The Banality of Brutality | Organized Crime and Corruption

33 days under siege in Block 17, Bucha, Ukraine

by UKCHP_Admin

The Russian occupation of Bucha lasted just 33 days — from late February to April 1 this year — but it has already become a byword for brutality.

Mass murders of civilians there made headlines around the world. Journalists and officials rushed to the Kyiv suburb to interview survivors and gather evidence that war crimes had been committed.

But what was it really like to live through those 33 days of occupation?

OCCRP and its Ukrainian partner Slidstvo.Info obtained the logs of a Telegram chat used by 88 people from a single apartment building in Bucha, known as Block 17.

The block was built in the waning days of the Soviet Union to house the employees of a glassworks across the street. Many older residents still know each other from those days, when they worked together producing glass pipes and windows at the factory on Yablunska Street, a major thoroughfare that cuts a diagonal swath through town.

Bucha lies 25 km west of Kyiv. Block 17 is in the southwest of the city, in an industrial area.

In March and April, as they grappled with the indignities of war — being shot at in the streets and in their homes, having to scrounge for firewood and fresh water — they sent thousands of text and voice messages to each other, along with photos, memes, and videos, creating a unique snapshot of life under siege.

The chat logs are messier than other wartime narratives. The view from Block 17 could be parochial, scattered, confused, and occasionally profane, as residents desperately tried to piece together an understanding of what was happening around them.

Bombings, gunfire, and constant fear were interspersed with panic, grinding boredom, and neighborly bickering, but also cooperation and commiseration.

“Those of us who stayed have a close relationship, as if we crossed the ocean or survived an earthquake,” said Iryna Karpenko, a former glass factory worker who has lived in Block 17 for nearly four decades.

Before the war began, she said, “We didn’t know how well we lived. And we were grumbling all the time, didn’t want to go to work.

“My God! I’d rather go to work than see things like that!”

In May, reporters visited the block to get a better sense of what actually happened during some of the events that dominated the chat.

They spoke to residents and got permission to reproduce their chat logs here. (Those who could not be reached, or asked for their names not to be used, were assigned pseudonyms. Some chats were condensed for clarity.)

For Mykhailo, a retired glassmaker, the fire followed a string of sleepless nights. He had stopped even bothering to go to bed. Instead he would just doze fitfully on his couch at night, fully dressed, with his cat Jack curled at his feet.

“At night, it was impossible to sleep. You’d doze off and you’d immediately hear that ‘boom!’”

On the afternoon of March 5 he was back on the couch with Jack, trying to get some rest. He had just nodded off when the shell hit.

“I opened my eyes. I couldn’t see anything. The plaster had fallen off. The ceiling had collapsed. Luckily, I have a habit of sleeping with my mouth open — otherwise my eardrums would have ruptured.”

Mykhailo was able to make it out of his apartment and save another resident from the flames. Together, they worked to put the fire out with sand.

Then he attended to other important matters — like tracking down Jack the cat, who had bolted after the first shell dropped.

His daughter tried to help by messaging the Block 17 Telegram group.

Reunited with Jack, Mykhailo took a philosophical approach to his absence.

“Why did he run away?” he mused.

“He was just looking for happiness.”

Other residents of Block 17 weren’t able to run. Most of those who remained during the war were elderly or disabled. Many were former glassworkers and their families, since the Bucha Glassworks is right across the street.

Sergiy Sadykov, 64, was in his 8th-floor apartment when the fire started.

Sadykov once worked at the factory, but his health had declined and he’d been having trouble walking, so he rarely strayed far from where he lived. When reporters visited Block 17, they found Sadykov’s remains amid the rubble of his apartment.

“His legs were really bad. He stayed in the apartment,‘’ said a neighbor named Lyuba.

“He burned to death in the same apartment.”

Iryna, now 65, still remembers the exact day she moved into her new apartment in Block 17: March 7, 1984. She and her family had been on a waiting list for four years before being granted housing.

It was so new the heating hadn’t even been installed, but she was thrilled to have a home so close to work.

Now, the building’s proximity to the glassworks had become a liability.

In late February it was commandeered by Russian soldiers, who set up camp inside.

Residents were terrified of venturing outside for fear of encountering the soldiers. They used their group chat to strategize about what to do if they met one on the streets.

Despite these admonitions, a neighbor named Babak was shot making a run from one entrance of the building to another.

“He ran out of the second section. They shouted to him, “Stop!” said Iryna.

“In a nutshell, he did not stop…. They fired straight at him. That was the first person to die.”

Other deaths followed.

Sergiy Semeniuk was killed on an expedition to search for dry firewood. His mother, Halyna, died of cancer with no doctors on hand. Vitaliy Nedashkivskyi never made it back from the grocery store.

Nedashkivskyi — a security guard who lived with his mother, a cleaner — had a passion for cleanliness but a weakness for alcohol. He often helped his mother mop the block’s common areas.

“He was beaten to death, just beaten to death,” Iryna said. “They might have been there at the time, and he came drunk. They just beat him to death with gunstocks or something like that.”

Nedashkivskyi never returned home that day. Locals reported seeing him dead outside the grocery store, but his body was never recovered.

Even if it had been, there would have been no chance of a dignified burial, or any burial at all. The Russians ordered that dead bodies should be left where they fell.

“They said, ‘No, you will not bury them. As long as it’s cold, let them lie there,” recalled Iryna.

After a while, the locals decided to move a number of corpses into an abandoned bus close to Block 17.

“We had a whole cemetery gathered there in the bus.”

Emotions were fragile under occupation, and arguments sometimes broke out on Telegram, especially when it seemed like one neighbor was endangering the rest.

Frustrated residents accused the smoker of being a “drug addict,” endangering the lives of everyone on Block 17 for the sake of a hit. The truth was more complicated.

The apartment owner entered the chat to explain:


As the owner of the apartment, I’ll tell you what happened.

After two strokes, my father hardly understands anything at all. He went out to the balcony to warm up and then there were some warning shots, first at the kitchen window. But since he can barely move and gets disoriented, he just kept standing there.

Then they started shooting at the balcony windows and hit the room, a fire started: the blankets on the bed and some other stuff caught fire.

A few days later, bickering broke out again.

Residents had been told to go into blackout mode at night so Russian soldiers wouldn’t start shooting at them.

But one of the families that fled had forgotten to take down a string of flashing Christmas lights. The remaining denizens of Block 17 were furious. They tried to get in touch with the owner to shut them off.

In mid-March, the chat began buzzing with rumors about a pair of young Bucha women who were supposedly collaborating with the Russians.

Memes and internet rumors had accused the two of a litany of wartime sins: drinking and using drugs with the Russian invading forces, sleeping with them, and betraying Ukrainian soldiers by sharing secret information.

But two months later, residents were chastened by how the women had been described. Most of the chatter, it turned out, had been hearsay and gossip.

“The fact is that they were released because [authorities] did not find enough evidence,” said Iryna.

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