BUCHA, Ukraine (AP) — The lush green beauty of a pine forest and singing birds contrasted with the violent deaths of newly discovered victims of Russia’s war in Ukraine, as workers exhumed bodies from another burial site near Bucha on Kyiv’s outskirts.
The hands of several victims were tied behind their backs. The gruesome work of digging up the remains coincided with the Ukrainian police chief’s report that authorities have opened criminal investigations into the killings of more than 12,000 people during Russia’s war.
Workers in white hazmat suits and wearing masks used shovels to exhume bodies from the soil of the forest, marking each section with small yellow numbered signs on the ground. The victims, covered in cloth and dirt, attracted flies and were dragged by rope.
“Shots to the knees tell us that victims were tortured,” said Andriy Nebytov, head of the Kyiv regional police. “The hands tied behind the back with tape say that people had been held (hostage) for a long time and (enemy forces) tried to get any information from them.”
Since the withdrawal of Russian troops from the region at the end of March, the authorities say they have uncovered the bodies of 1,316 victims.
One site reporters saw near Bucha on Monday was a mass grave, where the horrors of the killings shocked the world after a regional Russian withdrawal earlier in the war. Reporters on Monday saw a mass grave just behind a trench dug out for a military vehicle. The bodies of seven civilians were retrieved from the mass grave. Two of the bodies were found with their hands tied and gunshot wounds to the knees and the head, Nebytov said.
National police chief Igor Klimenko told the Interfax-Ukraine news agency on Monday that criminal investigations into the deaths of more than 12,000 Ukrainians included some found in mass graves. He said the mass killings of people resulted from snipers firing from tanks and armored personnel carriers. Bodies were found lying on streets and in their homes, as well as in mass graves. He didn’t specify how many of the more than 12,000 were civilian and military.
Complete information about the number of bodies in mass graves or elsewhere isn’t known, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the American Jewish Committee on Sunday. He cited the killings of two children who died with their parents in the basement of an apartment building in Mariupol in a Russian bombing.
Zelenskyy, who is Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust, asked:
“Why is this happening in 2022? This is not the 1940s. How could mass killings, torture, burned cities, and filtration camps set up by the Russian military in the occupied territories resembling Nazi concentration camps come true?”
Amnesty International, in a report Monday, accused Russia of indiscriminate use of banned cluster munitions in strikes on Kharkiv, killing and wounding hundreds of civilians.
Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, has been subject to intensive shelling since Russian began attacking Ukraine.
“People have been killed in their homes and in the streets, in playgrounds and in cemeteries, while queueing for humanitarian aid or shopping for food and medicine,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior crisis Response adviser.
“The repeated use of widely banned cluster munitions is shocking, and a further indication of utter disregard for civilian lives. The Russian forces responsible for these horrific attacks must be held accountable for their actions, and victims and their families must receive full reparations,” she added.
The group said it found evidence of Russian forces repeatedly using 9N210/9N235 cluster munitions as well as scatter mines, “both of which are subject to international treaty bans because of their indiscriminate effects.” The report cited doctors in Kharkiv hospitals, who showed researchers distinctive fragments they had removed from patients’ bodies, as well as survivors and witnesses of the attacks.
The Russian military said Monday it destroyed “a large number of weapons and military equipment” the Ukrainian forces had received from the U.S. and Europe.
Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said “high-precision air-launched missiles” hit the supplies near the Udachna railway station in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine. Konashenkov also said that “a temporary deployment point for foreign mercenaries” and a Ukrainian radar station of the Buk-M1 anti-aircraft missile system were destroyed in the neighboring Luhansk region.
Two batteries of multiple launch rocket systems were destroyed in the Luhansk and the Kharkiv regions, Konashenkov said.
Luhansk governor Serhiy Haidai told The Associated Press that fierce street fighting continued Monday in Sievierodonetsk, one of two large cities in the region still to be fully captured by Russian troops.
Haidai noted that the Russians currently control about 70% of the city, and Ukrainian forces are fighting them “block by block, street by street, house by house with a varying degree of success.”
More than 10,000 people remain in the city, the key focus of the fighting in the Donbas. Haidai said that efforts to evacuate them have been halted because Russian troops destroyed two of three bridges connecting Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, the second city in Luhansk not yet overrun by Moscow. The remaining bridge is old, decrepit and unsafe, the governor said.
Lysychansk remains under Ukrainian control, but is regularly shelled by the Russian forces. On Sunday, Haidai said, the shelling killed three civilians in the city, including a 6-year-old boy.
Eduard Basurin, an official of the Russia-backed separatists forces in Donetsk, claimed Monday that Sievierodonetsk has been blocked off and Ukrainian fighters have no choice but to surrender. Haidai dismissed the claim as “a lie.”
“There is no threat of our troops being encircled in the Luhansk region,” he said.
Russia-backed separatists in the Donetsk region said Monday that the Ukrainian forces shelled a market in the city of Donetsk, killing three civilians and injuring 18 more.
The Dutch government says it will host a ministerial conference next month on accountability in Ukraine aimed at strengthening and coordinating war crimes investigations.
Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said in a statement Monday that the international community already has taken swift action to investigate alleged atrocities in Ukraine, and there is “an urgent need to further coordinate existing efforts on this front, so that all actions aimed at delivering justice benefit from a coherent and effective approach.”
The July 14 meeting in The Hague will be hosted by the Dutch government, International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim Khan and European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders.
Khan already has launched an investigation in Ukraine and deployed his largest ever team of prosecutors to the country to gather evidence, including to Bucha, near the capital Kyiv, where bodies littered the streets after Russian forces retreated from the area early in the war.
The Dutch foreign ministry said the conference “will provide the opportunity for states and other partners to present their efforts and detail a plan for collective action to ensure that gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law do not go unpunished.”
The ICC and European Union judicial cooperation agency Eurojust will use the conference to lay out guidelines for gathering and storing evidence by governments and for collaboration with nongovernmental organizations.