‘This tears my soul apart’: A Ukrainian boy and a killing

Publish: 6:06 PM, May 12, 2022 | Update: 6:06:PM, May 12, 2022

As he listened to his father die, the boy lay still on the asphalt. His elbow burned where a bullet had pierced him. His thumb stung from being grazed.

Another killing was in progress on a lonely street in Bucha, the community on the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, where bodies of civilians are still being discovered weeks after Russian soldiers withdrew. Many had been shot in the head.

The 14-year-old Yura Nechyporenko was about to become one of them.

Survivors have described soldiers firing guns near their feet or threatening them with grenades, only to be drawn away by a cooler-headed colleague. But there was no one around to restrain the Russian soldier that day in March when Yura and his father, 47-year-old Ruslan, were biking down a tree-lined street.

They were on their way to visit vulnerable neighbors sheltering in basements and homes without electricity or running water. Their bikes were tied with white fabric, in a sign they traveled in peace.

When the soldier stepped from a dirt path to challenge them, Yura and his father immediately stopped and raised their hands.

“What are you doing?” Yura remembers the soldier asking. The soldier didn’t give Yura’s father time to answer.

A shot hit Yura’s hand, and he fell, too. Another shot struck his elbow. He closed his eyes. A final shot was fired.

This story is part of an ongoing investigation from The Associated Press and Frontline that includes the War Crimes Watch Ukraine interactive experience and an upcoming documentary.

Yura’s extraordinary account alleging an attempted killing by Russian soldiers stands out as international justice experts descend on Bucha, a center of the horrors and possible war crimes in Ukraine. More than 1,000 bodies have been found so far in Bucha and other communities around Kyiv. In Bucha alone, 31 children under the age of 18 were killed and 19 wounded, according to local authorities.

“All children were killed or injured deliberately, since the Russian soldiers deliberately shot at evacuating cars that had the signs ‘CHILDREN’ and white fabric tied to them, and they deliberately shot at the homes of civilians,” the chief prosecutor of the Bucha region, Ruslan Kravchenko, told the AP.

The U.N. human rights office says at least 202 children across Ukraine have been killed in Russia’s invasion, and believes the real number to be considerably higher. The Ukrainian government’s count is 217 children killed and over 390 wounded.

The AP and Frontline, drawing from a variety of sources, have independently documented 21 attacks where children were killed that likely meet the definition of a war crime, ranging from the discovery of a child in a shallow grave in Borodyanka to the bombing of a theater in Mariupol. The total number of child victims in the attacks is unknown, and the accounting represents just a fraction of potential war crimes.

Yura is a teenager growing into himself, spindly and spotted, with dark circles pressed under his eyes. Adulthood has been rushed upon him. As he lies on the floor of his family’s home to demonstrate what happened, he shows the healing holes in his elbow.

His mother, Alla, takes deep breaths to calm herself. Yura, sitting up, wraps an arm around her, then puts his head on her shoulder.

On that awful day, Yura survived the attempted killing by the awkward grace of that teenage constant, his gray hoodie. It was shot instead of him, and he felt it move.

Yura lay on the street for minutes afterward, waiting for the soldier to walk away.

Then Yura ran. He reached the kindergarten where his mother worked, and where some residents used the basement as a shelter. They were shocked to see the boy and gave him first aid.

He realized he needed to go home. He returned to the streets, not knowing where the next soldier might be.

When he arrived home, his family called the police. The police said they could do nothing because they didn’t control the area, according to the family. The ambulance service said the same.

The police told the family that officers didn’t know what to do with the case, according to the boy’s uncle, Andriy. A prosecutor’s report describes the killing and attempted killing in a few bare sentences, including the loss of a cellphone belonging to Yura’s father. He would have been of help now — he’d been a lawyer.

Kravchenko told the AP that they continue to work on Yura’s case, and expressed confidence that crimes committed during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine can be successfully investigated. Among other things, footage from dozens of surveillance cameras in Bucha is being analyzed, and an identification album of Russian soldiers’ faces is being assembled.

In March, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced that investigations into crimes against children in particular will benefit from a new trust fund. Children account for half or more of those affected by conflict, but are often labeled as too vulnerable to testify or as having inaccurate memories, according to Veronique Aubert, the special adviser on crimes involving children to the prosecutor of the ICC.

Yura’s case is unusual.

“Prosecutors may want to take up this case because the victim is still alive and can potentially testify,” said Ryan Goodman, a law professor at New York University and former special counsel for the U.S. Defense Department. “It may be difficult if not impossible for a defendant to claim they were somehow justified in trying to kill a child.”