Death in Yablunska: Four lives that ended in Bucha, Ukraine

They all had different paths to death on Yablunska Street in Bucha: a risky evacuation, a borrowed bicycle, an injured relative. One of them was even born in Russia.

But at the end of it all, at least 20 people in civilian clothes were found on a stretch of the street – victims of what are widely believed to be war crimes by Russian forces.

Images of the dead – most of whom were shot and left rotting on the road for weeks – have fueled further outrage and sanctions against Russia as well as further aid for Ukraine’s fight to save itself .

The questions far outnumber the answers about the murders, but a picture emerges as investigators open inquests and witnesses detail the terrible things that happened in Yablunska (Apple Tree Street).

Ukrainian prosecutors said on Thursday they were investigating 10 Russian soldiers for alleged war crimes in Bucha, saying the suspects were charged with holding civilians hostage and inflicting injuries to extract information.

These are stories of the dead.

A flurry of gunfire

“We left together, I came back alone,” said 21-year-old Oleksandr Smagliuk, his blue eyes staring blankly as he began to recount the morning of March 6.

The Russian tanks had been in Bucha for over a week. The Ukrainian counter-offensive launched a few days before had failed and the grip of the invaders was beginning to tighten on the key city on the road to kyiv.

The evacuation of the inhabitants of Bucha became increasingly risky, then impossible. The city was already cut off, without electricity, water and cell phone service.

On March 6, at 10:30 a.m., Mykhailo Romaniuk, 58, accompanied Smagliuk, his niece’s boyfriend, to try to visit the young man’s father, hospitalized after being seriously injured by a bombardment.

Oleksandr Smagliuk, 21, helps bury the coffin of his relative Mykhailo Romaniuk. | AFP-JIJI

Smagliuk and Romaniuk also thought they would find electricity there to charge their phones.

They pedaled together and in a few minutes arrived in Yablunska Street. Then the shooting started.

” We have not seen anyone. I only realized at the end where the blows were coming from. I just heard gunshots and saw him fall. I took a route to escape,” Smagliuk said.

Residents said they heard and saw gunshots from many directions during the occupation, increasing the likelihood that more than one shooter carried out the killings on the road.

Unknown to locals at the time, the street leading to Irpin had become the outpost of the Russian units that had taken the town.

Tanks were positioned in residents’ gardens and on the street, barricades were erected and troops were deployed to surrounding buildings.

“The first thing they did was set up and shoot anything that moved, anyone that came near. They even shot at statues,” said the Bucha police chief, Vitaly Llobas.

Romaniuk’s body lay for 28 days on a stretch of sidewalk with a yellow and white border – his swollen face turned sideways in a grimace, orange gloves still on his hands.

His corpse was collected on April 3 following the city’s liberation.

His death certificate cites “ballistic head trauma, caused by a penetrating bullet…multiple brain damage and fracture of the cranial cavity”, and concludes: “automatic weapon wound with intent to kill”.

These sterile descriptions gave no indication of who he had been in life.

Romaniuk was a construction worker in Bucha, a booming region that attracted kyiv families seeking a peaceful life with nature nearby.

“He loved to sing, he was a cheerful man and a bit of a drinker,” recalls his sister-in-law Viktoria Vatura, 48, mimicking a drinking gesture with her thumb.

Romaniuk was buried on April 18 without ceremony and without a priest. Each of the four members of his family said a few words at his grave to Bucha.

“A simple man who loved life and never hurt anyone,” Vatura said.

Raise your hand at the Russian checkpoint

While it was still possible, Mykhailo Kovalenko, his wife and daughter attempted to flee Bucha by car on March 5.

Intense fighting had trapped people in the area, and not only was there a risk of deadly shrapnel and bullets, but the water supply to homes was also cut off.

When the 62-year-old arrived in Yablunska, he “got out of the vehicle with his hands raised” to report to a checkpoint manned by Russian soldiers, said Artem, the boyfriend of Kovalenko’s daughter, who spoke on condition that his full name will not be published.

Yet troops opened fire, said his daughter and wife, who survived the attack by fleeing.

A relative of Mikhailo Kovalenko, a civilian who was shot dead on Yablunska Street in Bucha, cries after identifying his body.  |  AFP-JIJI
A relative of Mikhailo Kovalenko, a civilian who was shot dead on Yablunska Street in Bucha, cries after identifying his body. | AFP-JIJI

His wife was shot in the leg while running, Artem added.

The body of her husband, shot at point-blank range by the soldiers, lay on the sidewalk of Yablunska for 29 days in his blue parka and his elegant beige pants.

It was a brutal and sudden end for a man who loved classical music and collected stereo equipment, but also precious walks in the bucolic landscape of Bucha.

Kovalenko’s relatives identified him by his clothes in a photo taken from afar by AFP on April 2.

“It was awful,” Artem said.

On April 18, Artem was called to the Bucha morgue to identify the body. His girlfriend is now a refugee and being treated in a mental institution in Bulgaria “and wakes up every night” after witnessing her father’s murder.

Kovalenko was buried in a black coffin in Bucha that day, with Artem and two other relatives as the only mourners.

‘Maksym the Fearless’

Blood pooled under the body of Maksym Kirieiev, who was lying face down on the roundabout of Yablunska and Yaremchuka streets, near pallets of cobblestones outside a construction site.

His corpse was one of three at the location shown in a haunting photo. One of the bodies had their hands tied behind their backs using the type of strips of white cloth Ukrainians wore to mark themselves as non-combatants.

Until then, the 39-year-old construction worker had dodged the Russians and survived by taking refuge in hiding places in the basement, said Iryna Shevchuk, 52, an acquaintance who became a friend during the invasion.

“Everyone called him ‘Maksym the intrepid'”, she says about a hundred meters from where traces of her blood still marked the ground more than a month after her death.

Part of that nickname was her willingness to help people who needed to move between shelters.

His final moments came after weeks of Russian military occupation, which he documented in videos and messages even after Shevchuk was evacuated in mid-March due to a lack of food.

Then, on March 17, he and at least one other man left their shelter — Kirieiev was going to get a change of clothes from a nearby construction site, Shevchuk said.

He never came back.

“It’s very important to get justice for Maksym, because if we don’t punish them, they (the Russians) will do the same in the future,” Shevchuk said.

A borrowed bicycle

Volodymyr Brovchenko had something to do.

“That day he had to bring the bike to Vorzel. He worked in Vorzel,” his sister-in-law Natalia Zelena said, referring to a nearby town.

“He borrowed the bike from someone and that day he just had to bring it back,” she added, noting that he had held various jobs in his life, including working wood.

    Burnt, flattened and torn civilian cars litter a road leading to Bucha, Ukraine on April 3.  |  IVOR PRICKETT / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Burnt, flattened and torn civilian cars litter a road leading to Bucha, Ukraine on April 3. | IVOR PRICKETT / THE NEW YORK TIMES

His wife tried to dissuade the 68-year-old from making the trip given the dangerous situation, but the father-of-two undertook the trip anyway.

He was shot while cycling on Yablunska around March 5.

Zelena and his wife Svitlana Brovchenko identified him from a photo showing his body in Yablunska.

A neighbor tried to pull his corpse off the street, and this man ended up being shot, but survived according to Zelena.

Brovchenko, thus lay on the sidewalk with a blue bicycle for weeks, until his body was recovered after the Russians withdrew.

“He himself was from Russia, somewhere from the Gorkovsky district,” Zelena said. “But he had lived here since 1976.”

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