Story #108. The History of Bucha: An Activist Documents Russian Atrocities

August 25, 2023
The tragedy of Bucha through the lens of a civic activist who documented the crimes of the Russian army.

Ihor Bartkiv is the civic activist and the head of the archival department of the Bucha City Council.

From the very first days of the full-scale invasion, despite the mortal risk, Ihor began documenting Russian crimes in Bucha in February-March 2022.

All the photos, videos, and testimonies became part of the crucial projects  Russian Aggression during the Occupation in the Bucha Community and The History of Bucha.

Ihor Bartkiv spoke to UkraineWorld about his memories of the beginning of the war and life under occupation.

"Everyone hoped that the war would end fast. A few days after the start of the full-scale invasion, the first battle took place on Vokzalna Street, which showed that the Russians were not invincible. It gave many people hope."

On March 5, the city had no water, gas, or electricity. At the time, Ihor was checking the condition of bomb shelters and providing humanitarian aid in Bucha and Blystavets, a nearby village.

Ihor Bartkiv talks with locals

According to Ihor, local residents were actively signing up for the Territorial Defense, but there were not enough weapons.

Most volunteers had no military experience. However, everyone did what they could. Some provided  humanitarian aid, while others carried out reconnaissance for the military.

It was early spring, so it was cold, and many people got sick. Covid was still spreading. The Russians were shelling the city. It was unclear how to bury the dead in these conditions.

"The Russian military entered the city. There were clashes and they retreated back to their positions. However, they still managed to capture the city, and Bucha was under occupation beginning March 3.

The Russians blocked all exits and entrances. Civilians struggled to evacuate. The Russians deceived people. Some locals got on buses and were taken to Belarus and then to Russia.

As far as I know, about 46 families were sent to Russia. People who tried to evacuate in their cars came under enemy fire. At the intersection of Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel, where the 13250 truck stop is located, there were about 120 evacuation buses.

None of the buses managed to leave, as they were fired upon. Some people were escaping on foot."

The main defense was concentrated in Irpin [5 km from Bucha], given its hilly terrain and rivers, which served as a kind of obstacle. The ground near the rivers is also too soft to support heavy military equipment. The defense of Bucha was more difficult, and the city became a focal point for constant shelling.

"From the very first day, rumors about the deaths of friends began to spread around the city, and people were warned not to go out to avoid being shot at. The townspeople started to self-organize. They set up field kitchens in the yards near their homes."

Ihor Bartkiv felt a duty to begin documenting  everything that was happening in the city. Despite the high concentration of Russian troops in Bucha, he took risks to take photos and videos that documented the oppression of the occupiers.

"I believe I was walking under God. If they had found my phone with these photos, I would have been shot."

"At some point, you stop paying attention to the pictures of dead people lying in the middle of the street. You get used to it," Ihor says.

At the time of Bucha's liberation, Ihor Bartkiv had taken about 300 photographs, including videos.

May 3, 2022. Bucha

"After Bucha was liberated and we returned to our offices, we had almost none of the necessary equipment, because things had been stolen or damaged by the Russians."

To be able to collect the documented evidence of Russian aggression in one place, Ihor and other employees of the archives department applied for a grant and eventually received funding.

Now the Story of Bucha project has a functioning website that is constantly updated. It contains photos, videos, interviews, documents, criminal case files, and journalistic investigations documenting Russia's criminal actions in the Bucha community.

"When you look through all these photos and videos of the dead, it is difficult. But we want to spread this information, and that's what we continue to do."

The archive now contains about 9,000 photos, more than 1,000 videos, more than 400 text documents and media references.

"To a certain extent, by covering what happened in Bucha, we are trying to help other settlements under occupation. We want to make people realize that it is better to evacuate whenever possible."

Ihor says that now he has to reconstruct the story of Bucha and collect its fragments. Bucha is a small town with a population of about 40,000, but it was dangerous to move around the city during the occupation, so people could not communicate with each other.

Now the Bucha archives department team is collecting witness testimonies. Ihor adds that people generally do not wish to bring up traumatic memories of the occupation and want to "forget it all, like a bad dream."

"People died, and women even gave birth in these conditions. There are many stories."

Foreign journalists and law enforcement agencies have visited the city, so Ihor and the local community hope that the story of Bucha will be covered properly everywhere.

It is difficult to track the exact number of dead. 200-300 people are still missing. The city is still working to identify bodies.

The Russian military burned Bucha's dead to destroy evidence of their atrocities. However, as of the end of August this year, about 510 victims of the massacre have been established. Another 70 bodies buried in the local cemetery remain unidentified.

According to Ihor, many bodies are still being found. From time to time, Territorial Defense troops have carried out search operations in the forest and found graves. People returning from captivity have also pointed out execution sites.

Some Bucha residents remain in captivity. Ihor adds that the Russian military even kidnapped elderly people in their 60s and 70s, calling them Nazis.

"In cooperation with the police, we are trying to make a map that will mark the places where people were killed. However, this process is slow, because it is difficult to track exactly where each person was killed, when, and under what conditions.

It is extremely difficult to work on this topic and to relive it all again. Now I am no longer able to look at the photos of the victims, because I remember their names. Sometimes I have to talk to their relatives. I don't have the experience to do this, but I understand that it is necessary, says Ihor.

Victory still lies ahead. After victory, we will go to court."

Bucha. Ruins. May 5, 2022

In addition to the Story of Bucha project, the Archival Department of the Bucha City Council created a compendium called the Collection of Documents of the Russian Aggression during the Occupation of  the Bucha Community, which contains text, photo, and video documents, with special attention paid to witness testimonies of the occupation, searching for and identifying those killed during the occupation, and highlighting the Russian war criminals.

The Bucha City Council also approved the program Memory for the Future, which will  expand the world's understanding of the events of Russia's war against Ukraine.

Apart from the program, the activists plan to create a number of registers that will record the death toll, missing persons, kidnapped residents of Bucha, Russian war criminals, and the damage caused to the city.

The activists are considering publishing books on the harrowing history of Bucha. Therefore, they are looking for support for their vital mission of preserving the memory of the occupation and sharing its stories of pain, loss, and violent death, in the hope that after the war, the Russian perpetrators will be held accountable for their crimes.

Nika Krychovska
Journalist at UkraineWorld