Through fury and grief, remembering Bucha – POLITICO
Andriy Yermak is the head of the Ukrainian presidential office.
Even in times of war, it should be possible to look forward to spring.
This is the time to make hope bloom, to escape the darkness of winter. Yet here in Ukraine, the arrival of spring carries an inescapable burden of fury and grief.
It was early April last year when a valiant Ukrainian counteroffensive forced the withdrawal of Russian troops from the town of Bucha on the northwestern outskirts of Kiev. What we discovered there after a month of Russian military occupation, we can never forget.
Bucha is no longer a quiet Ukrainian suburb, known for its charming neo-Gothic train station. To speak of Bucha today is to shrink from the horror of his massacres. It has become the 21st century equivalent of the Oradour and Katyn Forest of World War II, or Srebrenica of the Balkan Wars.
Under Russian control, this city has become a hell of torture, mass murder and unfathomable depravity. And thanks to the efforts of international investigators, we are still learning the full extent of the atrocities inflicted there.
Our grief at our losses – and the despicable and unbearable nature of those losses – is matched only by our shock and concern that Moscow remains largely unpunished for its actions, which we believe have not only harmed Ukrainians, but constitute crimes against humanity.
It’s hard to know where to start in the horrific catalog of horrors perpetrated in Bucha. The Ukrainian government is used to the Kremlin dismissing its claims as malicious, false or biased. Yet much of what we know about Bucha comes from independent reporting from internationally respected media – the BBC, the Guardian, the Economist, Associated Press (AP), Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Wall Street Journal.
Over the past few months, we learned of the existence of Mykhailo Hrabovliak, a 52-year-old man who lived in the nearby town of Hostomel and who decided to flee to Bucha with his family as the first Russian tanks approached. He reached Yablunska Street in Bucha when Russian soldiers opened fire on his car, killing him and wounding his 9-year-old daughter, Sasha. His arm was then amputated.
We also learned that paratroopers from the Russian 234th Regiment were moving from house to house looking for men of fighting age in an operation they called “zachistka” – cleaning. From CCTV footage, cellphone footage and intercepted military radio transmissions, The New York Times has gathered compelling evidence of the arrests, then executions, of at least nine civilians gunned down in the courtyard of an apartment building occupied by Russian commanders.
One of the victims was Dmytro Chaplyhin, described as “a baby-faced shop clerk everyone called Dima”. Russian soldiers found photos of their tanks on Dima’s cell phone and accused him of helping the Ukrainian army.
AP estimates that up to 40 Bucha civilians were murdered on Yablunska Street alone.
In total, city officials eventually said more than 450 civilian bodies were found in the city, including nine children. Evidence was also found of a torture center at a local campground, where at least 18 mutilated bodies lay in a basement used as an “execution cellar”. Witnesses spoke of corpses with cut off ears and missing teeth. All of this, along with countless reports of random rape, looting and violence.
As the true nature of the Russian occupation was revealed, it was a relief that so many governments and international organizations expressed their shock and support for Ukraine’s struggle; that so many leaders around the world were quick to dismiss Russia’s attempts to claim that Ukraine had somehow “staged” the Bucha tragedy for propaganda purposes. They were real people who died horrible deaths at the hands of Russian thugs.
Yet here we are, a year later, and Russia continues to inflict havoc on Ukraine, with no discernible military gains. Russian President Vladimir Putin scoffs at attempts to help us and vows to continue no matter what. His mercenaries now advertise for new recruits to shed their blood in his name, and he warns that the war may never end.
Do we really think that this expansionist threat would dissolve at our borders? Who would Moscow target next? Or should we continue to fight, not only to save our homeland, our culture, our children, but also to show all tyrants that aggression will not be rewarded?
Without a doubt, we will continue to fight. We will continue to need arms and ammunition, and we are infinitely grateful to our friends who have helped us to replenish our stocks. We also need tougher sanctions to step up the pressure on the Russian elite. Kremlin kleptocrats aspire to be part of the civilized world, but the only place in civilization for them should be prison.
What we need most, however, is for the world to recognize that Russia is run by criminals. There should be no place at international tables for those who seek to profit from the slaughter of civilians. And Bucha’s ghosts will haunt the halls of the United Nations, where maintaining Russia’s status as a permanent member of the Security Council mocks the organization’s name and purpose.
There is no security in bowing to the Kremlin. Russia may have scarred Ukrainian souls in Bucha, but Putin did not break our will.