Halyna Matiushko knows her son is dead. She knows Serhii Matiushko was found beside four other dead men on the dirt of a basement floor in Bucha, a town on the western fringe of Kyiv that has become a byword for Russian atrocities. She knows Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Iryna Venediktova has called that basement a “torture chamber.”
She knows the pictures sent to her by police show her dead son with a gaunt face and what appear to be broken teeth. His hands are tied behind his back. He was, police have said, shot to death.
What Ms. Matiushko does not know – what she cannot fathom – is how this could have happened.
“He was just a normal worker,” Ms. Matiushko told The Globe and Mail Tuesday. “He wasn’t any kind of a threat to the military.”
A divorced father with a 20-year-old son, Serhii lived near the Hostomel airport, an important military installation that Russian forces sought to seize at the outset of their invasion of Ukraine. Surrounded by fierce fighting, he stayed at home and helped to care for two elderly women in his apartment complex.
But he also made plans to leave for Ivano-Frankivsk, a city nearly 600 kilometres away by road, to enlist in the fight. He planned to catch a bus on March 12.
As he prepared to leave, however, a local volunteer asked him to help move some cargo. By the time that job was finished, the bus had gone.
Ms. Matiushko never heard from Serhii again. On the day of his planned departure, she walked two hours through heavy shelling to Hostomel, but failed to locate him. She learned from others that the local volunteer’s car had been found marked with a V, a symbol used by Russian forces in the invasion of Ukraine. Other Ukrainian communities have reported that Russian soldiers stole cars and then marked them with a V.
For nearly a month, Ms. Matiushko tried to find Serhii, posting pleas to Facebook. She heard nothing. Then, earlier this week, police sent images of the men discovered in the basement. Ms. Matiushko instantly recognized her son’s face and the clothes he was wearing.
The killing of civilians in Bucha, and in particular those like Serhii shot with their hands tied behind their backs, has created new fury toward Russia. It has prompted the imposition of additional European sanctions, calls by Canada, the United States and others to suspend Russia from the United Nations Human Rights Council and pledges by Ukraine and major Western democracies to investigate alleged war crimes.
“It’s not even war crimes,” Ms. Matiushko said of those who killed her son. “It’s people who are insane. In a war, warriors shoot warriors. Here, they shoot normal humans.”
On Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said a war-crimes tribunal like the one held at Nuremberg after the Second World War is needed to examine Russian actions. In an address to the UN Security Council, he gave graphic description of what Ukrainian authorities have discovered in recent days.
People “were thrown into wells, so they died there suffering. They were killed in their apartments, houses, blown up by grenades. Civilians were crushed by tanks while sitting in their cars in the middle of the road, just for their pleasure,” he said.
“Women were raped and killed in front of their children. Their tongues were pulled out only because the aggressor did not hear what they wanted to hear from them.”
He warned that the atrocities uncovered in Bucha would also be found elsewhere in Ukraine, where the city of Mariupol remains under siege, Kherson and surrounding areas remain under Russian occupation and Kharkiv is preparing for an expected new military assault.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused Western countries of promoting “hysteria” in order “to find a pretext to break off the negotiations that are being conducted” between Moscow and Kyiv, he said. Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia, dismissed Mr. Zelensky’s comments as “a huge amount of lies.”
But the streets of Bucha remain for Ukraine the most vivid illustration of Russian war conduct. On Tuesday, officials brought foreign journalists through the town, showing them a stack of six mangled bodies, with empty eye sockets looking out through skin charred black from fire. Four were women, one of them small enough to be a child. One showed clear evidence of being struck by a bullet, Kyiv police chief Andrii Nebytov said.
“They executed people they found – then burned them in order to hide the crime,” he said.
“To call the Russians ‘beasts’ would be a gentle description of them,” Bucha resident Larysa Savenko said.
She lives on Vokzalna St. where residents counted 72 vehicles, many armoured troop carriers, in a Russian convoy that passed by Feb. 27 in the direction of Kyiv. When Ukrainian forces attacked, the ensuing battle turned the street on Ms. Savenko’s doorstep into a metal graveyard, with carcasses of heavy armour still in place as a memorial to one of the most important early battles of the war.
The fighting on Vokzalna St. destroyed numerous houses, and damaged the roof and walls of Ms. Savenko’s home. Without electricity or other basic services for weeks, she survived on frozen meat and lard stored in a ditch dug in her backyard.
The flight of Russian forces in recent days has done little to assuage her fears. “What is most important to me is that they don’t come back a second time, like they did in Chechnya. That is scary,” she said.
Indeed, even if the fighting has stopped, the war in Bucha is far from over. Twenty-five demining workers are now scouring the area for explosives. By Tuesday afternoon, they had located 1,126 potentially explosive devices, including bullets and an unexploded cruise missile.
Millions of hectares of Ukraine will need to be searched for mines, authorities said Tuesday.
But to sweep one small area of downtown Bucha took five days, said Petro Kiselyov, deputy chief for the Kyiv region of the State Emergency Service. That effort revealed grenades rigged to explode in four apartments, at least one of which appeared to belong to a Ukrainian soldier. Mr. Kiselyov said he had seen three booby-trapped bodies, with live grenades hidden beneath the corpses’ arms.
“Russia, Ukraine and Belarus were fraternal countries,” he said. “It is unbelievable to see this.”
Ms. Matiushko, too, struggles to comprehend. While she searched for Serhii, she also tended to her other son, Roman, 42, who remains in hospital with multiple gunshot wounds. Russian soldiers sprayed him with bullets while he stood in line at a grocery store, she said. His abdomen and both hips were struck, according to a hospital report. One bullet lodged in his left hip, causing multiple fractures. Roman needs surgery and “is in very bad condition now,” Ms. Matiushko said.
Justice, she said, must be done.
“I want truth. And I want those people punished,” she said.
On Tuesday, she travelled to Bucha to beg police to release Serhii’s body for burial. But what happened to him should not be forgotten, she said.
“The Russians are saying they didn’t commit these crimes, that it was just imagined,” she said, showing a photograph taken of Serhii where he was found in the basement, his face ghostly in the light of a flashlight.
“But it was not imagined,” she said. “This is my son. This is my son.”
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