When the soldiers of Russia’s 64th Motor Rifle Brigade arrived in Bucha in mid-March, they brought a new level of death and terror to the city. Over the next 18 days, in just one corner of this Kyiv suburb where the brigade took control, 12 people were killed, including all of the inhabitants of six houses where the soldiers set up camp. Olha Havryliuk’s son and son-in-law, along with a stranger, were shot in the head in the yard of their house. Russian soldiers smashed the Havryliuks’ fence, parked their armoured vehicle in the garden and moved into the house. They cooked in the neighbour’s garden, killing and plucking chickens and roasting them on a barbecue while the men lay dead yards away across the alley.
By the time the troops pulled out at the end of March, two brothers, Yuriy and Viktor Pavlenko, who lived at the end of the street, lay dead in a ditch by the railway line. Volodymyr Cherednychenko was found dead in a neighbour’s cellar. Another man, caught by Russian soldiers as he ran along the train track and taken into a cellar of a house at the end of the street, was also found shot dead.
The story of Bucha and its horrors has unfolded in chapters as new revelations of Russian atrocities emerge, fuelling outrage among Ukrainians and across much of the world. But prosecutors and military intelligence officials were investigating early on, collecting evidence to try to identify the perpetrators responsible for the mass killings, torture and rapes in the once tranquil suburb.
Working with war crimes and forensic experts from around the world, Ukrainian investigators have reached some preliminary conclusions, focusing in particular on the 64th Brigade. They have already identified 10 soldiers from the unit and accused them of war crimes.
Ukrainian officials say that the brigade was formed after Russia struggled in a 2008 war with Georgia, and that it was awarded an honorary title by Russian president Vladimir Putin last month for its performance in Ukraine. Yet the brigade took little part in any fighting, coming in after other units had seized control of Bucha and then tasked with “holding” it. The troops established checkpoints throughout the town, parking their armoured vehicles in people’s yards and taking over their homes.
“They imprisoned our people,” said Ruslan Kravchenko, the chief prosecutor for the Bucha district, describing the actions of the accused soldiers. “They tied their hands and legs and taped their eyes. They beat them with fists and feet, and with gun butts in the chest, and imitated executions.”
The name of the 64th Brigade and a list of 1,600 of its soldiers were found among computer files left behind in the Russian military headquarters in Bucha, providing investigators with an immense resource as they began their investigation. Dmytro Replianchuk at Slidtsvo.info, a Ukrainian investigative news agency, soon found the social media profiles of dozens of the names, including officers.
Three victims who survived beatings and torture have been able to identify the perpetrators from the photographs, Kravchenko said. One of the victims was Yuriy (50) a factory worker, who lives near one of the most notorious Russian bases, at 144 Yablunska Street. On March 13th, a unit of the 64th Brigade came to search his house. He said that he had identified the soldiers when shown photographs by prosecutors. The soldiers were rough and uncouth, he said. “You could see they were from the Taiga,” he said, referring to the Siberian forest. “They just talk to bears.”
Yuriy managed to avoid suspicion, but on March 19th, the soldiers returned and detained his neighbour Oleksiy. Like several others interviewed for this article, the men asked to be identified by only their first names for their security. Oleksiy declined to be interviewed but confirmed that he had been detained twice by the Russian unit, interrogated in a basement for several hours and put through a mock execution when the soldiers fired a gun behind him. Still shaken, he said, “I just want to try to forget it all.”
Based in Russia’s far east, near the border with China, the 64th Brigade belongs to the Eastern Military District, long seen as the part of the Russian army with the lowest levels of training and equipment. The brigade has ethnic Russian commanders but consists largely of soldiers drawn from minority ethnic groups and disadvantaged communities, according to Col Mykola Krasny, the head of public affairs of Ukrainian military intelligence. In radio conversations that were intercepted by Ukrainian forces, some of the Russians expressed surprise that village roads in outlying areas of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, were paved with asphalt, he said. “We see it as a deliberate policy to draft soldiers from depressed regions of Russia,” Krasny said. Not a lot is known about the brigade, but Krasny claimed that it was notable for its lack of morality, for beatings of soldiers and for thieving. Drawn from a regiment that had served in Chechnya, the brigade was established January 1st, 2009, shortly after Russia’s war in Georgia, Krasny said. The goal was clear, he added: to build up a fearsome army unit that could instil control.
“The consequences of these politics was what happened in Bucha,” he said. “Having no discipline, and these aggressive habits, it looks like it was created to scare the population.”
The Russian government did not respond to a request for comment on the accusations against the 64th Brigade but has repeatedly claimed that allegations of its forces having committed atrocities in Bucha and elsewhere are false.
Killings occurred in Bucha from the first days that Russian troops appeared. The first units were airborne assault troops, paratroopers and special forces who fired on cars and civilians in the streets and detained men suspected of being in the Ukrainian army or territorial defence.
The extent of the killings, and the seeming lack of hesitation among Russian soldiers to carry them out, has led Ukrainian officials to surmise that they were acting under orders. “They couldn’t not know,” Kravchenko said of senior military commanders. “I think the terror was planned.” Many of the documented killings occurred on Yablunska Street, where bodies lay for weeks, visible on satellite images. But not far away, on a corner of Ivana Franka Street, a particular form of hell played out after March 12th.
Residents had already been warned that things would get worse. A pensioner, Mykola (67) said that Russian troops who first came to the neighbourhood had advised him to leave while he could. “’After us, such bad guys will come,’” the commander told him, he recalled. “I think they had radio contact and they knew who was coming, and they had their own opinion of them.”
Mykola left Bucha before the 64th Brigade arrived. The spring flowers are pushing up everywhere in Bucha, fruit trees are in blossom, and city workers have swept the streets and filled in some of the bomb craters. But at the end of Ivana Franka Street, amid smashed cars and destroyed homes, there is an eerie desolation.
“From this house to the end, no one is left alive,” said Havryliuk (65). “Eleven people were killed here. Only we stayed alive.” Her son and son-in-law had stayed behind to look after the house and the dogs, and were killed March 12th or 13th, when the 64th Brigade first arrived, she said. The death certificates said that they had been shot in the head. What happened over the next two weeks is hard to fathom. The few residents who stayed were confined to their homes and only occasionally dared to go out to fetch water from a well. Some of them saw people being detained by the Russians.
Nadezhda Cherednychenko (50) pleaded with the soldiers to let her son go. He was being held in the yard of a house and his arm had been injured when she last saw him. She found him dead in the cellar of the same house three weeks later, after the Russians withdrew.
“They should be punished,” she said of his captors. “They brought so much pain to people. Mothers without children, fathers, children without parents. It’s something you cannot forgive.”
Neighbours who lived next door to the Havryliuks just disappeared. Volodymyr and Tetiana Shypilo, a teacher, and their son Andriy (39) lived in one part of the house, and Oleh Yarmolenko (47) lived alone in the other side. “They were all our relatives,” Havryliuk said.
Down a side alley lived Lidiya Sydorenko (62) and her husband Serhiy (65). Their daughter, Tetiana Naumova, said that she spoke to them by telephone mid-morning on March 22nd. “Mother was crying the whole time,” Naumova said. “She was usually an optimist, but I think she had a bad feeling.” Minutes later, Russian soldiers came in and demanded to search their garage. They told a neighbour to leave, shooting at the ground by her feet. “By lunchtime they had killed them,” Naumova said.
She returned to the house with her husband, Vitaliy, and her son Anton last month after Russian troops withdrew from Kyiv. Her parents were nowhere to be found, but they found ominous traces – her father’s hat with bullet holes in it, three pools of blood and a piece of her mother’s scalp and hair.
There was also no sign of the Shypilos or of Yarmolenko, except trails of blood where bodies had been dragged along the floor of their house. Eventually, French forensic investigators solved the mystery. They examined six charred bodies found in an empty lot up the street and confirmed that they were the missing civilians: the Sydorenkos, the three Shypilos and Yarmolenko. Several bore bullet wounds but three of them had had limbs severed, including Naumova’s mother, the investigators told the families.
Her father had multiple gunshot wounds to the head and chest, her mother had had an arm and a leg cut off, she said. “They tortured them,” Havryliuk said, “and burned them to cover their tracks.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.