Bucha: Russian Forces' Retreat Reveals Evidence of War Crimes Against Ukrainians
Russian rhetoric of "Nazis" allows for crimes against Ukrainians
Bucha is a city with a population of about 36,000, located 15 miles northwest of Kyiv. Russian forces overtook the town in early March, but Ukrainian forces regained control of the city by April 1. The retaking of the city has revealed evidence of war crimes by Russian forces. Ukrainian officials, journalists, and NGOs have reported massacres.
On April 2, the city's mayor, Anatoly Fedoruk, told AFP that over 280 people had been buried in mass graves since the Ukrainian Army took control of the town. He further told Al Jazeera that it had not been possible to collect all of the bodies yet, because of fears that Russian forces had booby-trapped the corpses.
Videos posted to Twitter showed the streets littered with the corpses of civilians, some with hands tied behind their back.
On April 3, Reuters reported on the carnage of the scene after the Russians left: "Bucha's still-unburied dead wore no uniforms. They were civilians with bikes, their stiff hands still gripping bags of shopping. Some had clearly been dead for many days, if not weeks. For the most part, they were whole, and it was unclear whether they had been killed by shrapnel, a blast or a bullet - but one had the top of his head missing."
Human Rights Watch reported that on March 4, Russian forces rounded up five men in Bucha and summarily executed one of them. "A witness told Human Rights Watch that soldiers forced the five men to kneel on the side of the road, pulled their T-shirts over their heads, and shot one of the men in the back of the head. 'He fell [over],' the witness said, 'and the women [present at the scene] screamed.'" A Russian commander said to the roughly 40 townspeople who witnessed the execution: "Don’t worry. You are all normal -- and this is dirt. We are here to cleanse you from the dirt.”
The "cleansing" language coming from the Russian commander reported by Human Rights Watch comes straight from Putin's logic. Putin has said that Ukraine's government is "openly neo-Nazi," led by "little Nazis," and the country is in need of "denazification," by Russia -- a country that defeated the Nazis in 1945. That logic allows for these kinds of war crimes, according to Moscow sociologist Gregory Yudin. If Russians are told that they are liberating fellow Russian-speaking peoples from evil Nazis, then their "primary task is to separate the Nazis from poor Ukrainians & make the city clean from Nazism," he wrote on Twitter.
Officially, the Russian Ministry of Defense responded that the images from Bucha were "fake" and part of a "planned media campaign." It further alleged that the bodies weren't actually dead and were "deliberately laid out to create a more dramatic picture."
These kinds of war crimes are not just happening in Bucha. HRW has documented a case of a woman being raped twice by a Russian soldier in the Kharkiv region. First, at gunpoint, where the soldier shot the gun in the air twice demanding more "motivation," and second, at knifepoint, saying that she had to do as he said if she wanted to see her child again, and cutting the skin on her neck. HRW recorded another case of the summary execution of six men who were hiding in basements in a village near Chernihiv. HRW reported that the Russian soldiers took the villagers' wood so they couldn't heat their homes.
The evidence of war crimes comes after Russian officials said they would de-escalate in the Kyiv region, in places such as Bucha. Russia's Deputy Defense Minister, Alexander Fomin, said on March 29 that Russia would "radically reduce military activity in the direction of Kyiv and Chernihiv.” The statement wasn't true -- hours later, Chernihiv's mayor, Vladyslav Atroshenko told CNN that Russia had launched "a colossal attack" on the city and that Russian forces "have increased the intensity of strikes." A few days later, Russian forces did leave the area, and either did not have time or did not bother to try to hide evidence of war crimes. There are likely more cities such as Bucha where crimes have been committed -- we just do not know about them yet because they are still occupied.
In 2009, the writer Elie Wiesel said that on the day he was liberated from Buchenwald, April 11, 1945, he felt hopeful about the world because he thought it had learned from the Holocaust:
Paradoxically, I was so hopeful then. Many of us were, although we had the right to give up on humanity, to give up on culture, to give up on education, to give up on the possibility of living one's life with dignity in a world that has no place for dignity. We rejected that possibility and we said, no, we must continue believing in a future, because the world has learned. But again, the world hasn't. Had the world learned, there would have been no Cambodia and no Rwanda and no Darfur and no Bosnia.
Wiesel died in 2016. And Bucha is not the Holocaust -- it is its own tragedy. But we must ask the same questions. Has the world learned? Can we believe in a future with dignity for all?
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