Two years since the liberation of Bucha: ‘The youngest victim was two, the oldest 99’


In 2022 the Ukrainian city of Bucha, located just outside Kyiv, was occupied by Russian forces for more than a month. Following the city’s liberation on 31 March of that year, the horrific crimes committed by the Russian side immediately came to light. These crimes cannot go unpunished. On 2 April the Netherlands hosted the Restoring Justice for Ukraine conference to highlight the importance of bringing those responsible for war crimes, such as those committed in Bucha, to justice.

Enlarge image De priester toont de beelden die de wereld over gingen.
Horrifying Images from Bucha were seen by the entire world after the city was liberated.

Hundreds of dead

The images seen by the world right after the liberation of Bucha are engraved in the collective memory of the Ukrainian people. Directly behind St. Andrew’s Orthodox church, on the edge of the city, a mass grave containing the bodies of at least 116 innocent civilians was discovered.

Andriy Halavin is a priest at the church and was thus one of the first to be confronted with the atrocities. He explains, ‘I went right to the church in the hours immediately following the city’s liberation. It wasn’t much later that the mass grave was discovered. In Bucha, which had a population of over 37,000 in 2022, many innocent people lost their lives while the city was under Russian occupation. Estimates put the number of people killed at over 500. This is a third of all civilian deaths in the Kyiv region in the first months of the war.’

The period following Bucha’s liberation was difficult for the local community, says Andriy. ‘We became “famous” for all the dead. The youngest victim was two years old, the oldest a 99-year-old woman. These people didn’t pose a threat to the Russians, but the soldiers unleashed so much evil and pain on them.’

Enlarge image Herdenkingsmonument in Bucha
A memorial was built on the location where the mass grave was discovered.

International support

The heart-wrenching images from the heavily hit city were viewed with shock around the world. Andriy: ‘Many international journalists came here. So did representatives of the International Criminal Court, Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Hanke Bruins Slot, [President of the European Commission] Ursula von der Leyen and [High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the EU Commission] Josep Borrell. They saw first-hand the crimes that had been committed here.’ He continues: ‘It means a lot to us that the global community has supported and continues to support us. We are incredibly grateful for all the help and patience. I understand that many people who see what’s going on in our country on their TVs are fed up with the war. But all the support helps us go on. We’re tired, but we’ll continue fighting.’

Seeking justice for the crimes committed

Seeking justice for the war crimes committed by the Russian forces is just as important as fighting on the front lines, stresses the priest. ‘War criminals should be identified as such, so that the wives and children of Russian soldiers don’t think they’re heroes. Many Ukrainians have lost their homes and been robbed, raped or even killed. Children in occupied territories have been taken to Russia, illegally put up for adoption to Russian families, stripped of their Ukrainian identity and forced to become Russian. It’s very important that Russians are held accountable for these crimes.’

Enlarge image Priester Andryi Halavin.
Andryi Halavin.

Conference in The Hague

The Netherlands too places a lot of importance on the fight for justice in Ukraine. That is why on 2 April 2024, the Netherlands, Ukraine and the European Commission hosted the conference Restoring Justice for Ukraine at the World Forum in The Hague. The conference addressed the progress that has been made when it comes to seeking justice for the war crimes committed. Russia bombs schools and hospitals on a daily basis. In occupied territories Ukrainian civilians are being tortured, raped and abducted. On 2 April various ministers voiced their support for long-term efforts to fight impunity and provide reparations to victims.

Click here for a recap of the conference.

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