Bucha and Borodyanka are two small towns on the outskirts of Kyiv until recently occupied by Russian forces, from which images of murdered civilians sent shockwaves around the world.
While the troops left and fear remains, the liberated suburbs look for justice and reconstruction.
EURACTIV went on the ground with a delegation of European lawmakers, organised by the Slovakia-based GLOBSEC think tank, to witness the impact of the war first-hand.
Bucha, Ukraine – At the end of March, when Russian troops retreated from the suburb of Ukraine’s capital, a field near the town’s church had become a mass grave.
One of the most desirable commuter suburbs of Kyiv before the war, the 45,000-resident town has now become a symbol of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Footage of tortured civilians with their hands tied and gunshot wounds in the back of their heads was broadcast globally, laying bare the scope of the atrocities.
According to Bucha’s Deputy Mayor, Taras Shapravskyi, over 360 civilians were killed, and many were buried by locals in mass graves.
Moscow denies its troops carried out the slaughter there. Asked about Russia’s military operation in the area, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov earlier this week said, “the Bucha story is a set-up and a fake”.
But Shapravskyi explains, “these civilians didn’t present any military danger, they were ordinary people who would go to a local bakery, and they were caught and killed on the streets.”
He tells the story of a father and son who Russian soldiers stopped. They shot the father and fired at the boy, but he miraculously managed to escape to tell the tale.
“Unfortunately, there were quite a lot of cases like that,” he adds.
“How can we explain these kinds of atrocities in the cities, where there was no resistance, there were no hostilities in this particular city, how can we explain this kind of cruelty, this kind of brutality? It seems impossible,” Shapravskyi asks.
Amnesty International said on Friday (6 May) that there was compelling evidence that Russian troops had committed a “host of apparent war crimes” in Bucha, including “numerous unlawful killings” of civilians.
The report is the latest to document alleged war crimes committed by Russian forces when they occupied the area outside Ukraine’s capital in February and March.
In April, a French forensics team, which includes experts in ballistics, explosives, and rapid DNA testing, arrived to help Ukrainian authorities establish what happened in the town.
Although the streets have been cleaned of bodies left behind by the Russians, the investigations are far from over.
“One week ago, all the body identification work was completed, and 95% of those whom we exhumed had traces of violent death,” Shapravskyi says.
“But we have about 10% of which not having been identified, and there are doubts whether they are going to be identified at all due to the state the bodies are in,” he adds.
Local authorities and residents hope that by giving testimonies to identify the perpetrators, they can contribute what they find to an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation.
According to Shapravskyi, 10 Russian servicemen have already been identified, and documentation is prepared to hold them accountable.
A recent Reuters investigation has traced the identities of individual Russian soldiers, and military units present during the bloody occupation in Bucha.
Ukrainian investigators have an immense resource from organisations, citizens and journalists who have posted more than 7,000 videos and photos on a government internet hub, warcrimes.gov.ua, Ukraine’s state prosecutor, Iryna Venediktova, said.
At the same time, Eurojust supported the creation of a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) into international crimes committed in Ukraine under the impulsion of Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine. According to Ukrainian officials, another 13 countries have expressed interest in joining the team.
The European Commission said it wants the agency — which coordinates judicial cooperation between member states’ national authorities to prosecute transnational criminal activities, including human trafficking, smuggling, terrorism and cybercrime — to be able to collect and store evidence of alleged war crimes in Ukraine.
“Because although the search operation in this city of Bucha has been completed, in this district, there are 30 villages and settlements, and we’re still finding new burial places,” Shapravskyi says.
Borodyanka, Ukraine – There’s a gaping hole in the middle of a blackened, five-storey apartment building on the town’s central Shevchenko Square, where a bomb hit it. The surrounding rubble is scattered with pairs of shoes, clothes and remains of furniture.
Borodyanka was one of the first towns to be targeted by Russian airstrikes.
The small town of initially 14,000 residents, about 50 kilometres northwest of the Ukrainian capital and not far from the border with Belarus, was on the main axis of the Russian advance on Kyiv.
It was liberated in early April, but the destruction of residential buildings is significantly greater than in other places in the area, with more than 90% of the downtown area destroyed.
“Following the airstrikes, following the shelling from the tanks and artillery, following the passage of heavy armour, the civil infrastructure of this city has been completely destroyed,” says Georgiy Yerko, acting Mayor of Borodyanka.
Local authorities say Russia deliberately bombed civilian areas, demolishing nine high-rises, despite the region not having any Ukrainian military camps, industrial complexes, or facilities of strategic importance.
The Amnesty report supported the claims, stating that Russian airstrikes hit eight residential buildings on March 1-2, killing at least 40 civilians, and were “disproportionate and indiscriminate, and apparent war crimes”.
“Peaceful, peaceful residents were living here,” Yerko says, adding that only 71 Ukrainian soldiers have guarded the town.
“These people stood their ground. They wanted to protect us, to protect Europe, because, after Ukraine, any European country can come,” he added.
Though life seems to be slowly returning and streets are being cleaned of debris, residents are deeply traumatised by the occupation.
Asked by reporters whether he is afraid that the Russians might come back, Yerko said people in his town are ‘really worried’, but 4,000 residents have returned so far.
“We are looking forward to succeeding to rebuild this place. We are looking forward to support from the European and international community,” Yerko says.
It is still hard to say whether and when both suburbs will be able to return to everyday life.
Even the capital city, which suffered much less damage, roughly a month after the retreat of Russian forces, lives waiting for the possible return of the war.
Vitaly Klitschko, mayor of Kyiv, said the city is not safe as a siren went off during talks with the visiting delegation.
“Right now, it is much safer than a few weeks ago, but we can give no safety guarantee to anyone who wants to return because any second the Russian rockets can land in any building,” Klitschko told reporters.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has urged Ukrainians not to ignore air raid sirens in the coming days as the country braces for what Russia might have in store for Victory Day on 9 May.
[Edited by Alice Taylor]