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Ukraine's Bucha 1 year on: Slow progress in war crime probes

Viktoriia Pokatilova
March 30, 2023

A year ago, the Ukrainian town of Bucha near Kyiv was freed from Russian occupiers, who are accused of committing war atrocities there. DW spoke to the relatives of civilians who were killed.

A bird in front of a Ukrainian flag in Bucha
The Ukrainian army liberated Bucha from Russian occupying forces on March 31, 2022Image: Carol Guzy/Zuma/picture alliance

On March 25, 2022, Russian occupying forces shot dead 69-year-old pensioner Valentyna Zen in the yard of her house in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha. Her dead body lay there until the town was liberated by the Ukrainian army a few days later, on March 31.

Zen's daughter Tetyana had stayed with her during the first weeks after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine but she was no longer there on March 25. She had been evacuated to Kyiv with her son the day before. Her mother had not wanted to go with them. 

Graves and crosses in Bucha
Prosecutors have gathered huge amounts of evidence of war crimes in BuchaImage: Metin Aktas/AA/picture alliance

'My mother bled to death'

Some neighbors saw what happened to Valentina Zen and later told her daughter how she had gone to fetch water in Sklozavodska Street, precisely where some Russian soldiers were stationed. These reportedly entered the yard later the same day and simply began shooting.

Tetyana told DW that the soldiers had killed at least two people a day in their own yards. "My mother was on the phone when she saw the Russians and heard shots. She ran off in fear and made it into the house, but a bullet came through the door and hit her, piercing her liver. My mother bled to death."

A year has passed since the murder, but Tetyana has yet to be questioned by investigators. The family doesn't know if there will ever be a court case.

Valentina Zen's grandson found her body after the Ukrainian army liberated Bucha. He also buried her himself in the town. Authorities asked him once about this, in April 2022.

Amid Ukraine's war, seeking justice for Bucha

Shot in the woods

The situation was similar for Serhiy, whose father Oleksandr Yaremych was also killed by the Russians on March 25, 2022. He had distributed some food to Bucha residents, not far from the Russian checkpoints. He was shot dead when his house was searched, two weeks after eight of his friends had met the same fate on Yablunska Street.  

Serhiy said that the Russian soldiers found a cellphone on his father and after searching him, they led him into the woods and shot him.

He said that he had spoken to his father, who used the same cellphone, not long before.

An official investigation was opened after the murder but Serhiy said that he had spent a year trying to find out how the prosecution was coming along. He said that first the body had to be exhumed and evidence collected, then the original investigator was replaced and it was only recently that he had finally been interrogated.  

"It is going very slowly, but they are making progress," he said. "They tell me what they have done and what their next moves are. It is a tedious process. I don't think the investigation will be wrapped up before the end of the year."

An empty road in Bucha
Many civilians were killed on this Bucha road, Yablunska Street Image: Viktoria Pokatilova/DW

Evidence of war crimes

Ukraine's prosecutor general has tallied nearly 11,000 war crimes committed by Russian forces in the Kyiv region alone. Some 700 were registered in Bucha. More than 7,000 criminal cases have already been opened and 118 suspects and 50 individuals have been brought before judges in absentia. Four have been convicted. 

According to the prosecutor's office of the Kyiv region, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and local police searched the area last year. They exhumed bodies and collected evidence to support ongoing cases. Volunteers also assisted authorities, allowing them to collect huge amounts of war crimes-related evidence.

Prosecutors say that the investigations are time-consuming because it is difficult to identify perpetrators and practically impossible to arrest them. "The main aim of this phase of the investigation is to assemble a complete evidentiary foundation as well as eyewitness accounts," said Oleh Tkalenko, the deputy head of the Kyiv prosecutor's office.

"Interrogators are often able to ascertain the identity of one or the other war criminal by questioning Russian prisoners of war," he added, saying that these often gave the names of comrades who had bragged about how many civilians they had killed, tortured or abused.

He said that despite the fragmentary nature of the evidence and the laborious process of collecting it, prosecutors nevertheless hoped to bring many suspects before judges and have verdicts handed down before the end of this year. "After that, these individuals will be added to international wanted lists," Tkalenko explained. "Ukraine has signed a number of international treaties for the extradition of such criminals. We hope that some of them will be apprehended abroad and returned to Ukraine to pay for the crimes they have committed while the war is still ongoing. We will find the rest after we win."

Beyond investigations taking place in Ukraine, more than 20 countries have now opened investigations into Russian war crimes, as defined by their own national legislation. Recently, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Netherlands, issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Commissioner for Children's Rights Maria Lvova-Belova on suspicion of kidnapping Ukrainian children.

This article was originally published in Russian.