Crimes against civilians: documenting the scale of abuse in Ukraine | Ukraine | The Guardian

Crimes against civilians: documenting the scale of abuse in Ukraine | Ukraine | The Guardian

Five days into the war, a Russian platoon commander and his unit arrived in Motyzhyn, just off the main highway linking western Ukraine to Kyiv. They hid tanks and artillery among the trees, excavated foxholes and commandeered the nearest houses. One became the officers’ quarters, a second a base for jailing, torturing and murdering civilians.

The commander – Oleg Krikunov, 33 – was better known to his troops and victims by the nom de guerre Kaluga. The horrors he allegedly perpetrated and presided over for a month in one small village in Ukraine have been catalogued by officials investigating atrocities carried out by Moscow’s troops, who have designated him a high priority on their list of wanted soldiers.

Ukrainian prosecutors have been flooded with evidence of Russian war crimes. The scale of the abuses was so great, and the crimes so flagrant, that they have already compiled hundreds of dossiers, named dozens of suspects and brought a first successful prosecution.

Since the start of the war the Guardian has documented crimes against civilians including torture, murder and sexual assault, gathering firsthand accounts from survivors and witnesses, and cross-checking them with information released by prosecutors.

Together they give a picture of how the violence and abuse has been an integral part of the Russian campaign since its very first days.

Photographs released by prosecutors of those accused of killing and torturing civilians in a village north of Kyiv, including Belarusians Sergey Vladimirovich Sazanov (pictured twice at centre right and bottom left) and Alexander Alexandrovich Stupnitsky (bottom centre), and their fellow Wagner mercenary Sergey Sergeevich Sazonov (top right). Top left: Oleg Krikunov, 33, better known to his troops and victims by the nom de guerre Kaluga.
Photographs of the Russian soldiers accused of the massacre perpetrated in north of Kyiv. At least four of them are members of the Russian 64th Motor Rifle Brigade, a unit based in the Khabarovsk region on the Pacific coast in Russia’s far east, accused of having killed hundreds of civilians in Bucha.

Motyzhyn torture camp

On 29 April, Guardian reporters talked to Oleh Bondarenko, one of only three men who survived Kaluga’s torture camp in Motyzhyn. Bondarenko said he had been beaten and left to die by Russian soldiers. He lost several teeth to Russian assaults, his torso is riddled with scars, and he may have suffered permanent damage to his spine.

In an interview late in April, he recounted how the Russian platoon led him blindfolded to a compound where the soldiers had established a grim routine for their captives. Each day civilians were badly beaten, their arms twisted and broken; then, as the moment to be murdered approached, they were shot in the hands or knees to cause maximum pain, then shot again in the stomach before finally being killed by a bullet to the back of the head.

Oleh Bondarenko at the rehabilitation centre in Motyzhyn where he works as a counsellor. Bondarenko is one of only three men who survived Kaluga’s torture camp in Motyzhyn

Bondarenko had been locked up for two days in a concrete pipe sunk into the ground that served as a water cistern, just large enough to hold a man bent over in a kind of slouch. While held prisoner in the compound, Bondarenko said he could hear the soldiers torturing one of the civilians for an hour and a half. “I prayed they would take him quicker,” he said.

Underground water storage cistern and well outsude Motyzhyn, Kyiv region, where Oleh Bondarenko was put by Russian forces after being tortured.

Civilians were buried in mass graves around the camp. There, investigators found the body of Olga Petrivna, the much-loved head of the village council of Motyzhyn, together with her husband and son. Petrivna had chosen to stay in the town and coordinate aid and territorial defence when the Russians arrived.

A large billboard of Olga Petrivna with her husband and son marks the entrance to Motyzhyn village. The message reads: ‘Eternal respect from the people of Motyzhyn.’

Mass graves discovered

In the villages of Bucha, Hostomel and Borodyanka, occupied for about a month by Russian troops, Ukrainian investigators found dozens of mass graves where the bodies of civilians, tortured and killed, had been buried. Since the Russians withdrew from the area, a group of young volunteers have been working tirelessly to exhume the bodies and send them to forensic doctors who have been collecting evidence of crimes perpetrated by Russian troops.

In the woods on a roadside near Borodyanka, 40 miles from Kyiv, police were overseeing the exhumation of two men who were executed and buried next to what locals say was a Russian military checkpoint.
In the villages of Bucha, Hostomel and Borodyanka, occupied for about a month by Russian troops, Ukrainian investigators found dozens of mass graves where the bodies of civilians, tortured and killed, had been buried.

In the woods on a roadside near Borodyanka, 40 miles from Kyiv, police found the bodies of two men buried next to what locals say was a Russian military checkpoint. One was a pension-aged man whose head had been severed and still hasn’t been found. Both bodies were twisted and mangled and it looked as though their limbs had been broken in several places.

The son of the man whose head had been severed, Serhiy Kubitsky, was there to witness the exhumation and give a statement to the police. He and his family had left the village for the safety of western Ukraine when the war started, but his father had not wanted to leave. “I didn’t believe it was him when they told me,” said Kubitsky. He said his neighbours found his father’s body in the woods near the Russian checkpoint on 17 March and buried him on the spot. The neighbours then returned to the grave to dig it up under police supervision.

In Borodyanka, close to the local hospital, investigators found the body of a 14-year-old girl along with that of her father and another man. According to witnesses, the girl and her father were trying to escape from the village by car but the Russians had been ordered to shoot any vehicle trying to leave the town. The bullets penetrated the car, left a few tens of metres from the mass grave where their bodies were found. The father died instantly. The girl, according to witnesses, passed away a few hours later.

In Borodyanka, just metres from the local hospital, investigators found the body of a 14-year-old girl along with that of her father and another man. According to witnesses, the girl and her father were trying to escape the town by car but the Russians had been ordered to shoot any vehicle trying to leave. The father died instantly when the bullets penetrated the car. His daughter, according to witnesses, passed away a few hours later. They were buried in a mass grave less than a minute away.

A woman walks in a cemetery of burnt cars in Irpin. The owners of these cars did not manage to leave the city. Dozens of people died while trying to flee their towns bombed by Russian forces.
Civilian cars in Irpin riddled with bullet holes.

The Guardian has photographed dozens of civilian cars in towns north of Kyiv, such as Borodyanka, riddled with bullet holes as civilians tried to flee. The constant shelling meant they were buried in makeshift cemeteries around the towns and the location of their graves was later reported to the police.

Vladyslav Perovskyi, a Ukrainian forensic doctor who has carried out dozens of autopsies on people from Bucha, Irpin and Borodyanka, said the process of identifying people was complex, given the state of decomposition of the bodies found in the mass graves and the high level of brutalisation perpetrated on the victims, even after they were killed. He tells of people killed and then crushed by tanks.

“There are many burnt and disfigured bodies that are just impossible to identify,” he said. “The face could be smashed into pieces. You can’t put it back together. Sometimes, there’s no head at all.”

A morgue in the Kyiv region overfilled with bodybags.

By the beginning of March, the local morgues of Kyiv had no more space for the dead who arrived every day by the dozen to facilities meant for 30, so bodies were instead piled in refrigerated trucks. At one, an elderly couple through tears described their son to the men standing inside. He was serving in the civil resistance, they said, and betrayed to Russian soldiers who had occupied their town and were hunting down Ukrainian fighters and former soldiers who had taken part in the war in Donbas. The Russians captured him, tortured him, broke his arms and legs and put a plastic bag over his head. Then they shot him dead and threw his body on the side of the road.

The moment when a mother recognised her son’s body inside a truck full of unidentified bodies by the morgue.

Rape and sexual assault

Late in April, forensic doctors told the Guardian they had found evidence some women were raped before being killed by Russian forces. “We already have a few cases which suggest that these women had been raped before being shot to death,” said Perovskyi. “We can’t give more details as my colleagues are still collecting the data and we still have hundreds of bodies to examine,” he said.

Women across Ukraine are grappling with the aftermath of sexual violence perpetrated by Russian soldiers. As Russian troops withdrew from towns and suburbs around the capital in order to refocus the war effort on Ukraine’s east, women and girls came forward to tell of the atrocities they suffered. Gang rapes, assaults at gunpoint, and rapes committed in front of children are among the grim testimonies collected by investigators.

At least two men in a list of Russian war criminals released by prosecutors are accused of sexual assault and rape. One of them is Fassakhov Bulat Lenarovich, 20, a radio operator of the howitzer artillery division of the 30th Separate Motorised Rifle Brigade.

On March 12, at about 7pm, while in a village in the Brovary district, Kyiv region, Fassakhov entered the house of a young woman living with her family. He was left alone in the kitchen with the victim and, according to prosecutors “using threats of physical violence against the victim’s family, using firearms”, forced the woman to take off her clothes and raped her. Ten days later, Fassakhov and three other unidentified soldiers entered the house of another woman and raped her too, taking turns with the other soldiers.

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On 9 March, prosecutors said Romanov Mikhail Sergeevich, a serviceman of the motorised infantry of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, “in a state of alcohol intoxication”, “premeditated the murder of a local resident and the rape his wife” in an occupied village near Kyiv.

“We have had several calls to our emergency hotline from women and girls seeking assistance, but in most cases it’s been impossible to help them physically. We haven’t been able to reach them because of the fighting,” said Kateryna Cherepakha, the president of La Strada Ukraine, a charity that supports survivors of trafficking, domestic violence and sexual assault.

“Rape is an underreported crime and stigmatised issue even in peaceful times. I am worried that what we learn about is just going to be the tip of the iceberg.”

This content was originally published here.

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