Vorzel and Lviv, Ukraine
Deep in a pine forest in Ukraine’s Bucha district, a bumpy dirt road dead-ends in a small tidy cemetery. There, a figure dressed in black, her head covered with a scarf, hunches over a fresh mound of dirt blanketed in flowers and adorned with a picture of a small girl. Her body begins to shake. Then her sobs pierce the quiet of the forest.
“I wish I could trade places with her,” says 68-year-old grandmother, Galina, from Vorzel, a small village in Ukraine’s Bucha district.
The grave holds the body of her seven-year-old granddaughter Anastasia, who was murdered as the family tried to escape the Russian invasion of their village. Galina says the pair – along with six more children and two other adults, all family members – had packed into a car and were driving down a two-lane highway when a Russian sniper fired at their vehicle from the woods.
“On the first strike, he shot through the front window and my granddaughter started to scream. The next shot our car stopped and then again, they shot at us. Anastasia whimpered,” Galina, who only gave CNN her first name, says. “I started to cry and children were scared. They were all screaming.”
When the screaming and panic ended, sorrow washed over the family with the realization Anastasia had been shot dead. Her sister Lida, 11, was also badly wounded.
“I asked the soldier (to) help us. I was begging them saying, ‘Don’t you have kids of your own?’” Galina says.
“We did nothing to them. We lived our life. We didn’t attack anyone … It was them to attack us. They didn’t care if there was a kid or grandmothers or grandfathers. They didn’t care. And still don’t care,” she adds.
This scenario is exactly what the family was trying to escape. They were well aware of the Russian soldiers who had rolled into their village in March, snuffing out humans as casually as cigarettes and then leaving the bodies carelessly scattered along the sides of the roads.
The true scale of Russia’s monthlong occupation of Bucha is yet to be fully understood – but the picture emerging from it has shocked the world.
Russia has flatly refused to accept responsibility for the atrocities emanating from Bucha and other districts surrounding Kyiv since its troops made a hasty retreat in late March after failing to encircle the capital. Instead, the Kremlin has repeatedly claimed – without evidence – that the numerous reports of indiscriminate killings, mass graves, disappearances and looting are “fake” and part of a “planned media campaign.”
Ukrainian investigators are keen to hear accounts like Galina’s as they investigate potential war crimes in the Bucha district and across Ukraine.
The country’s President Volodymyr Zelensky says 220 Ukrainian children have died since Russian troops flooded across the borders on February 24. Meanwhile, in the Bucha district alone, the local prosecutor Roman Kravchenko tells CNN at least 31 children have been killed and at least 19 others injured.
Not far from Anastasia’s final resting place lies another young victim of the unnecessary war: 15-year-old Anna Mishenko along with her mother, Tamila Mishenko. Both were shot and burned to death in their car after encountering Russian tanks outside a shopping center as they also tried to flee Bucha, according to their family.
Relatives and friends searched for days after the two went missing. Eventually, they were identified through the car’s registration plate and the small ring Anna wore on her finger, according to cemetery director and family friend, Anna Kalinichenko.
Dasha Markina, 14, remembers her schoolmate as a “ray of light” and someone who was “always looking at the world with a smile.”
“She was a good student, she spoke English well, and she could paint amazingly,” Markina says, proudly showing her friend’s photograph from a recent yearbook.
“It’s too bad that such a wonderful person doesn’t exist anymore. She was always happy to communicate and to make new friends,” she adds.
With a mix of anguish and frustration in her voice, Markina says, “They just wanted to save themselves and just were shot. Just because Russians wanted to do so. Those bastards don’t know why they came here but they had fun doing it.”
For Kalinichenko, the toll of the recent weeks is etched across her face. She’s seen too much death, seen too many fresh graves, and tried to support too many families.
“The Russians would not let them bury loved ones at the cemetery. People had to bury them in their own yards first … then later at the cemetery,” she explains, adding that the act of having to bury loved ones twice has prolonged the trauma and grief for so many.
“I’ve never buried such a big number of people,” she laments. “All those people loved their lives, lived their lives … We are Ukrainians, it’s our land. It doesn’t have to be like this.
Asked if these deaths constituted war crimes, Kalinichenko answers without hesitation: “War crimes that will never be forgiven. Neither in Heaven nor on Earth. They must be burned in hell.”