BUCHA, Ukraine (AP) – While listening to his father’s death, the boy was still lying on the asphalt. His elbow burned where a bullet pierced him. His thumb hurt from being scraped.
Another murder continues on a deserted street in Bucha, a community on the outskirts of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, where the bodies of civilians are still found weeks after the withdrawal of Russian troops. Many were shot in the head.
14-year-old Yura Nechyporenko was about to become one of them.
Survivors described the soldiers firing guns or threatening them with grenades near their feet, but being chased away by a more cold-blooded colleague. But in March, Yura and his 47-year-old father, Ruslan, were cycling down a tree-lined street, with no one around to rein in the Russian soldier.
They went to visit vulnerable neighbors who took shelter in basements and houses without electricity or running water. Their bikes were tied in white cloth, a sign that they were traveling in peace.
When the soldier left the dirt road to challenge them, Yura and her father immediately stopped and raised their hands.
“What are you doing?” Yura remembers asking the soldier. The soldier did not give time for Yura to answer his father.
The boy heard two gunshots. His father fell, his mouth was open, he was already bleeding.
A bullet hit Yura’s hand and he fell too. Another bullet hit his elbow. She closed her 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 statement claiming that he was trying to be killed by Russian soldiers draws attention as international justice experts descend on Bucha, the center of horror and possible war crimes in Ukraine. More than 1,000 bodies have been found in Bucha and other communities around Kyiv so far. According to local authorities, 31 children under the age of 18 died and 19 were injured in Bucha alone.
“All children were deliberately killed or injured because Russian soldiers deliberately opened fire and deliberately opened fire on civilians’ homes while evacuating cars with ‘CHILD’ and white cloth on them,” said the Bucha district attorney general. Ruslan Kravchenko told AP.
The UN human rights office believes that at least 202 children were killed across Ukraine in the Russian invasion, and the true number is much higher. The Ukrainian government counts 217 children killed and more than 390 injured.
Using a variety of sources, AP and Frontline have independently documented 21 child-killing attacks that are likely to fit the definition of war crimes, from the discovery of a child in a shallow grave in Borodyanka to the bombing of a theater. in Mariupol. The total number of child victims in the attacks is unknown and accounting represents only a fraction of potential war crimes.
Yura is a skinny and mottled, self-grown teenager with dark circles under his eyes. Adulthood was rushed. To illustrate what happened, he shows the healing holes in his elbow as he lies on the floor at his parents’ house.
His mother, Alla, takes deep breaths to calm herself. Yura straightened up, put her arm around her, then laid her head on his shoulder.
On that terrible day, Yura survived the attempt to kill with the clumsy grace of the gray hooded young constant. Instead she was hit and felt it move.
Yura lay on the street for several minutes, waiting for the soldier to walk away.
Then Yura ran. She reached the kindergarten where her mother worked and some residents used the basement as a shelter. When they saw the boy, they were shocked and gave him first aid.
He realized that he had to go home. Not knowing where the next soldier might be, she returned to the streets.
When he got home, his family called the police. According to the family, the police said they could not do anything as they did not control the area. The ambulance service said the same thing.
According to the boy’s uncle, Andriy, police told the family that the police officers did not know what to do with the case. A prosecutor’s report describes the murder and attempted murder in a few simple sentences, including the loss of a mobile phone belonging to Yura’s father. Now it would help – he was a lawyer.
Kravchenko told the AP that they continue to work on Yura’s case and expressed confidence that crimes committed during the Russian invasion of Ukraine can be successfully investigated. Among other things, footage from dozens of security cameras in Bucha is analyzed and an ID album of Russian soldiers’ faces is created.
In March, the International Criminal Court prosecutor announced that investigations specifically into crimes against children would benefit from a new trust fund. According to Veronique Aubert, the ICC prosecutor’s special counsel on juvenile crimes, children make up more than half of those affected by conflicts, but they are often labeled as too vulnerable or having false memories to testify.
Yura’s situation is unusual.
“Prosecutors may want to take this case because the victim is still alive and potentially testifying,” said Ryan Goodman, a professor of law at New York University and former special counsel for the US Department of Defense. “It can be difficult, if not impossible, for a defendant to claim that he was somehow right in trying to kill a child.”
It was left to Yura’s family to retrieve his father’s body.
They did it the next day. Yura’s grandmother, in her 70s, begged the Russian soldiers to let them approach the body.
With their weapons drawn, they let him walk ahead of them. “Don’t come here or we’ll kill you,” shouted another soldier in the distance. But he didn’t shoot.
They brought Yura’s father home in a wheelbarrow. It was wrapped in a rug and landed on an old wooden door. Amid shelling and gunfire, they buried him in the courtyard behind the woodshed, in one of the many makeshift tombs that had been hastily excavated during the month-long Russian occupation.
Yura and her family left Bucha the next day along a rare evacuation corridor. The injured boy first walked the streets with a stick tied in a white towel and a white sling on his arm. The family had to pass the scene.
As the Russian soldiers approached the evacuation point, he asked where they were going. They asked Yura what happened.
“I was shot by a Russian soldier,” the boy replied.
Her mother was very afraid of this. “I felt everything collapse inside me,” she recalled. “I thought they were going to shoot us all.”
Saying it was late, he asked the soldiers to let them pass. They did.
The family left the city that day.
The gray hoodie, bleeding from his elbow, is now at the center of the family’s quest for justice. The topstitch of the loose fabric is sliced. Yura’s mother insists that this is proof and cannot be thrown away.
The family returned to Bucha in mid-April after the Russian withdrawal. They exhumed Yura’s father and buried him again in a local cemetery.
The boy’s family continues to play detective, searching the shooting range for more evidence and theorizing about the trajectory of bullets. They interrogate neighbors and analyze holes in a metal fence.
While the family is showing the incident to AP, Yura is on the grass by the street, head bowed, searching for shell casings. The soldier is confident that he can identify the Russian soldier, even though he is dressed in wool on part of his face.
Yura will be finishing ninth grade this year, when the electricity is back and she can continue online classes. Until then, he voluntarily visits older residents, like his father.
His mother is considering sending him abroad for his mental health. He also needs some distance.
“I am never alone physically, but mentally it is possible to be alone,” she said close to tears. “I’m trying to avoid it.”
His son’s case is still a slew of hope. There are courts and he believes these courts will work. No one should go through what your son went through.
Yura is afraid of what they already have.
“I’m not the only one who wants justice,” he said. “People in Ukraine are probably still tortured and killed even now.”
Yura turned 15 on April 12. It was a quiet birthday. His father, a good cook, often grilled to celebrate.
On April 25, the day after Orthodox Easter, the family gathered again at the tomb to commemorate Ruslan, 40 days after his death, according to local custom. Food blessed for Easter by a priest in Bucha – painted eggs, bread – was laid out with homemade pickles, chocolate and wine. A plastic bag of food was hung over the wooden cross.
Yura stood apart, quietly lit a candle and placed it on the grave. Then he put on a black hoodie to keep the cold out.
The boy’s uncle Andriy is watching him closely these days. Yura has always been a good boy, but he was irritable and restless as he went from one mission to the next. Andriy fears the trauma of surviving death will overtake Yura and mourns his nephew’s damaged childhood.
“This is breaking my soul,” Andriy said in tears. “What we see is suffering after suffering… (Russian President Vladimir) Putin has decided to make us suffer, and so do we.”
Frontline producer Tom Jennings contributed to this story.
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