ISSN 2330-717X

Ukraine: Russian Forces Committed Apparent War Crimes In Bucha, Details HRW Report

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Russian forces committed a litany of apparent war crimes during their occupation of Bucha, a town about 30 kilometers northwest of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, from March 4 to 31, 2022, Human Rights Watch said in a detailed report released Thursday.

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Human Rights Watch researchers who worked in Bucha from April 4 to 10, days after Russian forces withdrew from the area, 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.

“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.” 

Human Rights Watch interviewed 32 Bucha residents in person and 5 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.

The cases documented 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, told Human Rights Watch on April 15 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.

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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 outside the Church of St. Andrew and All Saints, 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. As of April 14, local authorities had exhumed more than 70 bodies from the church site.

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 on February 24. 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 9-year-old girl who was shot in the shoulder while trying to run away from Russian forces.

Human Rights Watch had previously documented a summary execution in Bucha that occurred on March 4, based on information from witnesses who had managed to flee Bucha. In that case, Russian forces rounded up five men and shot one of them in the back of the head, a witness said. In another case documented previously, on March 5, 48-year-old Viktor Koval died when Russian forces attacked the house where he and other civilians had been sheltering.

The Russian Defense Ministry denied allegations that its forces killed civilians in Bucha, stating in a Telegram post on April 3 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 Bucha on February 27, but were pushed out of the central part of the town during heavy fighting. On March 4, Russian forces returned, and largely took control of the town by March 5. 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.

Soon after they occupied the city, Russian forces went door to door, searching residential buildings, claiming they were “hunting Nazis.” In multiple locations they looked for weapons, interrogated residents, and sometimes detained the men, allegedly for failure to comply with orders, or without providing a specific reason. Family members of those detained said they were not told where their male relatives were taken, and were unable to get information later about where they were being held. This amounts to an enforced disappearance, a crime under international law in all circumstances.

The bodies of some of those forcibly disappeared, including in two of the cases Human Rights Watch documented, were found on streets, in yards, or in basements after the Russian forces retreated – some with signs that they had been tortured. Ukrainian de-mining authorities said they found victim-activated booby traps placed on at least two dead bodies.

Russian forces occupied civilian homes and other buildings, including at least two schools, making these locations military targets. Two residents in one apartment building said that Russian forces ordered those remaining in the building to move into the basement, but to leave their apartment doors unlocked. Russian forces then moved in. When they found a locked door, they forced it open and wrecked the apartment, residents said.

Many residents said that Russian forces shot indiscriminately at civilians who had ventured outside. Vasyl Yushenko, 32, was shot in the neck as he went to smoke a cigarette in the enclosed balcony of his apartment. A nurse said she treated 10 people with serious injuries, including the girl who was shot while trying to run away from Russian forces. The man she was running with was killed and the girl’s arm had to be amputated.

Some people were injured or killed during explosions, funeral home workers said, most likely when the Russian forces were shelling the town at the start of their offensive or during artillery exchanges between Russian and Ukrainian forces.

Russian forces damaged the homes and apartments where they had stayed and also took private property, including, residents said, valuables such as television sets and jewelry. While occupying forces can requisition property for their use in exchange for compensation, looting – or pillaging as it is called under the laws of war – is strictly prohibited, in particular when property is taken for personal or private use.

Residents said they had limited access to water, food, electricity, heating, and mobile phone service during the occupation. One man said he buried his older neighbor, who had relied on an oxygen concentrator and died when the power went off and the machine failed.

Human Rights Watch has documented and received reports about other apparent war crimes in other towns occupied by Russian forces, such as Adriviika, Hostomel, and Motzyhn, and more evidence will likely emerge as access to other locations improves. A senior Ukrainian police official announced on April 15 that the authorities had identified 900 Ukrainian citizens across the Kyiv region who had been killed by Russian forces during their occupation but the circumstances of those deaths remains unclear.

Bucha’s chief regional prosecutor told Human Rights Watch on April 15 that over 600 bodies had been found across Bucha district, which is within the Kyiv region and has a population of about 362,000. Human Rights Watch has not verified these figures.

All parties to the armed conflict in Ukraine are obligated to abide by international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, including the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, and customary international law. Belligerent armed forces that have effective control of an area are subject to the international law of occupation. International human rights law, which is applicable at all times, also applies.

The laws of war prohibit willful and indiscriminate killing, torture, enforced disappearances, and inhumane treatment of captured combatants and civilians in custody. Pillage or looting is also prohibited. Anyone who orders or deliberately commits such acts, or aids and abets them, is responsible for war crimes. Commanders of forces who knew or had reason to know about such crimes but did not attempt to stop them or punish those responsible are criminally liable for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility.

Ukrainian authorities should prioritize efforts to preserve evidence that could be critical for future war crime prosecutions, including by cordoning off mass gravesites 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.

Other governments, organizations, 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, Ukraine should urgently ratify the International Criminal Court (ICC) treaty and formally become a member of the court, and authorities should work to align Ukraine’s national legislation with international law.

“The victims of apparent war crimes in Bucha deserve justice,” Weir said. “Ukrainian authorities, with international support, should prioritize preserving evidence, which is critical for ensuring that those responsible for these crimes will one day be held to account.”

Summary Executions

Human Rights Watch documented nine apparent summary executions in Bucha. Russian forces detained the men, in some cases forcibly disappeared and tortured them, and then executed them. Funeral home workers who buried the dead described seeing the bodies of dozens of other men who may have also been victims of summary executions. Many bodies were found on or around Yablunska Street, near the highway to Kyiv and just south of the train station.

Summary executions, irrespective of the victim’s status as a civilian, prisoner of war, or otherwise as a captured combatant, are strictly prohibited as a crime under international law and may be prosecuted as war crimes or crimes against humanity, depending on the context.

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