By ERIKA KINETZ, OLEKSANDR STASHEVSKYI, VASILISA STEPANENKO – Associated Press
BUCHA, Ukraine (AP) — The first man arrived at 7:27 a.m. Russian soldiers covered his head and ushered him up the driveway to a nondescript office building.
Two minutes later, a pleading, gagged voice broke through the morning silence. Then the ruthless response: “TALK!!! TALK fucking mother-f-er!!! ”
It was a cold, gray morning on March 4 in Bucha, Ukraine. As night fell, at least nine men were said to be marching to their deaths at 144 Yablunska Street, a building complex the Russians had turned into a nerve center of violence that would shock the world.
What happened that day in Bucha was called “zachistka” by Russian soldiers in intercepted audio calls – cleanup. The Russians hunted people on lists prepared by their intelligence services and went door to door to identify and kill potential threats. The Associated Press and the PBS series “Frontline” have obtained footage from Bucha’s surveillance cameras that shows, for the first time, what a cleanup operation looks like in Ukraine.
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Police ended up recovering nearly 40 bodies along Yablunska Street alone. Prosecutors have so far identified approximately 144 Yablunska; AP reporters documented a 13th body in the stairwell of one of the complex’s buildings, in photos and video taken April 3.
In a joint investigation, the AP and “Frontline” reviewed hundreds of hours of video from surveillance cameras in Bucha and verified audio recordings of phone calls from Russian soldiers with The Dossier Center, a group investigation based in London. SITU Research, a New York-based visual investigation company, helped reconstruct events using a 3D model of Bucha.
On March 3, a seemingly endless convoy of Russian firepower rolled into Bucha along the railroad tracks. The order went out: evacuate.
In the chaos of the Russian advance, eight Ukrainian volunteers at checkpoints were separated from the others. They hid in a nearby pale brick house and listened in silence to the searing clank of guns and the rumble of Russian tanks.
At around 10 a.m. the next day, checkpoint volunteer Andrii Dvornikov called his wife, Yulia Truba, and told her to remove all evidence from their communications.
Shortly after, Russian soldiers broke down the door of the house and took away nine men, accusing them of helping the Ukrainian army. Two Russian soldiers led the men at gunpoint down the wet, icy road leading to 144 Yablunska, cursing at them as they dragged each other with their socks on.
The soldiers forced them to kneel down. Then taxi driver Ivan Skyba saw them lift the man next to him and shoot him in the head.
Over the next few hours, soldiers brought more and more people to Yablunska 144, including 20-year-old Dmytro Chaplyhin, a baby-faced store clerk everyone called Dima. As the soldiers took Dima away, his grandmother, Natalia Vlasenko, fell to her knees and begged them not to touch him, to no avail.
“Grandma, don’t worry! Dima called as he left with the soldiers and headed for 144 Yablunska Street. “I’ll be back!”
It was the last time she saw him alive.
When the Russians took Iryna Volynets to 144 Yablunska, she recognized one of the men lined in the aisle as her old school friend, Andrii Verbovyi. He was sprawled on his side and bleeding. She saw him tremble, and they met their eyes.
Shaken, Volynets did not immediately notice that her own son, Slava, was also kneeling in the line of doomed men. She finally recognized him by his jacket and his pants. He had taken a blow to the ribs and was breathing heavily.
She panicked, desperate to negotiate Slava’s release. The Russians brought a young man to examine Slava closely.
” Is the one ? ” they asked.
“No, not him,” replied the young man.
Slava lived. The Russians let most of the civilians go that day, but not the volunteers.
Skyba was punched in the face so hard it knocked out her teeth. His eyebrow quirked and blood ran down his face. The Russians tied his hands with duct tape behind his back, put a bucket over his head and kneeled him against a wall. They beat his head until he lost consciousness.
“What should we do with them?” Skyba heard a Russian say. “Kill them,” replied another. “But take them first so they don’t hang around here.”
The Russian soldiers led the volunteers to the corner of a small courtyard where there was already a corpse. Then two soldiers started shooting.
Skyba felt a bullet pierce his side and he hit the ground. He pretended to be dead, terrified that the Russians would see his exhalations cloud the cold air.
“I was waiting for the dark,” he said. “Terrible…I can’t explain it…Just terrible.”
Once silent, Skyba pulled her wrists out of the tape that bound them, crawled through the corpses of her comrades, and stole boots from the body of the only man still wearing them. He ran to a nearby house.
Then he heard voices. Russians.
“Is there anyone in the house?” a man called. Skyba pretended to be the owner.
Thinking it was a wounded civilian, the soldiers took him back to 144 Yablunska, this time for medical treatment, Skyba said. They took him to the basement, where over 100 people were being held.
For the next three days, Skyba huddled there, not telling anyone about his gunshot wound. The only toilet was broken. The children cried. The adults prayed.
On March 7, Skyba and the others were allowed to leave the basement. Everyone who had been captured with him, except for one who had given information to the Russians, was dead. He retrieved his glasses, which had fallen near a body, and left.
Russian soldiers informed their families by telephone of the carnage. A soldier named Maksym told his wife on March 21: “I think I’m going crazy. I have already killed so many civilians.
Now Bucha’s families await justice which may or may not come. Dvornikov’s wife, Truba, along with Skyba and relatives of two other people killed at 144 Yablunska, filed a lawsuit against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights.
“Everyone who is civilized must recognize that it was murder,” she said. “I want to prove that it’s not wrong and that it really happened.”
Associated Press reporters Adam Pemble, Allen Breed, Solomiia Hera, James LaPorta, Janine Graham and Richard Lardner, along with “Frontline” producers Tom Jennings and Annie Wong and co-producer Taras Lazer contributed to this report.
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