What happened in Bucha? Evidence of massacre in Ukraine town, Russia’s claims, war crime allegations explained

Ukraine has accused Russia of war crimes in Bucha, a town north-west of Kyiv

Russian forces retreating from Bucha, a town north-west of Ukraine’s capital city Kyiv, has revealed the scale of civilian casualties.

Bodies of unarmed Ukrainian civilians and mass graves were found on Sunday (3 April), many with their hands tied behind their backs.

Ukraine has accused Russia of war crimes in the town, with their President Volodymyr Zelenskyy describing the evidence emerging as “genocide”. The UN Security Council meeting on Tuesday (5 April) will discuss potential war crimes by Russian forces.

Locals have reported that civilians had been killed without provocation with claims also emerging that Russian forces used Ukrainian children as human shields.

Here is everything you need to know about what happened in Bucha, the war crimes Russia has been accused of committing, and the international response so far – though please note that there is discussion of potentially disturbing details of the conflict.

What happened in Bucha?

Bucha was one of the first areas outside of Kyiv invaded by Russia in March 2022. Russia held the town for around a month, retreating at the beginning of April.

As Ukrainian forces have entered the newly-liberated town, there have been accusations that the Russian forces committed war crimes in Bucha.

Initial reports from Reuters described a “trail of dead civilians” left behind by the Russian army.

Residents of Bucha described their neighbours being shot without provocation; while that claim could not be independently verified, journalists from the Associated Press confirmed they had seen at least nine people in civilian clothes who appeared to have been killed at close range.

There have also been reports of mass graves, with journalists describing visceral scenes of hasty burials.

This is potentially in contravention of the Geneva Convention, wartime rules that mandate that burial or cremation of the dead is “carried out individually as far as circumstances permit”.

Ukrainian forces have been unable to collect the bodies for fear that they may have been booby-trapped, and have been using cables to clear some bodies from a distance.

David DesRoches, a professor at the National Defence University in Washington, told Al Jazeera that “placement of booby-traps and placement of mines are clear violations of the law of warfare.”

The Guardian reported that retreating Russian forces had used local children as human shields. Lyudmila Denisova, Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman, said that “cases of using children as cover are recorded in Sumy, Kyiv, Chernihiv, Zaporizhzhia oblasts [regions].”

Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, described Bucha like a “scene from a horror movie”.

He went on to say that some civilians were shot in the head and had their hands bound, and other bodies showed signs of torture, rape, and burning.

How many people died in Bucha?

Mayor of Bucha Anatoliy Fedoruk said that more than 300 residents of the town had been killed.

However, other sources have suggested that there are casualties in excess of 400 people.

Has Russia committed a war crime in Bucha?

Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said she was “horrified” and that the images from Bucha raise “serious and disturbing questions about possible war crimes, grave breaches of international humanitarian law and serious violations of international human rights law”.

Members of the UN Security Council will meet on Tuesday (5 April), when Ukraine’s President Mr Zelenskyy claims war crime prosecutions will be discussed.

The UN definition of a war crime is a serious breach of international humanitarian law committed against civilians or “enemy combatants” during an armed conflict.

Professor Michael Clarke, a military analyst and former director-general of the security think tank RUSI, told Sky News that the Russian attack on Bucha could easily fit the criteria for a war crime.

Sergey Nikiforov, a spokesperson for Zelensky, described “people with their hands and with their legs tied up… and with shots, bullet holes, in the back of their head. They were clearly civilians and they were executed.”

“We found half-burned bodies as if somebody tried to hide their crimes but they didn’t have enough time to do it properly.”

When asked if this constituted war crimes, Nikiforov replied “it looks, I have to be careful with my wording, but it looks exactly like war crimes.”

Colonel Oleksandr Motuzyanyk, spokesman for Ukraine’s ministry of defence, issued a statement about accusations that Russia has taken child hostages, commenting that “there have been cases of brutal behaviour against minors been recorded, documented by a Ukrainian and international institutions.”

“We’d like to emphasise that information in each and every case will be given to the national criminal courts and the occupiers will be brought to justice for each and every military and war crime they commit.”

How has the international community responded?

UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has called for Russia to be investigated for war crimes, saying that “the UK will fully support any investigations by the International Criminal Court, in its role as the primary institution with the mandate to investigate and prosecute war crimes.”

“Indiscriminate attacks against innocent civilians during Russia’s illegal and unjustified invasion of Ukraine must be investigated as war crimes,” continued Truss. “We will not allow Russia to cover up their involvement in these atrocities through cynical disinformation and will ensure that the reality of Russia’s actions are brought to light.”

Speaking to reporters on Monday (4 April), the US president Joe Biden was asked if genocide had been committed.

He replied: “No, I think it’s a war crime.”

What has Russia said?

The Kremlin has denied any accusations related to the murder of civilians in Bucha and warned Ukrainian allegations on the matter should be treated with doubt.

Russia’s defence ministry has claimed that “not a single civilian” in Bucha faced any unprovoked, violent military action.

They said the images of dead bodies in the town have been “stage managed by the Kyiv regime for the Western media”.

Moscow’s first deputy envoy to the UN, Dmitry Polansky, described what happened in Bucha as a “blatant provocation by Ukrainian radicals” and has called for a meeting with the UN this week.

Russia has repeatedly denied any war crimes in Ukraine and have maintained that they have not targeted Ukrainian civilians.

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