BUCHA, Ukraine (AP) — As he listened to his father die, the boy lay motionless on the asphalt. His elbow burned where a bullet had pierced him. His thumb stung from being scratched.
Another murder was underway on a secluded street in Bucha, the community on the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, where bodies of civilians are still uncovered weeks after the withdrawal of Russian soldiers. Many had been shot in the head.
14-year-old Yura Nechyporenko was about to become one of them.
Survivors have described soldiers firing shots near their feet or threatening them with grenades, only to be lured away by a cooler colleague. But there was no one around to hold back the Russian soldier that day in March when Yura and his father, Ruslan, 47, were riding bicycles down a tree-lined street.
They were on their way to visit vulnerable neighbors sheltering in basements and homes without electricity or running water. Their bicycles were tied with white cloth, a sign that they were traveling 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 the soldier asking. The soldier didn’t give Yura’s father time to answer.
The boy heard two shots. His father fell, his mouth open, already bleeding.
A blow hit Yura’s hand, and he fell too. Another shot hit him in the elbow. He closed his eyes.
A final shot was fired.
This story is part of an ongoing Associated Press and Frontline investigation that includes the War Crimes Watch Ukraine interactive experience and an upcoming documentary.
Yura’s extraordinary tale of attempted murder by Russian soldiers stands out as international justice experts descend on Bucha, a center of horrors and possible war crimes in Ukraine. More than 1,000 bodies have been found so far in Bucha and other communities around Kyiv. In Bucha alone, 31 children under the age of 18 were killed and 19 injured, according to local authorities.
“All the children were deliberately killed or injured, because the Russian soldiers deliberately fired at the cars evacuating the cars to which were attached the signs ‘CHILDREN’ and white cloth, and they deliberately fired at the homes of the civilians” , said the chief prosecutor of the Bucha region. , Ruslan Kravchenko, told the AP.
The UN human rights office says at least 202 children across Ukraine were killed during the Russian invasion and believes the true number to be considerably higher. The Ukrainian government counts 217 children killed and more than 390 injured.
The AP and Frontline, drawing on a variety of sources, have independently documented 21 attacks in which children were killed that likely meet the definition of a war crime, ranging from finding a child in a shallow grave at Borodyanka to the bombardment of a theater. in Mariupol. The total number of child victims of attacks is unknown, and the tally represents only a fraction of potential war crimes.
Yura is a teenager growing into himself, spindly and mottled, with dark circles under his eyes. Adulthood was rushed upon him. As he lies on the floor of his family’s home to show what happened, he points to the healing holes in his elbow.
His mother, Alla, takes deep breaths to calm herself. Yura, seated, puts an arm around her, then rests her head on her shoulder.
On that horrible day, Yura survived the attempted murder thanks to the clumsy grace of that teenage constant, her gray hoodie. He was shot in his place and he felt him move.
Yura lay on the street for a few minutes, waiting for the soldier to walk away.
Then Yura ran. He reached the kindergarten where his mother worked and where some residents used the basement for shelter. They were shocked to see the boy and gave him first aid.
He realized he had 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 they couldn’t do anything because they didn’t control the area, according to the family. The ambulance service said the same thing.
The police told the family that the 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 simple sentences, including the loss of a cell phone belonging to Yura’s father. He would have been useful now – he had been a lawyer.
Kravchenko told the AP they were continuing to work on Yura’s case and said he was confident the crimes committed during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could be successfully investigated. . Among other things, footage from dozens of surveillance cameras in Bucha is being analyzed and an album identifying the faces of Russian soldiers is being assembled.
In March, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced that investigations into crimes against children in particular will benefit from a new trust fund. Children make up half or more of those affected by conflict, but are often labeled as too vulnerable to testify or as having inaccurate memories, according to Véronique Aubert, special adviser on crimes involving children to the ICC prosecutor.
Yura’s case is unusual.
“Prosecutors may want to take this case on as the victim is still alive and has the potential to testify,” said Ryan Goodman, a New York University law professor and former special counsel for the U.S. Department of Defense. . “It may be difficult, if not impossible, for a defendant to claim that he was somehow justified in trying to kill a child.”
It was left to Yura’s family to retrieve her father’s body.
They did it the next day. Yura’s grandmother, who is over 70, begged the Russian soldiers to let her near the body.
With their rifles cocked, they let her walk ahead of them. Another soldier in the distance shouted, “Don’t come here or we’ll kill you. But he didn’t shoot.
They brought Yura’s father home in a wheelbarrow. It was rolled up in a rug and placed on an old wooden door. Amid the sounds of shelling and gunfire, they buried him in the courtyard behind the stake, in one of the many makeshift graves hastily dug during the month-long Russian occupation.
Yura and her family left Bucha the next day through a rare escape corridor. The injured boy walked the streets first, holding a stick tied with a white towel, with a white scarf around his arm. The family had to walk past the scene of the shooting.
As they approached the evacuation point, the Russian soldiers asked where they were going. They asked what happened to Yura.
“I was shot by a Russian soldier,” replied the boy.
At this, her mother was terrified. “I felt everything inside me crumble,” she recalls. “I thought they were going to shoot all of us.”
She asked the soldiers to let them through, saying it was getting late. They did it.
The family left town that day.
The gray hoodie, bloody at the elbow, is now the centerpiece of the family’s quest for justice. The top seam of the loose fabric has been severed. Yura’s mom insists it’s proof and can’t be thrown away.
The family returned to Bucha in mid-April after the Russians withdrew. They dug up Yura’s father and buried him again in a local cemetery.
The boy’s family continues to play detective, scouring the area of the shooting for further evidence and theorizing where the bullets went. They interview neighbors and analyze holes in a metal fence.
As the family shows the scene to the AP, Yura wanders in the grass at the side of the street, head down, looking for casings. He is confident that he could identify the Russian soldier, even though the soldier was wearing a balaclava over part of his face.
Yura will finish ninth grade this year, once the electricity returns and he will be able to resume online classes. Until then, he volunteers like his father did, visiting older residents.
His mother plans to send him abroad for the sake of his sanity. She also needs distance.
“I’m never alone physically, but it’s possible to be alone mentally,” she says, on the verge of tears. “I try to avoid that.”
The case of his son is still a faint source of hope. There are courts and these courts will work, she believes. No one should go through what their son did.
Yura worries that they have already done that.
“It’s not just me who wants justice,” he said. “People in Ukraine may still be tortured and killed even now.”
Yura turned 15 on April 12. It was a quiet birthday. His father, a good cook, usually grilled to celebrate him.
On April 25, a day after the 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 for Easter – dyed eggs, bread – was prepared with homemade pickles, chocolate and wine. A plastic bag containing food hung on the wooden cross.
Yura stood aside, quietly lighting a candle and placing it on the grave. Then he pulled a hoodie, a black one, over his head to block out the cold.
The boy’s uncle, Andriy, is watching him closely these days. Yura was always a good boy, but he became flustered and restless, jumping from task to task. Andriy worries that the trauma of surviving death will catch up with Yura and mourn his nephew’s damaged childhood.
“It tears my soul apart,” Andriy said, in tears. “What we see is pain after pain… (Russian President Vladimir) Putin just decides to make us suffer, and we do.”
Frontline producer Tom Jennings contributed to this story.
Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine