Russian forces committed multiple apparent war crimes while occupying the Ukrainian town of Bucha in March, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report released Thursday.
The Geneva Conventions governing the laws of war forbid indiscriminate killings, enforced disappearances and torture, as well as the humiliating or inhumane treatment of prisoners of war.
“There’s a number of apparent war crimes committed here, and the number of them suggests that potentially they could amount to crimes against humanity, which is a widespread or systematic attack on the civilian population and could be part of a government policy,” said Richard Weir, crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Weir traveled to Bucha to investigate the alleged crimes.
“One of the most striking things about being in the city is how it was almost impossible to walk from street to street without finding someone else who had either witnessed a potential war crime or whose family member was a victim, or who had buried a neighbor or a friend or a family member nearby their house,” he said in an interview. “The amount of death and pain in the city was extraordinary.”
Among those interviewed by Human Rights Watch researchers in Bucha were “victims and witnesses, emergency responders, morgue workers, doctors, a nurse, and local officials,” the report says. They documented 16 alleged unlawful killings, including nine summary executions and seven “indiscriminate killings of civilians.”
The researchers also documented two cases in which civilians were shot and wounded. In one instance, a 9-year-old girl was shot in the shoulder as she was running away from Russian soldiers. In another, a man was shot in the neck while he was standing on his apartment balcony smoking a cigarette.
The bodies of residents who had been forcibly disappeared were found laying on streets or in yards after Russian forces withdrew, the report said, and some of the bodies showed signs of torture.
The report highlights the story of Iryna, 48, whose husband, Oleh Abramova, was allegedly killed by Russian soldiers.
Iryna told Weir that Russian troops shot at her two-story house at the start of the occupation on March 5. The house caught fire while she was inside with Oleh and her father, Volodymyr.
Oleh shouted at the soldiers not to shoot, that there were peaceful civilians inside. The soldiers then ordered them out of the house, Iryna said, and accused her, Oleh and Volodymyr of killing people in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have fought Ukraine’s government for years.
According to Volodymyr, two soldiers took Oleh out of the yard and within minutes, they found his body on the sidewalk outside the fence, the report says.
Iryna “said that during the whole time, there were a whole bunch of soldiers just standing right outside on the other side of the street,” Weir said. “Just demonstrating how many people were all witness to this execution that took place right on the main square.”