>> Yousur Al-Hlou, Masha Froliak, Evan Hill, Malachy Browne and David Botti, The New York Times
Published: 2022-05-21 16:06:07 BdST
The videos, filmed Mar 4 by a security camera and a witness in a nearby house and obtained by The New York Times, are the clearest evidence yet that the men were in the custody of Russian troops minutes before being executed.
“Hostages are lying there, against the fence,” the person filming one of the videos says. He counts: “One, two, three, for sure, four, five, six … ” In total, nine people are being held.
The men are forced to the ground, including one wearing a distinctive bright-blue hooded sweatshirt.
The video ends. But eight witnesses recounted to the Times what happened next. Soldiers took the men behind a nearby office building that the Russians had taken over and turned into a makeshift base. There were gunshots. The captives did not return.
A drone video filmed the next day, also obtained by the Times, is the first visual evidence that confirms the eyewitness accounts. It showed the dead bodies lying on the ground by the side of the office building at 144 Yablunska St as two Russian soldiers stood guard beside them. Among the bodies, a flash of bright blue was visible — the captive in the blue sweatshirt.
A photograph of the executed men’s bodies lying in a courtyard, some with their hands bound, was among a range of images that received global attention in early April after Russian forces withdrew from Bucha. Russian leaders at the highest levels have repeatedly denied wrongdoing in Bucha and described the images as a “provocation and fake.”
But a weekslong investigation by the Times provides new evidence — including the three videos — that Russian paratroopers rounded up and intentionally executed the men photographed in the courtyard, directly implicating these forces in a likely war crime. Russia’s foreign affairs and defence ministries did not respond to requests for comment on the Times’ findings.
To uncover what happened to these men, the Times spent weeks in Bucha interviewing a survivor, witnesses, coroners, and police and military officials. Reporters collected previously unpublished videos from the day of the execution — some of the only evidence thus far to trace the victims’ final movements. The Times scoured social media for missing-persons reports, spoke to the victims’ family members and, for the first time, identified all of the executed men and why most of them were targeted.They were husbands and fathers, grocery store and factory workers who lived ordinary civilian lives before the war. But with restrictions on men leaving the country, coupled with a resolve to protect their communities, most of the men joined various defence forces in the days before they were killed. Nearly all of them lived within walking distance of the courtyard in which their bodies would later lie.
RETURN TO BUCHA
Russian soldiers first entered Bucha in late February, days after the war began, as they advanced toward Kyiv. Ukrainian forces were ready for them. They devastated Russian paratroopers at the front of the column in an ambush. Death notices and interviews with Russian prisoners posted by a Ukrainian YouTuber indicate that at least two paratrooper units — the 104th and 234th Airborne Assault Regiments — suffered losses.
The Russians withdrew and regrouped before returning March 3, making their way to Yablunska Street, a long thoroughfare running through the city.
Security camera footage obtained by the Times shows that the soldiers, like those who were ambushed in late February, were paratroopers. The video shows them driving vehicles — such as the BMD-2, BMD-3 and BMD-4 designs — that are used almost exclusively by the Russian Airborne Forces, according to experts from the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Royal United Services Institute.
The paratroopers patrolled the area, conducting house-to-house searches and operating in and out of 144 Yablunska St, a four-story office building that the Russians turned into a base and field hospital.
About 300 yards from that base, at 31 Yablunska St, Ivan Skyba, a 43-year-old builder, and five other fighters had been manning a makeshift checkpoint when the Russians returned. They had a grenade, bulletproof vests and a rifle among them, Skyba told the Times.
Warned via radio that Russians were back in Bucha and moving in their direction, they hid in the house beside the checkpoint, along with the homeowner, Valera Kotenko, 53, who had been bringing the fighters tea and coffee, Skyba said.
They were joined later by two more fighters, Andriy Dvornikov and Denys Rudenko, the man wearing the blue sweatshirt in the video. As the nine men hid, they texted and called loved ones. Rudenko messaged his best friend saying they were trapped. “Don’t call. I will dial later,” he wrote.
The men sheltered there overnight. By the morning of March 4, they realised that an escape was impossible. “We are surrounded,” Rudenko wrote to his friend. “For now we are hiding. They are shooting from armoured vehicles and heavy calibres.”
Dvornikov, a delivery driver, called his wife, Yulia Truba, at 10:20 am, she told the Times. “We can’t get out. I will call when I call,” he said, before telling her to delete all of their messages and to prepare to evacuate. “I love you,” he said.
About an hour later, Russian soldiers conducting searches found the men and forced all nine of them, including the homeowner, out of the house at gunpoint, Skyba said. The soldiers searched the men for tattoos that could indicate military affiliation and made some of them remove their winter jackets and shoes. Then they walked them to the Russian base at 144 Yablunska St.
What happened next was described to Times reporters by Skyba and seven civilian witnesses whom Russian forces also rounded up from neighbouring houses and held in a separate group yards from the captive fighters.
The witnesses said they saw the group of captives in the parking lot in front of the Russian base with shirts pulled over their heads. Yura Razhik, 57, who lives in front of the office building, said some had their hands tied. The Russian soldiers made them kneel down and then shot one of the men, Vitaliy Karpenko, 28, almost immediately, Skyba said. Razhik said he also witnessed the shooting.
Skyba and another captive, Andriy Verbovyi, were then taken inside the building, he said, where they were questioned and beaten before Verbovyi was shot and killed. The soldiers took Skyba back to the parking lot, where the other checkpoint guards were still being held.
At one point, one of the checkpoint guards confessed to the Russians that they were fighters, Skyba said, and that man was eventually let go. He is now under investigation by Ukrainian authorities, according to a local military commander and investigators; a government document seen by the Times specifies it is for “high treason.”
The soldiers debated what to do with the remaining men. “Get rid of them, but not here, so their bodies aren’t laid around,” one said, according to Skyba.
A COURTYARD EXECUTION
Two Russian soldiers took Skyba and the remaining captives to a courtyard on the side of the building, where the body of another dead man was already lying, Skyba said. The Times has identified that man as Andriy Matviychuk, 37, another fighter who went missing a day earlier. He was shot in the head, according to his death certificate.
Razhik and other witnesses being held outside the office building saw the soldiers lead the captives out of sight, they said. Then gunshots rang out.
“I was shot and I fell down. The bullet went into my side,” Skyba said. Photos he shared of his injuries show an entry and exit wound in the left side of his abdomen. A doctor in Bucha who treated his injury and a medical report reviewed by the Times confirmed the injury.
“I fell down and I pretended to be dead,” he said. “I didn’t move and didn’t breathe. It was cold outside, and you could see people’s breath.”
Skyba lay there as the soldiers fired another volley at injured men who were still moving. He waited for about 15 minutes until he could no longer hear the soldiers’ voices. Then he ran.
Tetyana Chmut, whose garden borders the courtyard at 144 Yablunska St, was among the residents held and later released by the Russians, along with her family. As Chmut dashed from her house to shelter in a neighbour’s basement later on March 4, she saw the bodies lying in the courtyard. A neighbour of Chmut’s, Marina Chorna, saw the bodies two days later when she emerged from her basement after the Russian troops occupying her house left.
The bodies of the men killed in the parking lot and inside the building were brought to the courtyard and, together with the six other victims, would lie there for nearly a month.
EVIDENCE OF A WAR CRIME
Four weeks later, after Russian forces had withdrawn from Bucha, Times reporters visited the scene of the executions. The wall and steps of the building were pockmarked by bullet holes. On the other side of the courtyard, scattered a few feet from where the bodies lay, were spent 7.62x54R cartridge casings, used in the Soviet-designed PK-series machine guns and Dragunov sniper rifles commonly used by Russian troops. The Times also found an unfired 7.62x54R round inside the building.
Other evidence left behind by the Russians points to two specific paratrooper units that may have occupied the building. Packing slips for crates of weapons and ammunition listed Units 32515 and 74268, corresponding respectively to the 104th and 234th Airborne Assault Regiments. Both units suffered heavy losses during the first Russian attempt to enter Bucha in February.
Investigators with the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU, also provided the Times with an image of a patch recovered from inside the building bearing the emblem of the 104th Regiment and a roster of Russian soldiers recovered from the building. By searching Russian social media websites and other databases for each soldier’s name, the Times found that at least five of the named soldiers had apparent links to the 104th Regiment. Others posted images of themselves holding paratrooper flags or wearing paratrooper uniforms. Some listed their location as Pskov, Russia, the city that is headquarters for the 104th and 234th regiments.
The execution of the captured fighters and the homeowner in Bucha “is the kind of incident that could become a strong case for war crimes prosecution,” said Stephen Rapp, former US ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues. The captives, having been disarmed and taken into custody by the Russians, were “outside of combat,” under the laws of war, Rapp said. According to the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, such laws mean that prisoners must be treated humanely and protected from mistreatment in all circumstances.
In addition to the soldiers who shot the men, their commanders could be charged if they knew about the killings and failed to act to prevent or punish the conduct, Rapp said.
A DESPERATE SEARCH
On March 4, after the men stopped answering calls and replying to text messages, their brothers, wives, mothers and friends began an agonising search for them. Russian forces patrolled the streets of Bucha, so the relatives went online, pleading for information on social media.
“My nephew Denys (wearing a cap and glasses) stopped responding three days ago,” Valentina Butenko, Rudenko’s aunt, wrote on Facebook. “Does anyone know anything about him?”
“Help find this man,” Elena Shyhan wrote, with a photo of her husband, Vitaliy. “His family is very worried, but we are not losing hope.”
Meanwhile, the men’s bodies remained in the courtyard. Once the Russians fled nearly a month later, the graphic image of the scene caught the world’s attention — and that of the families scrambling to find clues.
Liudmyla Nakonechnaya, mother of Dvornikov, saw the photo on Facebook. Her comment read, “Oh my god! Oh my god! My dear son!”
Shyhan also saw the image. She edited her post from weeks earlier with a single line: “Stop searching. We have found him.”
© 2022 The New York Times Company