Is this depravity intrinsic to war, to Russians – or to all humanity once its veneer of civilisation is stripped away?
Published by The Mail on Sunday (10th April, 2022)
On the right bank of Kyiv, close to the city centre, lies a peaceful park bisected by a busy road. When I visited last week, a carpet of grass and clusters of small flowers were starting to cover the undulating ground, despite a few final winter flurries of snow.
This serene spot is filled at weekends in normal times with families taking gentle strolls and pensioners sipping tea on benches. Yet for many years, these gentle ravines, once estuaries feeding the Dnieper river, hid the darkest of secrets.
They were the scene of grotesque atrocities that defiled our continent, the ground once filled with slaughtered corpses that soldiers invading from another country sought to conceal.
This is Babyn Yar. It is the place where 33,771 Jews were taken in September 1941 by Nazi SS soldiers, aided by Ukrainians recruited from a prison camp – then robbed, stripped naked and slaughtered over 36 hours of frenzied carnage.
Many victims had to wait on the assembly line of murder, listening to the relentless rattle of machine-gun fire before being forced to lie on the mound of bloodied corpses for their own execution. Loud music drowned out the screams.
Over two further years of occupation, 70,000 more people were killed here: Roma people, prisoners, psychiatric patients, intellectuals. There was even a concentration camp, where inmates were ordered to cover up the chilling evidence of mass killings.
It took until 1991 – the year that Ukraine shook off the shackles of Communism and tyranny of despotic rule from Moscow – for there to be official recognition that the Holocaust had stained this patch of land.
Now this Kyiv site, dotted with memorials to the horrors of history, bears witness to fresh atrocities unleashed by another dictator. And once again, it symbolises a twisted mindset used to unleash hell on innocent Ukrainians.
Early last month Babyn Yar was the scene of a Russian missile strike that targeted Suspilne, Ukraine’s state broadcaster. The attack, part of President Vladimir Putin’s failed assault on Kyiv, left five people dead.
Remnants of an exploded missile poke from a pavement by the park, scorch marks are visible on the nearby television mast, and buildings bear scars of war with burned walls, blown-out windows and curtains billowing in the wind.
Trenches covered with camouflage nets are carved now into the park’s soil. Troops guard the local underground station, with rifles on their laps and a crate of Molotov cocktails nearby on the stairs. Listless refugees sit by tents as they shelter below ground near the station platform.
If Putin’s plan to seize Kyiv had succeeded, there is little doubt he would have switched Suspilne’s channels over to Kremlin propaganda, pumping out his usual lies and distorted view of the world. Perhaps more mass graves might have been dug in the ravines.
Yet the fact that this Russian president fires missiles at a memorial to one of the largest massacres of the Holocaust shows him in his true light.
Putin is, after all, the ruler who claims to have invaded his neighbouring nation to protect Slavic soul mates and Russian-speakers from a supposed genocide being perpetrated by neo-Nazis running Ukraine.
Never mind that Ukraine’s elected president is Jewish. Nor that the nation struggled for so long to escape Moscow’s shadow and has some of the lowest levels of antisemitism in Europe.
This is the outrageous excuse being offered to invade a sovereign nation and inflict atrocities on new generations of Ukrainians.
We must not avert our eyes as we see evil surface again that we thought long buried in Europe’s past.
We must also ask why the warning signs about another dictator were ignored on our complacent continent – and question what it says about humanity that the darkest history keeps repeating itself in these horrifying ways.
The distance between Babyn Yar and Bucha is 12 miles – although the atrocities that will forever stain their names are separated by more than seven decades.
Among the families who moved to Bucha, lured by affordable flats, pine-filled parks and proximity to the capital, was a paediatrician called Galina, whom I met eight years ago in Crimea when I was covering the events that marked the real start of this conflict.
I had arrived in Kyiv in February 2014, the day before 104 pro-democracy protesters were gunned down in the city centre.
The country’s gangster president, Viktor Yanukovych, who had rejected closer links with the EU under pressure from Putin, fled to Russia after the massacre and likened his opponents to Nazis.
Then came the illegal occupation of Crimea followed by separatist insurgencies in Donbas stirred up by Putin, which were used two months ago as a bogus excuse for his latest acts of aggression.
The West slapped Putin’s wrist with a few sanctions but continued to rely on his gas and launder the stolen cash of his billionaire pals – just as we brushed aside his repression, his bloodshed in Georgia, his atrocities in Chechnya and Syria.
I became friends with Galina’s family during four weeks reporting in Crimea amid Russia’s occupation. Then she and her husband Oleg, another doctor, fled the area. They had been forced from their jobs after refusing to accept the new rulers. ‘We did not want to live in Russia,’ she said.
A proud Ukrainian, she had no desire to leave the place where she had lived for 30 years and given birth to three children.
But jobs – along with homes, driving licences and passports – are used as weapons by Putin’s regime to enforce subservience.
Galina and Oleg found new work and started their new life in Bucha, their youngest son settling in to a new school. But on February 24 this year, as I heard missile strikes in Kyiv, they woke to the same sounds of war in Bucha as their security was again ruptured.
Russian paratroopers tried to storm Hostomel airport, barely one mile from their home, provoking fierce fighting as Ukrainian forces retaliated with the strength that has surprised Putin. ‘From that moment, our life was not the same,’ said Galina.
Nor was the life of her nation. Galina told a tale I have heard too often over recent weeks: one of being bombarded by Russian artillery, hiding in a basement, cooking on open fires, suffering power cuts – then embarking on a flight to safety though enemy checkpoints, where soldiers stole possessions and joked about killing them.
Yet this family, who showed me such warmth in 2014, were lucky. They escaped to Mukachevo in western Ukraine.
They left behind some neighbours on their street. One elderly man later texted to warn that Russian soldiers were looting their houses and shooting dogs before, they were later told, he was shot dead.
Last week I visited Bucha before leaving Ukraine after almost three months in the country.
The first man I met told me of burying his mother under the local football pitch after she spent her final days, ill with cancer, cowering in a freezing home under attack.
She was 83 – born in the year the Second World War began and two years before those genocidal atrocities in Kyiv’s parkland. ‘She would have died anyway but should not have suffered this much,’ said her son Ivan, 43.
He had left his wife and children in Kyiv to go to Bucha to help his mother, then became trapped there and saw the carnage. ‘One man was walking his dog and was shot. Another man was on a bicycle and he was shot. A guy tried to cross the railway tracks – he was shot.’
Others told me of beatings, kidnappings, mock executions, mass looting, a torture chamber set up in a second-floor flat.
There were rumours of rape, a bus filled with children shot up, grenades chucked in a classroom, 15 bodies found with limbs tied.
I saw charred corpses of murdered men and women. This was the second time I had come across burned bodies due to Putin’s aggression, having seen the poor souls on MH17 – a commercial jet flying from Amsterdam shot over Ukraine in 2014 by Kremlin stooges – strewn around Donetsk fields speckled with summer flowers.
There is something frighteningly random about war. You see one flat destroyed by a missile, another without even a pane of broken glass.
One car is flattened by tanks, another is left without a scratch. One man dies, another lives.
Much of the Russian behaviour, however, has been unspeakably cruel. Viktor, 40, told how his family survived on Vokzalna Street – where the carcasses of 21 enemy armoured vehicles litter the road, bodies lay around for days and many houses have been left wrecked.
He laughed bitterly as he told me of a lucky escape with his 15-year-old son after six Russian soldiers, seeing them repairing their damaged roof with a neighbour, ordered them down to the ground.
‘They told us to lie down and started firing,’ he said. ‘The bullets went into the ground next to our heads. One asked if they should kill the older guy and let the younger one live, but the other said no, let them live since they are working.’
But a neighbour, a man in his 60s, was shot after soldiers entered his yard and he left the basement where he was sheltering.
Then they ordered his grief-stricken wife to sit at home alone for five days or face death herself from a grenade.
‘She had to sit in the basement with her husband shot dead in the yard for five days. Then when she came out, she buried his body in their garden,’ said Yuriy, a friend of the couple. ‘It’s so sad – he was a very nice man.’
Yuriy’s wife Zhanna told me about ‘a granny’ shot dead as she went to fetch water and about four female corpses found piled up by a park. ‘These were civilians. If they were soldiers, then they should have fought soldiers. Why did they do it?’
What makes some people, some regimes, some soldiers, plunge so deeply into darkness and depravity?
Were these atrocities the legacy of Putin’s propaganda that – with Orwellian use of language – branded a nation seeking democracy as neo-Nazi, a message driven home over his two decades in power, with Ukrainians routinely dehumanised as bad guys and fascists in the state-dominated Russian media?
Perhaps they were the consequence of a dictatorial regime that shows no respect for rules, treats human rights with disdain and preaches a crude nationalist creed.
Or were they the inevitable result of an invasion by an army filled with raw conscripts, young men deceived into thinking they were going on exercises, then left furious and frustrated when their military machine spluttered and ran out of food and fuel?
Certainly, as I have seen before and Bucha shows again, war is ugly and unruly.
It strips away society’s veneer of civilisation with ruthless force and speed, often releasing a repellent side of humanity in a desperate fight for survival where normal rules that restrain behaviour are frequently abandoned.
This leads to inhumane atrocities – but also to the nobility of people coming together to protect their families and communities, often in the most luminescent style amid the darkest hours. It is something being seen repeatedly in Ukraine.
Yet the war may still be in its infancy. So there remains the danger that the incredible spirit of Ukrainian resistance – forged in this existential struggle with Russia that dragged on for eight years before exploding in February – will dissolve amid the deaths, destruction, economic devastation and understandable desire for peace.
Putin has bound together Ukraine, strengthening a new sense of nationhood. But he has also inflamed hatred towards all Russians, whom Ukrainians blame for backing him. This does not bode well.
And it is one more sign, as I have long argued, of how Putin’s strategy keeps failing – as seen in so many areas of policy from the formidable unity of Ukraine under attack through to the solidifying of Nato and belated focus on weaning Europe off Russian energy.
One Ukrainian friend told me of her astonishment that Russia launched this conflict, since it is a nation that suffered so much in living memory from war, every year marking the end of their struggle against Nazism on May 9 by saying ‘Tolko b ne bylo voiny’ (‘If only there was no war’).
Instead we have the depressing sight of cities such as Kharkiv and Mariupol being pulverised by a Russian president in this pointless conflict, and watching so many lives devastated as punishment for the desire of Ukrainians to live in a democratic European nation.
We should admire the fortitude shown by these brave people in the face of Putin’s brutality – something seen from frontline forces in the east of Ukraine through to the presidential team in Kyiv and all those volunteers helping refugees in western cities.
Yet I remain fearful that even now, the West may not have fully woken up to the threat posed by dictatorship, the seismic struggle of our time, that has led to the unleashing of such barbarity again in the heart of our continent.
Never forget the distance from Babyn Yar to Bucha is far less than we might think.