In Bucha, the story of one man's body left on a Russian killing field
The Washington Post April 16, 2022
BUCHA, Ukraine — Police found the body in an abandoned Russian military camp where occupying soldiers had sat around drinking wine, their laughter so loud that neighbors seethed as it echoed down Yablunska Street.
They had known for weeks that there was a body in the camp, yet another among so many corpses the Russians left behind. Overwhelmed crews picking them up simply hadn't gotten to it yet. So no one knew it was Ivan Monastyrskyi.
His neighbor was the first to identify him, recognizing the unshaven face of a man who had watched his beloved street become a killing field. When his wife, Yulia, approached the body, her blue eyes froze.
There were bullet holes in his calves, and his arms were stretched out at strange angles between slats of wood with nails through them. His wife looked at the thin sweater he was wearing and couldn't help thinking how he must have been so cold in his final minutes.
Yulia's neighbors heard her that night, inconsolable.
"What happened?" they heard her crying. "What did they do to him?"
With its lake and tree-lined streets, the Ukrainian town of Bucha, population 37,000, was one of those comfortable suburbs where young families aspired to live one day.
Then the Russians arrived on March 3, and fully occupied it by the next day.
As investigators collect bodies and document what happened in the 27 days Russian forces controlled this town, a damning portrait has emerged. Stalled in their offensive toward Kyiv, some 15 miles southeast, Russian soldiers dug in at Bucha and began a campaign of torture and killings of civilians that have been described as war crimes by U.S. and European officials. President Joe Biden this week called Russian President Vladimir Putin a "war criminal," saying, "You saw what happened in Bucha."
During seven days of reporting in this town, Washington Post reporters documented 208 bodies in graves or lying in the street. In scores of interviews with residents, prosecutors, police and coroners, as well as a review of photographs, video and archived Telegram chat logs between local residents, The Post documented how for nearly a month in March, Bucha's streets became a theater of Russian sadism amid mounting frustration over their battlefield losses.
The evidence shows that they beheaded, burned, sexually abused and capriciously fired upon civilians from the earliest days of their occupation. According to those interviewed, Russian soldiers went house to house confiscating cellphones to keep residents from sharing troop locations, or taking photos or videos of their excesses.
But many people managed to keep devices hidden and do just that.
Residents said Russian troops seemed high on power or strung out with fear. They occupied 10 square miles, but the area centered around Yablunska Street suffered the most intensely. Post reporters documented 31 deaths in three blocks alone.
The civilian killings fit a pattern witnessed across the nation during more than six weeks of war. As investigators comb territory around Kyiv from which Russian forces withdrew in early April, mass civilian graves have been found in most towns. In Bordyanka, Vorzel, Moshchun and Makariv, Post reporters have documented cases of indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, torture and summary executions.
On Wednesday, the head of the Kyiv region's civil-military administration, Olexander Pavliuk, said that 720 bodies had arrived in the morgues from across the province, where Bucha is located.
"People continue to find bodies and graves every day," he said. "It's too early to talk about the numbers."
In Bucha, the bodies are mostly gone now. Left behind are the survivors, the horror of their memories, and grief for all that has been lost.
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Yulia and Ivan lived a love story. When Ivan moved into the young woman's apartment block just off Yablunska Street, he knew that her father was skeptical that anyone would be good enough for her. But he won him over in the end, she said. The couple married on a spring day in 2017, and took wedding-day photos in Bucha's warm, leafy park. They had a child, Sasha, whose eyes were as blue as her mother's.
Yablunska Street means Apple Tree Street, and it is beautiful when spring comes and the trees blossom. Ivan and Yulia's apartment block, Building 12, is just up the hill, perched on higher ground by the lake. They could see the whole town from up there.
When Russian forces invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Ivan told relatives that he was worried about his wife and daughter, who was now 7. The Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces set up checkpoints at the entrance to the town.
As Russian troops approached on March 3, the town's mayor tried to reassure civilians. "There is no panic," Anatoliy Fedorchuk said in an interview that day with local journalists. "The city is under control."
But the Russian tanks were in Bucha within hours. By 1:54 p.m. that day, people in the neighborhood near Ivan and Yulia's apartment block were sharing photographs of Russian armored vehicles in the town, according to a group chat reviewed recently by Post reporters. Residents from the area mostly spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing fears that Russian forces would return.
Entering the town along the railway line, the heavy vehicles gouged deep paths through the fields. Ukrainian soldiers made frantic phone calls telling residents to hide. Ivan, 43, was at work at his construction company, and he sheltered there. Yulia was also at work, with Sasha. They scrambled to her office's basement and sheltered alongside dozens of other panicked residents.
By morning, soldiers were at the door, trying to coax the civilians packed inside to open it. They said they would get food and water if they did. Yulia said she had no cellphone signal to ask her husband what he thought.
"We are simple people; we are scared," one of the residents shouted to the soldiers. "Go away."
"It will be worse if you don't open it," one Russian yelled back.
The basement put it to a difficult vote and decided to open the door. The soldiers did not let them out.
Upstairs, they were turning Yulia's office building into their living quarters, and the space would become a hellish mess. In a dentist's office, an exam chair was stained with blood. Food and feces were still rotting in the rooms this week, alongside empty bottles of wine, vodka, grain alcohol, prosecco, gin, rum and beer — and a 4.5-liter magnum of Chivas Regal scotch, which can sell for more than $300, with a metal pouring cradle.
The families in the basement were held hostage for days. Outside the door, their guards changed each day and their behavior grew more abusive, witnesses said.
The basement was fetid and freezing. Shelling had cut the electricity, and more than 100 people huddled together in the dark. There was no working toilet and nothing to eat or drink. The only time that Ivan was able to reach Yulia by phone, he begged her to stay inside the basement, she recalled.
"He told me not to open the door," she said.
Post reporters saw eight bodies lying by the side of the building last week. Their identities were unclear. They had been shot.
In the group chat among residents of the nearby apartments, questions about the families in the basement grew frantic. "What is happening in there," one user wrote repeatedly. "Someone please, if you have information, please share it."
Ivan returned to their apartment in Building 12 on March 5 to find it surrounded by Russian soldiers. In a tree-lined field just up the road, which became one of four Russian military camps in the area, documents found by Post reporters in leftover ammunition crates indicate that some were from the Russian Army's 234th and 237th Guards Airborne Assault Regiment. Residents and Ukrainian officials also said that Russia's 64th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade was present on Yablunska Street.
Most of Building 12's residents huddled in the basement. But on the fifth floor, Ivan and Yulia's male relatives had a bird's-eye view of the Russian soldiers below, and they said they witnessed some of the killing.
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"Each neighborhood of Bucha witnessed its own horrifying crimes," said a police investigator, staring at a map of the town. He looked exhausted. Of all the locations they had examined, Yablunska Street, he suspected, was "the worst."
As Yulia and Sasha hid in the office building basement, Russian troops set up checkpoints on all sides of their street and parked armored vehicles in back gardens where local children usually played soccer.
Post reporters saw dozens of civilian cars still sitting there, riddled with bullet holes — even those bearing scrawled markings that read "children" in Russian. Small coats were visible inside several vehicles.
In some cases the killings appeared swift and random, residents said. "Maybe someone knows Oleg Klimtsov, our teacher Victoria's husband," reads a message in the group chat. "Today these beasts shot him." According to the chat, 63-year-old Anatoli Strelets was shot in the back as he ran from soldiers. Another woman was shot as she tried to cook food out on the sidewalk. The body of an unknown man was left on the corner of Ivan's apartment block for days. Neighbors buried him in a shallow grave.
Other murders were premeditated and sadistic, the interviews and evidence suggested. Down the path from a disused glass factory that also became a Russian base, a security guard was shot dead, then beheaded. The killers burned his head and left it out for all to see. The gray hair still visible suggested that he was an older man. Close by, the body of Dmytro Chaplyhin, 21, bore signs of torture and several gunshots, and had been booby-trapped with a tripwire to explosives intended to kill those who tried to collect him.
In garages by Building 12, residents heard the screams of a female doctor and several men they did not know as Russian troops barricaded them inside a garage and set fire to the building. The outlines of their torched remains, since removed, are still visible in the ash.
Investigators have also gathered evidence of what they say could have been rape inside the glassworks. Among the filth they found condoms and a woman's black bralette. Police say that the bodies of women and some minors bearing signs of sexual violence have been recovered from other parts of the town.
Ukraine's ombudsman for human rights, Lyudmyla Denisova, told reporters this week that roughly 25 women and girls were raped in one building in Bucha.
One day in mid-March, an old man in Building 12 called out his window to Russian troops in the garden below, according to an eyewitness.
"Boys, why did you come here?" he demanded.
They did not answer.
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From his freezing vantage point in the unheated Building 12, and still without Yulia and Sasha, Ivan was wracked with guilt, two neighbors said.
At 7 a.m. on March 6, two days into the Russian occupation, neighbors saw him step onto the street, scan the road for Russian troops, then set off in his family's direction. He returned almost immediately. There were bodies in the streets and too many Russian positions to risk it, he told neighbors.
In the office building basement, Sasha kept asking about her father. "You'll see him soon," Yulia recalls telling her.
Back in the apartment, Ivan's mood was growing darker. He was agitated. He Googled options to join the Territorial Defense Forces. "He said he couldn't just sit there," their next-door neighbor told Yulia later.
The following afternoon, Ivan smoothed a blanket over his father-in-law, placed his phone on the table, picked up his passport, and left. No one knows for sure where he was headed.
In the stairwell below, a neighbor barely recognized him. He hadn't shaved in days and looked exhausted. She watched him walk down the path and out of sight, toward Yablunska Street.
Yulia and Sasha left the basement the next day after Russian soldiers told women with children under 8 years old that they could leave. They had been held there for five days.
"I thought he was with you," her brother said when the young woman, weak with hunger, reached Building 12. Ivan's phone was still in the apartment. It was too dangerous to go outside and Yulia knew there was no way to find him, but Sasha kept asking where he was.
"Maybe your father's out there helping other children," Yulia told her. "Maybe he's fighting for Ukraine."
Around Building 12, reports of killings came daily. In the Telegram group chat, reports began circulating of a mass grave near the golden-domed church of St. Andrew. Yulia worried Ivan's body was there. In the chat messages, people implored one another to stay away from the windows and out of sight. When an elderly man became disoriented with stress, he stepped outside onto a balcony and Russian forces sprayed it with bullets, missing him but wounding other residents.
On March 23, one resident simply posted a prayer in the chat.
"Our Father, who art in heaven! Thy name be sanctified, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done," the person wrote.
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Ukrainian forces began the fight to retake Bucha in the final week of March, and as fighting intensified, Russian troops started their withdrawal. When residents emerged from their basements and other hiding places, the streets around them were filled with death. Bodies lay out in the open and mounds of dirt from shallow graves gave terrible new contours to sidewalks and fields.
The mass grave by St. Andrew's was real. Five tortured bodies were removed from the basement of a children's summer camp building. Investigators went house to house collecting corpses. Some said they cried at what they saw.
They found Ivan on April 7.
His body had been close to Building 12 the whole time, investigators believe, down the path to the clearing where Russian soldiers had camped out. It appeared to have been moved there from somewhere else. There was no blood on the ground. Someone had laid his coat and hat by his body, a gesture of order amid the cruelty seemed jarringly out of place.
The Russians had been all around. Video shared on social media on March 4 showed various Russian military positions nearby. Drone footage reviewed by Post reporters showed a column of at least six Russian armored vehicles stationed parallel to the railway tracks leading toward Bucha's center, less than a quarter-mile from Ivan's body.
Nearby was the leftover trash of an occupying army: empty wooden ammunition crates, Russian military ration packs and even life jackets, despite the fact that the troops were not close to water. Fifty yards from Ivan's body, at the firepit where the Russian soldiers had laughed and sung in triumph, there were empty bottles of red wine and vodka.
Yulia will probably never know what happened to Ivan, police said. Standing out in the late-winter cold this week, the young mother said it did not feel real. Her voice faltered. "I haven't . . . I haven't adjusted yet," she said.
When she walked back home to her daughter on April 7, Yulia had tried to stay calm but Sasha was there at the door, and she was asking questions almost immediately. Her mother had told her she would see her father again.
Yulia took a deep breath.
What happened, Sasha was asking. Did you lie to me?
The Washington Post's Kostiantyn Khudov, Serhii Korolchuk and Joyce Koh in Kyiv; Dalton Bennett in Kramatorsk, Ukraine; and Joyce Lee in Washington contributed to this report.