Close to Ukraine’s cruelty images Touch a global nerve

Tatiana Petrovna, 72, reacts as she sees the bodies of three civilians in the garden of a home in Bucha, Ukraine, on Monday, April 4, 2022. (Daniel Berehulak / The New York Times)

Perhaps that was the way the lifeless bodies, bloody of bullets, and some with tied hands, had been left scattered around or shoveled into temporary mass graves. Or the reality of seeing them up close in widely circulated photographs and videos.

There have been other atrocities in the weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, concentrating much of its firepower on the homes and gathering places of ordinary Ukrainians, but the international outrage they provoked has been overshadowed by the reaction to revelations that the withdrawal of Russian soldiers left many dead. civilians behind the Ukrainian capital.

Some of the corpses found last weekend outside Kiev lay face down and some curled up. Civilians appear to have been killed on their bikes as they walked down the street or in the basements of homes. In Bucha, where many of the dead were discovered, three bodies were found in a garden.

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Many of the victims had been shot in the head. A forensic pathologist in Bucha said his team had collected dozens. The Russians fired at anyone as their tanks rolled through the city in the early days of the war, some residents said.

Russian officials denied responsibility and denied the photographs of corpses as fabricated, but satellite images taken during the Russian occupation of Bucha and other cities contradict their claims.

An analysis of the satellite images from The New York Times showed dots in the exact coordinates, with the bodies later found in the newly liberated areas by Ukrainian forces and journalists. It confirmed the reports of witnesses who said many had been lying there for weeks.

The summary killings of civilians add to the growing body of evidence of numerous blatant violations by Russian forces of the laws of war, as described in the Geneva Conventions and the International Criminal Court’s definitions of what constitutes a war crime.

Prosecutors in war crime cases have a steep hill to climb. But experts in international law say the disturbing images of civilians shot dead in Bucha and other cities left by the Russians, along with witnesses’ accounts, can provide a lot of evidence for the investigation.

Unlike other horrors during the Ukraine war, such as the bombing of a food hospital, the flattening of a theater where people had shelter or the shelling of apartment buildings, the killings in Bucha could not appear as unintentional damage or easily denied by the Russians as propaganda.

“What’s different here is that you have pictures of civilians with their hands tied and executed – it’s a completely different kind of crime,” said Alex Whiting, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School who has worked on international war crimes. “This is very much like a crime.”

Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch, which has gathered evidence of war crimes in Ukraine, said the killings had caused so much shock, in part because many of the other civilian deaths in the war had been caused by random shelling and bombing – though it is no less a cruelty.

“I think one of the reasons people react differently to these corpses on the spot is the suspicion that these victims were not arbitrary, they were conscious,” she said.

When Russia began the invasion on February 24, there were widespread expectations that its superior force would soon subjugate Ukraine. But when faced with fierce Ukrainian resistance, the Russians quickly resorted to large-scale bombings and missile strikes, making little or no distinction between civilian and military targets, leveling all or part of some cities and towns with the ground.

In some ways, legal experts said, the images of civilians shot at close range convey a more personal evil.

“I suppose at one level you see a city destroyed, you think that kind of thing happens in war,” said Andrew Clapham, a professor of international law at the Geneva Graduate Institute who is among those advising the Ukrainian government. “People somehow suspend their horror and say it might be explained in wartime.”

But the deaths outside Kiev, he said, showed an intent to kill civilians.

“It’s much more obvious that there’s no excuse,” Clapham said.

Here is a geographical breakdown of where some of the worst atrocities of the war in Ukraine have been reported:


The southeastern port, one of the first targets of the Russian invasion, has been under siege for weeks with little food, water or electricity, and its former population of 450,000 has, according to some estimates, shrunk to 100,000 or less. A missile attack from Russia on March 9 severely damaged a maternity hospital, leaving an indefinite number of victims. A Russian bomb attack on March 16 destroyed the Mariupol Drama Theater, where hundreds of civilians had sought refuge and where the word “children” had been written in large letters outside to deter airstrikes. Ukrainian officials said 300 people were killed. On March 21, Ukrainian officials said the Russians had moved as many as 4,500 Mariupol residents into Russian territory – which, if confirmed as a forced relocation, would be a potential war crime.


The city of 1.5 million in eastern Ukraine, the country’s second largest, has been subjected to Russian airstrikes from missiles, artillery and cluster munitions, widely banned weapons that scattered bombs over a large area. According to residents and videos confirmed by The New York Times, the Kharkiv devastation has affected public schools and housing. Ukrainian officials recently estimated that at least 500 people had been killed. And Human Rights Watch said in a report on Sunday on potential war crimes in Ukraine that they had documented at least one case of rape of Russian soldiers in the Kharkiv region on March 13.


The northern city near the border with Belarus was a temporary refuge for many civilians trying to escape Russia’s early drive to surround Kiev. But Russian forces also subjected Chernihiv to relentless airstrikes after Ukrainian defenders prevented the invaders from occupying the city. Witnesses in Chernihiv said the Russian attacks destroyed schools, damaged hospitals and hit civilians waiting in queues.


The southern industrial city of 500,000, which blocks the Russian military’s route to the Black Sea port of Odesa, has withstood several Russian advances and airstrikes. One destroyed a military barracks that killed dozens; others were more arbitrary. Missile attacks have hit residential buildings. And last week, a missile strike hit a government building, killing at least 36 people. Over the weekend and Monday, other deadly attacks on vehicles and homes in and around the city were reported.

Kyiv suburbs

Many bodies of civilians have been found in suburbs north of Kiev. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly speech on Monday that more than 300 had been tortured and killed in Bucha alone and that the list was likely to grow. In its report on Sunday, Human Rights Watch chronicled the summary execution of a Bucha man on March 4 by Russian soldiers and the murder of a mother and her 14-year-old daughter in another northern city, Vorzel, a few days later.

Sexual violence by Russian occupiers has also been reported. Last month, Ukraine’s Attorney General Iryna Venediktova said in a Facebook post that a Russian soldier had killed an unarmed civilian and then repeatedly raped his wife in a suburb of Kyiv.

Laura A. Dickinson, a professor at George Washington University Law School specializing in international law, said the photographs of corpses in the Kyiv suburbs gave some of the most convincing evidence that atrocities had been committed by the Russian side, despite the Kremlin’s denials. . .

“The evidence is pretty judgmental, I would say,” she said. “It’s hard to dismiss as false.”

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