Bucha is a town with whose name for anyone who follows the news must induce a shiver of horror. What happened when frustrated Russian forces, whose advance on Kiev had been stopped at this small town just outside the Ukrainian capital, was very well documented.
*Content warning: this article includes references to torture and war crimes*
War crimes in Bucha, Ukraine
The heart-wrenching photo of the faithful dog lying beside the body of its (innocent civilian) master, toppled dead from his bicycle. The crumpled body of a man, his white armband denoting civilian status clearly beside him, and the food he’d gone to collect – to try to survive – lying at his feet. The black body bags, exhumed from the improvised mass grave created by a local priest to at least ensure the dead were not left lying on the streets, being stacked into the back of a supermarket lorry, the morgue being full.
Still, to listen to the people of Bucha as they tell their story retains its power to shock. Those photos and many more have been set up in the church beside the mass grave (repaired already now after pointless Russian vandalism) with plans for a permanent memorial also on display as I visited on the weekend.
But what became evident to me hearing multiple accounts from various parts of Ukraine, those areas recently freed, those still under occupation and the fate of Ukrainians shipped to Russia as prisoners of war (or simply as prisoners), is that while every horror has its own power, Bucha is only a tiny part of the story of what the Russian state is responsible for in Ukraine.
A deliberate policy of terror
This is not just case after case of ill-trained, ill-prepared, frightened troops lashing out – not that a state that sent men in such a state into a war zone is not responsible – but a deliberate policy of terror.
In Mariupol, another name to live in infamy, but one not nearly – as yet – clearly documented, an entire city of half a million has been practically razed to the ground, significant numbers of houses so treated with people still inside. And the brave defenders of Mariupol, we hear from a comrade, are being held in awful, perhaps unsurvivable conditions of torture and abuse, right now. He’s desperate, understandably, to get them out.
Stories are just starting to emerge too from the just-liberated city of Kherson. The Sunday Times recovered one such tale, of a prominent musician being drunkenly abusive of the Russians. In any sort of normal state, that would mean, perhaps, being locked up to sober up, then perhaps a few days more in a cell to discourage a repeat. In Kherson, it meant immediate, summary execution, in the very face of frightened neighbours – and a risible attempt to set it up as a shooting in self-defence.
In Kyiv at the weekend, I met a survivor of Russian torture from the earlier Russian assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty, in 2014. Obviously a civilian, he was, he told me, raped, beaten and starved in Russian captivity. And I had no doubt that he thought he was shielding me – as well as no doubt rightly himself – by not going into more details.
Strategic attacks on civilian targets
You don’t even have to look down at ground level detail to see what the Russians are doing to Ukrainian civilians. As an economist explained to me – in events also well documented – in the middle of October regular rounds of missile and drone attacks, which had arrived often as ‘merely’ random attacks on built-up areas, suddenly changed to be carefully targeted. Not on military facilities, not on guns or troop concentrations, but on civilian energy infrastructure.
The Russians have plenty of people who would know exactly the details of where this civilian infrastructure is vulnerable. Now, as a military man explained to me “the Ukrainian winter is not the Russian winter, only minus 10 rather than minus 30” but for civilians, facing the possibility of no heating, and no lighting, that’s a fearsome prospect. That’s using the elderly, the children, the whole society as a target of war.
The Ukrainians say (and I think they are right) that it is impossible for them to negotiate with President Putin, who is the individual ultimately responsible for all of this. These actions – and his failure to live up to his word on previous occasions, not to mention his nuclear sabre-rattling – make it impossible to make a contract with him.
The international community must keep up its support for Ukraine; not just military support but also crucial economic and logistical support to help keep the lights on, pensions and soldiers’ salaries paid and refuge for the families who’ve fled Ukraine for safety, often while their relatives continue to fight – as was the case of a young mother with two children whom I shared a sleeper compartment with from Kyiv, who’d just snatched five days with her husband, on brief leave from Kherson. She said she’d had a wonderful welcome and support in Poland.
The pitfall of ‘war fatigue’
As a former newspaper editor, I know the difficulty of keeping covering stories that just keep grinding on. Atrocity after atrocity all starts to sound the same, the names of far-away places to blur. But we can’t afford to let that happen in this case, for fear that ‘war fatigue’ might see the support that Ukraine needs to survive against the sheer weight of Russia fall away.
The details of war crimes are being carefully charted and collected with significant international support – something we’ve never seen happening before – with the EU Assistance Mission saying at the weekend the latest figure is 47,700 individual accounts of potential war crimes. But it will be many years before hoped for justice is delivered on those cases.
If the world does not keep paying attention, the alternative is that President Putin, and other national leaders who might follow his path, learn that if you are prepared to stay the atrocity course, the world will eventually lose interest, and you will be able to profit, to build your power and strengthen your regime by spilling the blood of innocents. That’s not a lesson we can afford to have take root in our new international age of multipolar centres of power.
Natalie visited Kyiv on a mission with German and other European MEPs and MPs