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Explained: What happened in Ukraine’s Bucha, and was it ‘genocide’?

More than 300 bodies have been found in a Kyiv suburb called Bucha, some with their hands bound, flesh burned, and shot in the back of the head. The discoveries have drawn comparisons with the killings of civilians in this area during World War II.

Written by Mira Patel | Mumbai |
Updated: April 7, 2022 10:20:56 am
Three bodies lie in the yard of a home in Bucha on Monday. (Daniel Berehulak/The NYT)

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused Russian troops of committing “the most terrible war crimes” since World War II in an address to the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday as outrage and revulsion swept through Western capitals at what appeared to be incontrovertible evidence of grisly civilian massacres in Ukrainian areas vacated recently by Russian forces.

Until Tuesday afternoon, officials had counted bodies of at least 410 civilians in towns around Kyiv, where Russian and Ukrainian forces battled from around February 27 until the beginning of April when, as the invaders withdrew, evidence of likely war crimes began to emerge.

The massacres in Bucha

The grimmest discoveries have been made in a Kyiv suburb called Bucha, a town located about 25 km to the northwest of the capital, which had an estimated population of around 36,000 before the invasion began. More than 300 bodies have been found in the town that Zelenskyy visited on Monday, some with their hands bound, flesh burned, and shot in the back of the head.

Satellite images from mid-March that are now available show streets strewn with corpses, and many of the bodies seen by journalists in the past couple of days appear to have lain in the open for weeks. Corpses have been found in a shallow mass grave in a church compound, and officials have said five bodies with their hands tied lay in the basement of a children’s sanatorium that was used by the occupiers as a “torture chamber” for civilians.

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A dog wanders around destroyed houses and Russian military vehicles, in Bucha close to Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, April 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

The discoveries have drawn comparisons with the killings of civilians in this area during World War II. Between the First Battle of Kyiv (part of Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union that began in June 1941) and the Second Battle of Kyiv (November-December 1943) when the Red Army started to push back the Germans from Ukraine, the area around the Ukrainian capital, including Bucha, saw the “Holocaust by bullets” during which an estimated 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, were shot dead at close range.

Low-ranking Nazi einsatzgruppen paramilitaries roaming the occupied territory randomly murdered civilians in homes and streets — atrocities that were recalled in news reports 80 years later as bodies were found lying next to bicycles, on pavements, and in yards and gardens in Bucha. The first videos out of the town supported claims of mass casualties, and were subsequently backed by accounts of reporters from around the world. The reports and pictures of corpses wearing civilian clothes, some clutching shopping bags, suggest that ordinary citizens were murdered without provocation, as they went about their daily business.

Residents told Human Rights Watch that Russian soldiers went from door to door, questioning people and looting their possessions. Russian armed vehicles allegedly fired arbitrarily into buildings. An HRW report recounted a specific incident of summary execution: “On March 4, Russian forces in Bucha…rounded up five men and summarily executed one of them. A witness told Human Rights Watch that soldiers forced the five men to kneel on the side of the road, pulled their T-shirts over their heads, and shot one of the men in the back of the head. “He fell [over],” the witness said, “and the women [present at the scene] screamed.”

Bucha is a town located about 25 km to the northwest of Kyiv

A genocide or war crimes?

Both expressions have been used freely in outraged Ukrainian and Western descriptions of the atrocities in Bucha. Whether these incidents fit those definitions is important because of the international community’s obligation to respond to them.

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of war crimes even earlier, alleging that it targeted civilians in the bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol and a theatre that announced it was sheltering children. President Joe Biden has more than once called President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal”.

War crimes are defined as “grave breaches” of the Geneva Conventions, agreements signed after World War II that laid down international humanitarian laws during war time. Deliberately targeting civilians amounts to a war crime.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy examines the site of a recent battle in Bucha close to Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, April 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

The International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague has already opened an investigation into possible war crimes by Russia. The investigation could in theory target even Putin. But it will be difficult to bring Russian defendants to trial or to prove intent. Russia does not recognise the ICC and will likely not cooperate with the investigation.

The crime of genocide, as defined by the United Nations Genocide Convention of December 1948, includes acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. Genocide is seen as the gravest and most serious of all crimes against humanity.

Alexander Hinton, director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University, told POLITICO that the perpetrators of genocide “want to destroy a people as opposed to defeat an army” and operate with “an intent of systematicity”. Hinton said he did not believe Russia’s actions as yet amounted to genocide, even though it did appear to be guilty of war crimes.

Gregory Stanton, chair of Genocide Watch, has however, said that Russia has committed “crimes of genocide, as well as war crimes and crimes against humanity”. Stanton told POLITICO that genocide is a group crime that can be committed by a state against its own people or the people of another state and, in this case, the Russians “have the intent to destroy, in part, a national group, and that’s the Ukrainian group”.

Differences of opinion on what constitutes genocide explains in part the reluctance of the international community to use the term frequently. Apart from the Holocaust in which more than 6 million Jews were exterminated, three other genocides are generally recognised as fitting the 1948 UN definition: the 1915-20 mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks, the killings of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda in 1994, and the Srebrenica massacre of 1995.

International, Russian reactions

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko has said that “what happened in Bucha and other suburbs…can only be described as genocide”. On Sunday, before the full scale of the horrors in Bucha were known, President Zelenskyy had said the Russian military action was “genocide — the elimination of the whole nation and the people”, “the destruction and extermination” of more than 100 nationalities in Ukraine.

All of Ukraine’s Western allies, the EU Council, NATO and UN Secretary General, have strongly condemned the massacre in Bucha. Amid calls for more, stronger sanctions against Russia, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Denmark, and Sweden have expelled dozens of Russian diplomats, and Swedish prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation into possible war crimes in Ukraine.

Russia has denied all accusations, the Kremlin saying that the claims coming out of Bucha were a “well directed but tragic show”, and a “monstrous forgery” to denigrate the Russian army. It has called the diplomatic expulsions “short-sighted”, and said “reciprocal steps” would follow.

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