After witnessing first hand the outbreak of Russia’s war in Ukraine, I travelled back to Kyiv a few weeks later to find a very different atmosphere. Life in the capital was slowly resuming after the withdrawal of the Russian army.
But despite the glimmers of hope, I knew the sight of people walking down the streets again, the bright beds of tulips that had blossomed on Maidan Square, would stand in stark contrast with the grim scenes that awaited me on the city’s outskirts.
I had come back to document the war crimes allegedly committed by the Russian troops right before they retreated from the occupied area (Russia denies any involvement in the killings).
What used to be quiet suburbs and villages outside of Kyiv had turned into mountains of ruins, behind which lay the open wounds of those forced to live through weeks of horror.
Walking me through his neighbourhood of Irpin, Sasha described the nightmare of watching the summary executions of several of his fellow residents. I saw the look on his face when he showed me the exact spot where he saw his friend Sania was shot in the head by a Russian soldier.
It would have been Sania’s birthday that day.
As I continued the journey through the unspeakable, the accounts of those who dared share their stories with me grew only more horrific.
In Borodyanka, I witnessed one of the many exhumations of civilian bodies that were temporarily buried in yards and gardens during the occupation.
“Look at how handsome he was!” cried out Nadiya, showing me a picture of her 34 year-old-son Constantin, whose body was now lying at our feet, unrecognisable. Nadiya’s tears flowed at the unbearable sight of her son’s face, his mouth gaping in a grimace of pain.
Moving on past the carcasses of burned-out vehicles piled up along the roads, we stopped in the village of Andriivka, which had been under Moscow’s control for a month.
The main street was strewn with remnants of Russian weaponry, nails from fragmentation bombs and shell casings, some still unexploded. There I talked to Mykola, a soft-spoken farmer grieving for his son, who was shot down in the street.
“They said he was passing on information through his phone about the Russian tank column’s position,” he said. “They’re beasts! It’s not an army! An army doesn’t attack children and grandmothers, but they do!”
Furious, he went on: “They were kids, 18 years old. Some of them were crying, saying they didn’t want to come here, that they were forced to, and told it was only for two days, to train!”
‘They raped her and slit her throat’
The tales of atrocities kept coming. In Makariv, we were called to another exhumation: the remains of a family who had been burned to death in their car while attempting to flee the city through a so-called ‘green corridor’.
In that terrible place, a man took our team aside. He wanted us to meet a woman living nearby who says she was raped by a Russian soldier.
We found her at work at the local hospital. The woman, who for security concerns chose to remain anonymous, wanted to tell us her story so the whole world would know.
Her voice broke as she described the crime, and she wept as she remembered the agony of her husband, shot dead while trying to come to her rescue. Not until a group of Russian intelligence forces passed by her house was she freed from her tormenter.
“After the liberation,” she said in a whisper, “I learned that those who did this to me had caught another woman. They raped her and slit her throat. If it were not for the Russian intelligence men, I would not be alive.”
Rare courage on the part of victims
The trauma and fear are such that few rape victims are willing to testify, said Larisa, a lawyer helping several Ukrainian women who were raped by Russian soldiers.
Among her clients were a mother and daughter, raped by several soldiers over multiple days in front of one another’s eyes.
Their hands were broken by their aggressors, making it impossible for them to defend themselves or escape. Their case is one of many that indicates rape was systemically used as a weapon of war, Larisa said.
‘I cannot keep silent’
The war will haunt Olga forever.
She now lives alone with her sorrow in a house in Bucha, the place where the most infamous and shocking atrocities to date were discovered following the Russian withdrawal.
In a slow and steady voice, Olga recalled how her husband, last seen coming out of a food distribution centre during the occupation, was found ten days later in a morgue “They broke his skull, they broke his bones,” she told me.
Unravelling her memories, Olga went on, describing the roar of gunfire and explosions, the procession of Russian tanks, the sheer terror of it all.
“They killed, they tortured, they did such horrible things!” she cried, hiding her face in her hands. “They said they came to liberate us, but from who, and from what?
“They liberated us from life itself. I wait for my husband to come back home from work every day. But he will never come back.”
It was not only Olga, her pale blue eyes gazing into an infinite space as her words died in the thick of our silence, who wept talking to me that day.
Twenty-year-old Tetiana, another Bucha resident, will not allow silence to fall on what happened to her mother, shot between the eyes by a Russian sniper in front of her and her father.
Tetiana found the strength to take us to the crime scene. Between gasps for air, she described the gunshot, her mother’s fall, and the blood splashed all over the asphalt.
“I cannot keep silent,” she told me. “I want the world to know what happened. Maybe one day we will know who did it. And so there will be justice.”
More than 11,000 cases of war crimes allegedly committed by Russian soldiers against Ukrainian civilians have been registered by the Office of the General Prosecutor in Ukraine so far.
Several prosecutions have already been launched against Russian soldiers, and on Monday a 21-year-old tank commander became the first to be sentenced to life in prison for killing an unarmed civilian.
As the war rages on, the list of victims grows day by day.
Back in France to edit my documentary, I think of Tetiana, Olga, Sasha, Dariya, Mykalo and the countless others who went through unspeakable ordeals. I hope my short work will be a small contribution to their quest for truth and justice.
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