AFP photographed 20 bodies, all in civilian clothes, some of whom appear to have been there for weeks, on April 2, the first for the media to enter the city of Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, just after the withdrawal of Russian forces.
Twenty corpses scattered on the same street: Yablonska Street, that is, the street of apple trees.
The images will spread around the world, sparking international excitement and marking a turning point in the Ukrainian conflict, and then into its sixth week.
Kyiv soon accuses Russian forces of committing “war crimes” during their occupation of the city in March.
On Thursday, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office indicted the first 10 Russian soldiers for “cruel treatment” and threatening to kill civilians in Bucha. The Public Prosecutor explained that the investigation is continuing to determine their possible involvement in the “premeditated murders”.
Jablonska Street, a pre-war residential street, appears to have turned into a hell for the residents of Bucce in March. But what exactly was going on there? Who are these fallen men? How and when did they die and who killed them? And even the most sensitive question, why?
The Russian authorities, accusing the Ukrainians of “manipulation”, denied responsibility for the deaths following their occupation of the city.
AFP interviewed relatives of the victims over several days, and those who picked up or tried to recover the bodies collected accounts from police and judicial sources.
By sifting through official lists of victims held by the authorities and looking at autopsy reports at the Bucha morgue, AFP was able to identify these men and trace their journey to the “Street of Death”.
Here is the story of four of them.
Mishka Romaniuk The man with the bike
His body was found lying on his back, tangled up in his bike, his face gray and already decomposed.
“We left together, I came back alone,” says Oleksandr Smagelyuk, 21, his blue eyes fixed and blank as he began recounting the morning of March 6th.
At 10:30 a.m., Mikhailo aka “Mitchka” Romanyuk, 58, decided to try it all: 4 kilometers by bike to escort his niece’s friend, Oleksandr, to the military hospital in the nearby town of Irben.
The two men hoped to find there a loved one who had disappeared in the bombing, perhaps electricity to charge their phones and call for help.
They pedaled, Mitchka in front, Oleksandr in the back, and in a few minutes they reached Yablonska Street. They only have 500 meters left to go to the hospital.
“We were going really fast and there was no one in the street,” Oleksandr says. “I heard the noise at first, a splash of shots. And Mikhailo fell in front of me. I ran down a small alley while pedaling.”
He said the shots came from a yellow two-story house directly in front of them. “Snipers,” he said, referring to potential snipers.
“I didn’t realize what was going on there,” explains the guilt-ridden young man.
Unbeknownst to the residents, Yablounska Street, the main axis leading to the neighboring town of Irpin, making it possible to observe everything entering and leaving Boutcha, became the site of the Russian infantry and commando units that had just captured the city.
As of March 4, a barrage of tanks was deployed there, Russian soldiers occupied houses and set up a command post in one of them. street them.
What were the instructions? “The first thing they did was position themselves and shoot with everything they had and at anything that moved, anyone, anyone approaching,” said Bucha police chief Vitaly Lobas.
Mishka Romanyuk’s body remained for 28 days on this yellow-and-white-painted piece of sidewalk in front of the house from which the shooting could have emerged. His bruised face turned to the side in a pleading grimace, his hands wearing orange work gloves.
The body was collected on April 3 when the city was liberated and an autopsy was conducted five days later.
Cause of death: “Ballistic head injury from a penetrating bullet (…) Multiple brain damage and a fracture of the chest cavity,” can we read in his death certificate, seen by AFP.
Conclusion: “Wounded by a machine gun with intent to kill.”
The construction worker, at the beginning of the war, before the arrival of the Russian troops in Butch, is depicted cooking on a stove for his whole small family.
“The fifth day of the war. Mitchka is on fire. Hello handsome!” Victoria Fatura, 48, her sister-in-law, commented on the video, adding: “Sashka is back under the shell fire, we have the meat, tonight is skewers.
“A simple man who loves life and has never hurt anyone,” his sister-in-law told AFP. “He was a cheerful fellow who liked to drink wine.”
Mishka Romanyuk was buried on April 18 without ceremony and without a priest. Each of his four family members said a short word on his grave, in Cemetery No. 2 in Butch.
Mykhailo Kovalenko, drop their hands
The corpse of Mikhalo Kovalenko, he remained 29 days on the asphalt of Yablonska Street, lying on his side, in a blue jacket and beige trousers.
This 62-year-old dad loved “classical music” and collecting records and hi-fi gear. He loved to walk in the bushes of Butch with his dog.
On March 5, while it was still possible, Michalo Kovalenko decided to evacuate Bucha by car. His wife is sitting in the front and his daughter is in the back.
Arriving on Yablonska Street, he gets out of the car “raising his hands” to introduce himself to a barrage of Russian soldiers and appears defenseless, says his son-in-law, Artem, who prefers to keep his last name silent.
The soldiers at the checkpoint did not respond, knowing anything. They shot him, telling his daughter and wife that they had managed to escape.
Mr. Kovalenko’s relatives recognized him by his clothes, in a photo taken by AFP from afar on April 2. “It was awful,” Artem says.
On April 18, Artem was summoned to the Butch Morgue to confirm the identification of his stepfather. Kovalenko’s daughter, Artem’s companion, could not attend: she left for Bulgaria, where she is being treated for the psychological trauma she suffered in Bucha.
“She gets up every night and cries,” says Artem.
An AFP journalist said Michallo Kovalenko was buried on April 18 in a black coffin, in the presence of his brother-in-law and two other relatives, at the Bucha cemetery.
Maxim Kirev known as “Fearless Maxim”
He wears a bright blue puffer jacket, his socks screwed over his black pants. Next to him are two other bodies of two men, one of whom has his hands tied behind his back with a white cloth. All three are lying near concrete blocks that were to be used to renovate an adjacent roundabout.
AFP photographed the passport that was found near the man in the down jacket: it’s Maxim Kerev, born July 17, 1982.
The 39-year-old construction worker, who was not from the area, managed to survive the first weeks of the war.
Hiding from basement to basement, refugee Irina Shevchuk, 52, witnessed for days in the same basement as he lives.
While the Russian soldiers were terrorizing the street, Maxim helped everyone, looking for business, trying to supply.
“Everyone called him + fearless Maxim +,” Irina told AFP, 100 meters from the place of his death, where a spot of blood still lay on the ground a month later.
On March 17, Maxim and another man decided to leave their hiding place to go get things from a nearby construction site, Irina explains again.
He never came back, and she’s still trying to figure out when and how he died.
“It is very important to do justice to Maxim, because if no one (the Russians) punished them, they would start all over again,” emphasizes Irina.
As for the police officer Lupas, Maxim and his two companions “were tortured. The bodies of the three men were found with bullet wounds to the heart or neck.”
Volodymyr Provchenko, the man with the blue bike
Her body was found flat across the pavement, with her feet in a blue bicycle tire. His things are scattered around him.
Volodymyr Provchenko, 68, was shot and killed while cycling on Yablonska Street around March 5, according to his sister-in-law Natalia Zilina.
Ms Zelina said a female neighbor who tried to pick up her body was also shot, but survived.
“On that day, he needed to bring the bike to Forzel,” the 63-year-old explained, a village near Bucha where he worked.
“He borrowed the bike from someone and took it in his head to get it back,” she added. Volodymyr’s wife tried to dissuade him from taking another high-risk outing, but the father of the two children wanted the bike back.
She said that he is of Russian origin, and has lived in Bucha since 1976.