How Russian soldiers ran a ‘cleansing’ operation in Bucha

BUCHA, Ukraine (AP) — The first man arrived at 7:27 a.m. Russian soldiers covered his head and marched him up the driveway toward a nondescript office building.

Two minutes later, a pleading, gagged voice pierced the morning stillness. Then the merciless reply: “Talk! Talk, f–ing mother-f–er!”

The women and children came later, gripping hastily packed bags, their pet dogs in tow.

It was a cold, gray morning, March 4 in Bucha, Ukraine. Crows cawed. By nightfall, at least nine men would walk to their deaths at 144 Yablunska street, a building complex that Russians turned into a headquarters and the nerve center of violence that would shock the world.

Later, when all the bodies were found strewn along the streets and packed in hasty graves, it would be easy to think the carnage was random. Residents asking how this happened would be told to make their peace, because some questions just don’t have answers.

Yet there was a method to the violence.

What happened that day in Bucha was what Russian soldiers on intercepted phone conversations called “zachistka” — cleansing. The Russians hunted people on lists prepared by their intelligence services and went door to door to identify potential threats. Those who didn’t pass this filtration, including volunteer fighters and civilians suspected of assisting Ukrainian troops, were tortured and executed, surveillance video, audio intercepts and interviews show.

The Associated Press and the PBS series “Frontline” obtained surveillance camera footage from Bucha that shows, for the first time, what a cleansing operation in Ukraine looks like. This was organized brutality that would be repeated at scale in Russian-occupied territories across Ukraine — a strategy to neutralize resistance and terrorize locals into submission that Russian troops have used in past conflicts, notably Chechnya.

Ukrainian prosecutors now say those responsible for the violence at 144 Yablunska were soldiers from the 76th Guards Airborne Assault Division. They are pursuing the commander, Maj. Gen. Sergei Chubarykin, and his boss, Col. Gen. Alexander Chaiko — a man known for his brutality as leader of Russia’s troops in Syria — for the crime of aggression for waging an illegal war.

Police ended up recovering nearly 40 bodies along Yablunska street alone. Prosecutors have identified 12 around 144 Yablunska; AP reporters documented a 13th body in the stairwell of one of the buildings in the complex, in photos and videos taken on April 3.

Taras Semkiv, Ukraine’s lead prosecutor for the 144 Yablunska street case, told the AP and “Frontline” that it’s unusual to see war crimes play out on video and that the CCTV footage and eyewitness accounts from March 4 are key elements for the prosecution.

“The results of the criminal evidence we’ve gathered so far reveal that it wasn’t just isolated incidents of military personnel making a mistake but a systematic policy targeting the Ukrainian people,” Semkiv said.

The Kremlin didn’t respond to detailed questions sent by the AP.

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This story is part of an AP/FRONTLINE investigation that includes the War Crimes Watch Ukraine interactive experience and the documentary “ Putin’s Attack on Ukraine: Documenting War Crimes,” on PBS. The AP and “Frontline” reviewed hundreds of hours of video from surveillance cameras in Bucha and vetted audio recordings of phone calls by Russian soldiers.

Together with SITU Research, a New York-based visual investigations firm, we reconstructed events using a 3D model of Bucha, drawn from data from drones flown over Bucha this spring. AP reporters verified the locations of the security cameras, and The Dossier Center, a London-based investigative group funded by Russian opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky, verified the identity of soldiers whose phone calls were intercepted by the Ukrainian government by cross-referencing Russian phone numbers, social media accounts, public reporting and information in leaked Russian databases.

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THE FALL OF BUCHA

Around lunchtime on March 3, three armored Russian vehicles appeared just beyond the quarry at the western edge of Bucha. Maksym Stakhov, a veteran of the 2014 war against Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, spotted them. He jumped in his car and raced around town, hollering: “Hide! Run away! The Russians are coming!”

Stakhov and a few dozen other volunteers, along with a handful of soldiers, set up three checkpoints to inspect people’s documents and help with evacuations along Yablunska street, a strategic road that roughly divides Bucha from neighboring Irpin. Most of the volunteers had never handled weapons before, Stakhov and another fighter told the AP, and they scrounged what few guns they could.

Civilians headed to the well-fortified basement of an office building in an industrial complex at 144 Yablunska street for shelter, unaware that what they believed was a safe haven would soon become a prison.

At 12:45 p.m., two Ukrainian soldiers took up a post in the driveway of No. 144 and began directing traffic. They were soon joined by around 20 more men, who made a brief last stand, their guns and grenade launchers aimed to the west. One soldier lay on his stomach in the road and fired off rounds on his rifle.

Analysts from the Royal United Services Institute and the Centre for Information Resilience reviewed CCTV footage from the AP and confirmed that the camouflage and markings of their uniforms indicate they were Ukrainian.

Meanwhile, a seemingly endless convoy of Russian firepower was winding into town along the railroad tracks. The volunteers’ radios crackled with a warning: Russian forces are moving in with heavy weapons. Evacuate.

“We had almost no weapons. It made no sense to fight them,” Stakhov said. “Guys were crying. We didn’t want to retreat.”

They fled across the fields to a mall in Irpin, which Ukraine still controlled.

Shortly before 1 p.m., most of the Ukrainian soldiers at 144 Yablunska street clambered into a black van and sped off to the east. Four stragglers fired off a few final rounds. By 12:57 p.m., the Ukrainians were gone.

To the west, Yablunska was burning. Half an hour after the Ukrainians disappeared, the first detachment of Russian soldiers emerged from smoke and flames and crept on foot down the street.

In the chaos of the Russian advance, eight Ukrainian checkpoint volunteers got separated from the others. One, a taxi driver named Ivan Skyba, said in court papers that he had volunteered to help Ukraine’s territorial defense but was not officially part of the military. All the men had was body armor, walkie-talkies, a Kalashnikov rifle and a hand grenade.

The volunteers ducked into a pale brick house at 31 Yablunska street and listened in silence to the searing crack of nearby rifles and endless rumble of Russian tanks. At 5:49 p.m., Andrii Dvornikov, another checkpoint volunteer, got a message from a Ukrainian fighter who had made it from Bucha to Irpin. He knew he was in trouble.

“Do you have food?” his friend asked.

“I can’t think about food now,” Dvornikov messaged back. “We want to get to Irpin.”

“Don’t go out at all!” his friend warned.

Around 9 p.m., Russian troops and military vehicles groaned down the long driveway of No. 144 under flurries of snow and sleety rain. By the morning of March 4, the Russians controlled Yablunska.

The cleansing was about to begin.

MARCH 4: CLEANSING

As more tanks rolled in, Russian soldiers shook hands, chatted and laughed with one another. Henry Schlottman, a former U.S. military intelligence analyst who reviewed surveillance footage from the AP, traced visible symbols and markings on Russian military vehicles and a munitions crate AP reporters found at 144 Yablunska to the 76th Guards Airborne Assault Division and related units.

The paratroopers swept up and down Yablunska, checking people’s documents, examining their phones and interrogating them, according to interviews with local residents. In some cases, they already had the names of the people they wanted to find.

Around 10 a.m., Dvornikov called his wife, Yulia Truba, from the house on Yablunska. He told her to delete all evidence of their communications.

Not long after, Russian soldiers broke down the door of 31 Yablunska and hauled Dvornikov, Skyba, six other volunteers and the owner of the house out to the yard. They made them take off their shoes, called them Banderivtsi — implying they were Nazis — and accused them of acting as spotters for the Ukrainian military.

Then two Russian soldiers led the men at gunpoint down the wet, icy road to 144 Yablunska, cursing at them as they shuffled along in their stockinged feet.

It was 11:08 a.m.

Soldiers forced them to their knees behind a Russian military vehicle in the driveway of the complex and kicked them. Then Skyba saw them lift up the man next to him and shoot him in the head.

One of the volunteers, fearing for his life, confessed they’d been manning a checkpoint, Skyba said. The young man, nicknamed “The Saint,” survived the carnage at Yablunska street. But Ukrainians later hunted him down and investigated him for treason, according to documents and photographs seen by the AP and “Frontline.”

Over the next few hours, soldiers delivered more and more people to 144 Yablunska. They had been repeatedly told — by Russian President Vladimir Putin, among others — that they would be welcomed by their Ukrainian brothers and sisters as liberators and anyone who resisted was likely a fascist, an insurgent, not a real civilian.

Shortly before noon, four men were marched in. Then a lone man, hands behind his back. Two women and a man, with a red suitcase and a small dog in tow. A cluster of four civilians. Another pair, then a man, trailed by a woman and a black dog and then a cluster of five people and four dogs.

Then, at 12:48 p.m., soldiers led a man with a sack over his head away by the elbows. One minute later, an elderly woman hobbled in on her cane.

One of the people picked up that morning was 20-year-old Dmytro Chaplyhin, a baby-faced store clerk everyone called Dima. Soldiers went to his home, just off Yablunska, and found images of Russian tanks on his phone. They accused him of helping the Ukrainian military.

As the soldiers took Dima away, his grandmother, Natalia Vlasenko, fell to her knees.

“God, I begged them not to touch him,” she said. “He pointed a rifle at me and said, ‘If you won’t give him up the easy way, then we’ll do it the hard way.’”

“Grandma, don’t worry!” Dima called as he left with the soldiers and headed for 144 Yablunska street. “I will come back!”

It was the last time she saw him alive.

Meanwhile, Russian soldiers were breaking into people’s homes, forcing locks and busting through high fences with their tanks, CCTV footage shows. They told locals they were looking for weapons. Residents said the soldiers also stole tools, electronics gear, food and liquor.

They systematically took out every CCTV camera they found. Screen after screen cut to black.

Out front of their makeshift headquarters, Russian soldiers sat on top of their tank, sharing a bottle of Coca-Cola and playing with a pistol. Behind them, the crowd of civilians at No. 144 had thickened.

Barking dogs ran wild. Incongruously, some soldiers handed out tinned meat and matches and told people they were being freed from Nazi oppression, while others conducted public executions.

When the Russians marched Iryna Volynets to 144 Yablunska, she recognized one of the men lined up in the driveway as her old school friend Andrii Verbovyi. He was slumped over on his side in a fetal position, an alarmingly long trail of blood running from his body, she said.

Volynets knew her friend was still alive because she could see him trembling. They locked eyes. She thought she should cover him with a cloth that lay nearby, but her courage failed her.

Shaken, Volynets didn’t immediately notice that her own son, Slava, was also kneeling in the line of doomed men. She finally recognized him by his jacket and pants. He’d taken a blow to the ribs and was breathing heavily.

Soldiers began to lead the kneeling men into the office building two at a time, Volynets said. She was panicked, desperate to negotiate Slava’s release. The Russians took a young man over to take a close look at Slava.

“Is it him?” they asked.

“No, not him,” the young man answered.

Slava got his boots back and lived.

Russians let most of the civilians go that day, first the women, then the men. But the volunteers were not released.

Skyba was hit in the face so hard it knocked his teeth out. His eyebrow split open, and blood gushed down his face.

Russians tied his hands with tape behind his back, put a bucket over his head and kneeled him against a wall inside the office complex. They piled bricks on his back until he fell over, then hauled him up and beat his head through the bucket until he lost consciousness.

“What should we do with them?” Skyba heard a Russian say. “Kill them,” another answered. “But take them away first so they’re not laying around here.”

Russian soldiers led Sykba and other volunteers around the corner of the office building to a small courtyard where there was already one dead body. Then two soldiers started shooting.

Skyba felt something pierce his side, and he hit the ground. He had taken a bullet clean through his abdomen, a photograph shows. He pretended to be dead, terrified the Russians would see his exhalations cloud the cold air.

“I was waiting for the darkness,” he said. “Terrible … I cannot explain … . Just terrible.”

Once it was silent, Skyba worked his wrists out of the tape that bound them, crawled through the corpses of his comrades from the checkpoint and stole boots from the body of the only man who still had them on. He ran to a neighboring house and curled up on the sofa, trying to get warm.

Then he heard voices. Russians.

“Is anybody here in the house?” a man called. Skyba pretended to be the owner.

Believing him to be an injured civilian, the soldiers took him back to 144 Yablunska, this time for medical treatment, Skyba said. They led him to the basement, where more than 100 people were being held.

For the next three days, Skyba huddled there, telling no one about his bullet wound. The only toilet was broken. Children cried. Adults prayed. The smell of human waste was overpowering.

On March 7, Skyba and the others were allowed to leave the basement. Everyone else who had been captured with him, except for “The Saint,” was dead. He retrieved his eyeglasses, which had fallen near the body of one of the checkpoint volunteers. Then he walked out of 144 Yablunska street.

‘I THINK I’M GOING CRAZY’

As their advance to Kyiv stalled and losses mounted, Russian troops continued to cleanse the streets of Bucha and surrounding towns with rising levels of sometimes drunken violence.

On March 14, a soldier nicknamed Lyonya called his mother from a cell tower near Bucha.

“There are civilians on the streets with their brains out,” he said. His mother wanted to know who had shot them.

“Our people,” Lyonya said.

“Maybe they were just peaceful civilians,” his mother said.

“Mom, there is fighting going on. And suddenly he jumps out! You understand? What if he’s got a grenade launcher?” Lyonya said.

One time, Lyonya described, they stopped a young boy and checked the Telegram account on his phone. The app had information about the location and logistics of the Russians.

“He was shot on the spot,” Lyonya told his mom.

On March 17 and 18, a Russian soldier named Ivan called his mother from Bucha. She’d forgotten which military unit he belonged to and he reminded her: 74268 — the 234th Guards Airborne Assault Regiment, which is part of the 76th Guards Airborne Assault Division.

Ivan said that Russians “shoot everyone, who gives a f— who it might be: a child, a woman, an old lady, an old man. Anyone who has weapons gets killed. Absolutely everyone.”

He explained that his unit goes out for “cleansing” on its tanks, seizing weapons, strip-searching people and examining their phones “to see if there is information or who is against us.”

“If we have to — we will kill,” he said.

On March 21, a soldier named Maksym called his wife from outside Kyiv. He told her he’d been drinking — everyone was drinking — because life here without liquor was too much to bear.

“How will you protect yourself if you are tipsy?” his wife worried.

“Totally normal,” he replied. “It’s easier to shoot civilians.”

He was scared, shocked by what he’d seen and very close to the front line.

“You know how many civilians I killed here? Those men leaked information,” he said.

“Don’t say anything!” his wife warned.

“Hide the weapons from me! I think I’m going crazy. I’ve already killed so many civilians.”

Later, she asked: “Why the f— did you go there?”

A SYMBOL OF ACCOUNTABILITY

What happened at 144 Yablunska is case No. 1 for the office of Ukraine’s prosecutor general.

Ukraine is scrambling to build a system that can handle tens of thousands of complex war crimes investigations. There are more than 3,500 investigations in Bucha alone, and things have fallen through the cracks. In the case files for 144 Yablunska two dates were off, the AP found. Prosecutors said they were also checking into the 13th body AP reporters identified in April.

“Such grave tortures — we never had such a huge number of them,” Yurii Bielousov, the head of Ukraine’s war crimes department, told the AP and “Frontline.” “That’s why I’m sure that, unfortunately, especially in Bucha, because it was one of the first, lots of mistakes were done at the first stage.”

Some low-level perpetrators may get away due to mismanagement of evidence and procedural challenges, he said, but prosecutions of mid- and top-level commanders won’t be undermined.

For now, the families of Bucha must wait.

What relief Dvornikov’s widow, Yulia Truba, has found did not come from a court. A month after she buried her husband, he came to her in a dream.

“I feel bad without you. How can I talk to you if I already buried you?” she told him in the dream. “I am alive,” he said. His face was luminous.

She jolted awake, weeping. Then she realized his voice was not sad.

“We still have this connection,” she said. “After this, I felt better.”

What she wants Ukraine may not be able to deliver on its own. Truba — along with Skyba and relatives of two other people killed at 144 Yablunska — has filed a case against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights.

She wants the world to recognize how her husband died, his body left for weeks in a trash-filled courtyard.

“All the civilized world must recognize it was murder,” she said. “I want to prove it’s not fake and that it really happened.”

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Associated Press reporters Adam Pemble, Allen Breed, Solomiia Hera, James LaPorta, Janine Graham and Richard Lardner and “Frontline” producers Tom Jennings and Annie Wong and co-producer Taras Lazer contributed to this report.

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To contact the AP’s investigations team, email [email protected]