of those who stayed.
But after the recapture of Bucha by Ukrainian forces, the allegations of widespread war crimes by the occupying Russian troops seem all too real, as more witnesses and new photographic evidence of dead bodies on the roads turn up.
The Ukrainian Army published this Sunday the images of what appeared to be a torture chamber in a basement, with a barracks in the next room. A row of corpses was found with their hands tied and crouched in front of a wall.
According to the military, at least one of the victims had been shot in the kneecaps before being shot in the head.
Following the initial discovery of 20 bodies alongside a road on Saturday, mass graves containing 280 bodies were also found around the city. “They shot all these people,” Bucha Mayor Anatoly Fedoruk said. The general prosecutor’s office put this Sunday at 410 the number of civilian bodies recovered so far in the northern suburbs of kyiv after the withdrawal of Russian troops.
The illusion of normal
Schevchenko, a martial arts trainer at a kindergarten, lived in northern Bucha with his 77-year-old mother, Yevdokia Shevchenko. The two remember how everything was silent for three days when Putin’s soldiers arrived. Schevchenko and his mother wondered what to do, if they should escape. It seemed to most of his neighbors in the block of flats that those who fled the city on the first day of the invasion had overreacted.
The normality with which those first 72 hours passed was an illusion.
“We saw the Russians on the third day, in a mass shooting next to our building against the Bucha territorial defense. At first I decided to stay because I thought: where to go? I had nowhere to go. There was fear, you know. Second, we are not rich enough to completely change our lives in one day. On the third day, I realized that it was too late to run anywhere or change anything because the war was literally outside my house, on my street. Tanks were circulating down my street. It’s very scary when they shoot, it’s a tremendous sound, like a roar.”
On the fourth day, panic spread. “Everyone was looking on the Internet, in Telegram or Viber chats, for a way to get out of there. Those with their own cars fled, risking everything. Our building has 69 apartments and there are only four families left in it.”
Terrified by the fighting outside her front door, her mother Yevdokia moved into the block’s cold and damp basement, barely 20 square meters in size. Lit only by candlelight, she joined eight other families, including a three-year-old boy and an 86-year-old woman. Yevdokia lived there for the next 13 days and nights, with only a bucket for a toilet. According to Schevchenko, the older woman may still be in the basement. She “she embraced a relic, all the time there embracing the relic.”
On the fifth day, they cut off the gas supply in Bucha. “People understood that they had to boil water in some way, or cook some soup, or something, and next to the entrance of the building we made something like a space to cook, just a fire with two bricks on one side.”
“They did not let us move the corpses”
In conversations by the fire, they talked about the latest dead. “The corpses were lying in the streets, they wouldn’t let us move them.”
Schevchenko recounts a murder that could not be independently verified. “A grandfather was walking with his wife. They were about to cross the street and some Russians stopped them. You know how these old men are who like to talk back and stuff. So they shot her, and the woman was told, ‘Keep walking.’ She ran to her husband crying and the soldiers told her: ‘If you want to lie down next to him, we can shoot you too.’ She told them that she had to take her body away, but they told her: ‘No, keep walking.’ And she kept walking, crying and walking. She happened next to a McDonald’s, about 30 or 40 meters from my house”.
Distraught, the woman approached Yevdokia and others in the area. She was having a hard time catching her breath to tell what had happened to her, desperate to get her husband’s body back.
“That old man said something aggressively to a soldier and they shot him dead, and ordered the woman to leave,” says Yevdokia. “I don’t know their names but I used to see them around the city, in the store, in the market, you know, familiar faces; when he was shot i was outside and i heard the shots. He had come out of the basement to get some air.”
Shots at those who fled
On March 9, Schevchenko concluded that they had to get out of there, but they seemed to be trapped. “I started looking at all the possible ways to escape, but I’m glad I didn’t try it at the time because other people braver than me ran away and were shot. Some came back wounded but others stayed forever in their cars, dead.”
A day later the Russians agreed to the creation of a humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians. An exodus ensued, but the Russians said they would only allow women and children to leave.
“We had neighbors one floor below, among them there was a man and I heard that he had managed to get out, so I thought that if he had made it, why not me? On March 11, I woke up at 6:00 in the morning and charged my phone. I found a place to charge it. Just a little, up to 6% or 7%. Then I ran to the basement to pick up my mother. I clearly remember that it was 8:45 in the morning, I ran in and yelled, ‘Mom, we’re going to run away.’ At that moment, we heard gunshots.”
The first thing her mother thought of was the family pet. “She told me: ‘Have you got Mary?’ I said, ‘Yeah, she’s in my jacket.’ She is a small, fluffy dog weighing just four kilos. So we ran to City Hall in search of the humanitarian corridor, but at City Hall they only let women and children through. We decided that mom would go down a corridor and I would join other men to walk to Romanivka, about 12 kilometers from Bucha, but there was the river and peat bogs to cross and the temperature that day was -9°C.
At 10:00 in the morning, Schevchenko began to walk. He was not going on the road but through the fields and along with twenty other men. Bullets began to whistle between them. Some were hit and fell wounded. Schevchenko and others ran trying to hide from what they assumed were snipers.
“We couldn’t even help the wounded because when you get close to someone who’s down they can shoot you too,” he says. “We were less and less. I kept looking back and to the sides. We didn’t care about each other or pay attention to each other. We were only moved by some animal instincts that had taken over us. I felt like someone escaping from a concentration camp.”
The route took them through Irpin, another town where the Russian retreat has also left a trail of alleged atrocities in its wake. Schevchenko went to the central cemetery in Irpin, through a forest and detoured to the town of Stoyanka to reach his destination, Romanivka.
“The other day the mayor of Irpin said that they had collected 17 bodies,” says Schevchenko. “I can’t say there were only 17, there were many more. Many of them were sitting in their cars. Many were lying on the sidewalks. There were many crushed by tanks. Like those animal skin rugs, with an unbearable smell. They were lying like that for 10 days, more or less.
Schevchenko ran, walked and hid for seven hours in the hope of reaching some safety. “Then we saw our soldiers, they knew we were refugees, they asked us to show them our passport and they showed us the way, the buses were waiting for us.”
He does not know to this day how many, of the twenty men who left, succeeded. “Not only was he not looking but he had even forgotten how to breathe,” he said. “I literally forgot you could breathe through your nose, I was breathing through my mouth and my heart was pounding out of my chest, my dog, in my jacket, was nervous and stressed.”
He was taken by bus to the main train station in kyiv, where he met his mother. “When I got to safety and some time passed, I felt like it was a joke,” says Schevchenko. “It cannot be that he is only 15 kilometers away and is calm. I felt like I was in the movie Matrix. As if someone had dragged me by the hair and for 16 days I had gotten into that Matrix and would have been watching how he acted. And then they took pity on me, took me out of there back into the peaceful world, patted me on the head and said, ‘Okay, you survived.’
Translated by Francisco de Zarate.
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