The Bucha Massacre and the Horrors to Come

When COVID hit Ukraine I was living in a small apartment near the center of Kyiv, but after a few weeks of cabin fever one of my wife’s friends let us house-sit at the edge of a prosperous suburb called Bucha. It was a great place to hang out while the world shut down: the neighborhood was mostly newly built upper-middle-class homes sitting in a large pine forest. 

When Russia tried to seize Kyiv in February I knew, intellectually, that the towns of Bucha and Hostomel and Irpin were at the epicenter of the fighting. But after a week or two of knowing this, a video of the aftermath of a battle popped into my news feed a few weeks ago, right before I had a job interview. I recognized a storefront in the background—a fierce fight had happened right down my old street! During the interview my brain was flooded with worry while I stumbled over my answers to anodyne questions: worries about the kids who had sometimes come out to pet my dog in front of that store; wondering if my next-door neighbor managed to get his family out of town. I had thought about them before, of course, but the video galvanized my neurons in a way that just “knowing” didn’t. 

The world is experiencing something similar with Bucha now, too. We already knew, intellectually, that the Russian army was committing atrocities in Ukraine. We already knew that they were shooting civilians, attacking residential areas with cluster munitions, kidnapping people, and so on. In February, U.S. intelligence reported that Russian forces had a “kill list” of Ukrainians to be killed or captured. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told us we should expect an “an even greater form of brutality because this will not simply be some conventional war between two armies,” but “a war waged by Russia on the Ukrainian people, to repress them, to crush them, to harm them.”

A stream of images and reports of the atrocities inflicted by the Russian army in Bucha have emerged over the last few days. Murders, rapes, and looting probably happened regularly while the Russian troops were fighting, but it looks like they engaged in a final atrocious spree on their way out of town. A video posted over the weekend shows dozens of men lying dead on a Bucha street, one of them with his hands visibly bound behind him. There is a mass grave nearby. It looks like the Russians had their interrogation/prison just around the corner from a municipal park, and shot everyone they had detained on the way out. 

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