What I’ve seen in Bucha

Even for a veteran combat photojournalist, the scenes of atrocities in Ukraine are horrifying

A man’s body lies on the ground in Bucha, Ukraine, on Wednesday. (Heidi Levine for the Washington Post)
A man’s body lies on the ground in Bucha, Ukraine, on Wednesday. (Heidi Levine for the Washington Post)

This story contains graphic photos.

BUCHA, Ukraine — For weeks, I could see dark plumes of smoke rising above the city of Bucha from a destroyed bridge in Irpin. I focused my lenses on heart-wrenching scenes of people trying to keep their balance as they carefully crossed planks of wood placed over the river — the only gateway toward safety for the massive exodus of refugees fleeing with a handful of belongings. Once I got within walking distance of Bucha, on March 10, I was warned of snipers. I photographed people passing the bodies of two Russian soldiers lying on a railroad track. Another corpse lay in the middle of the road, and I realized that any attempt to get closer would most likely be lethal: I had heard too many hideous stories of people trying to escape who were instead shot dead. Even cars with signs marked “children” in Ukrainian and Russian were attacked.

Ukrainian forces were engaging in fierce battles against the Russians, but that trapped thousands of civilians, all cut off from media access, cellphone connections, electricity and water. Journalists couldn’t enter Bucha until Russian forces had withdrawn and Ukrainian troops had secured control of a city that now looks like the gateway to hell.

Once I got inside the city on March 30, I was stunned by the scenes of destruction among the civilian population. It was difficult to imagine how anyone had survived. Shattered Russian military equipment littered the streets, which were all lined by ruined homes.

I’ve covered decades of conflicts and wars as a photojournalist, but I’m struggling to find the words to express how horrified I am — and all my colleagues in the press are — by what is happening in Ukraine, what people have endured and their immeasurable resilience. Each day, I ask myself how this can be happening in 2022. My work has always allowed me to embrace the power of photography to allow others to connect to the people I see. I understand that many of my images are difficult to look at, but this is the reality of this war. The world needs to know that Russia, a superpower, has been targeting civilians every day since the start of the war in February and continues to do so more than a month later.

The first scenes I photographed along a main road captured burned corpses of Russian soldiers lying near destroyed military vehicles and trucks. One corpse was missing the lower part, from the waist down. Inside Bucha, soldiers warned me to follow the footsteps of a commander because there were mines — and even corpses could be booby-trapped. I documented the bodies of civilians found inside their homes and in their yards. It was snowing and freezing, but traumatized civilians who had been seeking shelter underground throughout the fighting were out among all the mangled Russian military equipment. They looked both relieved and traumatized. I met Larisa Savenko, 72, who held her hands up and fought back tears as she explained that she’d had no way to escape, nor did she want to abandon her home. “Five gunmen entered my house,” she said. “They looked at our documents and took our phones away. The Russians told us that we are lucky to have them, because other troops would have already shot us.”

Another man I met on the same street, Andrii Zabarylo, 55, said that every group of Russian soldiers he encountered was more aggressive than the ones before. “They told me and my neighbor and his son to lay on the ground, and then they fired shots within 20 centimeters from our heads,” he said. “One of the soldiers said that they would kill the older men and take my neighbor’s son with them. At that moment, we thought we will be dead. But then their commander told the soldiers not to kill us.”

In another area of the city, I witnessed and documented volunteers at work placing the corpses of eight men in the back of what looked like an office building. Several had their hands tightly bound together with clear tape behind their backs. They appeared to have been executed at close range, and many had bruises. It was a scene that I knew had to be documented for evidence, but I worried that my images were too graphic for publication. I was relieved that The Washington Post did publish my shocking photographs.

Now I return to Bucha each day from Kyiv — since the Russians have retreated from the area surrounding the capital, it is safe. Each time, it feels as though I am uncovering another layer of Russian atrocities. Following a Ukrainian investigative task force one day this past week, I documented the corpse of a male civilian who had been shot and beheaded, left lying next to another body near a field. Farther ahead, another corpse had slits across its neck, evidence of an apparent attempt to sever its head.

Volunteers have for days collected the corpses of civilians found everywhere. I documented one body that had to be demined the day before so it could be investigated. The volunteers are faced with the gruesome task of placing each corpse — and sometimes just body parts — into a black body bag and bringing them to a local cemetery. While I was there, I watched police authorities divide 56 bodies into two groups: those that had visible signs of war crimes and those that were either shot to death or burned in explosions. The second group included a family of six who had been burned beyond recognition in a nearby home. The body bags were unzipped one at a time as police officers took notes, and then they were zipped closed.

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