BUCHA, Ukraine (AP) — The boy lay motionless on the asphalt when he heard his father died. His elbow was burned where the bullet had pierced it. His thumb was bruised and stinging.
Another killing is taking place on a lonely street in the Butcha community on the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. civilian corpse It was still found weeks after Russian soldiers retreated. Many were shot in the head.
14-year-old Yura Nechyporenko is about to be one of them.
Survivors described soldiers shooting at their feet or threatening them with grenades, only to be pulled away by a level-headed colleague. But on that day in March, there was no one around to stop the Russian soldier as Yura and his father Ruslan, 47, were cycling down a tree-lined street.
They were on their way to visit vulnerable neighbors hiding in basements and homes without electricity or running water. Their bicycles are tied with white fabric to symbolize their safe travel.
Yura and his father immediately stopped and raised their hands as the soldiers stepped out of the muddy path to challenge them.
“What are you doing?” Yura remembers the soldier asking. The soldier did not give Yura’s father time to answer.
The boy heard two shots. His father fell, mouth open, already bleeding.
A shot hit Yura in the hand, and he fell too. Another shot hit him in the elbow. He closed his eyes.
The last shot was fired.
This story is part of an ongoing investigation by The Associated Press and Frontline, which includes War Crimes Watch Ukraine Interactive Experience and an upcoming documentary.
As international judicial experts come to Butcha, the epicenter of terror and possible war crimes in Ukraine, Yura’s extraordinary account of attempted killings by Russian soldiers stands out. So far, more than 1,000 bodies have been found in Bucha and other communities around Kyiv. In Butcha alone, 31 children under the age of 18 were killed and 19 injured, according to local authorities.
“All children were intentionally killed or injured because Russian soldiers intentionally opened fire on evacuation cars with ‘children’ signs and white fabrics, and they intentionally opened fire at civilian homes,” said the chief prosecutor of the Butcha district. , Ruslan Kravchenko told The Associated Press.
At least 202 children in Ukraine were killed in the Russian invasion, the UN Human Rights Office said, arguing that the actual number was much higher. According to the Ukrainian government, 217 children were killed and more than 390 injured.
The Associated Press and Frontline independently documented 21 killings of children that may meet the definition of a war crime from a variety of sources, from the discovery of a child in a shallow grave in Borodyanka to the bombing of a theater in Mariupol. The total number of child victims in the attack is unknown, and this figure represents only a small fraction of potential war crimes.
Yura is a teenager who has grown into himself, slender and speckled, with dark circles pressing under his eyes. His adulthood has passed quickly. He showed the healed hole in his elbow as he lay on the floor at home to demonstrate what happened.
His mother Allah took a deep breath to calm herself. Yura sat up, put an arm around her, and rested her head on her shoulder.
On that horrific day, Yura survived that attempted killing because of the awkward grace of the teenager constant, his gray hoodie. It was shot in his place, and he felt it move.
Yura lay in the street for a few minutes, waiting for the soldiers to go away.
Then Yura ran away. He reached the kindergarten where his mother worked, where some residents used the basement as a shelter. They were shocked to see the boy and gave him first aid.
He realized he needed to go home. He returned to the street, not knowing where the next soldier might be.
When he got home, his family called the police. Police said there was nothing they could do because they had no control over the area, according to the family. The ambulance service said the same.
According to the boy’s uncle, Andre, police told the family that officers did not know how to handle the case. The prosecutor’s report described the killing and attempted killing in just a few sentences, including the loss of a cell phone belonging to Yura’s father. He could have helped now – he used to be a lawyer.
Kravchenko told The Associated Press that they will continue to work on Yura’s case, expressing confidence that crimes committed during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine can be successfully investigated. Among other things, footage from dozens of surveillance cameras in Bukha is being analyzed, and facial recognition photo albums of Russian soldiers are being assembled.
In March, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced that investigations of crimes against children, in particular, would benefit from a new trust fund. Half or more of those affected by conflict are children, but they are often labelled too easy to testify or have bad memories, said Veronique Aubert, Special Adviser on Child Crimes for the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. accurate labels.
Yura’s situation is unusual.
“Prosecutors may want to take up the case because the victim is alive and likely to testify,” said Ryan Goodman, a New York University law professor and former special counsel to the U.S. Department of Defense. “It is difficult, if not impossible, for the defendant to claim that It makes sense for them to try to kill a child.”
It was left to Yura’s family to retrieve his father’s body.
They did it the next day. Yura’s grandmother in her 70s begged Russian soldiers to let her get close to the body.
They raised their guns and let her walk ahead of them. Another soldier in the distance shouted, “Don’t come over or we’ll kill you.” But he didn’t open fire.
They took Yura’s father home on a wheelbarrow. He was rolled into the carpet and placed on an old wooden door. Amid the shelling and gunfire, they buried him in the yard behind the wooden shed, one of many makeshift graves hastily dug during the month-long Russian occupation.
The next day, Yura and his family left Butcha along a rare evacuation corridor. The injured boy walked across the street first, holding a stick tied with a white towel and a white sling wrapped around his arm. The family had to make their way through the scene of the shooting.
As they approached the evacuation point, Russian soldiers asked where they were going. They asked Yura what happened.
“I was shot by a Russian soldier,” the boy replied.
At that time, his mother was horrified. “I felt like everything inside of me was falling apart,” she recalls. “I thought they were going to shoot us all.”
She told the soldiers to let them pass, saying it was getting late. They did it.
That day, the family left the town.
A grey hoodie with bloodstained elbows is now at the heart of the family’s quest for justice. The top seam of the loose fabric has been cut. Yura’s mother insists that this is evidence and cannot be thrown away.
After the Russians were evacuated, the family returned to Bukha in mid-April. They dug up Yura’s father and buried him in a local cemetery.
The boy’s family continued to play detective roles, scouring the shooting area for more evidence and speculating on the trajectory of the bullet. They asked neighbors and analyzed holes in metal fences.
As the family showed the scene to The Associated Press, Yura lingered on the grass on the side of the street, head bowed, looking for bullet casings. He believed he could recognize the Russian soldier, even though part of the soldier wore a balaclava.
Yura will finish ninth grade this year and will be able to resume online classes once power is restored. Before that, he volunteered like a father, visiting older residents.
His mother is considering sending him overseas for the sake of his mental health. She also needs some distance.
“I’m never alone physically, but maybe mentally,” she said, almost in tears. “I try to avoid that.”
Her son’s case remains a faint source of hope. She believes that there are courts, and those courts will work. No one should go through what her son did.
Yura worries that they already have.
“It’s not just me who wants justice,” he said. “Even now, Ukrainians are still at risk of being tortured and killed.”
Yura turned 15 on April 12th. It’s a quiet birthday. His father was a good cook and usually had a barbecue to celebrate.
On April 25, the day after Orthodox Easter, according to local custom, the family gathered again at the grave to commemorate the 40th day of Ruslan’s death. A Bucha priest blessed the food for Easter – dyed eggs, bread – along with homemade pickles, chocolate and wine. A plastic bag of food hangs on a wooden cross.
Yura stood by, quietly lighting a candle and placing it on the grave. Then he pulled a black hoodie over his head to keep out the cold.
These days, the boy’s uncle Andrei keeps a close eye on him. Yura has always been a good boy, but he becomes impatient, shifting from one task to another. Andriy worries that survivors’ trauma will catch up to Yura, and mourns his nephew’s damaged childhood.
“It tore my soul,” Andrei said tearfully. “What we saw was the pain that followed… (Russian President Vladimir) Putin just decided to make us suffer, and we did.”
Frontline producer Tom Jennings contributed to this story.
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