BUCHA, Ukraine (Reuters) – Before the war in Ukraine, Bohdan Zubchuk’s job as a community police officer involved patrolling the quiet streets of Bucha outside Kyiv and dealing with petty crime, while handling minor complaints from residents.
Walking down a street where the bodies of multiple victims were found after Russian troops retreated late last month, the 29-year-old said his hometown and his job would never be the same.
“We will never forget everything we saw here, this will stay with us for our whole lives,” he said.
The town became known around the world after images emerged of dead civilians in the streets last week, triggering an international outcry.
Since the Russians left, Zubchuk said he and his fellow community police officers have been tasked with assisting traumatised survivors with everything from receiving humanitarian aid to checking for unexploded ordnance around town.
Ukrainian officials say hundreds of civilians have been found dead since the Russians’ withdrawal. The deputy mayor of Bucha has said 360 civilians were killed during the Russian occupation. Reuters could not independently verify those figures.
Russia, which has repeatedly denied targetting civilians since the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, has called the allegations that Russian forces executed civilians in Bucha while they occupied the town a “monstrous forgery” aimed at denigrating the Russian army.
Reuters has witnessed the remains of five victims in Bucha who were shot through the head. One had his hands tied behind his back. Another his feet tied. Reuters has not been able to independently determine who was responsible.
By Saturday, local workers and residents had already removed the bodies from the street, but there were still patches of ash and charred cement left behind from shelling.
“Every time I patrol this street I’ll be thinking back about what happened here,” Zubchuk said.
On Friday, forensic investigators began the exhumation of remains from a mass grave in Bucha, carefully lifting bodies out of a muddy trench to examine and identify them.
In the weeks following the arrival of Russian forces in Bucha, Zubchuk said he and his fellow officers hid in basements and continued working until they fled the city with their families.
Zubchuk said Russian soldiers were scouring the town for local police officers and men with military experience during the occupation.
AN ‘ISLAND’ OF CALM
Elsewhere in Bucha on Saturday, volunteers in bright vests swept up debris and workers in hard hats removed what remained of destroyed Russian tanks with heavy cranes.
Moscow calls the war a “special operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” its neighbour. Ukraine and its allies say this is a baseless pretext for war.
Valerie Lysenko was one of many residents who returned to Bucha to see the damage first hand. Lysenko said she fled her hometown a little over a week after Russian troops rolled into Bucha.
Before the war Lysenko said she was always inviting her friends to visit Bucha, telling them it was an “island” of calm outside of Kyiv with beautiful parks and great infrastructure.
Now, the name of her town had become synonymous with war and the suffering of civilians.
“The only thing they know (of Bucha) is people dead, people with their hands tied, people tortured, murdered and this just breaks my heart,” she said.
“If I say I’m in pain it’s only one percent of what I’m feeling,” she said.
(Reporting by Mari Saito and Herbert Villarraga; Editing by Frances Kerry)