Ukrainian leaders predicted more gruesome discoveries would be made in coming days after retreating Russian forces left crushed buildings, streets strewn with destroyed cars and mounting civilian casualties that drew condemnation across the globe.
Kremlin forces devastated the northern city of Chernihiv as part of their attempt to sweep south toward the capital before retreating. In the aftermath, dozens of people lined up to receive bread, diapers and medicine from vans parked outside a shattered school now serving as an aid-distribution point.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted a photo as she was boarding a train Friday, accompanied by the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell, to head to Kyiv to show solidarity with Ukraine and meet with its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“Looking forward to Kyiv,” Von der Leyen wrote on Twitter.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warned Thursday that despite Russia’s pullback, the country remains vulnerable. Spurred by reports that Russian forces committed atrocities in areas surrounding the capital, NATO nations agreed to increase their supply of arms after he pleaded for weapons from the alliance and other sympathetic countries to help face down an expected offensive in the east.
The mayor of Bucha, near Kyiv, said investigators found at least three sites of mass shootings of civilians during the Russian occupation. Most victims died from gunshots, not from shelling, he said, and some corpses with their hands tied were “dumped like firewood” into mass graves, including one at a children’s camp.
Mayor Anatoliy Fedoruk said 320 civilians were confirmed dead as of Wednesday, but he expected more as bodies are found in the city that was home to 50,000 people. Only 3,700 remain, he said.
In his nightly address, Zelenskyy said Bucha’s horrors may be only the beginning. In the northern city of Borodianka, just 30 kilometers (20 miles) northwest of Bucha, he warned of even more casualties, saying “there it is much more horrible.”
Ukrainian officials said earlier this week that the bodies of 410 civilians were found in towns around the capital. Volunteers have spent days collecting the corpses, and more were picked up Thursday in Bucha.
In the seaport city of Mariupol, Ukranian authorities expect to find much the same. “The same cruelty. The same terrible crimes,” Zelenskyy said.
Ukrainian and several Western leaders have blamed the massacres on Moscow’s troops. The weekly magazine Der Spiegel reported Germany’s foreign intelligence agency intercepted radio messages among Russian soldiers discussing killings of civilians. Russia has falsely claimed that the scenes in Bucha were staged.
In the 6-week-old war, Russian forces failed to take Ukraine’s capital quickly and were unable to fulfill what Western countries said was Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s initial aim of ousting the Ukrainian government. After that setback, amid heavy losses, Russia shifted its focus to the Donbas, a mostly Russian-speaking, industrial region in eastern Ukraine where Moscow-backed rebels have been fighting Ukrainian forces for eight years.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov acknowledged Thursday that Russia has suffered major losses during its military operation.
“Yes, we have significant losses of troops and it is a huge tragedy for us,” Peskov said.
Peskov also hinted the fighting might be over “in the foreseeable future,” telling Sky that Russian troops were “doing their best to bring an end to that operation.”
On Thursday, a day after Russian forces began shelling their village in the southern Mykolaiv region, Sergei Dubovienko, 52, drove north in his small blue Lada with his wife and mother-in-law to Bashtanka, where they sought shelter in a church.
“They started destroying the houses and everything” in Pavlo-Marianovka, he said. “Then the tanks appeared from the forest. We thought that in the morning there would be shelling again, so I decided to leave.”
Hundreds of people have fled villages in the Mykolaiv and Kherson regions that are either under attack or occupied by Russian forces.
Tatiana Vizavik, 50, fled Chernobaievka in the Kherson region with her son, daughter-in-law and six grandchildren.
When the Russian attack began, they moved to the basement of an apartment building and spent five nights there. “We had nothing to eat. We had no drinking water,” Vizavik said. “We were frightened to go out. Then some volunteers starting helping us.”
She said they don’t know whether their house survived the shelling because they were too frightened to check before leaving town. They hoped to reach safety in the Czech Republic.
Marina Morozova and her husband fled from Kherson, the first major city to fall to the Russians.
“They are waiting for a big battle. We saw shells that did not explode. It was horrifying,” she said.
Morozova, 69, said only Russian television and radio was available. The Russians handed out humanitarian aid, she said, and filmed the distribution.
Anxious to keep moving away from Russian troops, the couple and others boarded a van that would take them west. Some will try to leave the country, while others will remain in quieter parts of Ukraine.
The United Nations estimates the war has displaced at least 6.5 million people within the country.
The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, said that more than 4 million, half of them children, have left Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion on Feb. 24 and sparked Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II.
The International Organization for Migration estimates more than 12 million people are stranded in areas of Ukraine under attack.
The United Nations’ humanitarian chief told The Associated Press on Thursday that he’s “not optimistic” about securing a cease-fire after meeting with officials in Kyiv and in Moscow this week, given the lack of trust between the sides. He spoke hours after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused Ukraine of backtracking on proposals it had made over Crimea and Ukraine’s military status.
It’s unclear how long withdrawing Russian forces will take to redeploy. Ukrainian officials have urged people in the east to leave before the fighting intensifies there.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Ukrainian and Russian officials agreed to establish civilian evacuation routes Thursday from several areas in the Donbas.
Western nations have stepped up sanctions, and the Group of Seven major world powers warned that they will keep adding measures until Russian troops leave Ukraine.
The U.S. Congress voted Thursday to suspend normal trade relations with Russia and ban the importation of its oil, while the EU approved other new steps, including an embargo on coal imports. The U.N. General Assembly, meanwhile, voted to suspend Russia from the world organization’s leading human rights body.
U.S. President Joe Biden said the U.N. vote demonstrated how “Putin’s war has made Russia an international pariah.” He called the images coming from Bucha “horrifying.”
“The signs of people being raped, tortured, executed — in some cases having their bodies desecrated — are an outrage to our common humanity,” Biden said.
– Adam Schreck and Andrea Rosa, AP News