- Russian forces occupied the town of Bucha for 33 days
- The mass graves were found after Ukraine recaptured them
- Ukraine accuses Russian troops of committing atrocities
- Russia has denied the allegations
BUCHA, Ukraine, March 31 (Reuters) – President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Friday that Ukraine would never forgive Russian troops responsible for atrocities in Bucha, as the town near Kyiv marked the anniversary of its recapture after of 33 days of occupation.
Ukrainian forces took back control of the small towns of Bucha and Irpin northwest of Kyiv in late March last year as Russian intervention forces abandoned their attempt to seize the capital.
Moscow has denied accusations of executions, rapes and torture by its occupying troops who left corpses in the streets as they fled.
“The evil of Russia will fall right here in Ukraine, and will never rise again. Humanity will prevail,” said Zelenskiy, who presided over a ceremony where the Ukrainian flag was raised in Bucha.
The president awarded medals to soldiers involved in retaking the town, and relatives accepted medals on behalf of fallen soldiers that were awarded to them posthumously.
“When Bucha was de-occupied, we saw that the devil was not somewhere outside but on the ground. The ugly truth about what was happening in the temporarily occupied territories was revealed to the world, ” said Zelenskiy.
Images of dead bodies lying in the street went viral around the world after Ukraine regained control. Kyiv said more than 1,400 people were killed in Bucha during the occupation including 37 children, more than 175 people were found in graves and torture chambers, and 9,000 Russian war crimes were identified.
International investigators are now collecting evidence of war crimes in Irpin, Bucha and other areas. Zelenskiy described Bucha as a “symbol of atrocities” by the Russian occupying forces.
“We will not forget the victims of this war, and we will certainly bring all Russian murderers to justice,” Zelenskiy wrote on social media. “We will never forgive. We will punish every guilty party.”
Bucha has become a stop for international visitors to Ukraine. The president of Moldova and the prime ministers of Croatia, Slovakia and Slovenia also attended Friday’s ceremony.
“We honor and mourn the innocent. Democracies must work together to ensure that these atrocities are investigated and punished,” said Moldovan President Maia Sandu, who has joined Zelenskiy in seeking European Union membership for her country. .
Fighting continues in eastern and southern Ukraine, where Russian forces hold swaths of territory gained after they invaded on Feb. 24, 2022.
Russia is conducting a winter offensive to make small advances in the east at great cost in life. Ukrainian forces have dug in and held out for now in the city of Bakhmut and are expected to launch a counter-offensive soon.
Tensions rose between Russia and the West because of the war. Relations between Washington and Moscow further deteriorated on Thursday when Russia arrested a Wall Street Journal correspondent, Evan Gershkovich, on espionage charges, which the paper denied and the White House called “ridiculous”.
For places like Bucha hundreds of miles from the frontline, the war is still felt, with regular air raid sirens telling residents to take cover from missile and drone strikes that have caused major power outages.
Residents in Bucha speak of the deep psychological wounds left by the occupation and say it will take generations to overcome it. Some buildings remain destroyed in the town and a scrapyard is full of cars and military vehicles that were destroyed last year.
“We must understand that it is easy to rebuild walls, but it is more difficult to rebuild a wounded soul,” said Andriy Holovin, a priest in a Ukrainian Orthodox parish.
Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin said his office had identified nearly 100 Russian soldiers suspected of war crimes in Bucha and indictments against 35 of them had been sent to court.
They included a three-star general who commanded Russia’s Central Military District, he said. Two Russian servicemen captured in Ukraine were jailed for illegally imprisoning civilians and looting, he added.
Most of the Russian suspects are not in Ukrainian custody, but Kyiv said it hoped they could be charged someday.
“I am convinced that all these crimes are not a coincidence. It is part of Russia’s planned strategy to destroy Ukraine as a state and Ukrainians as a nation,” he said.
Additional reporting by Max Hunder and Dan Peleschuk, Writing by Tom Balmforth, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Peter Graff
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