Massacre in Bucha Meduza reconstructs the Russian occupation of Bucha — and debunks Kremlin lies about crimes against civilians
On April 2, international journalists and Ukrainian military units entered Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv. The previous evening, videos showing the bodies of civilians lying on Yablonska Street had begun surfacing on Telegram, shocking people around the world. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky referred to the Russian military’s actions as genocide; U.S. President Joe Biden called them war crimes. Meanwhile, the Russian government has given a number of contradictory explanations of what happened, none of which have acknowledged Russia’s own responsibility. Meduza has collected and analyzed all of the available information about the atrocities in Bucha. Here’s what we know for sure.
Crimes against civilians in Russian-controlled Bucha
We can say with a high degree of certainty that dozens of civilians were killed in Bucha while the city was under the control of the Russian army, Russian law enforcement, and Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agents.
The circumstances of the civilians’ deaths varied. Some were shot on sight when the Russian military saw them approaching Russian convoys. Others were executed after being detained by Russian forces. The specific circumstances of a significant portion of the killings cannot yet be determined (for example, in cases where bodies were burned).
Civilians were killed at various times and in various places, but most of the bodies were found on Yablonska Street — the street closest to the Bucha River, which separates Bucha from the town of Irpin (the site of intense fighting throughout the entire month of March, during which time Russia’s rearguard troops were stationed in Bucha).
There’s no evidence that the civilians in Bucha whose bodies were found on the streets were killed as the result of military activity in the second half of March. The events in the Kyiv region completely undermine one of the Kremlin’s main propaganda messages: that the Russian army is only fighting against armed people and only destroying military targets.
This article is divided into two sections. The first is a detailed reconstruction of what happened in Bucha in late February and March. The second is an analysis of the propaganda the Russian government is trying to spread regarding the Bucha killings.
What happened in Bucha during the Russian occupation
What role did Bucha play in Russia’s invasion?
- Located just south of the village of Hostomel and the Antonov Airport, where the Russian army mounted a helicopter assault on February 24, Bucha was on the front lines from the very beginning of the war. In late February, the main Russian forces were joined by Russian landing troops deployed from Belarus.
- Russian Special Operations Forces appeared in the streets of Bucha on February 25. This may have been when the first civilians were killed, as we know that civilian vehicles came under fire. Russian helicopters also launched unguided missiles at Bucha — though Russian forces didn’t yet manage to capture the city.
- In late February and early March, Russian forces made another failed attempt to advance further into Irpin through Bucha. On Vokzalna Street, in the center of Bucha, a Russian convoy was destroyed. Russian troops did make their way into Irpin by early March, but they still weren’t in complete control of Bucha.
- On March 5, Russian troops entered Vorzel, a village that borders Bucha, through Stekolka, a neighborhood known for its glass factory. They set up their main base in the factory itself, not far from Yablonska Street, the street closest to the Bucha river (which separates Bucha from Irpin).
- After that, the composition of the forces based in Bucha changed multiple times. Russian National Guard (Rosgvardiya) forces were brought in (just like in all of the other towns northwest of Kyiv).
- In the latter half of March, the epicenter of the fighting shifted south, towards Highway M06 between Kyiv and Zhytomyr, though it also continued in Irpin. Bucha became a transit point and a rearguard base for troops advancing towards the highway and continuing to fight in Irpin. Russian forces continually brought in reinforcements in Irpin; meanwhile, civilians escaped both through “green” (humanitarian) corridors and independently (at their own risk). City Council Deputy and Territorial Defense Force volunteer Kateryna Ukraintseva told Meduza that civilians were only allowed to go outside on March 8, and that’s when many of them left Bucha.
What were the circumstances surrounding the civilian casualties?
Kateryna Ukraintseva said she didn’t personally witness the deaths of any civilians. However, she said people in Bucha were killed both due to indiscriminate firing at cars and civilians, and as the result of crossfire as Russian forces moved through the city. Most civilians hid in basements, but they had to go out into the open to collect water, get humanitarian aid, and cook food. Many disappeared at the beginning of the occupation. Ukraintseva herself left Bucha on March 11, but she stayed in touch with people still in the city as much as possible.
After Russian troops captured the city, the active fighting stopped; judging by the state of the buildings (which were largely left intact compared to those in other Ukrainian cities), artillery fire happened relatively infrequently. This was confirmed by NASA’s global fire map, FIRMS, which uses satellite imagery: most of the fires in the city were recorded in late February, when Russian troops were first entering the city and Ukrainian troops were firing at them. From March 5 to the end of the month, less than ten large fires were recorded in Bucha, while dozens were recorded in Irpin. This suggests that the Bucha residents who died in the second half of March did not die as a result of ongoing military activity.
The composition of the Russian forces in Bucha changed multiple times, Ukraintseva told Meduza: paratroopers and ground forces, as well as special operations forces and Rosgvardia officers, were all there at various times. According to residents who were in Bucha during the occupation, Russian forces’ treatment of civilians deteriorated rapidly following a rotation of new troops in mid-March (especially in the area where troops were stationed on Yablonska Street).
How many people were killed in Bucha?
The total number of people killed in Bucha in late February and March is unknown. Locals began burying bodies in mass graves in the city’s central cemetery on March 9 (the grave initially held 67 bodies). All of the bodies that have gone through the city’s morgue since the war began, including civilians who died of natural causes and civilians who died from injuries, have been buried in a grave on the grounds of the Church of St. Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints. The grave was dug under the supervision of Anton Dovhopol, the chief physician at a local hospital. In March alone, 340 bodies were buried in Bucha, according to the city’s funeral service. In addition to the mass grave, where several hundred people were buried, many people were buried in courtyards outside of apartment buildings. These bodies have not been counted.
At least 30 bodies were found in the streets of Bucha. Twenty-one bodies were found on Yablonska Street alone. Five or six burned bodies (possibly women or children) were found on the nearby Staroyablonska Street. Three more were found in the courtyard next to a building on Ivano-Franka Street.
Across town, in the basement of a children’s camp building (which Ukrainian authorities believe Russian troops were using as a base), the bodies of six men who had been shot were found with their arms bound.
Find more information about where bodies were found, including photo and video evidence, on our interactive map.
During the Russian occupation, not even Bucha residents themselves had a full idea of what was happening around them — it was impossible to travel freely throughout the city. Yablonska Street, where a large share of the killings took place, became particularly isolated from the rest of the city. Russian military vehicles were stationed on the street, and checkpoints were set up to regulate movement, according to Ukraintseva. “They bombed Irpin from this street,” she told Meduza. “They wouldn’t even let people through to evacuate. It’s the street closest to Irpin. All the rest of Bucha is on the opposite side. And the Russian troops at the checkpoints wouldn’t let anybody evacuate through Irpin. The only people who could see what was happening on the street were the ones who lived directly on it — and they weren’t even allowed to come out of their basements.” Ukraintseva’s account was corroborated by Bucha residents.
It’s unclear exactly when the killings on Yablonska Street began. A Bucha resident named Natalia Melnichuk evacuated from the city on March 8: that day, a humanitarian corridor had been announced but had never started operating, she said. “We got out by passing through Russian checkpoints on Yablonska Street, then we continued on our own to Irpin,” she said. “We walked from our apartment building past School No. 3 — past dead bodies, we walked through all of these dead bodies. There was a bicyclist who had been shot. We came out at the intersection of Yablonska and Vokzalna. And they [Russian troops] were just standing at the checkpoint and laughing.”
On March 10, an acquaintance of Ukraintseva’s named Vitaly managed to get out of the city. “When he evacuated, those bodies weren’t there yet,” said Ukraintseva. “His house is located such that one of the stretches of road where the bodies later appeared is clearly visible [from the window]. The segment from Yablonska to Vokzalna. Which means they must have appeared on that segment between [March] 10th and the 31st.”
Note: On April 6, the bodies of four more civilians were found near the glass factory in Bucha where, according to local residents, Russian troops had been stationed in March.
How exactly were the civilians killed?
All of the victims whose bodies appeared in photos and videos were dressed in civilian clothing. Many of them had their hands tied behind their backs. The victims included both men and women. Two videos appear to show the murders themselves.
One of the videos, which seems to have been recorded from a distance using a cell phone, shows Russian soldiers standing next to a kneeling person. After some time, the person falls to the ground. The time and the circumstances of the recording are unknown; the person who posted the video claims it was taken on March 25, but this has not been independently confirmed. It is clear, however, that the location shown in the video is the section of Bucha’s Yablonska Street where dead civilians were found with their hands bound.
The second video was recorded from a drone (likely a Ukrainian one). It shows a person on a bicycle moving along Vokzalna Street in Bucha. A convoy of armored vehicles is stationed along the parallel (Vodoprovidna) and perpendicular (Yablonska) streets. At the moment when the cyclist turns onto Yablonska, smoke is emitted from one of the tanks. The person’s body and the bicycle were found in April, at the intersection of Vokzalna and Yablonska Streets.
The main source of information about the events in Bucha is the eyewitness accounts from the city’s residents. Meduza spoke to several of them.
Russian troops and intelligence services in Bucha sought out and detained people they suspected of being saboteurs and artillery gunners, as well as veterans who fought in the war in the Donbas in 2014–2015. Presumably, Russian intelligence officers had a list of former soldiers, Kateryna Ukraintseva told Meduza. “Someone leaked the information about ATO [Donbas war] veterans and their families [to the Russian army]. […] There turned out to be people [Bucha residents] who voluntarily showed them where to look for soldiers and their families, [as well as] simple patriots. One guy was the son of a deceased Donbas veteran; they found him and shot him.”
According to Ukraintseva, when Russian forces started searching apartments, they would check people’s contact lists, messages, and call history. One resident on Vygovskoho Street was killed because they found a weapon in his house, according to one of the man’s relatives who spoke to Ukraintseva.
“They made us get on our knees and started patting us down,” Bucha resident Vyacheslav Kozlovsky told the news outlet Vot Tak. “I had some money on me and I had my watch. They took everything, just like they did to everybody else — they robbed us. They knew who some people were; they would check our documents, and if someone had participated in the ATO or was signed up for the territorial defense forces, they would shoot that person immediately. They checked for tattoos, too — they were searching for ‘Nazis.’ They even shot people who had tattoos of the Ukrainian coat of arms.”
Natalia Melnichuk’s husband, Oleksandr, lived on Tarasivska Street. He stopped responding to her calls on March 16. Natalia hasn’t officially received word of his death, but she suspects Russian troops killed him after finding his work phone during a search of his apartment. “My husband’s neighbors told me that they took his phone away when he was home,” she told Meduza. “They shot him and buried him in the courtyard.”
Alla Nechiporenko’s husband, Ruslan, was killed on March 17. Even when Russian forces had completely occupied the city, Ruslan continued going outside. “He had responsibilities. He might have left the area around our building to visit his parents or to get some groceries,” she said. “There were some older people living in the neighboring building. He would go over there to help them set up their grill and share groceries with them.”
“We knew where the Russian checkpoints were, so we could go up to a certain point, but it was too dangerous to go any further,” said Alla. “But on March 17, we received word that they were giving out humanitarian aid in the Bucha City Council building and that they would create a ‘green corridor.’ And that they wouldn’t just have food, but medicine, too. And my husband decided to go, because he needed something for his blood pressure, plus fuel for the generator we were using to charge our phones.”
Alla said her husband departed on his bicycle, wearing white ribbons on his sleeve and carrying a backpack; the Russian military required people to mark their “civilian status” this way. “Our son [Yury] also had a white ribbon,” Alla said. “My husband and my son decided to go by bicycle.” She heard the rest of the story from her son.
Ruslan and Yury didn’t make it far. As soon as they reached Tarasivska Street, a Russian soldier came walking towards them. “My son said his face was covered with a balaclava, his uniform said ‘Russia,’ and he had headphones on,” said Alla. “They could only see his eyes and part of his nose.”
The soldier told Ruslan and Yury to stop. “They got off of their bikes, put their hands up, and explained that they were going to get humanitarian aid and did not pose a threat,” said Alla. “According to my son, my husband started turning around — just a tiny bit, like this — to see where our son was. And at that moment, the soldier started shooting. Yury said that ‘dad just gasped’ — and then fell face-first towards his son. ‘Dad’s eyes were open, he had already stopped moving.’ The next shots were aimed at my son. Two. The fifth shot was at Yury’s head, but he’d already fallen, so the bullet just went through his hood. The last shot — the sixth — was at my husband’s head. They’d already hit his body.” (Yury escaped with an injured arm.)
Yury lay on the ground and waited. “When I realized the soldier had left, I jumped up and ran,” he told Alla later. Alla doesn’t know for sure why Ruslan and Yury ended up at a new checkpoint instead of a humanitarian corridor. “The previous day [March 17], the Russians suffered casualties as they tried to enter Irpin. My parents even saw [from their window] the battered-up Russian returning — there were a lot of injured soldiers. And then they started moving their posts around. And that meant coming closer to our home.”
On March 19, Alla and her son managed to evacuate from the city. Until the beginning of April, when the Ukrainian authorities and the international media began publishing photos and videos from Bucha, Nechiporenko had no idea how many civilians had died in the city. “No, we weren’t eyewitnesses,” she said. “There was just one burnt car near the railway crossing, and my husband saw a man’s body covered up next to the train station.”
Kremlin lies about the Bucha killings, debunked
1. The bodies ‘weren’t real’
In the initial hours after the photos and videos of the bodies in Bucha appeared on the Internet, pro-government bloggers and journalists in Russia tried to declare them all “fake.” This is easy to disprove.
One popular argument was that one of the victims could be seen “lifting up his arm” in one of the videos (a claim debunked here here). Another argument was that the number of bodies seen on the street was varied in different videos. That’s because Ukrainians began removing bodies from the streets on April 2; this has been documented.
Propagandists used a similar argument to discredit the most detailed video of Ukrainian forces (Special Operations Forces) entering Bucha on April 2. Many claimed there are no bodies visible in the video, which, according to them, means the bodies must have appeared later — when the city was already under Ukrainian control. In reality, two bodies can be seen in the video (at 0:21 and 4:55). Additionally, the video was taken only in the central part of Bucha — far from the site of the mass killings (see our interactive map above).
2. ‘Too much time’ passed before the Ukrainian side reported the mass killings
The Russian authorities and pro-government propagandists ultimately gave up trying to claim the bodies were fake. Instead, they began insisting the victims had died sometime between March 30 (the official date of the Russian army’s retreat from Bucha) and the moment international journalists entered Bucha.
The Russian Defense Ministry has officially stated that Russian troops left Bucha on March 30, and that Russian units in neighboring towns and villages withdrew as well. After that, the Russian military claims, there were no reports of bodies in the streets for four days, which must prove that the story is a “provocation.”
On March 31 and April 1, the Ukrainian military entered all of the towns and localities around Bucha: Vorzel, Nemeshaieve, Hostomel, Borodyanka, and Ivankiv, where the Russian military had set up their main base in the area. This suggests that it’s true that Russian troops left Bucha on March 30.
But according to data from the Ukrainian military, Russian troops didn’t completely leave the area surrounding Bucha until April 1. “On March 31, Bucha was still an active combat zone,” Ukrainian Presidential Advisor Oleksiy Arestovych told Meduza. “Even as of April 3, Bucha wasn’t considered a combat-free zone. They were still looking for saboteurs, there were special rules in place, a curfew, etc.”
Still, if you look at photos taken in the center of Bucha that were published on March 31, the streets are empty and there are no soldiers visible — just the odd civilian. On April 1, Bucha mayor Anatoly Fedoruk announced that Bucha had been liberated the previous day. That same day, the mayor of Irpin brought humanitarian aid to Stekolka.
Arestovych didn’t consider the lack of earlier reports from the Ukrainian military about bodies in the streets as a contradiction. “Soldiers fighting in the streets certainly aren’t taking photos and videos — they’re at war against their opponents.” On the other hand, the “police officers and citizens who came in after the soldiers [on April 2], had time to record the awful evidence of the atrocities.”
In fact, documented evidence of the killings actually appeared even earlier. The first video of civilian bodies on Yablonska Street was published on Ukrainian Telegram channels on the evening of April 1. Meduza was unable to determine who recorded the video, but it was likely taken earlier that same day. This means that less than a day and a half passed between Russian forces’ retreat from Bucha and the first evidence of bodies in the streets (compared to four days, as the Russian authorities claimed).
On April 2, Ukrainian law enforcement officers entered the city and recorded footage of the streets, but didn’t show the bodies on Yablonska. The same day, however, both a Ukrainian journalist who went into the city with the officers and Ukrainian TV host Dmitriy Komarov reported seeing the bodies. Komarov later posted photos he had taken that day. On the evening of April 2 and April 3, the bodies were shown to groups of foreign journalists, at which point the events in Bucha became well-known throughout the world.
In any case, Maxar Technologies, a company that collects satellite images, provided photos from March 11 that show the bodies of at least 11 people on Yablonska Street lying exactly where they were found in early April. Maxar images from March 21 show three more bodies, also lying exactly where they were later found.
3. The victims’ bodies were ‘fresh’
The Russian Defense Ministry has claimed that the bodies in the photographs “have not stiffened, don’t have the cadaveric spots characteristic of dead bodies, and don’t have clotted blood in [their] wounds” and therefore must be “fresh,” implying that the victims were killed after Russian troops had left the city. This argument doesn’t hold water.
- Rigor mortis begins within an hour or two of death, fully sets in after about 12 hours, lasts about 12 hours, then gradually subsides within 12 hours. A full day after a person’s death, the effects of rigor mortis can be completely imperceptible from the outside. Air temperature also plays a role in how long each of these steps takes — the process takes longer in lower temperatures. On all of the days in question, the temperature in Bucha was above freezing (and even higher during the day). It’s possible that the Russian Defense Ministry was referring to this video in the statement about rigor mortis. But exactly what stage of rigor mortis a given body is in can only be determined by a medical examiner, who can check the mobility of various joints. A single video is not enough to determine how long a person has been dead. Still, Meduza asked an independent forensic expert who often does work related to war crimes to take a look at the video (he asked to remain anonymous). The expert said signs of rigor mortis are discernible.
- Cadaveric spots (changes in skin color, usually purple or red, which the Russian Defense Ministry claimed are not visible in the photographs) appear in the initial hours after death on lower parts of the body that are not exposed to pressure. In other words, on the body of a person lying on their back on a flat service, the spots are most likely to appear on the lower back, the upper back, and the backs of the thighs, though not on the buttocks or shoulder blades. This means that cadaveric spots may be visible if a body is turned over and the clothing is removed (though they also might not appear at all if a person has lost a lot of blood). One of the photos from Bucha shows an unclothed person who has been turned over. According to the forensic expert Meduza spoke to, cadaveric spots are visible on the body.
Click below to see photos of the body. Readers may find these images upsetting.
- Contrary to the Russian Defense Ministry’s statement, Meduza was unable to find any photos or videos of bodies with “unclotted blood in [their] wounds.” The lack of blood around the bodies, according to the forensic expert Meduza spoke to, may be due to rain: puddles and wet asphalt can be seen in the photos.
4. The victims were killed by Ukrainian ‘neo-Nazis’
The Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that the victims found on Yablonska Street were “killed by nationalists from Serhii Korotkykh’s group”(Serhii “Botsman” Korotkykh is a Belarusian neo-Nazi, who fought in Ukraine’s far-right Azov Battalion and went on to become a Ukrainian police official). Korotkykh’s combat group, the newspaper claimed, entered Bucha after Russian troops had left the city and killed everyone it considered collaborators.
To prove the nationalists’ alleged guilt, pro-Kremlin journalists posted a video from the Telegram channel “Botsman” that shows members of his combat group walking around Bucha and discussing whether to shoot people without blue armbands (which Ukrainian soldiers wear to distinguish themselves).
It’s true that Korotkykh’s group was in Bucha after Russian troops left. Members of the group filmed the video on Vokzalna Street, where Russian military vehicles that were destroyed by Ukrainian artillery fire in early March are still standing. The area where the bodies lay on Yablonska Street is less than 500 meters (547 yards) away.
However, Sergey Korotkykh himself told Meduza that the video was filmed on April 2, when Ukrainian police officers and journalists had already entered the city. To prove the claim, Korotkykh sent the video’s metadata, including a timestamp: 1:47 p.m. on April 2. Recall that the first video showing the victims’ bodies appeared on the evening of April 1 and was filmed earlier that day.
Korotkykh himself didn’t go to Bucha, he told Meduza; the video was taken by two of his subordinates, who were just passing through the town. “We don’t know Bucha very well; we went in at the very end,” said Korotkykh. “Most of our work was in Irpin.”
None of the group saw any of the fighting in Bucha, one of Korotkykh’s subordinates from the video told Meduza. In addition to the video they posted on Telegram, the two men also took some footage of the bodies on Yablonska Street, but ultimately decided not to post it. “I didn’t count the number of dead people, but there were really a lot of them. I didn’t have a notepad to count them all. There were dead people, burnt equipment, ruins! I don’t know how to explain it to you. It was like a nightmare — like something from the movie ‘Purgatory.’ Have you seen it?” said one of the men.
In any case, all of the available evidence indicates that by the time the nationalists entered the city, the civilians had already been killed.
What’s this Kremlin propaganda supposed to achieve?
All of the “alternative” versions of the events in Bucha described above were listed by Vasily Nebenzya, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, at the UN Security Council meeting on April 5. He even referred to Meduza’s interview with Kateryna Ukraintseva. According to Nebenzya, Ukraintseva “admitted that Russian troops didn’t shoot anyone in her presence” and confirmed that “Ukrainian officials were responsible for the major violations.” Nebenzya appears to have gotten his information from the pro-government Telegram channel “The War on Fakes,” which attributed words to Ukraintseva that she never said (original quote: “The ones lying on Yablonska died as a result of random shooting”; quote from the “War of Fakes” Telegram channel: “The ones lying on Yablonska died as a result of random shooting by the Ukrainian Armed Forces”). The real interview with Ukraintseva corroborates other evidence that Russian soldiers are responsible for killing Ukrainian civilians in Bucha.
It’s clear that the Kremlin’s propagandists are trying to use the exact same playbook they used after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in the Donbas in 2014. Immediately after the incident it wants to obscure, the Russian government puts forth a series of “alternative” explanations that contradict even one another (“Nobody actually died”; “Ukrainians themselves killed the civilians”). The goal is simple: to sow doubt and portray the truth as just one of a number of possible explanations. Manipulating public opinion using this method is easier in Russia than in the West, because in Russia, the Kremlin controls all of the major media outlets.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian authorities have said that Bucha was not the only site of a civilian massacre in the Kyiv region. According to Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova, the area affected worst of all was the village of Bodoryanka. The Ukrainian authorities reported that at least 200 people in Bodoryanka and 400 people in nearby Hostomel disappeared during the Russian occupation.