Russia stands accused of committing war crimes. Fresh claims, including eyewitness accounts and pictures, have emerged about what appears to be random executions of civilians, including children, in the town of Bucha, near Kyiv. This morning, Human Rights Watch added its name to a growing chorus of voices — including the governments of Australia, the US, and Germany — condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin has consistently denied targeting civilians in attacks. But Crikey has spoken to numerous refugees who said they have either directly witnessed murders or have lost friends, families and neighbours in attacks against civilians. Here are three of their stories.
Attacked from behind
Diana Plyas is from the outskirts of Kyiv. Bright, articulate and wearing a scull-patterned scarf — we compliment each other on our excess of ear piercings — Diana is 16 years old and hopes to study clinical psychology. Her dream was to study abroad in Canada. Now, she just wants to return home.
Despite sitting in a heated tent, Diana’s jaw chatters as she speaks. She’s animated and jittery — next to her, her babushka (grandmother) Raisa turns a heat pack over and over in her hands and stares ahead.
Diana didn’t believe the war had really begun until her father — who has been in the military since the invasion of Crimea in 2014 — called her mother and told them to pack their bags and leave immediately.
Stuffing clothes into sports bags, she, her mother, grandmother and sister fled, running to the Makariv region, west of Kyiv. “It was an unwise decision because Makariv is completely destroyed,” she says.
The family spent a week and a half living in bunkers, waiting for the shelling to stop. There was no electricity, no internet, no heating and no phone reception. With limited information, the family had to rely on word of mouth to know when it was safe to leave.
“There were Russian tanks just driving around the territory of our city town — so we couldn’t just go,” she says. On March 6, 10 days after the war had begun, they received word there would be green corridors to allow them to leave. But the journey would be treacherous, along a long road filled with Russians. She called her friends — and as they were speaking, bombing began on the street.
“Three or four houses from us were bombed by two rockets. So we had to hide. Everyone was even more scared than before because you don’t know if they started bombing our street,” she says.
Ultimately, they decided to risk it, creating a small convoy of cars with the entire street and starting to drive north-east, back towards Kyiv.
“When we drew to the exits of Moschun, Russians started shooting at our cars, so we had to drive like … [crazy].” They drove for three more days, stopping off wherever it was safe to do so before finally making their way to Siret in Romania. They plan to travel onwards to meet friends in Barcelona in Spain.
“At first I thought [the war] wouldn’t be so bad. But as the war went on, it turned out the other way completely … A lot of people were shot,” she said. Along the way, they received word that a family from their community — a woman, her husband and her son — had been executed in the street.
A 30-minute window of survival
Sofiya Zhukova has bright-blue eyes and seems older than her 17 years. She speaks to me from a scout hall in Mińsk Mazowiecki, a small city 40kms from Warsaw, Poland’s capital. The night before war erupted, she had been joking with her friends about the threat of Russia — it hadn’t felt real. But as her school evacuated and she fled home on an overcrowded minibus, stooped for four hours with her backpack between her feet, reality hit.
Sofiya lived with her parents, seven-year-old brother and 13-year-old sister in Borodyanka, a hundred kilometres north-west of Kyiv. She loves music and sings and plays the guitar. Her family spent a week in a bunker in Borodyanka before deciding to flee. They kept their bags packed and ready to go, speaking to family outside of the city for updates.
“We received a message from my uncle that we had to leave. So we just set off in the car and left,” Sofiya says. Thirty minutes after they had departed, she says they received messages from neighbours saying Borodyanka had been occupied by Russians — she calls them terrorists — who started shooting at those fleeing.
“We don’t know if we would be alive if we would have left later.”
The journey to Poland took almost a month, with the family spending days in the car, sleeping in bunkers along the way. She worried about her mum, who Sofiya says didn’t sleep for the entire 21-day journey. Her siblings who were so nervous they became ill.
Sofiya assumed her whole family would be able to enter Poland together. Men between the age of 18 and 60 aren’t permitted to leave the country, though men with three or more children can stay with their families. But Sofia is just a few months over the age of 17 — the cut-off age — and her father was sent back deeper into Ukraine to support the war effort.
“Borodyanka now doesn’t exist. I don’t know what happened with my home,” she says. She’s heard Russians have become desperate and have started looting the largely empty city.
Isolated and under siege
Alona arrived at the border crossing in Siret, Romania, on Sunday morning with her two children. She’s waiting for a red minivan to depart, organised by the Romanian government, which will take them to the nearby Iași International Airport, where she’ll continue onwards to the Canary Islands in southern Spain. Snow falls around her as she speaks.
Alona worked at the Chernihiv power plant in northern Ukraine. Her tears give way to manic laughter as she tells her story, with her dog Molly strapped to her chest. When war broke out, the city lost power and water — with some residents resorting to drinking sewage water to survive.
“Planes were bombing everything, they were shooting at civilian houses. The library was destroyed, the cinema was destroyed,” she said.
With bridges bombed, escape was difficult, but her family managed to flee in a convoy with neighbours. As they arrived in Ternopil, a city between Kyiv and Lviv, she says Russians started shooting at them.
“My friend tried to cover his child’s body with his. A bomb went off nearby and they both died,” she says.
Alona and her children stayed in bunkers in Ternopil for two weeks. As the roads became more dangerous, with highways reduced to rubble, they continued their journey on foot searching for volunteers to help them evacuate.
“One-third of the city’s population is still there. I have friends with children, all their children, and they can’t leave because the bridges have been destroyed,” she says.
Despite the horrors they have witnessed, Diana, Sofiya and Alona are trying to survive by focusing on the future. Diana is looking forward to meeting her friends in Barcelona. Sofiya has a new guitar and sings the Ukrainian national anthem to crowds at fundraising events. Alona is taken back by the level of support she has received.
All think Putin should pay for his crimes.
This piece was originally published by Crikey.