On Ukraine backroad, children’s bodies and wreckage of civilian convoy shelled by Russians

Wreckage of civilian convoy attacked by Russian forces near Kupiansk, Ukraine, Sept. 25, 2022.
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KUPIANSK-VUZLOVYI, Ukraine — A pink children’s hat lay on the gravel beside the metal chassis of an incinerated minibus and the frames of five burnt cars.

Twenty-six Ukrainians died on this backroad southeast of Kharkiv city when a convoy of civilian vehicles was targeted on Sept. 25. Nine of the passengers were children.

Andrii Checheniv said he arrived an hour after the attack and saw their bodies, some of them decapitated.

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Russia’s notorious state-controlled press was quick to blame Ukraine‘s forces. But a Ukrainian war crimes investigation has determined the shooting came from a Russian-controlled area.

Shell fragments found at the scene were also the same type used by heavy guns mounted on Russian armoured vehicles, said Oleksandr Filchakov, the prosecutor for the Kharkiv region.

A child’s hat on the road where Russian forces shelled a civilian convoy on Sept. 25. Anna Vlasenko/Global News

The group of 48 civilians who came under attack at around 9 a.m. that morning were part of an organized evacuation from a city under bombardment. A sign on the back of the minibus read, “Children.”

But like so many of the atrocities of the past nine months, the deaths point to a disregard for civilian lives that has characterized President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

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So far, eighteen bodies recovered from the scene have been identified. One of the dead was pregnant. Relatives said they were waiting for the remains to be released for burial. The casualty numbers may rise as the investigation continues.

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Witnesses told Global News the convoy originated in Kupiansk-Vuzlovyi, a city whose railway hub gave it strategic value as the headquarters of the Russian forces in Ukraine’s eastern Kharkiv region.

The city was occupied from the first hours of the war without any shelling, as was Kupiansk, the neighbouring city across the Oskil River.

But as the Russians fled a Ukrainian advance, they adopted a scorched-earth strategy, firing at the main buildings they had used as administration centres. The offices of the city council, tax department, police, prosecutors and judges were all targeted.

A resident stands near a rocket fragment near her house in Kupiansk, Ukraine, on Sept. 21. (AP Photo/Kostiantyn Liberov).

The shelling was so bad that a local volunteer organized an evacuation convoy. Identified only as Dmytro, he collected 6,000 hryvnias per person for a seat in a car or minibus — although only about half paid, and some used their own vehicles.

“I wanted to travel to Finland to my brother,” said Bohdan Solodkyi, who was in the fifth car in the column. Others were on their way to Poltava and Dnipro.

It was hard for them to assess the dangers that lay ahead. They had lived for months without television or a phone signal. All they had heard was that bridges had been blown, and the only way out of the city was through Russian-controlled territory, so they chose their escape route accordingly.

They met at 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 25 and set off an hour later.

It was their second attempt to flee the city. The day before, they had made it as far as the village of Kurylivka before Russian soldiers turned them back.

This time, when they reached the same spot, they saw only ruined tanks and the bodies of Russian soldiers. They were pushing on towards Svatove, in the Luhansk region, when the shooting started.

“Our first car was targeted,” said Olha Tereshchenko, who was in one of the vehicles with her husband and son, fleeing after their home was shelled three days earlier.

“And then immediately in our car, a projectile struck,” she said. “I was stunned. When I turned around, the driver was already dead.” Her husband and son also died.

Liudmyla Potapova was in the third car with her parents, dog and a driver, Mykola Bondarenko, whose son Andrii was driving the lead vehicle.

“Everything happened unexpectedly,” Potapova said in an interview. “We even didn’t understand at the beginning. Explosions, shelling, automatic fire.”

Luidmyla Potapova survived the Sept. 25 convoy attack near Kupiansk, Ukraine. Anna Vlasenko/Global News

Her father, in the front passenger seat, was wounded in the leg. She tried to get him out of the car, but then gunfire started.

“They fired directly at his head. I saw it personally,” Potapova said. “Bullets whistled overhead.”

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Abandoning their vehicles, the survivors crawled toward a line of trees beyond the gunfire. Potapova said she heard what sounded like the cries of an infant coming from the minibus.

Eight made it to the treeline. From there, they retreated back in the direction from which they had come, all the time hiding from Russian vehicles, which they could hear on the move.

“We understood that they were looking for us,” she said.

Abandoned vehicles shelled by Russian forces on sept. 25, 20200,. Anna Vlasenko/Global News

Seven of them made it home. One was too badly wounded. The others tried to bandage him, so he wouldn’t bleed out. But he couldn’t walk, and they had to leave him behind.

“Sorry,” said Tamara Halishnikova, Liudmyla’s mother.

When he came across the scene at 10 a.m., Checheniv said he found children crawling over bodies inside the minibus. In the cars, he saw one man still alive. Otherwise, there were only corpses.

He said the minibus was not burned at that time, meaning it was set aflame later, possibly in an attempt by Russian forces to hide the evidence of their crime.

Checheniv said he loaded the kids into his car and drove to the hospital in Svatove. There was one-year-old Mykhailyk, his stepsister Maryna, 12, and Polina, five years old.

He also took two adult women, but he didn’t have room for all the wounded.

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With help of the Red Cross and the prosecutor’s team, most of the surviving children have since been reunited with family members. Maryna has not yet returned home. She was transported to Moscow for surgery and remains in the Russian capital.

At least two children were taken to the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic, said Ihor Chub, head of the Department of the Kharkiv Regional Prosecutor’s Office, referring to the pro-Russian enclave in east Ukraine.

“Law enforcement officers are currently working on ways to return these children to Ukraine,” he said.

The father of one of them, Denys Derevianko, said he heard about the fate of his 10-year-old son, Pavlo, through the Russian media, which reported its state-friendly version of the attack from the hospital.

“I recognized him, and he said that they were travelling, trying to leave through Russia. It was territory controlled by Russia, through Russia to the Czech Republic, where my wife’s aunt is,” the father said.

Ukrainian war crimes investigator speaks to survivor Mykola Bondarenko at scene of convoy attack in Kharkiv region. Anna Vlasenko/Global News

Pavlo said the mother was struck in the head and died on the spot. Her brother, 19-year-old Vlad, was also travelling with them. His body was found 1.5 kilometres from the scene.

Two days after the attack, Ukrainian forces liberated Kupiansk-Vuzlovyi, and the wounded were transported to a Kharkiv hospital.

During a visit by reporters to the scene last month, the smell of the torched minibus was still in the air. Holes were visible in each of the cars. The lead vehicle was on its side. To the right was the railway and, after that, the treeline.

Survivor Mykola Bondarenko returned to the site with a team from the Kharkiv war crimes office and the security service. He looked through the car driven by his son, who was among the dead.

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“I don’t know what happened with him,” he said.

He said the organizer Dmytro had not joined the convoy. His whereabouts remain unknown. Rumours have it that he is dead. “I heard from a few people, whom I trust, that he was seen killed.”

Civilians cross damaged bridge over Oskil River during the evacuation of Kupiansk, Ukraine, on Oct. 1. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka).

The prosecutor, Chub, said survivors were consistent in their statements that the shelling had come from the side of the frontline occupied by the Russian Federation.

“In addition, several witnesses emphasize that before reaching the place of execution, they crossed two or more Russian checkpoints, which indicates that the area where the column was executed was under Russian control at the time,” he said.

Another prosecutor, Filchakov, said parts of 30 and 45 mm high-explosive shells were found at the scene.

These were the same type fired by Russian BMP2 and 3K Lynx armoured vehicles.