Yesterday (3 April 2022) an ashen faced Oleksiy Arestovych, a chief advisor to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy who has been making regular televised updates on the progress of the war, appeared on UA-TV — Ukrinform, the Ukrainian state broadcaster — to inform the public of the appalling massacre of civilians at the towns of Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel to the northwest of Kyiv. Russian forces, in compliance with commitments made at the most recent round of talks, withdrew from this area of the Kyiv Oblast, allowing the Ukrainian armed forces to take back control of these towns. Late on Saturday evening pictures began to circulate of what Arestovych described as a ‘post-apocalyptic horror movie’ — of as many as three hundred bodies of murdered Ukrainian civilians strewn about public streets, in cellars, and in shallow graves.
In The Kyiv Independent, Olga Rudenko wrote in an article published at 2:21 am (3 April) that as soon as the Russian forces began to withdraw from the area ‘horrific photos and videos began to flow in’ that ‘appeared to prove that the Russian forces carried out targeted, organized killings of civilians in Bucha.’ At half past eleven in the morning Valentyna Romanenko was adding much more detail to these atrocities in Ukrayinska Pravda in an article headed: ‘Did you want another Srebrenica?,’ linking the crimes to the 1995 genocide of eight thousand Bosniak Muslim men in Bosnia. Quoting Mykhailo Podoliak, the Adviser to the Head of the Presidential Office, who had said that because the western world did not want to provoke Russia, it got the total unspeakable horror of inhumanity in Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel:
Hundreds, thousands of murdered, maimed, raped, bound, raped again and then killed. Hundreds, thousands of Ukrainian civilians. Murdered with particular brutality.
Pictures published on Podoliak’s social media pages and in newspapers across the country confirmed these apocalyptic scenes of savage brutality. People with their hands tied behind their backs executed against walls, bodies laying on the public streets all over the town of Bucha, limbs poking from what look to be mass graves. Charred remains draped over the twisted wreckage of shot-out and burnt-out vehicles and machinery, hands with nail polish, and bloodied faces with multiple gunshot wounds. The horror was there for the world to see. Two whole hours before this had made it to the Ukrainian media, Louise Callaghan had the full story on the online edition of The Sunday Times in Britain, and by five o’clock in the morning the Wikipedia article was live: ‘The Bucha massacre was a slaughter of civilians in the Ukrainian town of Bucha by Russian troops involved in the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.’
All the facts were established. People in western Europe would have all the details, every gory photograph, and the number of times each victim had been raped before being shot before going to bed and in Ukraine it would be right on time for breakfast. Not only would this be the news story of the day — saturating every news bulletin from Los Angeles to Berlin, this story would be the news.
But this is a strange story. There is no shortage of photographic evidence of the aftermath. No one can dispute that hundreds of civilians have been butchered on the streets of their towns. We can all see it. We know that this happened. Yet, from the beginning of this conflict the media has stressed the point that this war is going on in the ‘civilised world.’ Every moment of this is being caught on camera by ordinary people. There is not a single piece of video footage of this massive crime; not a single snapshot, social media update, text message — nothing. The first anyone anywhere hears about this disgraceful and very public crime is when it hits the papers. In Mariupol, a city entirely surrounded by Russian forces, residents are using Skype to contact news outlets in Greece. Even within the Russian occupied south and east of the country ordinary citizens are filming what the Russians are doing, and what the Ukrainian forces are doing to the Russians. From a few miles north of Kyiv, however, during a horrific and sustained attack on the civilian population, we have nothing but silence until the press breaks the story. This is strange.
There is something stranger than this. We are given the impression from the media coverage that Ukrainian soldiers advancing into these Kyiv satellite towns were met by this horror. Many of the pictures we have clearly show the public nature of these crimes. Anyone walking into Bucha was going to see the crime scene. Nothing of this was hidden. This is exactly what Rudenko had written — as soon as the Russian forces began to withdraw from the area horrific photos and videos began to flow in. We would assume, then, that Russian forces began to withdraw from Bucha sometime in the late evening of Saturday 2 April and pictures began flowing into Rudenko and her colleagues at The Kyiv Independent shortly thereafter. But no, this is not how it happened.
Russian forces began leaving Bucha Irpin, and Hostomel during the afternoon of Wednesday 30 March — a whole three days before these awful videos and images began ‘flowing in’ to the Ukrainian media. The Russian military had entirely vacated the town of Bucha by 16:31 on 1 April, because this is when Anatoliy Fedoruk, the mayor of Bucha, stood in front of the town hall and declared the ‘liberation’ of the town and posted it to the official Facebook page of the Bucha City Council. It stands to reason, then, that survivors of the massacre and arriving Ukrainian soldiers would have seen the horrific scenes around the streets and reported them — but no. In fact, Mr Fedoruk says nothing about bodies littering the streets in his online liberation address. It is not for another twenty-four hours that a massacre is brought to the attention of the press. Strange.
Clearly, we have a few hours to fill in here. The Russians leave on the afternoon of 30 March, no reports of a massacre come from the city — not even from the mayor who is actually in Bucha on 1 April, and then on the evening of 2 April we have a massacre. This is more than seventy-two hours in which no one is reporting a massacre and Ukrainian forces have control of the town. The mayor is in town and the townspeople are getting back out onto the streets, and no one — no one — is talking about a massacre. There are perhaps one or two videos, taken by people driving through the town, in which there are bodies visible on the road. But there are maybe only three or four, and this is an active warzone. It is difficult to marry these videos to the later pictures of wholesale slaughter.
According to The New York Times, which had the photojournalist Daniel Berehulak on the ground, one of the first Ukrainian units to enter Bucha was the ultra-nationalist Azov battalion. On a walkabout with the Azov battalion, the comment accompanying the photo spread reads:
Ukrainian soldiers from the Azov battalion walked through the remnants of a Russian military convoy in the recently liberated town of Bucha on Saturday, just outside the capital after the Russians withdrew. Nearby residents reached for food being distributed by Ukrainian soldiers. Many had not received food, or had electricity or gas to cook with — for more than a month. Older residents stood near a body left on the sidewalk.
Through the morning of 2 April there were dead bodies, but not enough to suggest a massacre had taken place. The New York Times makes no mention of a massacre of civilians — and it has access to the city and the residents. There is obvious hardship and people, especially the elderly and infirm, are suffering a great deal. But there is no indication here whatsoever of a massacre; complete with mass graves, execution sites, rape victims et cetera. No, all of this is absent. Nowhere in the town does Berehulak get any hint of a massacre of the civilian population, and, given its ideological hatred of Russians, one would think that if such a thing were known or even rumoured, the soldiers of the Azov battalion would only have been too happy to share.
Something very interesting then happens on 2 April, hours before a massacre is brought to the attention of the national and international media. The US and EU-funded Gorshenin Institute online site Лівий берег announced that:
Special forces have begun a clearing operation in the city of Bucha in the Kyiv region, which has been liberated by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The city is being cleared from saboteurs and accomplices of Russian forces.
The Russian military has by now completely left the city, so this sounds for all the world like reprisals. The state authorities would be going through the city searching for ‘saboteurs’ and ‘accomplices of Russian forces.’ Only the day before, Ekaterina Ukraintsiva, representing the town council authority, appeared on an information video on the Bucha Live Telegram page wearing military fatigues and seated in front of a Ukrainian flag to announce ‘the cleansing of the city.’ She informed residents that the arrival of the Azov battalion did not mean that liberation was complete (but it was, the Russians had fully withdrawn), and that a ‘complete sweep’ had to be performed. Before signing off, she instructed residents to remain in their shelters and not to go about the streets. Now, as an aside here, this message was shared on social media. So, this does away with the idea that witnesses to the mass killings said to have been committed by the Russians couldn’t communicate with the outside world. They could, and we have lots of evidence of online chatter from within Bucha during this period — only, we have no evidence of a massacre.
At this point, somewhere in the afternoon and early evening of Saturday 2 April, we have Azov battalion troops and Special Forces of the SAFARI Regiment inside the city conducting a special sweep operation for saboteurs and accomplices. This very much sounds like a few civilians are going to get killed. From this point on there is almost a complete absence of sources from within Bucha, except for one. Everyone else in the town has been ordered off the streets and informed that there will be a military operation happening around them. They will be expecting some more gunfire. Then one more source, the only source from the time window between the start of the sweep and the news of a massacre flowing into the media: Sergiy Korotkikh, head of the Nazi territorial defence at Bucha, shared a short thirty second video on Telegram of Azov battalion troops walking along a deserted street and a fragment of conversation:
Those guys, without blue armbands, can we shoot them?
Fucking of course!
That’s it. The next thing we know is that there has been a massacre. All of the video and photographic evidence is in London, Berlin, New York, and Washington by nightfall and horrifying images are flowing into the Ukrainian media offices in Kyiv. The facts are all known and a Wikipedia page is online as soon as the press breaks the story. This was a massive crime against the civilian population perpetrated by the Russian army. But the Russian army left days before, no forensic or legal investigation has taken place, and there is not a single eyewitness. But who needs due process when you have a war?
Jason Michael McCann, M.Phil. (TCD) Conflict Studies The author holds a postgraduate degree in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, and an academic fellowship in the study of conflict from the University of West Flanders. He has published on the history of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and the murder of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.
Callaghan, Louise. “Bodies of Mutilated Children among Horrors the Russians Left Behind.” The Sunday Times, April 2, 2022. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/bodies-of-mutilated-children-among-horrors-the-russians-left-behind-5ddnkkwp2.
Contributors to Wikimedia projects. “Bucha Massacre.” Wikipedia, April 4, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bucha_massacre.
Fedoruk, Anatoliy. “Бучу Звільнено!” Video. Facebook Watch, April 1, 2022. https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=270161321982745.
Gardner, Simon. “Ukrainian Mayor Shows Dead Bodies amid Battle-Scarred City of Bucha.” Reuters, April 3, 2022. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/ukrainian-mayor-shows-dead-bodies-liberated-city-bucha-2022-04-03/.
Gorshenin Institute. “Report on Transformation.” Ukraine 2012, 2012. https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/read/21018606/download-attachment-gorshenin-institute.
Romanenko, Valentyna. “‘Did You Want Another Srebrenica? Are You Satisfied with the Horror of Bucha?’: Yermak’s Adviser Talks Tough to Europe’s Leaders.” Ukrayinska Pravda, April 3, 2022. https://www.pravda.com.ua/eng/news/2022/04/3/7336794/.
Rudenko, Olga. “Hundreds of Murdered Civilians Discovered as Russians Withdraw from Towns near Kyiv (GRAPHIC IMAGES).” The Kyiv Independent, April 2, 2022. https://kyivindependent.com/national/hundreds-of-murdered-civilians-discovered-as-russians-withdraw-from-towns-near-kyiv-graphic-images/.
Stern, David L., Meg Kelly, and Claire Parker. “Bodies, Rubble Line the Streets of Bucha Following Russian Retreat.” The Washington Post, April 2, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/04/02/bucha-bodies-russia-retreat-kyiv/.
The New York Times. “Scenes of Desperation and Death as the Russians Retreat from Suburbs Outside Kyiv.” The New York Times, April 3, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/live/2022/04/02/world/ukraine-russia-war/scenes-of-desperation-and-death-as-the-russians-retreat-from-suburbs-outside-kyiv.
UATV English. “Arestovych on Russian War Crimes: World Must Be Horrified by What Happened in Bucha, Irpin, Hostomel.” Video. YouTube, April 3, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCdYRmE-dfI&ab_channel=UATVEnglish.
Ukraintsiva, Ekaterina. “BUCHA LIVE.” Telegram, April 1, 2022. https://t.me/News380/7893.
Ukrinform. “Bucha Liberated from Russian Invaders – Mayor.” Укринформ, April 1, 2022. https://www.ukrinform.net/rubric-ato/3445989-bucha-liberated-from-russian-invaders-mayor.html.
Vernyhor, Polina. “Anonymous YouTube Video Seemingly Shows Neo-Nazi Sergiy Korotkikh Agreeing to Be An Informant for the Russian FSB.” Zaborona, August 13, 2021. https://zaborona.com/en/anonymous-youtube-video-seemingly-shows-now-nazi-sergiy-korotkikh-agreeing-to-be-an-informant-for-the-russian-fsb/.
Лівий берег. “Special Forces Regiment SAFARI Begins Clearing Operation in Bucha from Saboteurs and Accomplices of Russia – National Police.” LB.Ua, April 2, 2022. https://en.lb.ua/news/2022/04/02/12441_special_forces_regiment_safari.html.