War in Ukraine | The waking nightmare of Boutcha survivors

(Boutcha) When Vitaly Zhyvotovsky closes his eyes, he sees prisoners with white sacks over their heads pushing Russian soldiers to the butts of their rifles in his house in Boutcha near Kyiv.

Posted at 6:58

Joshua MELVIN
Media Agency France

Butcha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, has become a symbol of the atrocities blamed on Russian forces who occupied the area in March. This large two-story pavilion was turned into a prison and hell for him, his daughter and a neighbor by a few Russian soldiers, he told AFP.

“We trembled with fear because we heard what the Russians did to their prisoners,” he recalls in front of the rubble of his burned-down house. “We had no hope.”

Even if the images discovered on April 2 of 20 bodies of men in civilian clothes scattered on Yablounska Street and discovered on April 2 caused a worldwide sensation, what the survivors saw and experienced will them probably haunt forever too.

“What can we feel? Nothing but horror,” said Viktor Chatylo, 60, who photographed the spate of violence from a skylight in his garage.

Before the Russians entered the city a few days after the invasion began on February 24, Boutcha was a quiet suburb in north-western Kiev.

On February 27, a Russian tank entered Vitaly Jyvotovsky’s house in the yard of his home and began firing at a neighboring building, the upper floors of which caught fire.

About a week later, Russian soldiers raid Vitaly’s house and lock him in the basement along with his 20-year-old daughter Natalia, warning that they will be killed if they try to get out.

The soldiers settle at the top and set up a field hospital and a headquarters. The house is a minute’s walk from Yablounska Street, where the 20 bodies were found.

In order to stay alive and save his daughter, Vitaly makes sure that he only speaks Russian in front of the soldiers and talks about his family and his belief in God.

punches and screams

But soon he sees them bringing in a first prisoner with a sack over his head – there will be at least seven – then the interrogations, beatings and screams begin.

Traces of the Russian occupation are everywhere in his ruined house: military rations, a combat manual and a small wooden club with the inscription “MORALE” in Russian hand-engraved.

Vitaly and her daughter were then joined by their neighbor across the street, Lyoudmyla Kizilova, 67, whose husband had just been shot dead by the Russians.

Vitaly begged the Russians to let her come as she was still reeling from the assassination of her husband Valery Kizilov.

Valery, 70, was killed on March 4 as he left the basement where he and Lyoudmyla were taking shelter, the latter told AFP. Lyoudmyla says he heard a shot, a silence, then a command from a soldier: “If anyone else is here, get out, or I’ll throw a grenade!” »

She shows up, but the soldiers refuse to say what happened to her husband and order him to return to the basement.

Nevertheless, at night she ventures outside with a lamp and discovers Valery’s corpse: “He was there, he was shot in the head, there was a lot of blood. But I found it,” she says.

The next day she can join the Jyvotovskys in their basement.

It was the Russian soldiers who buried her husband in the garden a few days later, on March 9th. Then they offer Lyudmyla a glass of whiskey, which they took from the house. She refuses.

The next day she managed to leave the area.

prisoners on their knees

Vitaly and his daughter also managed to leave the same day, telling the Russian soldiers that they were going to visit a member of their family.

But when Vitaly came out of the basement to ask the Russian soldiers for permission, he witnessed a horrific scene in his kitchen: three prisoners on their knees, with a sack over their heads, their hands tied behind their backs.

When he took AFP to his home on April 25, which had been largely destroyed by fire, there was a layer of dried blood where he said he saw the prisoners.

The Russian soldiers let him and his daughter go on condition that they return and threatened to blow up the house if they went back on their word.

“May God save anyone from going through something like this,” Vitaly said. “We only live by happiness.”

For survivors like the Jyvotovskys or Mme Kizilova, the risks of permanent trauma are great.

“Some people already have post-traumatic syndrome, others develop it later,” says Alyona Kryvoulyak, coordinator of the Ukraine branch of La Strada, a women’s rights organization. “But each of us is traumatized by the war in our own way,” she adds.

For Viktor Chatylo, the resident of Yablounska Street, who saw everything from his garage, the most important thing at this stage is to fix the memory.

He risked his life to take photos so “his children and grandchildren could see what happened, not on TV but in real life”.

Those who saw it “will remember it for hundreds of years,” he says.

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