Perhaps it was the way inanimate bodies, bloodied by bullets, and some with their hands tied, were scattered or thrown into makeshift mass graves. Or the reality of seeing them up close in widespread photos and videos.
A few weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, other atrocities took place, concentrating most of their firepower on the homes and gathering places of ordinary Ukrainians, but the international outrage they caused was overshadowed by the reaction to the revelation that retreating Russians soldiers left many killed civilians behind near the Ukrainian capital.
Some of the bodies found last weekend near Kiev were face down, and some curled up. It appears that civilians were killed on bicycles as they walked down the street or in basements. In Bucha, where many victims were found, three bodies were found in the garden.
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Many victims were shot in the head. The coroner in Bucha said his team had amassed dozens. The Russians fired on anyone as their tanks passed through the city in the early days of the war, some residents say.
Russian officials have denied responsibility, dismissing photos of the bodies as fabricated, but satellite images taken during the Russian occupation of Bucha and other cities have challenged their claims.
An analysis of satellite images made by The New York Times showed points in the exact coordinates, where later in the newly liberated areas of the Ukrainian military and journalists found the bodies. This was confirmed by the testimony of witnesses who said that many lay there for weeks.
The total killings of civilians add to the growing evidence of numerous gross violations by Russian forces of the laws of war, as described in the Geneva Conventions and the International Criminal Court’s rulings on what constitutes a war crime.
War crimes prosecutors need to climb a steep hill. But international law experts say the disturbing images of civilians shot in Bucha and other Russian-liberated cities, as well as witness testimony, could be a plethora of documents for investigations.
Unlike other horrors of the war in Ukraine, such as the bombing of a maternity hospital, the leveling of a theater where people hid, or the shelling of apartment buildings, the Bucha killings cannot be seen as unintentional damage or easily denied by Russians as propaganda.
“The difference is that you have images of civilians with their hands tied and executed – it’s a different kind of crime,” said Alex Whiteing, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School who has worked on international prosecution for war crimes. “It’s very similar to a crime.”
Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division for Evidence of War Crimes in Ukraine, said the killings were so shocking, in part because many other civilian deaths during the war were caused by indiscriminate shelling and bombing. though it is no less an atrocity.
“I think one of the reasons for the different reactions of people to these bodies on the ground is the suspicion that these victims were not indiscriminate, but deliberate,” she said.
When Russia launched the invasion on February 24, there were general expectations that its superiority would soon subjugate Ukraine. But when they met fierce resistance from Ukraine, the Russians soon resorted to large-scale bombing and rocket fire, making virtually no distinction between civilian and military facilities, and leveling all or part of some towns and villages.
In a sense, legal experts say, images of civilians shot at close range convey more personal anger.
“I think on one level you see a ruined city, you think it happens during the war,” said Andrew Clapham, a professor of international law at the Geneva Postgraduate School who is one of those advising the Ukrainian government. “People kind of stop their horror and say it can be explained in wartime.”
But the death near Kiev, he said, indicated an intention to kill civilians.
“It’s much more obvious that there’s no excuse,” Clapham said.
Here is a geographical breakdown of places where some of the most horrific atrocities in the war in Ukraine were recorded:
The southeastern port, one of the first targets of the Russian invasion, was under siege for weeks without food, water or electricity, and its former population of 450,000 is estimated to have shrunk to 100,000 or less. Russia’s missile strike on March 9 severely damaged the maternity hospital, leaving the death toll unknown. On March 16, Russian bombing destroyed the Mariupol Drama Theater, where hundreds of civilians sought refuge and where the word “children” was written in large letters on the outside to dissuade the attackers from the air. Ukrainian officials said 300 people inside had been killed. On March 21, Ukrainian officials said that the Russians had relocated up to 4,500 Mariupol residents to Russia, which, if confirmed as forced relocation, would be a potential war crime.
The city of 1.5 million people in eastern Ukraine, the country’s second-largest, was hit by Russian planes using missiles, artillery and cluster munitions, a widely banned weapon that spread bombs over a wide area. According to residents and videos checked by The New York Times, the destruction in Kharkov affected primary schools and homes. Recently, Ukrainian officials estimated that at least 500 people had died. A human rights watch in Sunday’s report on potential war crimes in Ukraine said it had documented at least one case of rape by Russian soldiers in the Kharkiv region on March 13.
The northern city near the border with Belarus was a temporary refuge for many civilians who sought to avoid Russia’s early bid to encircle Kyiv. But Russian troops exposed Chernihiv and Chernihiv after Ukrainian defenders prevented the invaders from capturing the city. Witnesses in Chernihiv say Russian attacks have destroyed schools, damaged hospitals and injured civilians queuing for bread.
The southern industrial city of 500,000 people, which blocks the path of the Russian military to the Black Sea port of Odessa, has withstood several Russian attacks and air strikes. One destroyed the Marine military barracks, killing dozens; others were more ineligible. Missile strikes hit apartment buildings. And last week a missile strike on a government building killed at least 36 people. Other fatal attacks on vehicles and homes in and around the city were reported over the weekend and Monday.
Many bodies of civilians were found in the suburbs north of Kiev. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a nightly address Monday that more than 300 people were tortured and killed in Bucha alone, and the list is likely to grow. In a Sunday report, Human Rights Watch published a chronicle of the March 4 execution by Russian soldiers of a Buchanan and the murder of a mother and her 14-year-old daughter in another northern city, Vorzel, a few days later.
Sexual violence by the Russian occupiers has also been reported. Last month, Ukraine’s Attorney General Irina Venediktov said on Facebook that a Russian soldier had killed an unarmed civilian and then raped his wife several times in the suburbs of Kiev.
Laura A. Dickinson, a professor of law at George Washington University who specializes in international law, said photos of bodies in the suburbs of Kiev are among the most convincing signs that the atrocities were committed by Russia, despite the Kremlin’s refusals. .
“I would say the evidence is very staggering,” she said. “It’s hard to admit to being a fake.”
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