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The images are stark and very harsh. Corpses on the asphalt, destroyed streets, and the remains of a war that has been labeled by the international community as “atrocious” and “criminal” against the Ukrainian population. This was experienced, firsthand, by Bucha, a suburb in the vicinity of Kyiv that suffered occupation by Russian troops from only the third day of the invasion and was recently recaptured by Ukrainian forces.
Bucha, which is near Hostomel, is a town with 37,000 inhabitants who, like other towns near Kyiv, suffered the intense offensives of the Russian Army which were met with fierce Ukrainian resistance. According to international media reports, such as AFP, the inhabitants who remained in the suburb suffered shortages of water, food, electricity, very low temperatures, and also the fighting. Some residents who spoke to the media who have now entered Bucha explained that they were left without bread for several weeks.
Despite the might of the Russian Army, Bucha, like all of Ukraine, showed formidable resistance to stop the Kremlin’s advance and prevent the invading forces from seizing the capital to depose the government of Volodymyr Zelensky.
The Kremlin said that the withdrawal or retreat of its troops was because its strategy is now to concentrate on eastern Ukraine. However, the BBC, citing evidence and remnants of fighting seen on the streets of Bucha, said that “The truth is that unexpectedly fierce and well organized Ukrainian resistance stopped them outside the capital.”
According to the BBC, as Russian forces entered the suburbs of Bucha, Ukrainian forces “destroyed a column of Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers moving through the town of Bucha to the city of Kyiv.” This action was one of the many defenses exercised by the Ukrainians that were fundamental to stopping the Russian Army in its tracks.
How did the Ukrainian forces manage to stop the Russian advance? Well, the invading army had arrived from Hostomel Airport with “armored vehicles light enough to be carried by aircraft,” according to the British media. However, the streets of Bucha are very narrow and ideal for assaults and ambushes implemented in the suburbs by the Ukrainian defenses. The more they fought in the streets, the more obstacles presented to the Russians, who lost momentum, energy and also supplies as the days went by.
Like the port city of Mariupol, Bucha, although much closer to Kyiv, was cut off from the world, with very little information coming in or going out to report on the situation or the fighting in the main streets of the suburb. It was not until Friday, April 1, that correspondents from the world’s major media were able to enter the city after Russian soldiers withdrew from Bucha.
When Ukraine regained control, the world could see a score of corpses, some with their hands and legs tied, left in the streets after being apparently killed by Russian forces as they left Bucha with gunshots to the head. Also, the mayor of the city, in a press conference, reported that some 280 people were thrown into mass graves.
The Ukrainian government has been clear about what happened in Bucha, accusing Russia of committing a “massacre.” Meanwhile, the Russian government, through its Ministry of Defense, said that the accusations were unfounded and false, explaining that the images of the corpses that went around the world were made up to provoke an international scandal.
The New York Times, however, published a report with satellite images contradicting Russia’s claims. According to the NYT, its published graphics and photos “refute Russia’s claim that the killing of civilians in Bucha, occurred after its soldiers had left town.”
The newspaper’s graphics show comparative images of the streets of Bucha with different dates, some in February, where there were no bodies yet, and others in March, with several corpses in one of the streets.
“One video filmed by a local council member on April 1 shows multiple bodies scattered along Yablonska Street in Bucha. Satellite images provided to NYT by Maxar Technologies show that at least 11 of those had been on the street since March 11, when Russia, by its own account, occupied the town,” the media outlet reported.
Bucha massacre enrages the world
The gruesome details of the Bucha massacre represent a new milestone in international condemnation and public outrage over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Moscow’s discredited claims that the civilians found dead in Bucha were killed after Russian troops withdrew from the city have not sat well in Europe and the Western media, and even in some countries that have pledged neutrality in the conflict.
The massacre has made the front pages of many newspapers in Europe, and all of them have harshly condemned the crimes that the retreating Russian forces appear to have committed. In the United States, many of the major newspapers published the Bucha massacres in their pages: the New York Post quoted Zelensky’s “this is genocide” with pictures of some of the bodies found in Bucha, the NYT also published in its front page the pictures of the killings.
European newspapers also highlighted the massacres on their front pages. British tabloid The Mirror called the atrocities “genocide” on its front page, while other UK newspapers labeled the killings “massacre of civilians” or “war crimes.” In continental Europe the outrage was similar: the French newspaper Libération headlined its front page “La Barbarie” with a photograph of dead Ukrainians in the background, while the German Frankfurter Allgemeine also brought the massacres in towns near Kyiv to its front page.
As expected, most Western governments have expressed outrage and condemnation of the killings in the towns occupied by Russian forces.
President Biden said Putin was a “war criminal” when asked for his views on the Bucha killings, while National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that “We do not believe that this is just a random accident, or the rogue act of a particular individual (…) We believe that this was part of the plan.” The president also said that Putin could be tried for war crimes and commented that “we’re going to give Ukraine the arms to fight and defend themselves.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted that “Russia’s despicable attacks against innocent civilians in Irpin and Bucha are yet more evidence that Putin and his army are committing war crimes in Ukraine” and also added that “The UK has been at the forefront of supporting the International Criminal Court’s investigation into atrocities committed in Ukraine.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, who faces a tough re-election campaign this year, said the Bucha killings “are very clear clues pointing to war crimes. It is more or less established that the Russian army is responsible” and also added that “what happened in Bucha demands a new round of sanctions and very clear measures.”
Germany, whose government has been heavily criticized for its rapprochement with Russia, also condemned the massacre and said it could be the turning point toward a more aggressive sanctions strategy toward the Kremlin. The Berlin government expelled 40 Russian diplomats in the wake of the atrocities and Scholz said Western allies are preparing new sanctions against Russia.
Most interesting was the reaction from Israel, a country that has remained largely neutral in the conflict, as the Israeli ambassador to Ukraine tweeted that the killings constituted a “war crime.” However, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs clarified that the ambassador’s comments did not blame Russia and only referred to the photos.
The killing of civilians in the former Russian-occupied town, which has been independently confirmed to have occurred before the Ukrainians freed the small town, may mark a new milestone in the way the West, especially Europe, responds to the invasion.