Ukraine and Western countries have accused Russia of committing war crimes in Ukraine ever since hundreds of bodies were found around Kyiv following the withdrawal of Russian forces from the area.
A team of AFP journalists saw 20 bodies on Yablunska (Apple Tree) Street in Bucha on April 2, after Russian forces left the town.
In the weeks that followed, reporters spoke to dozens of witnesses, consulted death certificates and obtained a list of all the bodies found in the city – sometimes including details of how they died.
Here is what we know about the events in Bucha that sparked an international outcry and prompted the West to harshen its sanctions against Russia and boost military aid supplies to Ukraine.
Pleasant suburb devastated
Before the start of the Russian invasion on February 24, Bucha was a family-friendly suburb of Kyiv with around 37,000 inhabitants.
Surrounded by pine forest, it is located around 30 kilometres (19 miles) northwest of the capital.
Since the first days of the invasion, like Irpin and other areas around Kyiv, it saw fierce fighting.
The Russian army first arrived on February 27 but only fully took control on March 5, according to Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental organisation that carried out an investigation there.
Ukrainian authorities had carried out several civilian evacuations before this date.
It is estimated that around 4,000 inhabitants were left when Russian forces took over.
Following the withdrawal of Russian forces on March 31, the mayor of Bucha, Anatoliy Fedoruk announced on April 1 that the city had been ‘liberated’.
A photo shows massive destruction in the area of conflict at the Bucha town after it was liberated from Russian army in Ukraine on April 4, 2022
First macabre discoveries
AFP journalists arrived in Bucha the following day.
Looking around the devastated town, they discovered Yablunska Street, one of the longest thoroughfares in Bucha, with 20 bodies in civilian clothing scattered over several hundred metres.
One man had fallen onto his bike, another still had a shopping bag in his hand. Yet another man was seen with his hands tied behind his back.
At least two of them appeared to have head wounds.
The bodies looked like they had been on the ground for at least several days.
How many dead?
During the month-long occupation by Russian forces, two large mass graves were created to temporarily bury the bodies since the city’s three cemeteries were inaccessible because of the fighting.
Following the withdrawal of Russian forces – some 400 bodies were found – either in the mass graves or buried in gardens or sometimes lying out in the open, according to local police chief Vitaly Lobas.
Lobas on April 20 said ‘around 25 percent’ remained unidentified, and the majority had been shot dead.
AFP saw a mass grave behind a church on April 3. It contained more than 80 bodies, the police said.
There were similar scenes in other areas in the Kyiv region that were occupied by Russian forces.
In the region as a whole, more than 1,000 civilian bodies have been found, according to Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Olga Stefanishyna.
On April 4, two days after pictures of the Yablunska dead first appeared in the media, President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the site.
‘These are war crimes and it will be recognised by the world as genocide,’ he said.
On April 13, International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan said while visiting Bucha that a forensic team would be working there, and that Ukraine as a whole was a ‘crime scene’.
Khan said on April 25 that investigators would work with a joint investigation team formed by Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine and supported by Eurojust, the EU’s judicial cooperation agency, to facilitate the collection of evidence.
Human Rights Watch said its own investigation had uncovered evidence of ‘summary executions, other unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, and torture, all of which would constitute war crimes and potential crimes against humanity’.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that its investigators during a mission to Bucha on April 9 documented the death of 50 civilians, including by summary execution.
France has also sent a team of 18 experts from the forensic department of the national gendarmerie.
A Ukrainian soldier is seen on a street, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, in the town of Bucha, outside Kyiv, Ukraine, April 4, 2022
Just hours after the first images of the bodies on Yablunska Street were published, the Russian army said the scene had been staged, claiming that two bodies could be seen moving in a video.
An AFP team which photographed and filmed the two bodies in the same place and position as in the widely shared video was able to view it at a higher quality than the one used by the Russian army and found that the bodies were not moving.
Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Ukraine of ‘crude and cynical provocations’ while Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that Ukraine had either carried out the executions of civilians itself or positioned the bodies.
She accused Western media of ‘complicity in this punitive action to kill civilians in Bucha’.
Satellite images released by the US company Maxar Technologies, combined with photos taken by AFP, show that several bodies were left out in the open for at least three weeks.
In radio communications between Russian soldiers intercepted by German intelligence and quoted by the Spiegel magazine on April 7, soldiers could be heard talking about the atrocities in Bucha.
In one communication, a soldier told another that he and his colleagues killed a man on a bicycle.
Hunting the guilty
Despite Russian denials, Ukraine and its Western allies, along with the United Nations, believe they have proof that Russian forces were responsible for the deaths of most of the civilians found dead in Bucha.
Since the very first days, Ukraine has blamed Russia’s 64th motorised infantry brigade which was based in Bucha.
Ukrainian prosecutors on Thursday said they were investigating 10 of the brigade’s servicemen for war crimes and declared them wanted suspects.
Putin on April 18 signed an official decree praising the brigade for its ‘mass heroism and valour, tenacity and courage’.
He did not say where the brigade had been based.
A witness interviewed by AFP said that at the beginning of the Russian occupation she had seen mostly young Russian soldiers.
But, a couple of weeks in, she remembered ‘brutal’ older troops moving in.
‘That’s when the massacres started,’ she said.
She said some may have been officers from Russia’s FSB security service.
According to the communications intercepted by German intelligence, Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group may also have been involved.
The Wagner Group has caused controversy through its involvement in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Reporting by AFP