It is easy to miss the killing spot at first in the gloom. But in a cold, damp basement on the edge of the woods that made Bucha a popular get-away spot before the war, five Ukrainian men were forced to their knees and shot in the head.

To the right of the entrance, there are stones coated in blood that has turned dark red. Lying among that is a blue woollen hat with an exit hole in one side and its rim soaked in blood. In the wall, I counted at least a dozen bullet holes.

Forensics team marker in Bucha basement
Image caption,

A marker left by a forensics team in the basement

A couple of steps away are the remains of a Russian military ration pack – an open can of rice porridge with beef and an empty packet of crackers. A name daubed in graffiti on a wall is a reminder that the scene is a children’s camp. But when Russian troops moved into Bucha, just outside the capital, in early March, Camp Radiant became an execution ground.

The story of the summer camp killings is chilling but so is this detail: more than 1,000 civilians were killed in the Bucha region during a month under Russian occupation, but most did not die from shrapnel or shelling. More than 650 were shot dead by Russian soldiers, according to a senior police official.

Now Ukraine is searching for their killers.

Short presentational grey line

Volodymyr Boichenko lived in Hostemel, just up the road from Bucha and near the airfield where the first Russian forces landed to try to overthrow Ukraine’s government. When his sister Aliona Mykytiuk decided to flee before the fighting reached her, she pleaded with Volodymyr to join her. He was a civilian, not a soldier, but he wanted to stay and help. So he spent the days searching Hostemel for food and water to bring to neighbours, including children, who were trapped in their cellars by the constant shelling and Russian airstrikes.

A chatty 34-year-old, who had travelled the world in the merchant navy, Volodymyr phoned his family from Hostemel most days to reassure them he was safe. Aliona would wait nervously for his brief calls: she knew he had to move to higher ground to get a connection and if the shelling was heavy it was impossible to leave the bomb shelter. As supplies ran low, she urged her brother to try to escape but by then the roads were blocked.

Volodymyr drinking from a coconutIMAGE SOURCE,BOICHENKO FAMILY
Image caption,

Volodymyr Boichenko had travelled the world

The last time Aliona heard from him was on 8 March. Volodymyr wasn’t the demonstrative type, but that day he told his sister not to worry about him. “He said ‘I really love you,’ and that was so painful to hear,” Aliona sobs, rubbing her eyes hard but unable to stop the tears. “There was fear in his voice.”

Four days later, Volodymyr was spotted by neighbours close to Promenystyi, as it’s known here, or Camp Radiant. Then he disappeared.

In March, the fighting around Kyiv was intense and the small town of Bucha was at the epicentre. The withdrawal of Russian troops in early April revealed scenes that shocked the world: the bodies of residents slumped in the streets where they’d been shot.

Moscow tells anyone who will listen that the killings were staged, an idea that is as twisted as it is patently false. Determined to hold those responsible to account, Ukrainian investigators are busy collecting the hard evidence on territory now back under their control.

“We don’t know what Putin’s plans are, so we are working as quickly as possible in case he drops a bomb and destroys all the proof,” says Kyiv regional police chief, Andrii Niebytov.

That evidence includes a field full of civilian cars pierced with multiple bullet holes, now piled up on the edge of Bucha. They are vehicles that were shot at when families tried to flee. One still has a length of white cloth at the window, hung to show the soldiers that its occupants were no threat. Step too close, and you catch the sickly smell of death.

Car with white ribbon and bullet holes
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A white flag did not prevent this car from being attacked

When the bodies beneath Camp Radiant were discovered on 4 April, Volodymyr Boichenko was among them. Aliona had spent weeks frantically calling hospitals and morgues. That day she was sent a photograph to identify. She knew it was her brother before it had even downloaded.

“I hate them with every cell of my being,” Aliona cries, about Volodymyr’s killers. “I know that’s wrong to say about people, but they are not human. There was not one patch on those men’s bodies that was not beaten.”

Ilona and Alona, Volodymyr's sister
Image caption,

Volodymyr’s sister Aliona, with her cousin Ilona

The five men had been found crouching on their knees, heads down and hands bound behind their backs.

“We know they had been tortured,” the police chief told the BBC. “The Russian army has crossed the line of how war is conducted. They were not fighting the military in Ukraine, they were kidnapping and torturing the civilian population.”

Neither the Prosecutor’s Office nor the SBU security service will disclose details of ongoing investigations, but some Russian military were so careless at covering their tracks that there are likely to be considerable clues to work with. Ukrainian territorial defence units have even discovered lists of soldiers at some abandoned positions. One appears to be part of a rota for litter duty, another includes passport details and mobile phone numbers.

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