The Horrors of Bucha At the Scene of the War Crimes

As the Russian army's advance came to a halt north of Kyiv, the occupiers apparently began indiscriminately murdering civilians: people riding their bikes or walking their dogs. Impressions from a city filled with destruction and death.
By Christian Esch und Thore Schröder in Bucha, with Photos By Johanna-Maria Fritz and Emile Ducke
Soldier Vitali Baks on Station Street in Bucha, Ukraine, which is filled with dozens of bombed-out tanks.

Soldier Vitali Baks on Station Street in Bucha, Ukraine, which is filled with dozens of bombed-out tanks.

Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / Agentur Ostkreuz / DER SPIEGEL

The road leading into Bucha from the south is lined with pastureland. On the way into town, you’ll pass a white Ford station wagon, its doors marked clearly with black tape spelling out the Cyrillic letters "дети," which means "children" in Russian. The tires of the car are flat, and the front of the vehicle is almost completely torn off. There are clothes lying on the ground next to the vehicle. It looks a lot like a family’s attempt to flee the town came to a sudden end here.

A destroyed car with black tape spelling the word "children" on it along the road between Irpin and Bucha.

A destroyed car with black tape spelling the word "children" on it along the road between Irpin and Bucha.

Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / Agentur Ostkreuz / DER SPIEGEL

Until last Thursday, Bucha was in the hands of Russian Federation troops. From here, the invading army hoped to advance on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. But following heavy fighting, during which the Russians in particular suffered severe losses, the progress of the invading army was stopped. The Russians have now withdrawn from the Kyiv Oblast and have left behind death and destruction, particularly in Bucha. Ukrainian officials said on Sunday that 410 civilians in the city of 40,000 were allegedly murdered by Russian soldiers. Some have begun mentioning Bucha in the same breath with Srebrenica, where Bosnian-Serb militias slaughtered 8,000 men and boys 27 years ago. The numbers may not be comparable, but the uninhibited violence meted out on civilians does appear to be.

Bucha could ultimately prove to be a decisive moment in the future course of this war. Not only because it is the place where the Russian army was forced to turn back ­– but also because the massacre perpetrated on the city’s inhabitants could result in an energy embargo against Moscow and even greater support for Ukraine as it seeks to defend itself.

Destruction along Station Street in Bucha

Destruction along Station Street in Bucha

Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / Agentur Ostkreuz / DER SPIEGEL

When DER SPIEGEL reporters reached the town on Sunday afternoon, fully 11 bodies were still lying in a single street. According to the mayor of Bucha, there had been 23 bodies at the site earlier. The more than 400 dead civilians have been buried at different sites in the city. On Sunday, the Ukrainians reported the discovery of a mass grave containing 280 bodies. They appear to have been murdered by Russian troops – which would be a severe war crime.

"They Shot at Everything at Random"

The road from the south through the pastureland ends at an intersection adorned with the statue of a saint. Brand new row houses painted yellow stand ready for their first occupants. In recent years, Bucha has become a popular bedroom community for the Kyiv middle class. In recent weeks, trenches were dug near the sales office and a checkpoint was set up. On the cement blocks placed there, the black V, a Russian military symbol, has been sprayed over with neon orange reading: "Glory to Ukraine," along with the trident from the Ukrainian flag. Next to it is a burned-out personnel carrier, the Russian military green hardly recognizable any longer.

A corpse on a street in Bucha

A corpse on a street in Bucha

Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / Agentur Ostkreuz / DER SPIEGEL

The road leading to the city center is lined with cars crumpled into strange blocks of twisted metal along with other debris. There is a burned-out Intersport shop. Fighting also took place around Heroes Square in the center of town, where there is a monument to the Soviet troops who fought in Afghanistan. The Russians fired at the monument because they thought the armored vehicle on display there could still be operational, says Nizar, a man wearing a neon-yellow Adidas jacket who declines to provide his last name. "They shot at everything at random," he says, leading the way to a bright-blue residential building with a hole in the wall. "The shot went right through the plaster and the wall behind it."

And it wasn’t just buildings that were hit. In front of the Novus supermarket on Station Road leading to Bucha’s railway station, one victim of the Russians still hasn’t been recovered. "We simply can’t get him out," says Nizar. He is talking about Alexander, a city gardener who would normally be trimming the roses at this time of year – but who now sits dead behind the wheel of his crushed Tavria automobile. In late February, just after the Russian occupation of the city had begun, he was on the road in his Ukrainian subcompact when he was suddenly struck by a bullet from a Russian machine gun. "Then, a tank drove over him," says Nizar, as he leads the way across the square with the war memorial to the flattened vehicle, inside which Alexander is still sitting.

The body is wedged in beneath the crushed roof and there is a hole through his blue hoodie at the neck. The gardener has been decomposing here, on the main road, fully visible to all. But for over a month, his body couldn’t be buried. "We don’t have the equipment to get him out," says Nizar. "The Russians simply ignored him." He says that two bodies were also lying for several weeks on the floor of the clothes shop Planeta, with the Russians even saying that anyone who tried to move the bodies would be executed. "The head is missing from one of them," says Nizar. "He must have been hit with a large caliber weapon."

A destroyed Russian tank with the spray painted words: "Russia warship, go fuck yourself."

A destroyed Russian tank with the spray painted words: "Russia warship, go fuck yourself."

Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / Agentur Ostkreuz / DER SPIEGEL

Vitaly Sinagin, a 45-year-old sculptor, was lucky: He managed to survive his encounter with the Russian Federation’s army. But his entire body is testimony to the occupation: His legs are blue and red, his breast is green and blue, and he has a bandage wrapped around his belly. Sinagin was stopped on the street. "They asked if I was with the army or the Territorial Defense Forces. I said: 'No, I just live here and am collecting wood since there is no gas or electricity.'" The men threw him to the ground, pulled a plastic bag over his head and beat him, bashing his head with clubs until blood started trickling out of the bag. They threatened to light him on fire and ordered him to call out "Glory to Russia!" Sinagin refused. At some point, he lost consciousness. When he came to, the men had disappeared.

Hardly a Single Shop Door in Bucha Remains Intact

Sinagin says they were Chechens and that they had spoken a foreign language to each other. Following the first Russian troops, men in other, black uniforms showed up and began combing through the streets. "They were far better equipped," he recalls. Chechen units from the Russian National Guard, a police detachment, are fighting in Ukraine.

Hardly a single shop door in Bucha remains intact. A cash machine was dragged out of its frame with an armored personnel carrier. The pawn shop on the Street of Maidan Heroes has been completely emptied out, and even a women’s clothing store was plundered by the Russian troops. But Sinagin says that it wasn’t just the Russians who stole from the shops. Residents, he recalls, were also encouraged to steal by the occupiers: "They said: 'Go on! Take what you want!'"

The Ukrainian soldier holds a Russian hand grenade in Bucha.

The Ukrainian soldier holds a Russian hand grenade in Bucha.

Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / Agentur Ostkreuz / DER SPIEGEL

The occupiers, though, insisted that all residents wear white armbands – the same armbands that the Russian soldiers also wore. They were told that they were vital for identifying them as peaceful civilians.

Potential reasons for the murderous rage displayed by the Russian soldiers can be seen on almost every street. Putin’s troops experienced heavy losses in Bucha. Next to the Globus supermarket is a burned-out BMP-2M armored vehicle, on which the Ukrainians scrawled the legendary quote from the first days of the war: "Russian warship, go fuck yourself!" The charred remains of a tank can be seen a few meters further along.

The mass grave of Russian war materiel, however, can be found on Station Road just south of the station, with its pointed green roof and striking arched windows. It is one of the few landmarks in the city, in which the Soviet-era writer Mikhail Bulgakov owned a dacha. The two-laned Station Road is covered with the wreckage of tanks for several hundred meters. Two or three days after the beginning of Putin’s "special military operation," a convoy of paratroopers suddenly came to a halt here. Ukrainian Bayraktar drones took aim at one vehicle after the other. Five weeks later, the extent of the inferno can still be seen. Trees broken in two like matches. Silvery melted metal oozing from the engines beneath destroyed tanks, with blackened small arms, canisters and remnants of electronic devices lying next to them on the road. A gun turret was blasted into the front yard of a building by one of the explosions.

Just Stepping Out the Door Was Life-Threatening

The southern part of Station Road has become a mecca for fighting Ukrainians. With their smartphones drawn and triumphant expressions on their faces, soldiers are roaming through the wreckage, snapping selfies or group photos as mementos. One of them, Alexander Baks, a commander with the Territorial Defenses around the age of 40 who spent some time fighting in Donbas in 2014, presents some spoils of the war he has collected: two Russian hand grenades. "One of them would explode if I dropped it now," he laughs. Then he and his comrades watch videos on a phone of destroyed Russian tanks in other places. The specimens exhibited here apparently aren't enough for them. Over and over again, the charred corpses of their enemies can be seen on the screen of Bak’s smartphone. "Look, he’s missing his pants!" and "Like rabbits!" they say, laughing.

There were a lot of Russian corpses lying in Station Road in Bucha, says Svetlana Roban, a teacher, who had just dropped by with her husband to check on a house belonging to a friend. The 57-year-old wears a jacket with a fur collar and a flowered headscarf over her auburn hair to protect against the snow blowing in the wind on this April day. The couple survived the Russian occupation in their home on Tarasivska Street.

"We had no water, no gas and no electricity," she says, as her husband nods along next to her. They would collect water and heat it over an open fire before then pouring it into bottles that they put inside their clothes to keep warm. Roban says that just stepping outside the door was risky, she says, adding that two of their neighbors were shot to death by the Russians. One of them had taken his dog out for a walk and the other had strayed 100 meters too far from his home. Death sentences, carried out without any warning. "I have spoken with people who lived through World War II in this city," she says. "They say the last few weeks were worse than what they had experienced under the Germans." She then suggests that the reporters check out Kirov Street. "Most of the bodies are gone, but there are still some lying there."

Sergei Mironovich Kirov, the street's namesake, was a Soviet party official and Stalin confidant who was shot under mysterious circumstances in 1934. It still isn't clear whether the dictator played a role in his death. There are also plenty of questions surrounding the murders that took place on Kirov Street, later renamed Yablunska Street. It seems doubtful that the perpetrators will ever be identified and brought to justice. The suspected killers have left, and even on Monday, Bucha's mayor still didn’t know if international investigators were in the city.

Potatoes in the Shopping Bag of a Dead Man

Eleven corpses are still lying on the asphalt here, spread out across several hundred meters, and based on the advanced state of decomposition, they appear to have been murdered weeks ago. But why were they shot? One is wearing a flat cap and a fake leather jacket. There is a hole in his left leg exposing his femur. Another, wearing orange gloves, still has the bar of the bicycle between his legs that he had apparently been riding when he was hit. There’s a large exit wound on the back of his head and a dried pool of blood. Two decomposing men lie close together, as if friends joined in death. Potatoes can be seen in the shopping bag of a dead man, and medicines and a screwdriver in the opened shoulder bag of another victim. The most disturbing image is the corpse of a relatively young man in jeans and sneakers, his hands tied behind his back with white cloth. A pool of brownish-red blood spreads around his head.

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko during an interview: Behind him is the body of a man whose arms have been bound behind his back.

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko during an interview: Behind him is the body of a man whose arms have been bound behind his back.

Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / Agentur Ostkreuz / DER SPIEGEL

A motorcade comes to a stop just a few meters away from him. Two S-Class sedans and an armored Toyota SUV. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko and his brother Wladimir, the former boxing stars, have come to the suburb. Vitali, the older brother, tells the DER SPIEGEL reporter that the "Russians have conducted a safari on civilians.” He says 300 civilians are dead in the city. "This is genocide against Ukrainians." He says the mayor of Bucha told him that a pregnant woman and her children were shot to death in a car. "Every euro, every cent you get from Russia or send to Russia is full of Ukrainian blood – the blood of our civilians," Klitschko says.

The mass grave in front of St. Andrew's Church in Bucha

The mass grave in front of St. Andrew's Church in Bucha

Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / Agentur Ostkreuz / DER SPIEGEL

According to various sources, the occupiers forbade the removal of the bodies of the murdered. Perhaps as a warning to other residents not to revolt against the new rulers. Still, despite the ban on removing the dead, so many bodies accumulated early on that two mass graves had to be dug, says Serhiy Klapichnyj, an employee at the city’s funeral home. He says 54 people were buried in one, and 40 in another. The would be significantly fewer than the 300 victims Bucha’s mayor reported to the news agency AFP. Klapichnyj says a total of 30 bodies had been taken away on Sunday. Of those, he says the hands had been tied on eight of them.

The pits for the dead were dug behind St. Andrew’s Church. One of the pits, about 2 meters wide and 15 meters long, is still open. Some of the dead have been placed in body bags, others haven’t. Body parts are sticking out. Andrii Galavin, a priest at the local St. Andrew’s Church, is standing at the edge of the pit. He says he returned to Bucha on the previous day. The grave had just been dug when he was evacuated "on March 10th or 11th," he says. "We couldn’t take our dead to the cemetery – it was too dangerous," he explains as he stares at the grave, his hair wet from the snow. "We had to bury these people at some point or the dogs would have eaten them."

He claims the Russians killed indiscriminately. "At one checkpoint they were friendly, a hundred meters away they were shooting for no reason." He says that many people were hit as they tried to flee the city. That is likely what happened to the people who had been in the white Ford station wagon at the entrance to the town. Galavin says the Russians were probably angry because their advance had been halted in the neighboring town of Irpin. "But that’s no reason to kill people indiscriminately." At the end of the conversation, Galavin says he would like to say something to the Germans. "I thank you from the bottom of my heart for welcoming our refugees."