‘They took my massive love’: Ukraine lady searches for solutions


OZERA, Ukraine — Tetiana Boikiv peered from the doorway of the cellar on the Russian troopers questioning her husband about his telephone.

“Come up,” her husband, Mykola Moroz, referred to as to her. “Don’t be afraid.”

Moroz — Kolia to his pals — was attempting to clarify that the surveillance video they’d discovered was from his job as an electrician, all taken earlier than the Feb. 24 invasion.

“I am a religious person,” Kolia mentioned. “I haven’t hurt anyone.”

However the two troopers and their commander weren’t listening. They put a bag over his head. Despairing, Boikiv demanded to know what they’d do with the person she referred to as her massive, massive love.

“Shoot him,” one of many troopers replied. They took him away.

She would by no means see Kolia once more.

Whereas atrocities within the close by city of Bucha have captured the world’s consideration and grow to be case primary for Ukraine’s prosecutors, the slaughter there was not an aberration. Moderately, it was a part of a path of violence that unfold far and extensive, usually underneath the radar of prosecutors, to extraordinary villages like Zdvyzhivka, a half hour north of Bucha, the place Kolia lived.

A lot of the violence was systemic, not random, conceived and applied throughout the command buildings of the Russian navy, an investigation by The Related Press and the PBS collection Frontline discovered.

This story is a part of an AP/FRONTLINE investigation that features the Conflict Crimes Watch Ukraine interactive expertise and the upcoming documentary “Putin’s Attack on Ukraine: Documenting War Crimes,” which premieres 10/9c Oct. 25 on PBS.

Troops had been instructed to dam and destroy vestiges of “nationalist resistance,” based on Russian battle plans obtained by the Royal United Providers Institute, a distinguished protection and safety suppose tank in London. They did so with constant brutality, looking potential enemies on Russian intelligence lists and torturing and killing volunteer fighters, veterans and civilians suspected of helping Ukrainian troops. The AP and Frontline interviewed dozens of witnesses and survivors, and reviewed audio intercepts and surveillance digicam footage to doc what occurred.

These cleaning operations — zachistka, in Russian — took on a sharper edge as the road between civilians and combatants blurred. Ukraine has made it breathtakingly simple for anybody with a mobile phone connection to report the place of Russian troops, and lots of civilians do. As Russian troopers fought to suppress what has successfully grow to be a crowdsourced resistance, they’ve swept up many civilians who’ve carried out nothing in any respect.

Ukrainian prosecutors say they may tackle each crime dedicated on this warfare, however they’re scrambling to triage greater than 40,000 warfare crimes investigations. Proper now, their most urgent priorities are instances with promising proof and excessive physique counts, locations like Bucha that gripped the general public creativeness. Kolia would die in a backyard not distant, presumably by the hands of troops commanded by the identical man who led the Bucha operation, however his demise has gone largely unnoticed.

That left Boikiv on her personal to search out her lacking husband and wrestle to make sense of his demise.

Every time a brand new physique turned up in Zdvyzhivka — a bucolic village an hour north of Kyiv that Russians became a significant ahead working base for his or her assault on the capitol — Father Vasyl Bentsa’s telephone would ring.

The village priest had taken it upon himself to doc the deaths.

On Mar. 30, as Russian troops withdrew, the our bodies of two unknown males, marked by torture, had been discovered within the again backyard of one of many largest, ritziest homes on the town. Bullets had ripped by means of the purple wooden fence close by and casings littered the bottom. By the subsequent morning, when Bentsa arrived, three extra our bodies had appeared in the identical spot.

There have been no police, no prosecutors, no ballistics specialists, no Ukrainian navy round to name for assist. There have been simply 5 males who wanted names.

“We did not know at all who to contact,” Bentsa mentioned. “To leave the bodies like that for a long time was stupid. Clearly, we all know physiology — the human will decompose and smell. What would we do with them?”

Father Bentsa placed on medical gloves and searched by means of the pockets of the corpses, on the lookout for identification. He discovered none.

It didn’t look like the boys had been useless very lengthy. A girl from city who helped take away the blindfold from one of many corpses received recent blood on her arms.

Bentsa snapped pictures and helped haul the our bodies to a graveyard on the fringe of the forest. He buried them collectively in a sandy pit, taking care to mark the spot with a tough wood cross. “March 31, 2022,” he scratched into the wooden. “5 unknown men.”

“It’s a good thing someone had a pen,” he mentioned.

Fifteen minutes south, in Ozera, Boikiv stored hoping Kolia would reappear.

They’d met on the botanical backyard in Kyiv on a church outing for singles. Boikiv had moved from her dwelling within the metropolis to the village of Ozera only a few months earlier than Russia’s invasion to construct a brand new life with Kolia.

Their home had shiny blue doorways and tough wooden siding painted in cheerful blues and inexperienced. Mates mentioned Kolia had golden arms and will repair something. Their again yard was stacked with building supplies to interchange the roof, add brick cladding and construct a brand new barn.

Kolia received up earlier than daybreak to deliver Boikiv recent flowers from the fields. Once they had been aside, he despatched her images of flowers on her telephone.

“He was like a child deep inside,” mentioned Boikiv, who goes by Tania.

He preferred to gather small, stunning issues — stones, stamps, postcards, items of glass. Within the evenings they’d take turns cooking. He baked higher apple pie than she did.

“Once Kolia said to me, Tania, what’s the point in living for oneself? It’s when you have somebody next to you, you can feel happy,” she recalled. “Somebody to live for, somebody to bake for, somebody to work for.”

After the Russians left, phrase went spherical {that a} priest from Zdvyzhivka had images of people that’d been killed.

As quickly because the roads had been away from landmines, Boikiv and two neighbors went to speak with him. They discovered Father Bentsa in a big, hushed room full of gilded Orthodox icons, the place he had simply completed mass.

Bentsa scrolled by means of the pictures of the useless on his telephone.

On the third man, Boikiv froze. There was Kolia, wearing his personal garments, together with his personal face, bloodied and overwhelmed however intact. His arms had been curled into fists and his physique was mounted in a fetal place. The joints of his legs had been bent at unusual angles. One eye was swollen shut, and his cranium had been crushed.

“My Kolia! Kolia!” she cried, grabbing the priest’s telephone.

Father Bentsa advised her police had exhumed Kolia and 4 others from their frequent grave six days earlier.

Boikiv and her neighbors drove dwelling in silence.

Two different males from Ozera had been additionally swept up by Russians on the lookout for spotters and died collectively within the backyard with Kolia. One truly was a spotter, reporting detailed details about the situation of Russian troops to the Ukrainian navy.

On March 21 — six days after Kolia was taken — Serhii Kucher heard somebody hollering his identify exterior the home he’d taken refuge in, simply across the nook from Boikiv’s. When he walked exterior, he noticed his buddy — a neighborhood driver named Andrii Voznenko — kneeling, shirtless within the chilly, surrounded by Russians.

Kucher mentioned a soldier held a gun to Voznenko’s head and he confessed to appearing as a spotter.

The troopers demanded to know if Kucher was a spotter too and compelled him to strip so they might search him for tattoos. They threatened to shoot him within the knees.

“They searched the house, every room, every crevice,” Kucher mentioned. “They threatened that if any data gets sent from anywhere within the village, ‘We will come back and shoot you on sight.’

Around 1 p.m., the Russians put a bag over Voznenko’s head and drove him away. Two other eyewitness corroborated Kucher’s account. They never saw Voznenko alive again.

Ivan Boiko, an Ozera local who works for the emergency services of Ukraine, told AP and Frontline that Voznenko was skilled at identifying Russian planes and vehicles.

“I was sending all of this information to the headquarters of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and the Ukrainian Army was hitting these positions,” Boiko mentioned.

Boiko mentioned he misplaced contact with Voznenko round March 10, almost two weeks earlier than the Russians picked him up.

The day after Voznenko was taken, one other Ozera man, named Mykhailo Honchar, was picked up. Eyewitnesses mentioned Russian troopers blindfolded him, certain his arms and legs and took him away after discovering electronics gear in his backpack.

In Syria and in the course of the Arab Spring, civilians used their telephones to doc battle. However by no means earlier than has a authorities mobilized know-how to assemble data in such an organized, widespread method, as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy referred to as on each citizen to assist the warfare effort.

With a contact of the button from the beginning display of Diia, Ukraine’s e-government app, anybody can report Russian troop actions through a Telegram bot arrange by the Ministry of Digital Transformation. Mykhailo Fedorov, the Minister of Digital Transformation, mentioned on Twitter in April that in simply 5 weeks the bot had collected 257,000 experiences on navy {hardware}, troops and warfare criminals.

The Safety Service of Ukraine created its personal Telegram bot and despatched out SMS messages encouraging individuals to report Russian troop actions: “We will win together!”

“It does concern me because you are effectively turning citizens into intelligence assets,” mentioned Eliot Higgins, the founding father of Bellingcat, an investigative group that has been working with crowdsourced documentation of atrocities for years. “It creates a risk for those civilians. … Do we really want a government putting civilians in that position?”

Oleksiy Danilov, the top of Ukraine’s Nationwide Safety and Protection Council, acknowledged the dangers for civilians, however mentioned the volunteers felt empowered by contributing to the protection of their nation.

“The engagement of the locals was very important,” Danilov mentioned. “They risked their lives. They were helping their country.”

Underneath the legal guidelines of warfare, civilians who pose a safety menace may be detained, and troopers may goal civilians actively taking part in hostilities, worldwide human rights attorneys say. However not at all is it authorized to torture and kill civilians or combatants held as prisoners of warfare.

The diploma of crowdsourced intelligence in Ukraine presents new authorized questions.

“This really is a novel kind of issue,” mentioned Clint Williamson, a former U.S. Ambassador-at-Massive for Conflict Crimes Points. “It’s not contemplated under international humanitarian law.”

However, he added, the Ukrainian authorities has each proper to mobilize the inhabitants.

“It is still the choice of each individual as to whether they participate,” he mentioned.

Russian troopers had been sloppy about deciding who would dwell and who would die. Maybe worry or rage clouded their judgment. Maybe they didn’t actually care that a lot.

Three individuals picked up and tortured by Russian troopers close to Kyiv admitted to the AP, family or pals that that they had been passing details about Russian troop positions to Ukrainian authorities. Two had been later killed.

The day earlier than Kolia was kidnapped, drone footage reveals a fiery cloud bloom from the woods simply exterior Ozera as a Ukrainian rocket hit Russian artillery munitions. The strike was so correct that it was “perfectly logical” for Russians to suspect a spotter who gave data, mentioned Pierre Vaux, an professional in digital investigations on the Heart for Info Resilience in London who analyzed the video.

However it appears to be like like Kolia advised the reality about not being concerned. Mobile phone tower information for Kolia’s cell phone numbers obtained by The AP present that his telephone was final lively on Feb. 25 — making it extraordinarily unlikely that he despatched in coordinates from the occupied city within the 18 days earlier than his abduction.

Boikiv’s first cease in her effort to search out Kolia was the Bucha morgue.

By the point she arrived, spring was settling in over Bucha. Daffodils bloomed in entrance of ravaged homes. Because the solar warmed the earth again to life, the our bodies of Bucha started to stink.

The thick, sticky stench of the useless lingered across the morgue for weeks. The one quick reduction got here from the scent of recent lower pine wooden in a small room filled with coffins.

Anna Dolid, a psychologist on responsibility on the morgue, tried to ease issues by explaining, step-by-step, the method of reclamation when proof of crimes have to be gathered. All corpses wanted to be exhumed so correct investigations could possibly be carried out. There can be autopsies at one among a half dozen native morgues, and solely then may a physique be handed over for burial.

Individuals watched in horror as family members had been dug up from their yards.

“It was chaos. No one understood what was happening,” Dolid mentioned.

She stored smelling salts readily available to revive those that fainted from the trauma and handed out rafts of prescriptions for sedatives.

The query that rips by means of individuals’s grief, Dolid mentioned, is why. Why did this occur? “It takes years to search for answers to these questions,” she mentioned.

If Boikiv couldn’t get a why, she would accept a the place. However Kolia’s identify wasn’t on the lists of our bodies on the morgue. There have been three giant refrigerated vehicles parked exterior. Her Kolia was in all probability inside one among them.

Boikiv’s buddy from church opened every physique bag and peered in at every useless face. He referred to as her over infrequently to look at attainable matches. She mentioned they went by means of dozens of our bodies.

A couple of days later, she received phrase that two unidentified our bodies from Zdvyzhivka had are available in. However the Bucha morgue was farming out overflow corpses to a half dozen different morgues. By the point Boikiv received again to Bucha, the Zdvyzhivka our bodies had been on the backside of a stack of physique luggage in a refrigerated truck about to go away for the close by city of Bila Tserkva.

Boikiv started to weep. If she couldn’t hitch a journey on the truck, she threatened, she would climb within the again with all of the useless individuals. She couldn’t let Kolia slip away once more. The driving force made area for her within the cab.

When the truck was unloaded in Bila Tserkva, Boikiv peered in on the corpses from Zdvyzhivka. They had been in such poor form that it was laborious to make certain. A nurse advised Tania to look not simply on the garments, but additionally on the tooth.

“I opened the mouth and looked at the teeth,” she mentioned, flinching on the reminiscence. “It wasn’t him.”

She stored wanting, then noticed Kolia’s shoe peeking out from {a partially} open bag.

By the point Boikiv set eyes on her husband once more, Kolia had been useless for a month. His eyeballs had liquified right into a sort of white jelly. His pores and skin was stretched and dry, disintegrating. The stench was piercing.

“I asked the nurse what’s with the eyes,” Boikiv mentioned. “She told me the eyes rot first.”

She acknowledged her husband by the form of his cranium and his beard. She peered into Kolia’s mouth and checked out his fillings.

“I didn’t want to bring someone else to my house,” Boikiv defined. “Even without the eyes, I could tell it was my husband.”

The day of the funeral, pals from church trickled into the yard and stood round Kolia’s coffin. The sky threatened rain.

“We will meet again, Kolia,” Boikiv mentioned, working her work gloves alongside the highest of the casket. “I will give him a hard time for not listening to me, and not leaving when we had a chance. And how much time was I searching for him? How much I’ve travelled.”

She felt a stab of panic. “I double-checked if it’s him or not,” she mentioned in a low voice. “I am calm. I am calm.”

The mourners sang, deep and sluggish, about coming nearer to God, discovering a spot with out sorrow. Underneath low slate clouds, they walked in a brief procession to the cemetery behind the church.

Overhead, majestic storks circled as an alternative of warplanes. As Boikiv went again dwelling, neighbors embraced and sat collectively in entrance of their fences. They had survived, thus far. They would bury their useless and life, someway, would start once more.

“Everything is beautiful here. But Kolia is gone,” Boikiv mentioned, taking a look at a row of tall purple tulips her neighbor had planted. Fats, heat drops of spring rain splattered the filth.

“They took my big love,” she mentioned.

All that’s left now could be the seek for justice. For many who have misplaced family members, it’s every little thing, and it is usually nothing.

Across the time of the funeral, Father Bentsa knelt on the forest flooring subsequent to the pit the place he had buried Kolia, Voznenko and Honchar. He nonetheless doesn’t know the names of the opposite two males discovered within the backyard. Police had left issues behind once they took away the corpses, and Bentsa matched them together with his pictures of the mangled our bodies.

Right here, Honchar’s purple scarf.

There, the bloody material that certain Voznenko’s eyes.

Kolia’s black winter hat.

“Maybe one day it will be useful,” he mentioned. “If I bury them in the ground and there are no pictures, there’s no evidence, no investigation.”

How does one demise – as deep a loss as the subsequent – leap the road within the seek for justice?

All throughout Ukraine, gardens and courtyards and basements had been filling up with our bodies. It was removed from clear whether or not Kolia’s would depend.

The early indicators didn’t reassure Boikiv. The one official documentation of his demise she had was a slim strip of paper summarizing the post-mortem, which struck her as deeply insufficient. It mentioned her husband died of a number of gunshot wounds on March 25, 2022.

Boikiv had seen the images of Kolia’s physique and doubted it was bullets that killed him.

She gave an announcement to Ukrainian authorities, however she mentioned she hasn’t heard from anybody since. She thinks she’d be capable of determine the troopers who took him, however nobody has come round to ask. Most of what she realized about her husband’s final days got here from Father Bentsa.

If she believed that discovering Kolia would deliver her a measure of reduction, it didn’t prove that method. Her search was over, however Kolia was nonetheless gone, and her home rang with silence.

She mentioned the individuals accountable for her husband’s demise must be recognized and punished. However she’s not optimistic that may occur. Neither is she satisfied it could matter a lot.

“You will not bring him back,” she mentioned. “It won’t change anything.”

She sat at dwelling within the darkening mild surrounded by reminders of what she has misplaced. The mattress she’d delivered to share with Kolia. The water from the effectively Kolia dug. The little blue and white plastic butterflies Kolia pinned to their buckling wallpaper.

She was pondering of leaving Ozera, however then who would eat the fruit from Kolia’s backyard?

“I understand that everything is in the hands of God,” she mentioned. “And the time will come when people will be punished for this. The judgment day is awaiting them.”

Frontline producers Tom Jennings and Annie Wong, co-producer Taras Lazer and AP reporter Solomiia Hera contributed to this report.

To contact AP’s investigations crew, e-mail investigative@ap.org

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