Borodyanka: ‘There are a lot of people left under the rubble’

The destruction in the centre of Borodyanka is the worst for its size I have seen in any of the towns around Kyiv, including Irpin and Bucha, which were much fought over.

Down the main street from the roundabout at the entrance to the town there is a massive amount of damage. Destroyed and burnt-out buildings, homes turned to rubble, the twisted wreckage of cars, and then more collapsed buildings.

Borodyanka, which is not far from the border with Belarus and was on the main axis of the Russian advance on Kyiv, has been very heavily shelled.

It is not the kind of shelling that happens in a couple of bombardments. This takes application.

Image shows car driving among wreckageIMAGE SOURCE,EPA
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Police say hundreds of people could be buried under shelled apartment blocks in the town of Borodyanka

Several witnesses told the BBC that Russian troops stopped attempts to dig survivors out of wrecked buildings, threatening people who wanted to do so at gunpoint.

Ukrainian officials say that the Russians may have committed worse atrocities in Borodyanka than in Bucha, where bodies of men who looked to have been summarily killed were found lying in the street after the Russians pulled out, and several hundred other bodies were in a mass grave.

At the moment, though, the extent of what was done to civilians in Borodyanka during the Russian occupation is not yet clear.

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Local residents say they were prevented from digging for survivors after buildings were turned into rubble

The reason is that the rubble of bomb sites has not yet been moved. Those in the town believe that corpses of civilians are lying under them, but the number is not known.

The worst killing in Borodyanka might have come when several large blocks of flats were destroyed.

In a line of big cream-coloured buildings, several have been flattened. The fire-blackened gaps that they occupied are like missing teeth.

Tons of concrete and steel collapsed into the cellars under the flats. Several people said dozens of civilians were lying dead under the rubble. The police said it could be hundreds. They are waiting for cranes and heavy lifting gear to start moving huge amounts of rubble to recover bodies.

Dmytro Stashevskyi, a middle-aged man, is lucky to be alive. I met him when he was cleaning up a smashed and looted shop he rented out as a pharmacy.

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Dmytro shows Jeremy Bowen and his BBC team what remains of the destroyed pharmacy he once ran

His family left Borodyanka on 24 February when the Russians invaded. Dmytro stayed on to safeguard their property. The Russians were moving tanks and men through the town, so with his neighbours, he spent much of his time in the cellar under their building, day as well as night.

By the evening of 1 March he decided that he had to sleep somewhere less exposed to the Russians, so went to another shelter on the edge of town.

When he returned in the morning the building was rubble and the cellar where he had been staying with friends and neighbours was filled with twisted concrete and steel.

“I came back at 08:30 in the morning and the apartment was already destroyed. My mum, my wife and daughter were all praying for me. Before it all happened, there was talk of Russian tank columns moving through the city and shooting at everything. I didn’t believe it at first, but then I saw them shooting at civilian houses.”

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One witness told the BBC that they saw civilians being killed by Russian sniper attacks

Dmytro’s wife Svetlana was trying to clear up his mother’s destroyed flat in the building next door, which was still standing. She said the Russians stopped attempts to rescue any survivors.

“They were all our neighbours”, she said. “Shortly after the attack, people nearby heard some voices, Russian soldiers stopped them digging. They threatened to shoot if they tried.”

“There are a lot of people left under the rubble,” confirmed another woman, Maria, who was busy sorting mirrors and pictures that could be salvaged and throwing the rest into a skip behind her apartment block. “My soul hurts. I knew all those people. We knew they were there from the first day, but they wouldn’t let us get them out.”

Maria and many others told us that Russian troops looted their property.

The Russians “stole everything that glittered,” she said. “They even took my lingerie. They beat everything, they gutted everything… it’s all smashed.”

Many people left Borodyanka when the invasion began on 24 February. A few who have come back were walking around the ruins, dazed and distressed by what they were seeing.

Svitlana Gontar, who had just returned on Tuesday morning, sobbed as she saw what had become of her hometown.

“It was so green. It was really nice. Kids studied here. We had three schools, a technical and a music college. Now, we don’t have anything. Children have lost their childhood, their memories, everything.”

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Svitlana returned to her hometown of Borodyanka on Tuesday morning

Outside the golden-domed Ukrainian Orthodox church, a local priest, Father Dmytro, was supervising the distribution of bread outside the golden-domed church. He said he had witnessed Russian snipers killing civilians.

“It was the 2 March near the petrol station. We were driving along, followed by two civilian cars. They just shot them – it was an execution.”

“Since the Russians left, we have tried to provide humanitarian aid – mostly supplies from western Ukraine. But it has to be food that will keep. Most people still don’t have any power or heat.”

Map showing buildings on the main street of Borodyanka which are damaged beyond repair.

The biggest bomb sites in Borodyanka could only have been hit by air strikes or ballistic missiles. The laws of war state civilians are protected and killing them is a crime unless they are involved with military action.

Unless it can be proved that the blocks of flats were military sites, then their destruction and the death of the hundreds whose bodies local police fear lie underneath, could amount to a war crime.

Reports of actions by Russian forces in Ukraine that could be crimes of war are accumulating. One question is what redress, if any, will be available for victims and their families.

Image shows destruction of buildings before and after

The best recent example was the war crimes tribunal in The Hague that prosecuted some of the worst perpetrators in the wars of former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. That was authorised by the UN Security Council.

But Russia is a veto-wielding permanent member, so that avenue is likely to be closed for Ukraine.

Father Dmytro has no doubt about what Russia’s actions in his country amount to. “[The Russians] did everything possible to destroy the country of Ukraine. This was not a war between armies – this war was against the entire country of Ukraine.”

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