Warning: This story contains details that may be disturbing to some. Reader discretion is advised.
In what one Ukrainian official described as a “scene from a horror movie,” the apparent massacre in Bucha, Ukraine over the weekend could be the “tip of the iceberg,” the country’s foreign minister says.
On the streets of Bucha – a town of roughly 35,000 near the capital Kyiv – bodies of what appear to be civilians lay, some with evidence suggesting they were killed at close range.
The discovery comes as Ukraine forces recapture towns from Russian troops across the country, which became involved in a full-scale war on Feb. 24 following Moscow’s invasion.
Russia has denied targeting civilians in its “special military operation,” but Ukraine claims otherwise, citing Bucha as the latest example.
Here’s what you need to know.
What happened in Bucha, Ukraine?
Over the weekend, news outlets began to report the deaths of civilians in the streets of Bucha as Ukrainian forces reentered the town.
Taras Shapravskyi, deputy mayor of Bucha, said 50 of some 300 bodies found were the victims of extra-judicial killings carried out by the Russians. The Kremlin has rejected those accusations.
Reporters with Reuters and The Associated Press saw the bodies of people in civilian clothes who appeared to have been killed at close range. The Associated Press also saw two bodies wrapped in plastic, bound with tape and thrown into a ditch.
Reuters’ reporters saw a mass grave at a church, with hands and feet poking through red clay heaped on top.
“The horrors that we’ve seen in Bucha are just the tip of the iceberg of all the crimes (that) have been committed by the Russian army,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Monday.
“Half measures are not enough anymore. I demand most severe sanctions this week, this is the plea of the victims of the rapes and killings. If you have doubts about sanctions, go to Bucha first.”
Where is Bucha in Ukraine?
Bucha is a small town on the outskirts of the capital, Kyiv.
It had a population of roughly 35,000 before the war began, and is a neighbour to the towns of Irpin and Hostomel.
According to Google Maps, Bucha is roughly 28 kilometres away from downtown Kyiv.
Last week, Russia announced it would begin to scale back its operations in northern Ukraine and around Kyiv following peace talks in Istanbul.
However, despite the promise, Russian has continued its barrage of those areas while redistributing troops to the country’s east.
Why are the bodies just being found?
Ukraine’s forces have been fighting Russian troops around Kyiv since the full-scale war began just over a month ago.
Ukraine has put up a stiff resistance, and has begun recapturing towns outside the capital, including Bucha.
Shapravskyi said Moscow’s troops withdrew late last week from Bucha. Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said scores of killed civilians found on the streets of Bucha, and the Kyiv suburbs of Irpin and Hostomel, looked like a “scene from a horror movie.”
Some people were shot in the head and had their hands bound, and some bodies showed signs of torture, rape and burning, he said.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said civilians were “shot with joined hands,” and told German newspaper Bild that “what happened in Bucha and other suburbs of Kyiv can only be described as genocide.”
Authorities said they were documenting evidence as Ukraine’s military reclaims territory and discovers indications of execution-style slayings to add to their case for prosecuting Russian officials for war crimes.
Biden calls for Putin to be put on trial as Moscow rejects accusations
U.S. President Joe Biden called for a war crimes trial against Russian President Vladimir Putin while Moscow rejected accusations related to the massacre in Bucha.
Biden labelled Putin again as a “war criminal,” referencing the Kyiv suburb when speaking to reporters on Monday.
“What’s happening in Bucha is outrageous and everyone sees it,” he said, adding he’d seek more sanctions against Russia.
The Kremlin has categorically denied any accusations related to the murder of civilians in Bucha, and said Ukrainian allegations on the matter should be treated with doubt.
“This information must be seriously questioned,” said spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.
“From what we have seen, our experts have identified signs of video falsification and other fakes.”
Peskov urged international leaders not to rush to judgment.
“We categorically deny any accusations,” Peskov said.
Other world leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, expressed outrage over the discoveries.
“We strongly condemn the murder of civilians in Ukraine, remain committed to holding the Russian regime accountable, and will continue to do everything we can to support the people of Ukraine,” he tweeted on Sunday.
“Those responsible for these egregious and appalling attacks will be brought to justice.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly also released a statement on Twitter, calling the soldiers’ actions “shocking” and a “senseless murder of innocent civilians.”
“Canada will not spare any effort, including investigations of war crimes, to ensure that those responsible are held to account,” Joly said.
War crimes probe could take years, experts say
Last month, the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor said he had opened an investigation into possible war crimes in Ukraine.
Even before Bucha, Ukraine and its Western allies accused Russian forces of targeting civilians indiscriminately, referencing the bombing in the southern port of Mariupol of a maternity hospital and a theatre marked as housing children.
Canada has sent RCMP officers to assist in the investigation, but prosecution of Putin or other Russian leaders would face hurdles and could take years, legal experts say.
The International Criminal Court defines war crimes as “grave breaches” of the post-Second-World-War Geneva Conventions, agreements which set out the international humanitarian laws to be followed in war time.
Breaches include deliberately targeting civilians and attacking legitimate military targets where civilian casualties would be “excessive,” experts said.
Investigators could issue an arrest warrant if prosecutors can show “reasonable grounds to believe” war crimes were committed. To obtain a conviction, prosecutors would have to prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
For most charges, that requires proving intent, and one way prosecutors could do it is to show there were no military targets in the area of an attack, and that it was not an accident.
“If it keeps happening again and again and the strategy appears to be to target civilians in urban areas, then that can be very powerful evidence of an intent to do so,” Alex Whiting, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, told Reuters.
Yet in a war zone, prosecutors could have a tough time obtaining evidence, including interviews with witnesses who might be intimidated or otherwise reluctant to speak, which could result in a years-long probe, experts said.
What happens now?
Ukraine and Russia were scheduled to meet by video on Monday to resume peace talks, but the discovery in Bucha could further overshadow efforts to bring an end to the war.
Russia has continued its artillery bombardments in Ukraine’s south and east, where Moscow has said it is now focusing its operations.
Russia sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24 in what it called a special operation to diminish its southern neighbour’s military capabilities and rid people it called dangerous nationalists.
Ukrainian forces have mounted stiff resistance and the West has imposed serious sanctions on Russia in an effort to force it to withdraw its forces.
Zelenskyy has described Russia’s campaign as “genocide,” a term he has used at different times during the war, saying Putin was intent on eliminating the nation and its people.
“We are the citizens of Ukraine and we don’t want to be subdued. … This is the reason we are being destroyed,” he told the CBS program Face the Nation on the weekend.
— with files from Reuters and The Associated Press.