Ukraine vows never to forget or forgive on Bucha anniversary
By Ivan Lyubysh-Kirdey and Gleb Garanich
BUCHA, Ukraine (Reuters) -President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Friday Ukraine would never forgive Russian troops responsible for atrocities in Bucha, as the town near Kyiv marked the anniversary of its recapture after 33 days of occupation.
Ukrainian forces took back control of the small towns of Bucha and Irpin to the northwest of Kyiv in late March last year as Russian invasion forces abandoned their attempt to seize the capital.
Moscow denies accusations of executions, rapes and torture by its occupying troops who left bodies in the streets when they fled.
“Russian evil will collapse right here in Ukraine, and will never be able to rise again. Humanity will prevail,” Zelenskiy said, leading a ceremony at which the Ukrainian flag was raised in Bucha.
The president handed out medals to soldiers involved in recapturing the town, and relatives received medals on behalf of fallen soldiers who were awarded them posthumously.
“When Bucha was de-occupied, we saw that the devil was not somewhere out there but on the ground. The heinous truth about what was happening in the temporarily occupied territories was revealed to the world,” Zelenskiy said.
Images of dead bodies lying in the street were beamed across the world after Ukraine regained control. Kyiv says more than 1,400 people were killed in Bucha during the occupation including 37 children, more than 175 people were found in mass graves and torture chambers, and 9,000 Russian war crimes have been identified.
International investigators are now collecting evidence of war crimes in Irpin, Bucha and other places. Zelenskiy described Bucha as a “symbol of the atrocities” of Russian occupying forces.
“We will never forget the victims of this war, and we will certainly bring all Russian murderers to justice,” Zelenskiy wrote on social media. “We will never forgive. We will punish every perpetrator.”
Bucha has become a stop for international visitors to Ukraine. Moldova’s president and the prime ministers of Croatia, Slovakia and Slovenia also attended Friday’s ceremony.
“We honour and grieve the innocent. Democracies must work together to ensure that these atrocities are investigated and punished,” said Moldovan President Maia Sandu, who has joined with Zelenskiy in seeking European Union membership for her country.
Fighting rages on in the east and south of Ukraine, where Russian forces hold swathes of territory captured after they invaded on Feb. 24, 2022.
Russia has been conducting a winter offensive to make small advances in the east at huge cost of life. Ukrainian forces have dug in and held out for now in the city of Bakhmut and are expected to launch a counteroffensive soon.
Tensions have mounted between Russia and the West over the war. Relations between Washington and Moscow plunged further on Thursday when Russia arrested a Wall Street Journal correspondent, Evan Gershkovich, on allegations of spying, which the paper denied and the White House called “ridiculous”.
For places like Bucha hundreds of miles away from the frontline, the war is still felt, with regular air raid sirens telling residents to take cover from missile and drone strikes that have caused major power outages.
Residents in Bucha speak of the deep psychological wounds left by the occupation and say it would take generations to get over it. Some buildings remain battered in the town and a scrapyard is full of cars and military vehicles destroyed during last year’s fighting.
“We should understand that it’s easy to rebuild walls, but it’s much harder to rebuild a wounded soul,” said Andriy Holovin, a priest at a Ukrainian Orthodox parish.
Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin said his office had identified almost 100 Russian soldiers suspected of war crimes in Bucha and indictments against 35 of them had been sent to court.
They include a three-star general who commands Russia’s Central Military District, he said. Two Russian servicemen captured in Ukraine have been jailed for illegally imprisoning civilians and looting, he added.
The vast majority of Russian suspects are not in Ukrainian custody, but Kyiv says it hopes they can be prosecuted some day.
“I’m convinced that all these crimes are not a coincidence. This is part of Russia’s planned strategy to destroy Ukraine as a state and Ukrainians as a nation,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Max Hunder and Dan Peleschuk, Writing by Tom Balmforth, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Peter Graff)