The Horror of Bucha

Russian invaders are now treating the entirety of the Ukrainian population as combatants, as dirt to be cleansed.

A close-up of a person's hands tied with rope
Vadim Ghirda / AP

About the author: Franklin Foer is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

On the morning of March 4, a teacher was sheltering in a basement in Bucha, an old railroad stop northwest of Kyiv that over the centuries had grown into a verdant suburb. The town lay along the Russian military’s intended path of conquest, leading into the Ukrainian capital. And while the invaders struggled to realize their overarching plan, they gained a toehold in Bucha.

At 7 a.m., the teacher, huddled alone with her two dogs, heard a Russian voice threatening to throw a grenade into her hiding place, according to an account she later gave to Human Rights Watch. Rather than risk that fate, she emerged. Along with several dozen other Ukrainians, she found herself hustled into a small square, next to the office of a storage-rental firm. The crowd watched as the Russians brought five men into the square and ordered them to remove their jackets and boots, then instructed them to kneel.  Standing behind them, the Russians yanked the men’s T-shirts over their heads, using their own clothing as an executioner’s sack. One of the Russians assured his audience, according to the teacher’s account: “Don’t worry. You are all normal—and this is dirt. We are here to cleanse you from the dirt.”

A Ukrainian person on the ground with their hands tied
Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

By the time the Ukrainians liberated Bucha on April 2, the streets were strewn with Russian atrocities. When reporters entered the city, they found corpses on toppled bicycles, one of them still clutching a bag of potatoes. Shirtless bodies lay facedown on the asphalt, arms tied behind backs with scraps of white cloth. Hands and feet protruded from the red clay not quite covering a mass grave. In total, Bucha’s mayor estimated to Reuters, the Russians had killed more than 300 of the town’s citizens.

That this part of the country was once victim to the “Holocaust by bullets,” the eliminationist rampage committed by bands of Nazi einsatzgruppen as they traversed the Ukrainian countryside, gives instant meaning to the atrocities in Bucha. Whereas concentration camps were mechanized murder, the German crimes committed in Ukraine were marked by their intimacy and their haphazard nature. Low-ranking soldiers were required to make the decision to kill, again and again, despite the screams, becoming inured to the routine of murder.

At the outset of this war, Russia apparently believed that it could capture Kyiv and install a puppet government, which it would impose on a pliant people. But having failed spectacularly at that mission, the Russian army began to wage a war of attrition. Because the war has pitted the army against the entirety of a nation—civilian resistance is the inspiring story of this conflict—the war of attrition has morphed into a war of annihilation. The Russian invaders are now treating the entirety of the population as combatants, as dirt to be cleansed.

During the last instance of mass European atrocities, the war in the Balkans, scenes of war crimes were scrubbed before the crimes were discovered. Incriminating evidence was hidden from view, out of a dim awareness that clumsily concealed graves might come back to haunt the perpetrators at The Hague. One of the challenges in rousing the world to care about genocide is that when crimes come to light, investigators tend to lack the sort of graphic visual evidence of atrocities that churns the conscience. That’s part of what makes the video of Bucha’s bloody avenues so deeply rattling to witness.

But the murders at Bucha are merely one entry in a litany of atrocities. The targeting of Ukrainian civilians is so ubiquitous that it can only be intentional: On Febuary 25, a cluster bomb struck a preschool in Sumy where civilians sheltered; on March 9, Russia attacked Mariupol’s maternity hospital; on March 16, it bombed that city’s municipal theater, killing 300 people, despite the fact that children had been painted in large white letters on the ground in front of the sanctuary; and it has leveled apartment blocks in Kharkiv, Kyiv, and every other city that it has sought to capture, as if the destruction of the Ukrainian home was part of the war plan. The Kremlin even agreed to humanitarian escape corridors from besieged Mariupol and then turned around and shelled the refugees who used them.

After Bucha, a debate will consume editorial pages: Is Russia committing genocide in Ukraine? Diplomats and politicians will be compelled to answer that question. Rather than wringing their hands about whether the events meet a legalistic definition enshrined in United Nations agreements, they should cite the Human Rights Watch report on alleged atrocities. A 31-year-old woman, it says, was raped by a Russian soldier, who threatened the life of her 5-year-old daughter; the invaders gunned down a mother and her 14-year-old child as they ran from a grenade thrown into their basement shelter. Or they should invoke the toll of Bucha: bodies, wrapped in black bags, piled like firewood into the back of a van collecting the corpses from the streets. Two months ago, these were human beings, living perfectly suburban lives. Whether this constitutes genocide hardly matters when it is precisely evil.