Iryna Abramova, 48, said that Russian soldiers shot at her house at the start of their occupation of the Ukrainian town on 5 March, causing a fire. Iryna, who was at home with her husband, Oleh Abramova, and her father, Volodymyr, said that Mr. Abramova shouted that they were peaceful civilians and begged the Russian forces not to shoot. Four soldiers ordered them to come out of the house with their hands above their heads, telling them they were there to free them from the “Nazis” and demanded to know where the Nazis were hiding.
The soldiers took Mr Abramova. 40, outside of the house, before another told Ms Abramova that her husband de ella “would not return”.
“The soldiers accused us of killing people in Donbas,” she said. “They accused us of killing the Berkut in Maidan as well [referring to the since-dissolved riot police unit that killed dozens of protesters during 014 Maidan protests in Kyiv]. They concluded that we were guilty and should be punished.”
She said her husband’s body was lying on the pavement outside the house, where it remained until Ukrainian authorities took control of the town again weeks later.
As her husband lay dead, she said a group of soldiers was standing no more than five meters away, “watching the event as if they thought it was theater.”
Human Rights Watch said it had found extensive evidence of summary executions, other unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, and torture, all of which would constitute war crimes and potential crimes against humanity. following the occupation of the town about 30 kilometers from the capital.
“Nearly every corner in Bucha is now a crime scene, and it felt like death was everywhere,” said Richard Weir, crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The evidence indicates that Russian forces occupying Bucha showed contempt and disregard for civilian life and the most fundamental principles of the laws of war.”
The organization interviewed 32 Bucha residents in person and five others by phone, including victims and witnesses, emergency responders, morgue workers, doctors, a nurse, and local officials. Human Rights Watch also documented and analyzed physical evidence in the town, original photographs and videos provided by witnesses and victims, and satellite imagery.
It said the documented cases represent a fraction of Russian forces’ apparent war crimes in Bucha during their occupation of the town.
The chief regional prosecutor in Bucha, Ruslan Kravchenko, said that 278 bodies had been found in the town since Russian forces withdrew, the vast majority of them civilians, and that the number was expected to rise as more bodies are discovered. Prior to the conflict, Bucha had a population of about 36,000.
Serhii Kaplychnyi, head of the municipal funeral home in Bucha, said that, during the Russian occupation, his team placed dozens of bodies in communal graves, after they ran out of space in the morgue. Only two of those buried were members of the Ukrainian military; the rest were civilians, he said.
Another funeral home worker, Serhii Matiuk, who helped collect bodies, said that he had personally collected about 200 bodies from the streets since the Russian invasion began. Most of the victims were men, he said, but some were women and children. Almost all of them had bullet wounds, he said, including around 50 whose hands were tied and whose bodies had signs of torture. Bodies found with hands tied strongly suggests that the victims had been detained and summarily executed.
Human Rights Watch documented the details of 16 apparently unlawful killings in Bucha, including nine summary executions and seven indiscriminate killings of civilians – 15 men and a woman. In two other documented cases, civilians were shot and wounded, including a man shot in the neck, as he was standing in his apartment on an enclosed balcony with his family, and a nine-year-old girl who was shot in the shoulder while trying to run away from Russian forces.
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The Russian Defense Ministry denied allegations that its forces killed civilians in Bucha, stating in a Telegram post on 3 April that “not a single local resident has suffered from any violent action” while Bucha was “under the control of the Russian armed forces,” and claiming instead that the evidence of crimes was a “hoax, a staged production and provocation” by authorities in Kyiv.
Bucha residents said that Russian forces first entered the town on 27 February, but were pushed out of the central part of the town during heavy fighting. On 4 March, Russian forces returned, and largely took control of the town within a day. Bucha then became a strategic base for the Russian forces’ efforts to advance toward Kyiv. Witnesses said that several Russian military units operated in Bucha during the occupation.
Residents said they had limited access to water, food, electricity, heating, and mobile phone service during the occupation.
Human Rights Watch said all parties to the armed conflict in Ukraine are obliged to abide by international humanitarian law. The laws of war prohibit willful and indiscriminate killing, torture, enforced disappearances, and inhumane treatment of captured combatants and civilians in custody.
It said Ukrainian authorities should prioritize efforts to preserve evidence that could be critical for future war crime prosecutions, including by cordoning off mass grave sites until professional exhumations are conducted, taking photos of bodies and the surrounding area before burial, recording causes of death when possible , recording names of victims and identifying witnesses, and looking for identifying material that Russian forces may have left behind.
Meanwhile, it is urged that other governments, organisations, and institutions seeking to assist with war crimes investigations should work closely with Ukrainian authorities to ensure effective and efficient cooperation.
To support accountability efforts for serious international crimes, it said Ukraine should urgently ratify the International Criminal Court treaty and authorities should work to align Ukraine’s national legislation with international law.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.