‘A war crime’: two young boys among Ukrainians shot dead during attempted evacuation

Civilians fleeing in cars mown down in the town of Bucha, north-west of Kyiv, where 20 bodies were found on the streets

Halyna Tovkach, 55, is searching for the body of her husband, Oleg, 62. His death, she says, is part of a war crime in which Russian soldiers also killed two young boys and their mother.

The incident is said to have happened at 7.15 on the morning of 5 March in Bucha, a town north-west of Kyiv, when two families who were neighbours on Ivana Rudenka street tried to escape their hell.

It is, Halyna said, a story she wants the world to hear.

The two families, terrified by the constant shelling and indiscriminate fire that has marked the Russian invasion of Ukraine, had decided to leave Bucha, a town of about 30,000 people, just days earlier.

Oleg and Halyna Tovkach, Bucha, Ukraine
Halyna Tovkach and her husband, Oleg, who was killed when the Russians fired on their car. Photograph: Handout

Food and drink was packed, a route to the western Ukrainian village of Romanivka was planned. They would travel in convoy.

In the front car, a white Ford, were Oleksandr Chykmariov, 42, his wife, Margarita, 33, and their two boys, Matvey, eight and Klim, four.

Behind them, in a white Dodge, were Oleg, his wife, Halyna, who would drive the whole way as her husband did not have a licence, and Tetiana Kovalenko, 50, mother of the wife of their son, Roman, 33.

The two families were nervous but determined. They were destined never to even reach the outskirts of town.

After turning on to Chkalova Street, just 800 metres from their doorstep, a Russian armoured vehicle, unseen by those in the second car, got the convoy in its sights, according to Halyna’s account to the Observer from her hospital bed.

“The Chykmariovs’ car suddenly stopped and so I stopped,” said Halyna. “I saw a door open in the front car and two legs drop out. A thought came to my head, I just thought everybody is killed. It happened so quickly, I don’t know. My husband screamed, ‘turn round, turn round’. Then I felt something hit my right shoulder, a bullet. I pushed my husband to get out of the car. But he wasn’t moving. I realised he was dead. I just opened my door and ran.”

Tetiana, in the back seat, couldn’t get out and had to smash her window open with her feet to escape.

In the front car, which a short while later was consumed by flames, only Oleksandr survived the attack. His wife and two boys had been killed instantly by the machine-gun fire that raked the vehicle.

Oleksandr crawled out of his shattered vehicle taking cover behind Halyna’s car. He reached into the front seat of the Dodge after spotting a mobile phone.

“He called me,” said Roman. “He said, ‘Everyone’s dead. Your mother and father are dead.’”

Oleksandr, who has since lost a leg, was later picked up by passing car. He was not ready to talk about the death of his family when approached by the Observer.

Halyna Tovkach in hospital Bucha Ukraine
Halyna Tovkach after hospital treatment for her bullet wound. Photograph: Handout

Roman, who had been away on business when Vladimir Putin had begun his war on 24 February, says he will return to Bucha to find his father in a couple of days.

Oleg’s body, locals say, stayed in the car for five days. The Russians would not allow it to be removed. “I don’t know where my father’s body is,” Roman said. “I have to find him.”

His mother is still in hospital after being moved from a local facility to Chernobyl. “The doctors said that one centimetre lower and I would be dead too,” Halyna said. “I saw a V on the armoured vehicle,” she added, referring to the letter that, along with Z, has been painted on Russian vehicles operating in Ukraine.

The understated manner in which Roman and his mother tell their dreadful story belies the strength of their determination that accounts of such crimes will be heard. “I hope this will be of interest to you,” Roman says. “It is a war crime.”

The claims could not be independently verified although the Observer has seen a photograph of Halyna’s wounds and they echo a terrible list of similar stories that have emerged as the Russian troops have been driven back from Kyiv’s suburbs.

On Saturday, the bodies of at least 20 men were found by Ukrainian forces lying in a single street in Bucha. One of them had his hands tied.

Sixteen of the 20 corpses were lying either on the pavement or by the verge, according to an account by AFP journalists who had been given access to the town by the military. Three were sprawled in the middle of the road and another was lying in the courtyard of a house, according to the account.

An open Ukrainian passport lay on the ground next to the person who had his hands tied behind his back with a piece of white cloth. All were said to be wearing civilian clothes – winter coats, jackets or tracksuit tops, jeans or jogging bottoms, and trainers or boots.

Two of them lay near bicycles while another was next to an abandoned car. Some were said to be laid face up, with their limbs unnaturally bent, while others were lying face down. The faces of the dead had taken on a pale waxy appearance, indicating that they may have been there for a number of days.


Daniel Boffey in Kyiv

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Ukrainians in Kyiv shrug off threat of Russian invasion
While many are making contingency plans, life continues as normal in a city that has grown weary of the constant talk of war

Shaun Walker in Kyiv

13, Feb, 2022 @7:15 AM

Article image
The Kyiv unit patrolling the streets as law and order cracks under war
Drunks, thieves, spies and hedgehogs all in a night’s work for the men backing up city’s overstretched police force

Emma Graham-Harrison and Vera Mironova in Kyiv

07, May, 2022 @4:02 PM

Article image
‘What would this Ukrainian like for her 100th birthday? That Putin will die’
Elderly citizens in Kyiv who have lived through Hitler’s Holocaust and Stalin’s Holodomor fear that history is repeating itself with Russia’s invasion

Shaun Walker in Kyiv

03, Apr, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
Russia must face tribunal for ‘crime of aggression’ in Ukraine, say cross-party leaders
Pressure grows on Putin as politicians and lawyers point to principles that led to Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals

Michael Savage Policy Editor and Emma Graham-Harrison in Kyiv

08, Jan, 2023 @6:00 AM

Article image
Arms shipments are a legitimate military target, Kremlin warns west
Volodymyr Zelenskiy reveals that at least 1,300 Ukrainian troops have died as French and German talks with Vladimir Putin fail

Peter Beaumont in Lviv

12, Mar, 2022 @6:56 PM

Article image
Boris Johnson pledges to send more arms during surprise visit to Kyiv
UK to send military vehicles and missiles as prime minister hails Zelenskiy’s heroism

Bethan McKernan in Kyiv and Toby Helm

09, Apr, 2022 @6:52 PM

Article image
How the barbaric lessons learned in Syria came to haunt one small Ukrainian village
West of Kyiv, a Russian unit led by Syria veterans set up camp and began a drunken, murderous campaign

Emma Graham-Harrison, Isobel Koshiw and Lorenzo Tondo in Motyzhyn

30, Apr, 2022 @6:25 PM

Article image
Concern for health of Ukrainians aboard Scotland’s ‘floating refugee camps’
Campaigners alarmed by reports of scarlet fever outbreaks

Miranda Bryant

27, Nov, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Russians have gone. Now Kherson faces a relentless new enemy – winter
Residents in the newly liberated freezing city are gathering all the wood they can after the bombing devastated their power supplies

Lorenzo Tondo and Isobel Koshiw in Kherson

20, Nov, 2022 @8:00 AM

Article image
With bloodied gloves, forensic teams uncover gruesome secrets of Bucha in Ukraine
While investigators uncover the remains of civilians, heartbroken families wait nearby to reclaim their loved ones

Bethan McKernan in Bucha, Ukraine

09, Apr, 2022 @5:40 PM