BUCHA, Ukraine (AP) — Listening to his father die, the boy lay motionless on the asphalt. His elbow burned where a bullet had pierced it. His thumb stung from being brushed.
Another murder was taking place on a lonely street in Bucha, the community on the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital kyiv where bodies of civilians are still being discovered weeks after Russian soldiers withdrew. Many had been shot in the head.
Yura Nechyporenko, 14, was about to become one of them.
Survivors have described soldiers firing weapons near their feet or threatening them with grenades, only to be pushed away by a more composed colleague. But there was no one around to hold the Russian soldier that day in March as Yura and her father, Ruslan, 47, cycled down a tree-lined street.
They were on their way to visit vulnerable neighbors sheltering in basements and houses without electricity or running water. Their bicycles were tied with white cloth, as a sign that they traveled in peace.
When the soldier came out of a dirt road to challenge them, Yura and his father immediately stopped and raised their hands.
“What are you doing?” Yura remembers that the soldier asked. The soldier didn’t give Yura’s father time to respond.
The boy heard two shots. His father fell, his mouth open, already bleeding.
A shot hit Yura’s hand and he too fell. Another shot hit him in the elbow. He closed his eyes.
One last shot was fired.
This story is part of an ongoing investigation by The Associated Press and Frontline that includes the War Crimes Watch Ukraine interactive experience and an upcoming documentary.
Yura’s extraordinary account alleging an assassination attempt by Russian soldiers is highlighted as international justice experts descend on Bucha, a center of horrors and potential war crimes in Ukraine. So far more than 1,000 bodies have been found in Bucha and other communities around kyiv. In Bucha alone, 31 children under the age of 18 were killed and 19 were injured, according to local authorities.
“All the children were deliberately killed or injured, as the Russian soldiers deliberately fired at the evacuation cars that had the ‘CHILDREN’ banners and white cloth tied to them, and deliberately fired at the houses of the civilians,” the prosecutor said. chief of the Bucha region. , Ruslan Kravchenko, told the AP.
The UN human rights office says at least 202 children in Ukraine have been killed in Russia’s invasion and believes the real number is considerably higher. The Ukrainian government count is 217 children killed and more than 390 injured.
AP and Frontline, drawing on a variety of sources, have independently documented 21 attacks that killed children likely to meet the definition of a war crime, ranging from the discovery of a child in a shallow grave at Borodyanka to the bombing of a theater. in Mariupol. The total number of child victims in the attacks is unknown, accounting for only a fraction of possible war crimes.
Yura is a teenager who grows into himself, lanky and spotted, with dark circles under his eyes. Adulthood has rushed upon him. As he lies on the floor of his family’s house to demonstrate what happened, he shows the healing holes in his elbow.
His mother, Alla, takes a deep breath to calm herself. Yura, sitting down from her, puts an arm around her and then rests his head on her shoulder.
On that terrible day, Yura survived the assassination attempt thanks to the awkward grace of that constant teenager, her gray hoodie. She was shot instead of her, and she felt her move.
Yura lay in the street for minutes afterward, waiting for the soldier to walk away.
Then Yura ran. She came to the kindergarten where her mother worked, and where some residents used the basement as a shelter. They were surprised to see the boy and gave him first aid.
He realized that he needed to go home. He returned to the streets, not knowing where the next soldier might be.
When he got home, his family called the police. Police said he couldn’t do anything because he didn’t control the area, according to the family. The ambulance service said the same thing.
Police told the family that officers did not know what to do with the case, according to the boy’s uncle, Andriy. A prosecutor’s report describes the murder and attempted murder in a few sentences, including the loss of a cell phone belonging to Yura’s father. He would have been helpful now: he had been a lawyer.
Kravchenko told the AP that they are continuing to work on the Yura case and expressed confidence that the crimes committed during the Russian invasion of Ukraine can be successfully investigated. Among other things, images from dozens of surveillance cameras in Bucha are being analyzed and an identification album of the faces of Russian soldiers is being assembled.
In March, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced that investigations of crimes against children in particular will benefit from a new trust fund. Children make up half or more of those affected by the conflict, but they are often portrayed as too vulnerable to testify or as having inaccurate memories, according to Veronique Aubert, special adviser on crimes involving children to the ICC prosecutor.
Yura’s case is unusual.
“Prosecutors may want to take on this case because the victim is still alive and can potentially testify,” said Ryan Goodman, a law professor at New York University and a former special prosecutor for the US Department of Defense. It can be difficult, if not impossible, for a defendant to claim that trying to kill a child was somehow justified.”
It was up to Yura’s family to recover her father’s body.
They did it the next day. Yura’s grandmother, in her 70s, pleaded with Russian soldiers to let her get close to her body.
With their weapons cocked, they let her walk ahead of them. Another soldier in the distance yelled, “Don’t come here or we’ll kill you.” But he didn’t shoot.
They brought Yura’s father home in a wheelbarrow. They rolled it up in a rug and placed it on an old wooden door. Amid the sounds of shelling and gunfire, he was buried in the courtyard behind the woodshed, in one of the many makeshift graves hastily dug during the month of Russian occupation.
Yura and her family left Bucha the next day through a rare evacuation corridor. The injured boy first walked through the streets, holding a stick tied with a white towel, with a white sling around his arm. The family had to go through the scene of the shooting.
As they approached the evacuation point, the Russian soldiers asked where they were going. They asked what had happened to Yura.
“I was shot by a Russian soldier,” the boy replied.
At that, her mother was terrified. “I felt like everything was collapsing inside of me,” she recalled. “I thought they would all shoot us.”
He asked the soldiers to let them pass, saying that it was getting late. They did it.
The family left town that day.
The gray hoodie, bloodied at the elbow, is now the centerpiece of the family’s quest for justice. The top seam of the loose fabric has been cut. Yura’s mother insists that it is a test and that it cannot be thrown away.
The family returned to Bucha in mid-April after the Russians withdrew. Yura’s father was dug up and reburied in a local cemetery.
The boy’s family continues to play detective, scouring the area of the shooting for more evidence and theorizing about the trajectory of the bullets. They question neighbors and analyze holes in a metal fence.
As the family shows the scene to the AP, Yura wanders through the grass beside the street, head down, looking for shell casings. She is confident that she can identify the Russian soldier, even though the soldier was wearing a balaclava over part of her face.
Yura will finish ninth grade this year, once the power returns and she can resume classes online. Until then, she volunteers like her father did, visiting with the older residents.
His mother is thinking of sending him abroad for the sake of his mental health. She also needs some distance.
“I am never alone physically, but it is possible to be alone mentally,” she said, on the verge of tears. “I try to avoid this.”
His son’s case remains a faint source of hope. There are courts and these courts will work, she believes. No one should go through what her son did.
Yura fears that they already have.
“It’s not just me who wants justice,” he said. “People in Ukraine are possibly still being tortured and killed even now.”
Yura turned 15 on April 12. It was a quiet birthday. Her father, a good cook, usually has barbecues to celebrate.
On April 25, a day after Orthodox Easter, the family gathered again at the grave to mark 40 days after Ruslan’s death, according to local custom. Food blessed by a priest at Bucha was served for Easter (dyed eggs, bread) along with homemade pickles, chocolate and wine. A plastic bag of food hung on the wooden cross.
Yura stood aside, silently lighting a candle and placing it on the grave. She then pulled a hoodie, a black one, over her head to block out the cold.
The boy’s uncle, Andriy, keeps a close eye on him these days. Yura has always been a good boy, but he has become nervous and restless, going from one task to another. Andriy fears that the trauma of surviving death will reach Yura and mourns his nephew’s damaged childhood.
“This breaks my soul,” Andriy said through tears. “What we see is suffering after suffering… (Russian President Vladimir) Putin simply decides to make us suffer, and we do.”
Frontline producer Tom Jennings contributed to this story.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine