“What I saw in Bucha”: a photojournalist shares his experience | Forum

BUCHA, Ukraine – For weeks I could see dark plumes of smoke rising above the town of Bucha from a destroyed bridge in Irpin.

I focused my lenses on harrowing scenes of people trying to keep their balance as they carefully crossed wooden planks placed over the river – the only gateway to safety for the mass exodus from refugees fleeing with a handful of possessions.

Once I got within walking distance of Bucha on March 10, I was warned of snipers.

I photographed people walking past the bodies of two Russian soldiers lying on a train track. Another corpse lay in the middle of the road, and I realized that any attempt to get any closer would most likely be deadly: I had heard too many hideous stories of people trying to escape being rather downcast . Even cars bearing signs reading “children” in Ukrainian and Russian have been attacked.

Ukrainian forces were engaged in fierce battles against the Russians, but this trapped thousands of civilians, all cut off from media access, telephone connections, electricity and water. Journalists could not enter Bucha until Russian forces withdrew and Ukrainian troops took control of a town that now looks like the gates of hell.

Once inside the city on March 30, I was stunned by the scenes of destruction among the civilian population. It was hard to imagine how anyone had survived. Broken Russian military equipment littered the streets, which were all lined with crumbling houses.

I’ve covered decades of conflict and war as a photojournalist, but I struggle to find the words to express how horrified I am – and all my colleagues in the press are – at what is happening in Ukraine, what people have endured and their immeasurable resilience.

Every day I wonder how this can happen in 2022. My job has always allowed me to embrace the power of photography to allow others to connect with the people I see. I understand that many of my images are difficult to watch, but that is the reality of this war. The world needs to know that superpower Russia has been targeting civilians every day since the war began in February and continues to do so more than a month later.

The first scenes I photographed along a main road showed burnt corpses of Russian soldiers lying near destroyed military vehicles and trucks. A corpse was missing the lower part, from the waist down. Inside Bucha I was warned by soldiers to follow in the footsteps of a commander as there were mines – and even dead bodies could be trapped.

I have documented the bodies of civilians found inside their homes and in their yards. It was snowing and freezing, but traumatized civilians who had sought refuge underground throughout the fighting were among all the mutilated Russian military equipment. They seemed both relieved and traumatized.

I met Larisa Savenko, 72, who raised her hands and fought back tears as she explained that she had no way to escape, nor did she want to give up her home.

“Five armed men entered my house,” she said. “They looked at our documents and took our phones. The Russians told us we were lucky to have them, because other soldiers would have shot us already.”

Another man I met on the same street, Andrii Zabarylo, 55, said that each group of Russian soldiers he encountered was more aggressive than the previous ones.

“They told me and my neighbor and his son to lie down on the ground and then they fired shots within 20 centimeters of our heads,” he said. “One of the soldiers said they would kill the older men and take my neighbor’s son with them. At that point we thought we would be dead. But then their commander told the soldiers to don’t kill us.”

In another part of town, I saw and documented volunteers at work placing the bodies of eight men in the back of what looked like an office building. Several had their hands tightly bound with clear tape behind their backs. They appeared to have been executed at close range and many had bruises. It was a scene that I knew needed to be documented as evidence, but I was concerned that my footage was too graphic to post. I was relieved that the Washington Post published my shocking photographs.

Now I come back to Bucha every day from Kyiv – since the Russians withdrew from the area surrounding the capital, that’s for sure. Each time, I feel like I’m discovering another layer of Russian atrocities. Following a Ukrainian investigative task force, one day last week I documented the corpse of a male civilian who had been shot and beheaded, left lying next to another body near a field. Farther ahead, another corpse had slits on its neck, evidence of an apparent attempt to cut off its head.

Volunteers collected for days the corpses of civilians found everywhere. I documented a body that had to be cleared the day before so it could be investigated. The volunteers are faced with the gruesome task of placing each corpse – and sometimes just body parts – in a black body bag and bringing them to a local cemetery.

While I was there, I saw police authorities divide 56 bodies into two groups: those that showed visible signs of war crimes and those that had been shot or burned in explosions. The second group included a family of six who had been burned beyond recognition in a nearby house. The body bags were unzipped one by one while the officers took notes, then they were resealed.

Melvin B. Baillie