'This tears my soul apart': A Ukrainian boy and a killing
As he listened to his father die, the boy lay still on the asphalt. His elbow burned where a bullet had pierced him. His thumb stung from being grazed.
Another killing was in progress on a lonely street in Bucha, the community on the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, where bodies of civilians are still being discovered weeks after Russian soldiers withdrew. Many had been shot in the head.
The 14-year-old Yura Nechyporenko was about to become one of them.
Survivors have described soldiers firing guns near their feet or threatening them with grenades, only to be drawn away by a cooler-headed colleague. But there was no one around to restrain the Russian soldier that day in March when Yura and his father, 47-year-old Ruslan, were biking down a tree-lined street.
They were on their way to visit vulnerable neighbors sheltering in basements and homes without electricity or running water. Their bikes were tied with white fabric, in a sign they traveled in peace.
When the soldier stepped from a dirt path to challenge them, Yura and his father immediately stopped and raised their hands.
“What are you doing?” Yura remembers the soldier asking. The soldier didn’t give Yura’s father time to answer.
The boy heard two gunshots. His father fell, mouth open, already bleeding.
A shot hit Yura’s hand, and he fell, too. Another shot struck his elbow. He closed his eyes.
A final shot was fired.
This story is part of an ongoing investigation from The Associated Press and Frontline that includes the War Crimes Watch Ukraine interactive experience and an upcoming documentary.
Yura’s extraordinary account alleging an attempted killing by Russian soldiers stands out as international justice experts descend on Bucha, a center of the horrors and possible war crimes in Ukraine. More than 1,000 bodies have been found so far in Bucha and other communities around Kyiv. In Bucha alone, 31 children under the age of 18 were killed and 19 wounded, according to local authorities.
“All children were killed or injured deliberately, since the Russian soldiers deliberately shot at evacuating cars that had the signs ‘CHILDREN’ and white fabric tied to them, and they deliberately shot at the homes of civilians," the chief prosecutor of the Bucha region, Ruslan Kravchenko, told the AP.
The U.N. human rights office says at least 202 children across Ukraine have been killed in Russia’s invasion, and believes the real number to be considerably higher. The Ukrainian government's count is 217 children killed and over 390 wounded.
The AP and Frontline, drawing from a variety of sources, have independently documented 21 attacks where children were killed that likely meet the definition of a war crime, ranging from the discovery of a child in a shallow grave in Borodyanka to the bombing of a theater in Mariupol. The total number of child victims in the attacks is unknown, and the accounting represents just a fraction of potential war crimes.
Yura is a teenager growing into himself, spindly and spotted, with dark circles pressed under his eyes. Adulthood has been rushed upon him. As he lies on the floor of his family’s home to demonstrate what happened, he shows the healing holes in his elbow.
His mother, Alla, takes deep breaths to calm herself. Yura, sitting up, wraps an arm around her, then puts his head on her shoulder.
On that awful day, Yura survived the attempted killing by the awkward grace of that teenage constant, his gray hoodie. It was shot instead of him, and he felt it move.
Yura lay on the street for minutes afterward, waiting for the soldier to walk away.
Then Yura ran. He reached the kindergarten where his mother worked, and where some residents used the basement as a shelter. They were shocked to see the boy and gave him first aid.
He realized he needed to go home. He returned to the streets, not knowing where the next soldier might be.
When he arrived home, his family called the police. The police said they could do nothing because they didn’t control the area, according to the family. The ambulance service said the same.
The police told the family that officers didn’t know what to do with the case, according to the boy’s uncle, Andriy. A prosecutor’s report describes the killing and attempted killing in a few bare sentences, including the loss of a cellphone belonging to Yura's father. He would have been of help now — he'd been a lawyer.
Kravchenko told the AP that they continue to work on Yura’s case, and expressed confidence that crimes committed during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine can be successfully investigated. Among other things, footage from dozens of surveillance cameras in Bucha is being analyzed, and an identification album of Russian soldiers’ faces is being assembled.
In March, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced that investigations into crimes against children in particular will benefit from a new trust fund. Children account for half or more of those affected by conflict, but are often labeled as too vulnerable to testify or as having inaccurate memories, according to Veronique Aubert, the special adviser on crimes involving children to the prosecutor of the ICC.
Yura’s case is unusual.
“Prosecutors may want to take up this case because the victim is still alive and can potentially testify,” said Ryan Goodman, a law professor at New York University and former special counsel for the U.S. Defense Department. “It may be difficult if not impossible for a defendant to claim they were somehow justified in trying to kill a child.”
It was left to Yura’s family to retrieve his father’s body.
They did it the following day. Yura's grandmother, who is in her 70s, pleaded with Russian soldiers to let her approach the body.
With their guns cocked, they let her walk ahead of them. Another soldier in the distance shouted, “Don’t come here or we’ll kill you.” But he didn’t fire.
They brought Yura's father home in a wheelbarrow. He was rolled in a carpet and placed on an old wooden door. Amid the sounds of shelling and gunfire, they buried him in the yard behind the woodshed, in one of many makeshift graves hurriedly dug during the monthlong Russian occupation.
Yura and his family left Bucha the next day along a rare evacuation corridor. The wounded boy walked first through the streets, holding a stick tied with a white towel, with a white sling around his arm. The family had to pass the scene of the shooting.
As they walked closer to the evacuation point, Russian soldiers asked where they were going. They asked what had happened to Yura.
“I was shot by a Russian soldier,” the boy replied.
At that, his mother was terrified. “I felt everything collapse inside me,” she recalled. “I thought they would shoot us all.”
She asked the soldiers to let them pass, saying it was getting late. They did.
The family left town that day.
The gray hoodie, bloodied at the elbow, is now the centerpiece of the family’s search for justice. The top seam of the loose fabric has been sliced. Yura’s mother insists that it's evidence and can't be thrown away.
The family returned to Bucha in mid-April, after the Russians withdrew. They dug up Yura’s father and buried him again in a local cemetery.
The boy’s family continues to play detective, scouring the area of the shooting for further evidence and theorizing on the trajectory of bullets. They question neighbors and analyze holes in a metal fence.
As the family shows the AP the scene, Yura wanders in the grass beside the street, head down, looking for bullet casings. He is confident he could identify the Russian soldier, even though the soldier wore a balaclava over part of his face.
Yura will finish ninth grade this year, once electricity returns and he can resume online classes. Until then, he is volunteering like his father did, visiting older residents.
His mother is thinking of sending him overseas for the sake of his mental health. She needs some distance, too.
“I’m never alone physically, but it’s possible to be alone mentally,” she said, near tears. “I try to avoid this.”
Her son’s case is still a faint source of hope. There are courts and these courts will work, she believes. No one should go through what her son did.
Yura fears they already have.
“It’s not only me who wants justice,” he said. “People in Ukraine are still possibly being tortured and killed even now.”
Yura turned 15 on April 12. It was a quiet birthday. His father, a good cook, usually grilled to celebrate it.
On April 25, a day after Orthodox Easter, the family again gathered at the grave to mark 40 days after Ruslan’s death, by local custom. Food blessed by a priest in Bucha for Easter — dyed eggs, bread — was laid out along with homemade pickles, chocolate and wine. A plastic bag of food was hung on the wooden cross.
Yura stood apart, quietly lighting a candle and placing it on the grave. Then he pulled a hoodie, a black one, over his head to block the chill.
The boy’s uncle, Andriy, watches him closely these days. Yura has always been a good kid, but he's become edgy and restless, moving from one task to another. Andriy fears the trauma of surviving death will catch up with Yura and mourns his nephew's damaged childhood.
“This tears my soul apart,” said Andriy, in tears. “What we see is suffering after suffering ... (Russian President Vladimir) Putin just decides to make us suffer, and we do.”
Frontline producer Tom Jennings contributed to this story.