SUNDAY SPOTLIGHT The New York Times
Russian bullet shatters life-long Bucha love

Russian bullet shatters life-long Bucha love

Over nearly two decades, Iryna Abramova and her husband, Oleh, built a life of love and happiness. Now, she says, she wishes the Russian soldiers had shot her, too

Iryna Abramova mourns her husband Oleh, who was executed by Russian forces. photos:  DANIEL BEREHULAK/nyt
Iryna Abramova mourns her husband Oleh, who was executed by Russian forces. photos:  DANIEL BEREHULAK/nyt

She called him Sunshine. He called her Kitty.

They met nearly 20 years ago when she was working at a hospital and he sauntered through the door, young, muscular and beautiful, to fix the roof.

Iryna Abramova said she made the first move and followed him to where he smoked cigarettes behind a wall. They started talking and fell in love, she said, "word by word".

But a few weeks ago, the special connection she had with Oleh, the love of her life, and everything they built together ended in a single cruel gunshot. What follows is difficult for Iryna to describe, she said, because it feels so raw and real but, at the same time, it is almost impossible to believe.

On the morning of March 5, Iryna said, Russian soldiers attacked her house. They threw a grenade through the window, which started an enormous fire, and marched her and Oleh outside at gunpoint.

Then they took Oleh into the street.

They ordered him to strip off his shirt.

They made him kneel.

The next thing Iryna remembers is running to Oleh's side, plunging to the ground, grabbing his hands, seeing blood spurt from his ears and feeling a wild rage explode out of her.

"Shoot me!" she screamed at the Russian soldiers standing coolly above her. She was wearing a bathrobe and slippers, her house burning down behind her, clutching one of her cats. "Shoot me! Come on! Come on! Shoot me and the cat!"

Iryna Abramova at her home, destroyed by a Russian grenade. DANIEL BEREHULAK/nyt

A Russian commander levelled his gun at her chest not once, not twice but three times. To this day she regrets he didn't pull the trigger.

"Maybe my destiny is to die tomorrow," Iryna said, admitting that she had thought of suicide.

But she added, "It's a big thing to take your own life and then I won't be able to meet my husband in heaven."

Iryna Abramova's story is Bucha's story. It is about heartbreak, bloodshed and, most of all, loss.

This Ukrainian town, not far from the capital, Kyiv, is where the war's worst atrocities have been discovered, and as the days pass the full scope of the terror and butchery only grows. The Russians slaughtered at least 400 civilians here in March, officials have said. Weeks later, mutilated bodies are still being found.

Human rights groups and Ukrainian investigators, along with a phalanx of international war crimes experts, are trying to document each killing, and last week the Ukrainian government published the names and photos of 10 Russian soldiers who it said had committed war crimes in Bucha.

The Russians pulled out a few weeks ago, leaving much of Bucha in ruins. Work crews have been trying to fix the utility poles knocked down by Russian armoured personnel carriers and the transformers that the Russians blew up.

In the meantime, many Bucha residents have been cast back into the 19th century, drawing water from wells, lighting candles at night and cooking outside on campfires, staring into the flames.

"There's a black mist over this town," said Iryna Hres, a young woman who lives across the street from Iryna Abramova. "Something ominous will remain because so many people were killed here, so thoughtlessly, so senselessly, for no reason."

Iryna Abramova described the killing of her husband to The New York Times in several interviews last month. Her account was corroborated by neighbours and her father, who finally pulled her back towards the house as she screamed at the Russian soldiers.

The Times viewed the autopsy report and spoke to the prosecutor investigating the death, who supported her account and said there were only Russian soldiers, not Ukrainian, in Bucha at the time.

Iryna Abramova stands at the spot where her husband Oleh was shot, marked by a square of embroidered cloth. DANIEL BEREHULAK/nyt

'Hello, My Sunshine'

Life for Iryna has become a lonely chore. She says it is difficult getting through the day, and especially the night, without being consumed by feelings of revenge or suicide or what she calls "bloody thoughts".

She has lost almost everything: her husband, her home, three of her four pets; her life savings, in cash, turned to ash. She doesn't have a single piece of paper to prove her identity -- "I keep asking for something that says me is me, but the people at the city council tell me, 'How do we know you are you?'"

She has spent her entire life in Bucha, which used to be known as one of the most desirable small towns in Ukraine -- woodsy, with a rustic vibe and only 45 minutes from Kyiv. Now it's a city of ghosts.

But she can't leave.

"Oleh is still here," she said.

One of Iryna's rituals is walking to the graveyard, passing through peeling birch trees in a daze. She brings Oleh's favourite treats: Halls cherry cough drops, Maria cookies, toffee and chocolate. She lights a cigarette and puts it by the head of the grave. The ash grows long in the afternoon light.

"Hello, my sunshine," she said the other day, stroking the picture of his face that she put on his grave.

At 40, he was eight years younger than Iryna, and she allows herself a faint smile about that.

"I stole him," she said. A few months after they met, he moved in. They got married, and unusually, he took her last name, becoming Oleh Oleksandrovych Abramov. He encouraged her to quit her job as a hospital clerk, saying he would support them.

They never had children, but Iryna said they had the perfect family: the two of them.

During the week, he worked hard as a welder and often returned late, when she was already in bed watching TV.

At weekends, they'd grill in their backyard and occasionally catch a movie at the nearby Giraffe Mall in Irpin. A few weeks ago, the mall was shelled to smithereens.

A communal grave at St Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints Church. photos:  DANIEL BEREHULAK/nyt

'Oleh Will Not Be Coming'

Russian troops rolled into Bucha soon after the war started. But they got stalled by fierce Ukrainian resistance.

On Feb 27, Ukrainian forces ambushed a long column of Russian armour parked along Iryna's street, leaving at least 20 destroyed vehicles and an unknown number of Russian soldiers dead.

Oleh became especially nervous after that, Iryna said. He could sense the Russians would be out for revenge. He insisted that he and Iryna stay indoors and they spent many hours in the kitchen, on the floor.

As they lay side by side, fingers touching, she could feel him shaking. "I asked him: Are you afraid of death? He said, 'No, I am afraid for you.'"

On the night of March 4, they heard huge trucks passing in the road. The next morning, their house was rocked by a grenade, which set off a fire.

Gunshots rang out. Their gate was blasted open. Four Russian paratroopers stormed in, she said. Three were young, maybe 20, and the commander was in his 30s.

Iryna said the commander ordered them outside. She recounted what happened next in a flat, detached voice.

"Where are the Nazis?" the commander said.

"There are no Nazis here," Iryna responded.

"Where are they?"

"There were never any Nazis here."

"Give me the exact address."

"We are simple people."

The commander got angrier, she said.

"We have come here to die, and our wives are waiting for us and you started this war. You elected this Nazi government." ("They love the word Nazi, for some reason," she added.)

"Did your husband ever hold a weapon in his arms?"

"No."

"What is his profession?"

"Welder."

The commander then stomped off.

Iryna's father, Volodymyr Abramov, who lived in a house next door, said he and Oleh were held in the yard at gunpoint. The young soldiers ordered Oleh to strip off his shirt, sweater and jacket, to reveal any military tattoos. He didn't have any. He had never served.

They marched Oleh out of the gate.

His last words were "Guys, what are you doing?"

A minute passed. The fire grew. Black smoke raged out of the house, making it impossible to see anything. The commander reappeared.

"Where is Oleh?" Iryna's father asked in a panic.

The commander looked out the gate and said, "Oleh will not be coming."

Iryna raced out.

"I looked to the left. Nothing. I look to the right. I see my husband on the ground," she said. "I see lots of blood. I see part of his head is gone. Later I see other dead people, in different poses."

She grabbed his hands, crying, "Oleh, Oleh."

"The Russians were sitting on the curb, drinking water from plastic bottles, just watching me," she said. "They didn't say anything, they didn't show any emotion. They were like an audience at the theatre."

That's when she let out a "wild cry, like something I have never heard", her father said.

"Shoot me!" she screamed. "Shoot me and the cat!"

She was looking at the soldiers, staring at their boots, but the commander eventually lowered his gun and said, "I do not kill women."

He gave Iryna and her father three minutes to leave.

Bodies are loaded onto a truck to be taken for further forensic investigation. DANIEL BEREHULAK/nyt

Collecting Corpses

Bucha's population is normally around 40,000, but all but 3,000 to 4,000 residents had fled before the Russian occupation, city officials said. Around 400 civilians are thought to have been killed, meaning about one in 10 people who were here.

Some were shot execution-style with hands tied behind their backs. Others were horribly beaten. Many were like Oleh: no military experience, unarmed and posing no obvious threat.

So many bodies were left on Bucha's streets that city officials said they were worried about a plague. But they did not have enough workers to collect the dead. So they drafted volunteers. One of them was Vladyslav Minchenko, a tattoo artist.

"The most blood I had ever seen was in a piercing," he said wryly.

But soon he was picking up dead people and body parts, zipping them into black bags and taking them to a communal grave outside Bucha's main church. He retrieved Oleh's body, with its shattered head, he said, which was verified by video evidence.

Mr Minchenko's tattoo parlour remains closed. He's not sure if he could work anyway. Like many other people in Bucha, he spoke of feeling physically different since the Russian occupation, unable to sleep, distracted, drinking too much.

His hands keep shaking.

"And I keep having these dreams," he said.

Halyna Bondar, accompanied by a friend, at the grave of her son who was shot by Russian soldiers. DANIEL BEREHULAK/nyt

Behind his closed eyes, heavily armed men pour into the streets and Mr Minchenko tries to join the army but is refused. He wakes up with a jolt.

Oleh's body was taken for an autopsy. The cause of death listed on the coroner's report was skull fracture and gunshot wound to the head. Ukrainian prosecutors are now trying to determine who killed him. They have interviewed Iryna extensively and showed her pictures on their phones of Russian soldiers.

"But they all look the same," Iryna said.

She said she doesn't remember the faces of the men who shot Oleh, "just their guns and their boots".

Ruslan Kravchenko, one of the prosecutors, said different Russian units divided up control of Bucha and he believed members of Russia's 76th Air Assault Brigade killed Oleh, based on video footage the Ukrainians obtained of Russian troop movements from that time.

"It was a cruel killing," he said. "But there were many more just as cruel."

The prosecutors say they will soon file papers in court to extradite suspects. Legal analysts and Iryna doubt that will ever happen.

"Russians are good at coming dry out of water," she said.

Some people in Bucha are so badly haunted by what they suffered under the Russians that they are leaving.

"I need to change the picture," said Ivan Drahun, whose young wife died after having a heart attack during the occupation. He has three children. They had been trapped in a basement for a month, watching their mother die. "We can't stay in Bucha."

Ivan Drahun embraces his son, Vlad, 6, after the burial of his wife. DANIEL BEREHULAK/nyt

Nowhere to Go

Iryna doesn't have the option to leave, even if she wanted it.

Without a passport or identity papers -- they were all burned in the fire -- she is not allowed through any of the area's military checkpoints. Bucha officials said that they could not help her at the moment because their computer systems were still down and that the only way for her to get new documents was to go to Kyiv or another city, Boyarka. It is a Catch-22 since she needs the papers to travel.

So she does not go far. She has almost no money and even if she were able to buy things like food, many supermarkets in Bucha were ransacked or blown up.

That has left many residents like her trudging through the drizzly streets wrapped in dark jackets, searching for humanitarian relief centres where they can get a loaf of bread, a jar of pickles, anything.

Iryna said she was recently warned that without an identity document, she may soon be cut off from aid. Neighbours have been sharing food with her.

"I used to say that I had the best family in the world," she said. "One husband. Three cats. And one dog.

"It's hard to process."

A photo of Oleh Abramova, who was executed by Russian forces, adorns his grave. DANIEL BEREHULAK/nyt

Standing in her yard, surrounded by burned beams, burned pots, her whole life basically burned -- the bodies of her dog and two cats somewhere in that same ash -- Iryna said, "It's like I look at this but I keep seeing my old house."

She added: "It's like I've made a wrong turn into a parallel reality and there is another reality where my house and my husband still exist. And here in this reality I am alone."

She allows herself to dream. There's one scene she can't get out of her head, a good scene that she keeps replaying. She wants to keep it there forever.

"I'm in bed watching TV, and he's walking through the door, taking off his cap," she said. "And then I hear: 'Kitty, I'm home. Where are you, Kitty?' "

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