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The body of a civilian resident of Bucha, April 5, 2022

‘I could go on and on’ Photojournalist Heidi Levine on what she saw in Bucha in the days after its liberation

Source: Meduza
The body of a civilian resident of Bucha, April 5, 2022
The body of a civilian resident of Bucha, April 5, 2022
Heidi Levine / SIPA Press / Scanpix / LETA

One year ago, on April 1, 2022, the world saw the first photographic evidence of the mass murder and torture of civilians in Bucha, Ukraine. Footage from the small town outside of Kyiv shocked the world, and became an important symbol of Russia’s brutality during its war on Ukraine. Evidence of the violence of the occupation also became a point of no return between the two nations, which were previously often described as “neighborly” and “brotherly.” Photographer Heidi Levine was one of the first journalists to enter Bucha after its liberation. Meduza special correspondent Lilia Yapparova spoke to Levine about what she saw in Bucha. Levin’s photos accompany the text. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Heidi Levine, photojournalist
Warning: This article contains graphic images of dead bodies and other consequences of war.

Where were you at the beginning of the war?

This was my first time in Ukraine. I'm based in Israel, so I've been covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East for the last 35 plus years. I have covered the Balkans, and I was in Kosovo, but I was also in Georgia when Russia invaded [in 2008]. [I got to Kyiv] just four days before the war started.

[Early in the morning of February 24], a colleague and I were in Kyiv, so we went to the roof of the hotel to see if we could see anything. It was still dark because the war started in the early morning of the 24th, and we couldn’t see anything at that moment because it was dark. We used the stairs because we were afraid to use the elevator in case the power went out.

In the beginning, we were in Kyiv. On the second day of the war, in Kyiv, there was a Russian missile strike on a residential building that was badly destroyed, so I covered that. And then came, of course, funerals.

I covered maternity hospitals that were underground in the basement, because it wasn't safe to remain in the ward. I went to a children's hospital that was really shocking, where, again, they had moved the ward to the basement. Some mothers were holding sick children who were too sick to sit up.

There was a lot of panic, including amongst the media, because we weren’t sure whether or not this convoy of Russian tanks was actually going to succeed and reach Kyiv. There was talk of having to evacuate, if that was the case, and [we didn’t know where] media would evacuate.

Women and children in the basement of a Kyiv hospital, March 1, 2022
Heidi Levine / The Washington Post / Sipa Press / Scanpix / LETA

When did you start to focus on what was happening in Bucha?

You could see evidence of a battle, you could hear it in the distance, you could see the smoke. So we knew that something very bad was happening, but we just couldn't get in at the time, which was very frustrating. We were seeing people fleeing over the Irpin Bridge, and we were interviewing a lot of people who were fleeing, who were telling us that the situation was terrible. I don't think any of us at the time realized how bad the situation was. We knew it was bad, but I think everybody was very, very shocked once they had access to Bucha. I mean, it was a massacre.

People fleeing Bucha and Irpin, March 10, 2022
Heidi Levine / The Washington Post / Sipa Press / Scanpix / LETA

At the [outskirts] of Irpin in the direction of Bucha, I saw a woman holding a white flag. She was crying. [I saw people] with their pet dogs. You could see that the people were very frightened and that they were running from hell.

What did you see when you managed to get into Bucha?

You could see that there was a fierce fight. Most of the images I took could never be published because they're too shocking.

On the highway [leading into the city] we saw a lot of dead Russian soldiers by destroyed vehicles. [In one picture] you can see part of a body, the corpse’s brain. I also saw [a civilian’s] body next to the road. It looked like the man must have been trying to bring back food supplies because his body is scattered, lying in the middle of all these bags and boxes.

The body of a resident of the village of Moshchun, March 30, 2022
Heidi Levine / The Washington Post / Sipa Press / Scanpix / LETA
A building destroyed in combat in Moshchun, March 20, 2022
Heidi Levine / Sipa Press / Vida Press

You could smell burnt flesh. I was shocked by the sight of a family probably [hit in] a missile strike. They were burnt beyond recognition. You could just see their shapes, the bodies were completely charred.

I have seen a lot of dead people in my career. And sometimes the body looks almost beautiful in the sense that it kind of looks like the person is at peace. But the people in Bucha, you could see on their face, if their head was still there, that they had been tortured. It wasn’t just a matter of being shot. It was worse. You could see all the suffering they experienced in their last moments.

What was your work like in the first days after the city was liberated?

At that time, it was really, really dangerous. Most of the time that a body was found, the Ukrainians would first come in to try to demine the body. They did find bodies [that had been] booby-trapped.

You have to go looking. You don't always know where you're going to find. A lot of us were trying to be helpful and share information. Sometimes I would run into a colleague I knew, and he would tell me, “Go down the street and enter the green gate on the right-hand side.” Or if I had been somewhere and I saw someone, I would also share the information. It took days and weeks of discovering places where bodies were. I know that there are still lots of people who are still missing. Sometimes somebody saw a body and, out of respect to that person, buried them somewhere. Bucha is a very wooded area, so it's difficult to comb through every single meter of the city and surrounding areas.

I think one of the most shocking images I saw was a body, a corpse that had been decapitated, and the head was near the body. There was another body close by and you could tell that there was an attempt to decapitate the body, but they must have given up. The neck had been cut, and something must have happened to stop them, or they just gave up. I don't know.

What happened in Bucha

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What happened in Bucha

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The Washington Post ran the picture of the decapitated corpse online, but they didn't run it in print. There was a big meeting about it, and of course, it was good that they ran it online. It would have been good to also run it in print, but there was a decision higher up made that it was too graphic.

We were told that a Russian soldier had come to this man, whose name I don’t believe we knew at the time, earlier in the day. [The soldier] was telling him about his own family and being kind of friendly, and then later came back drunk and killed him and decapitated him.

We were trying to reconstruct, by speaking with people, what happened [during the Russian occupation], which led us to discovering other bodies. People were showing us, “In this shed, they held people and they were killed underneath. In this shed, people were killed.” There was a man that they had buried, so they took us to the spot and then we told the police and the police exhumed the body.

Did you see the locations of Russian bases inside the city?

One looked like a massacre. There were two men [lying] where they were killed. They almost looked like they were trying to comfort each other in death. I counted eight men [who] had been shot behind the building where the Russians had had a base. Some of the bodies had been badly bruised. 

The bodies of eight Bucha residents executed by the Russian military, April 3, 2022
Heidi Levine / The Washington Post / Sipa Press / Scanpix / LETA

I was with one woman, her name was Victoria Verda, 44 years old, when she was taken to the site of what was believed to be a torture chamber where her husband, Demitri, and others were killed. Their bodies had already been taken away from the site when she was brought there. It was dark. The police used a flashlight. You can see on the ground there are stones and there's blood. She started to cry. She really wanted to be at the site to see for herself where her husband had died.

There was lots and lots of alcohol bottles in the building where the Russian troops had been based. You just can't help but wonder what goes through someone's mind to do what they did. I don't know if they were drunk or on drugs, but when we would go into a building where the Russians had been living, it didn't even look like humans had been there.

What did people who survived the occupation tell you?

When we got into the middle of the city, in the residential area, it was freezing and snowing, but people were outside their homes, their homes were destroyed. We spoke to people who told us how Russian soldiers threatened to shoot them, even children.

One woman, Larisa Savienko, was screaming outside her home, holding her fists up, and she told us how the Russians had first arrived in her neighborhood on February 27. A Russian armored vehicle was parked in her garden for three days, from March 5 to March 7. She said that five gunmen entered her house. “The Russians told us that we were lucky to have them because other Russian troops would have already shot them,” she told us.

She said the Russians kicked her neighbors out of their house at night and lived there. The neighbors had to stay in their animal stable for a couple of nights with three dogs, five cats, and three people. Larisa said, “The gunfire did not stop for a moment.” 

Another man, Andrey Zabarilo, was telling us how the Russians tried to take away a neighbor’s son. The Russians had told [the neighbor] and others to lie down and threatened them with a mock execution to scare them. It was like psychological torture.

Ukrainian soldiers in liberated Bucha, April 3, 2022
Heidi Levine / The Washington Post / Sipa Press / Scanpix / LETA

How did Bucha residents bury their dead in those conditions?

They improvised. They used what they had instead of a tombstone. [On one grave] there are two slabs of cement over the blanket, and a teapot on top. People were trying to show some care. I think they're also trying to protect the grave from so many stray dogs that are running around.

Someone showed me a grave where they had buried someone, and then an airstrike hit the grave and exposed part of the body.

What happened when mass graves were discovered after the city’s liberation?

The smell was horrific. It's a very, very long process. It takes a lot of time. They try to take the bodies out without damaging them more. It was freezing. I don't know what to say. It's horrible. 

A mass grave at the Church of St. Andrew Pervozvannoho in Bucha, April 5, 2022
Removing bodies from a mass grave in Bucha, April 8, 2022
Heidi Levine / Sipa Press / Vida Press

I was honestly completely shocked. It reminded me of the images from World War II. That’s the worst reference you can imagine. When you’re at school and you see these photos, you never expect to see anything [like it] in your own lifetime. It just shows that we have not learned anything. Putin is still doing it. Nobody’s able to stop him. Sanctions maybe have hurt. The ICC has just issued a warrant for his arrest, but will somebody arrest him? Probably not.

Does it help to know that your photographs, and your colleagues’ work, has helped Ukraine attain unprecedented levels of international support?

I have, from the very beginning, believed that Bucha was going to be symbolic and remain symbolic, even though there are so many other places that also suffered horrific crimes against humanity. But it’s almost a year later and the war is still going on, images haven’t stopped it.

I have to say, sometimes I feel like I wish I never took them. Because, ultimately, I wish it all never happened.

Interview by Lilia Yapparova

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