Ukraine marks grim Bucha anniversary, calls for justice
In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, from left, Slovakia's Prime Minister Eduard Heger, Moldova's President Maia Sandu, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Slovenia's Prime Minister Robert Golob, and Croatia's Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic attend a commemorative event on the anniversary of the liberation of the territories from the Russian troops in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, March 31, 2023. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
Elena Becatoros And Hanna Arhirova, The Associated Press
Published Friday, March 31, 2023 2:58PM EDT
Last Updated Friday, March 31, 2023 5:05PM EDT
BUCHA, Ukraine (AP) - Ukrainians marked the anniversary of the liberation of Bucha Friday with calls for remembrance and justice after a brutal Russian occupation that left hundreds of civilians dead in the streets and in mass graves, establishing the town near Kyiv as an epicenter of the war's atrocities.
“We will not let it be forgotten,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said at a ceremony in Bucha, vowing to punish those who committed outrages there that are still raw. “Human dignity will not let it be forgotten. On the streets of Bucha, the world has seen Russian evil. Evil unmasked.”
Bucha's name has come to evoke savagery by Moscow's military since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022. Ukrainian troops who retook the town found the bodies of men, women and children on the streets, in yards and homes, and in mass graves. Some showed signs of torture.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, fighting continued Friday: Russia used its long-range arsenal to bombard several areas, killing at least two civilians and damaging homes.
And the Kremlin-allied president of neighboring Belarus raised the stakes when he said Russian strategic nuclear weapons might be deployed in his country, along with part of Moscow's tactical nuclear arsenal. Moscow said earlier this week that it planned to place in Belarus tactical nuclear weapons, which are comparatively short-range and low-yield. Strategic nuclear weapons, such as missile-borne warheads, would bring a greater threat.
At the official commemoration in Bucha, Zelenskyy was joined by Moldova's president and the prime ministers of Croatia, Slovakia and Slovenia.
Russian troops occupied Bucha weeks after they invaded Ukraine and stayed for about a month. When Ukrainian forces retook the town, they encountered horrific scenes. Over weeks and months, hundreds of bodies were uncovered, including of children.
Russian soldiers, on intercepted phone conversations, called it “zachistka” - cleansing, according to an investigation by The Associated Press and the PBS series “Frontline.”
Such organized cruelty, which Russian troops also employed in other conflicts such as Chechnya, was later repeated in Russia-occupied territories across Ukraine.
Zelenskyy handed out medals to soldiers, police officers, doctors, teachers and emergency workers in Bucha, as well as to the families of two soldiers killed during the defense of the Kyiv region.
“Ukrainian people, you have stopped the biggest anti-human force of our times,” he said. “You have stopped the force which has no respect and wants to destroy everything that gives meaning to human life.”
Ukrainian authorities documented more than 1,400 civilian deaths, including 37 children, in the Bucha district, and more than 175 people were found in mass graves and alleged torture chambers, Zelenskyy said. Ukraine and other countries, including the U.S., have demanded that Russia answer for war crimes.
Among the civilians killed was 69-year-old Valerii Kyzylov, whose wife survived but for whom the horrors inflicted on Bucha, her home town, are still raw.
“I remember everything like it was yesterday,” she said, twisting a handkerchief in her hands as she stood at a candle-lit vigil on Friday evening. “A year has passed but I still see it before my eyes.”
She cried as she recounted the horror she endured a year ago. Of Russian troops shooting her husband dead and leaving the body lying in the street for days. Of the Russian soldiers taking over her house, where she was forced to live in the basement. They would bring other civilians to the basement, she said, some with bags over their heads, and they would decide there whom to execute and whom to allow to live.
“I lived with my husband for 47 years. We have two children. We had such a nice family,” she said, weeping. “This pain is so great. He was so beautiful. He was killed for nothing.”
Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin alleged Friday that many of the dead civilians were tortured. Almost 100 Russian soldiers are suspected of war crimes, he said on his Telegram channel, and indictments have been issued for 35 of them.
A Ukrainian court has sentenced two Russian servicemen to 12 years in prison for illegally depriving civilians of liberty, and for looting.
“I am convinced that all these crimes are not a coincidence. This is part of Russia's planned strategy aimed at destroying Ukraine as a state and Ukrainians as a nation,” Kostin said.
In Geneva, the U.N. human rights chief said his office has verified the deaths of more than 8,400 civilians in Ukraine since Russia's invasion - a count believed to be far short of the true toll. Volker Turk told the U.N. Human Rights Council that “severe violations of human rights and international humanitarian law have become shockingly routine” during Russia's invasion.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, along with announcing the possibility of the deployment of Russian strategic nuclear weapons in his country, called for a cease-fire in Ukraine. A truce, he said in his state-of-the-nation address in Minsk, must be announced without any preconditions, and all movement of troops and weapons must be halted.
“It's necessary to stop now, before an escalation begins,” Lukashenko said, adding that an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive using Western-supplied weapons would bring “an irreversible escalation of the conflict.”
But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded that Russia has to keep fighting, again claiming that Ukraine has rejected any talks under pressure from its Western allies.
Peskov also dismissed remarks by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban that the European Union was mulling the deployment of peacekeeping troops to Ukraine, calling that “extremely dangerous.”
Russia has maintained its bombardment of Ukraine, with the war already in its second year. Along with the two civilians killed Friday, 14 others were wounded as Russia launched missiles, shells, exploding drones and gliding bombs, the Ukraine presidential office said.
Two Russian missiles hit the eastern city of Kramatorsk, damaging eight residential buildings, the office said. Nine missiles struck Kharkiv, damaging residential buildings, roads, gas stations and a prison, while Russian forces shelled the southern city and region of Kherson. A barrage at Zaporizhzhia and its outskirts caused major fires.
In the battered front-line town of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine, a baby and adult were killed in Russian shelling, according to the presidential office. Before the Russian invasion, about 25,000 people lived in Avdiivka. About 2,000 civilians remain.
Hanna Arhirova reported from Kyiv. Jamey Keaten contributed to this report from Geneva, while Yuras Karmanau contributed from Tallinn, Estonia.