Natalia Stupnyk may never know what happened between her husband’s departure on the morning of March 12 and the moment, 19 days later, when she first viewed a video showing him and her nephew slumped in the basement of the Shiny Children’s Health and Leisure Centre, dead.
What she does know is they told her they were leaving to bring pain relief pills to a local elderly person in need. By then, they had grown accustomed to sorties through deadly streets under Russian control, after weeks of trips through a war zone to ferry food, water, medicine and children’s toys to people hiding in a nearby nuclear bomb shelter.
“They left with the car at 9:30 a.m.,” Ms. Stupnyk said. “They were going to deliver medication. But they never came back.”
It was not until nearly three weeks later that their bodies were found underground, beside three other men. Most had their hands tied, and the corpses showed evident signs of mistreatment.
The discovery of the bodies was one in a continuing litany of horrors that have emerged from Bucha, a community west of Kyiv, after the retreat of Russian forces last week. Ukraine’s Prosecutor-General called it a “torture chamber,” blaming Russian soldiers.
The Kremlin claims its soldiers have not killed civilians.
But The Globe and Mail, in a dozen interviews with families, friends and local authorities, has identified the five men found in the basement and learned about the weeks of fear and courage that led up to their disappearance.
Viktor Prutko, 24, installed doors and dabbled in advertising. Volodymyr Boychenko, 35, worked with a blacksmith. Serhii Matiushko, 41, was a labourer. Valeriy Prutko, 47, did plumbing work. Dmitriy Shumeister, 56, had just started a cleaning company.
Why they were seized by Russian forces and how they spent the time between their disappearance and their death – perhaps in captivity – is not known. But the discovery of their bodies suggests an atrocity that may one day form part of a war-crimes prosecution.
“We are absolutely convinced that all the work we do day and night will be directly used in the International Court in order to prove guilt. These crimes are not justified in any possible way,” said Andrii Turbar, deputy head of the Bucha district prosecutor’s office. He spoke outside the building where the bodies were found, which had been used as a command post by Russian forces.
“These people were just local civilians providing food for the others. What was the point in killing them?”
The bodies of the men remain in state custody, where the nature of their deaths will be examined and documented. But police photographs and television footage show signs of brutality. Mr. Shumeister appeared to be missing an eye. Mr. Matiushko’s teeth looked to be broken. Mr. Boychenko’s skull was visibly crushed. His family was told he had been shot in the knees and chest.
“It’s not murder. It’s torture and humiliation,” said Ilona Ilchenko, Mr. Boychenko’s cousin.
Those responsible “are worse than animals,” Ms. Stupnyk said. “I curse their entire family line for all of their abuses toward my husband and my nephew.”
The five men found in the basement were not all saints. Some had fractured relationships. Some were prone to rage. Some had histories of interactions with police and domestic abuse. They discussed looting.
But none had any military affiliation, friends and relatives said.
Instead, when war came to their homes, they offered to help. Russian attack helicopters and paratroopers arrived in the first hours of the invasion, attempting to wrest control of a key military airport in Hostomel, a community that abuts Bucha. Most of the five men lived a few kilometres from the airport. By nightfall, many of their neighbours had sought shelter more than 10 metres underground, in the safety of a bunker beneath the Bucha penitentiary, a decommissioned prison nearby.
The bunker became home to 286 people. They slept on prison beds and mattresses, but conditions quickly grew difficult. A virus swept through, leaving many sick. Supplies ran short.
But to surface was to court danger. Mortars landed on the prison grounds. Russian troops “started shooting when they saw people from the prison going for water,” said Viktor, a senior prison official whose surname The Globe and Mail is not publishing because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
One of the men in the bunker, Viktor Zabarylo, 64, offered the use of his blue Peugeot Boxer van to collect supplies. “People would have starved without food,” he said. Too old to go himself, he entrusted the van to a group of men willing to brave the streets. They included the five men later found in the basement and one other: 16-year-old Aleksey Buhera.
To get supplies, the men raided the shelves of local shops. “We broke into pharmacies as well because there were people who just couldn’t be without medicine,” Mr. Buhera said. They marked the van with yellow crosses and stuffed it with carrots taken from a local processing plant. They brought back rice, pasta, potatoes and some meat.
There was, Mr. Buhera said, no option but to break open doors to get what they needed. Their main objective, he said, “was to feed the bunker.” But some in their group also sought to profit from the chaos. Mr. Buhera watched as some of the group tried to steal a car. He overheard them discussing plans to loot an electronics shop.
Inside the bunker, though, the men were seen as heroes. “Under martial law, the most important thing is human life. And those people saved a lot of human lives here – even if the way they did it was illegal,” said Viktor, the prison official. He described the men as “risk-takers.”
And the risks were real. Mr. Boychenko “was afraid. He was really afraid,” said Alena Boychenko, his sister, who spoke with him regularly. “A couple of times he was even crying on the phone. Once, he told me he loves me. That’s something he never said.”
On March 10, authorities emptied the bunker, evacuating some people to other parts of Ukraine and sending others home. But the men continued securing goods for people who needed them.
They set out again on March 12. They told different stories to different people. Ms. Stupnyk heard that they planned to deliver medicine. Mr. Shumeister, an accomplished cook who enjoyed singing Soviet pop songs, told his spouse Victoria Verde he wanted to retrieve documents left in a car he had abandoned during heavy shelling early in the Russian invasion.
What happened next is not clear. But a short drive from Hostomel, in neighbouring Bucha, Victor Petrovich watched the blue Peugeot arrive at Campa, a tennis club serving as a staging grounds for people fleeing. An evacuation corridor had been opened “and they were taking people away,” Mr. Petrovich said. The van left Campa and drove in the direction of Bucha’s council buildings, on a route that passed the Shiny children’s centre, located less than a kilometre away.
A short while later, Mr. Petrovich heard the sound of automatic gunfire and the clatter of a vehicle smashing into natural gas pipes along the side of the street. He later emerged to see the blue Peugeot had returned. Now, however, it was spotted with bullet holes. He found it empty, with the keys left inside. He believes the men were returning for a second evacuation run, he said Friday, recounting his memories to Ms. Verde.
“They were saving people,” she said. “I didn’t know that.”
Mr. Petrovich said his recollection of exact dates was obscured by the stress of war. But Planet Labs satellite imagery reviewed by The Globe shows the van was not present on March 11. A subsequent image 10 days later shows it there.
Ms. Verde can only imagine what happened to Mr. Shumeister after the van crashed into the side of the street – and she struggles to understand how her spouse came to be in the cellar of a building under Russian control.
She knows only that he was stubborn in his insistence on distributing goods, even when the shelling was frequently so heavy that the house shook and they slept with their clothes on.
“War is long,” she said. “You need to help people.”
With reporting by Anton Skyba
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