‘These are war crimes’: In death, the victims of Bucha force the world to reckon with Vladimir Putin and his war on Ukraine

In life, the victims in Bucha were left powerless. Their homes were overtaken by Russian invaders. They died with their hands bound behind their backs. Their corpses littered the streets.

In death, those victims are forcing the world to reckon with the depravity of a Russian opponent that negotiates peace while, it is alleged, massacring unarmed civilians on the battlefield.

Their dirty, lifeless hands and their bloody, sand-covered faces; the man who fell dead on the sidewalk, spilling his sack of potatoes; or the one who died astride his bicycle.

Their deaths are giving shape, substance and life to the allegations mounting against President Vladimir Putin and his invading army.

“These are war crimes and will be recognized by the world as genocide,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, visiting Bucha on Monday, several days after the retreat of Russian forces.

The shocking images were transmitted to the world on the weekend, contributing to international outrage that spilled out Monday, when U.S. President Joe Biden said of Putin: “This guy is brutal.”

“We have to gather the information, we have to continue to provide Ukraine with the weapons they need to continue the fight and we have to get all the detail so we can have a wartime trial,” Biden said.

There were other developments Monday — Britain called Monday for Russia’s suspension from the United Nations Human Rights Committee; Germany, France, Latvia and Lithuania expelled Russian diplomats; and countries have started discussing additional sanctions against Russia.

But it is the shocking revelations from the Kyiv suburbs that had tempers running high.

Speaking in Warsaw, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Moraweicki criticized French President Emmanuel Macron in particular for continuing to negotiate with Putin, rather than taking a harder line and freezing the Russian president out.

“One should not negotiate with criminals, one should fight them,” Moraweicki said. “Nobody negotiated with Hitler. Would you negotiate with Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot?”

The Polish leader additionally called for an international commission of experts to work together on an investigation into alleged Russian war crimes.

The bodies of 410 civilians have been removed from Kyiv-area towns recently retaken from Russian forces, according to Ukraine’s Prosecutor-General Iryna Venediktova. Journalists with The Associated Press have reported seeing at least 21 bodies in various spots around Bucha, northwest of the capital.

Moscow, which has made it a criminal offence to circulate information about the war that comes from unofficial sources, claimed that the photographs and videos from Bucha “cannot be trusted.”

“The situation is certainly serious and here we would demand that international leaders not rush to make statements and sweeping accusations, but that they request information from various sources, at least listen to our arguments,” said Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson.

He added that “the calendar sequence of events” to not support the finding that Russian soldiers are responsible for the killings. (The New York Times reported Monday that satellite photos of Bucha showed bodies already on the ground in mid-March, during the Russian occupation.)

The Russian Ministry of Defence said its forces retreated from Bucha on March 30 and that “not a single local resident suffered from any violent actions” when the town was under Russian control.

It also pointed to a video recorded by Bucha Mayor Anatoly Fedoruk celebrating the town’s liberation on March 31.

“This is a joyful day,” Fedoruk said in the video, which was posted on April 1. The Russians say it is significant that Fedoruk made no reference to civilian casualties in the video.

But it was only on April 2, according to a news release, that special units of Ukraine’s national police force began the slow and dangerous job of clearing the streets and clearing unexploded mines and ammunition.

City council members issued orders for residents to stay in their homes while trained sappers and security officers cleared the streets.

Ukrainian journalist Dmytro Komarov, one of the first independent observers to enter the city, wrote on his Instagram page of his horrible memories.

“Here is dog barking near the owner’s body. It’s been a week. Here is a man with his hands tied and his head shot through. And here’s a guy without a head, with keys near his hands.”

Venediktova wrote Monday on Twitter that police had also discovered a “torture chamber” in a children’s sanatorium in Bucha. Her message was accompanied by a photograph of four small, unidentified bodies.

“We will establish all the circumstances of war crimes committed by the Russian Federation, the persons involved and bring them to justice,” she wrote.

Ukraine has also created a government task force to investigate Russian war crimes, identify the individuals responsible, seize their assets and put the proceeds toward rebuilding the country and compensating victims.

Clearly, the blood of Bucha’s victims will not be easily washed from Russian hands. But it won’t stop Moscow from trying to sow doubt in observers’ minds.

Russia called for a meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Monday to present evidence showing its troops were not responsible for the killings in Bucha. Britain, which holds the UNSC’s rotating chairmanship, declined to call an immediate meeting, so Russia will get the chance to defend itself Tuesday.

“From the very beginning, it was obvious that this was nothing more than another prepared provocation aimed at discrediting and dehumanizing the Russian military and exerting political pressure on Russia,” said Vasily Nebenzya, Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, according to the TASS new agency. “We have factual evidence that supports this position.”

The Russians will put forward their evidence — their doubts, their hypotheses, their cold and calculated criticisms — and it will be put up beside the actions of the Bucha townsfolk who, according to Zelenskyy, asked that at least some of the food supplies trucked in on Monday be shared with the stray animals, who have also suffered.

“This is characteristic of our people, who treat animals as people,” the Ukrainian president said. “And what you see around you, what they have done to this modern town, is characteristic of the Russian military, who treat people worse than animals.”

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