Shortly before noon on Thursday, Ruslan Kravchenko strode down a gravel alley lined with dozens of spent 100-millimetre shells. Ahead, a body lay face down. A mine disposal team attached a long strap, slowly dragging the corpse roughly three metres, an exercise to ensure it had not been rigged with explosives.
Then Mr. Kravchenko approached. A former military prosecutor, he now leads the prosecutor’s office in Bucha, the town on the outskirts of Kyiv that has become synonymous with the brutality of the Russian invasion. The work of Mr. Kravchenko’s office will prove critical to Ukraine’s bid to prove that Russia, which denies any wrongdoing, has committed war crimes here.
The mine disposal team turned over the body to reveal a man who appeared to be in his 60s, with a short-cropped white beard. His face was smeared with blood.
He was “shot in the head,” Mr. Kravchenko said. The condition of the body suggested that “most likely he was down on his knees or he was face-down before the shot.”
Could this be a war crime?
“Of course,” Mr. Kravchenko said.
Then he moved on.
Even in this small corner of Bucha, where Ivana Franka Street reaches the railway tracks, there are many deaths to investigate. Prosecutors have already assembled 84 pages of names of Russian soldiers who they say were in the area. Now they are working to connect those names to pictures and then to match them with evidence from witness accounts, CCTV footage, satellite imagery and intercepted phone calls – all in hopes of turning civilian deaths into cases strong enough to prosecute in court.
They are looking for “any evidence that can confirm murder. Any evidence that can point to a murderer. Any evidence of Russian armed forces being here,” Mr. Kravchenko said.
The allegations of war crimes against Russian forces, which led to the United Nations voting Thursday to suspend Russia’s membership in the Human Rights Council, are founded on the discovery of civilians who appear to have been tortured, raped and executed, many in Bucha.
But for any case to succeed, it must be specific, marshalling evidence on who killed the man in the alley, but also assigning responsibility for the bodies in the basement of the yellow house used as a Russian command post; for the man in the ditch just outside that house; for the corpses burned inside the brick house that residents believe was deliberately set ablaze; for the family from the home opposite that is still missing; and for the killing of Volodymyr Cherednychenko, the 27-year-old electrician whose body was discovered in a basement six houses from where he lived with his mother.
That is what brought Mr. Kravchenko to this part of Bucha Thursday, along with a small group of police, a coroner, body collectors and residents – many of them elderly pensioners – who have become witnesses after living through weeks of occupation by soldiers who slept in their houses, stationed tanks on their lawns, parked a stolen luxury SUV on one of their driveways and, they say, killed their friends and family.
“If I am called as a witness, I will identify those who did this,” said Tatyana Cherednychenko, Volodymyr’s mother.
“They must pay the price for their deeds,” she said Thursday, as she stood outside her home waiting for the removal of her son’s body.
Soldiers, she said, had come to her house at Naberezhna Street on March 7, demanding to check papers and examine phones. Then they took Volodymyr, saying they had found something suspicious on his phone. She recalled how two of the soldiers had gone by the names Topaz and Number 12.
She saw Volodymyr briefly the following day at a house just down the street that the soldiers had commandeered.
“I tried to talk with him though the fence. They told me, ‘please stay 20 metres from the fence or we will shoot without warning,’” she said. She noticed Volodymyr’s left hand tied with a bandage. He told her he had cut himself.
It was the last she saw him. When she demanded to speak with a commanding officer, she was told he had been taken somewhere close to the Belarus border and would be returned in two weeks.
It was not until March 31 that a neighbour told her Volodymyr had been found dead in a basement six houses away.
His fingers had been broken, police told The Globe and Mail. He had been shot in the left side of his head. “He was tortured,” said Yuriy, a police officer whose last name The Globe is not publishing because he was not authorized to comment. Volodymyr was not armed and had not joined any military organizations.
But police believe Volodymyr had been chatting with volunteer groups providing aid to the Ukrainian military and may have provided information on the location of Russian troops. “So they alleged he was a Banderite,” said Yuriy, making reference to followers of Stepan Bandera, a Nazi collaborator and Ukrainian nationalist despised by the Kremlin but lionized by some in Ukraine as a liberator. Based on the condition of the body, Yuriy said, it appears Volodymyr was held in captivity and killed not long before the departure of Russian troops from Bucha on March 31.
Since then, police have been dispatched to parts of the city to collect evidence and witness accounts. On Thursday, Yuriy and a partner were assigned three small streets. There were at least 10 bodies, he said.
Not all of the witnesses on Ivana Franka Street were local, however. Andrii Gnyrya came to retrieve his Audi Q7, which was taken by Russian soldiers from his home in Hostomel, about five kilometres away. As the war raged, Mr. Gnyrya had stayed to help feed dozens of local animals.
In mid-March, however, soldiers came to his house, checked his papers, then forced him to his knees and placed a Kalashnikov rifle in his mouth. They showered him with obscenities and threatened him with rape. They pushed his wife to the floor, and threatened to rape her, too, then kill her husband if she did not hand over all of their valuables.
“They took US$60,000 in cash. My wedding ring. Some jewellery,” Mr. Gnyrya said. “My grandmother lived through the Holocaust and had very simple earrings. The fascists didn’t take them, but they did.” He was lucky. Soldiers beat his friend to death with rifle butts. “They were killing people for looking at them the wrong way,” Mr. Gnyrya said.
They took his car, too. It was only after posting about it on social media that he was directed to Ivana Franka Street, where he found the SUV badly damaged. Local residents said dozens of Russian troops had taken up a position here, using a low point just east of the railway tracks from which to fire rounds at neighbouring communities. Ukrainian forces appeared to use a drone to attack them, neighbours said, pointing to a charred mangle of steel and tank treads on the north side of Ivana Franka Street.
Since the Russian forces left, at least three bodies have been found in basements: Volodymyr and two others in a house the troops had used as a local headquarters. Three more were in a house on Ivana Franka Street. More were found in the burned house, where debris has not yet been cleared to allow for an accurate count. A couple in their 60s were killed on Maksyma Rydzanycha Street.
“They were shot on March 22. On March 23, the bodies disappeared, and we still don’t know where the bodies are,” said Natalia Oskolkova, a neighbour.
More than 100 bodies have been found in Bucha, said Mr. Kravchenko, the prosecutor; 29 on Wednesday alone. The majority were killed by bullets, not shrapnel, he said.
Mr. Kravchenko, 32, works with an AirPod in one ear and a constantly buzzing cellphone in hand. But he, like many other Ukrainian prosecutors, is experienced in investigating war crimes. He documented illegal acts in Crimea prior to Russia’s annexation of that peninsula, then did similar work in the Donbas region, where war with Russia has continued since 2014.
Now, he has been thrust into one of the world’s most high-profile efforts to prove that those who committed atrocities are, beyond any reasonable doubt, criminals.
The Kremlin denies any mistreatment of civilians, accusing Ukraine of staging dead bodies after the Russian retreat. Satellite images contradict that claim, and German intelligence on Thursday said it had intercepted radio chatter of Russian troops discussing shooting civilians in Bucha.
“We are firmly convinced,” Mr. Kravchenko said, “that we will prove the guilt of everyone who committed a crime here.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.